Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mrs. Mandela

It seems to be a bit of a Mandela moment. The tubes are covered with posters for the new film Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman will at last give his long-mooted performance as the great man. Relief that it's not a bio-pic: there's so much more the medium of film can do with a specific event. Which said, last night's broadcast of the BBC's Mrs. Mandela was a really interesting approach to the bio-pic problem. By avoiding chronology, the film was able to make powerful links between moments in Winnie's life - most strikingly at the end, when it cut between her being brutally interrogated by Swanepoel and her own attack on the child Stompie. Seeing the film took me right back into our own work on this material - some years ago now. The project, which is a music theatre piece, is still bubbling away on the back burner, and has a libretto - it just needs music and backing! Jeremy Silver, Eugene Skeef and I have had a few serious chats about it... Maybe now is the moment. But I am so snowed under with getting the Trilogy kick-started that I honestly can't find the time.

Like Mrs. Mandela, our piece begins with the iconic moment of Mandela's release. In our case, we also end with it - but hopefully the audience will view it very differently after what's happened in between. Many moments are the same - Swanepoel, Stompie, Mandela asking Winnie about the boy's death... But in our version the gritty realism of the film is replaced with the theatrical, as the form requires. My note to myself watching the film, and especially Sophie Okenedo's incredible performance, was to avoid any hint of sentimentality. Which is what the film did so well.

I've just come from a meeting with George Zhang, who runs the Confucius Centre at SOAS. He's excited by the exchange we're doing with China, and we're finding some really interesting ways to co-operate. He tells me that Shanghai was his home city - but that "The city of my childhood no longer exists". I ask him when he left, and he says 1971. That's right in the thick of the Cultural Revolution. "Yes", he says: "and we went back every year. It was quite a way to spend my formative years..."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

I am Yusuf and This is My Brother

Friday was a very intense but inspiring day. During the morning, David Furlong from Exchange Theatre came to the office, and we talked about Mauritius. David first got on touch some years ago in response to the presence of Toufann on our website - he's a Mauritian actor, and there aren't exactly a lot of companies with links to the island! He's just been back - which we haven't done for about six years - and he's enthusiastic about the creativity there. That excites me for the planned trip later in the year.

Work with Gabrielle from Polygon on an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, looking at a Participation and Learning programme around the Trilogy; and with Paul on possible approaches to some core costs. The latter have become very crucial as the company grows, with the board working hard on strategies for expansion and the arrival of Paul and Gabrielle in the office. Change management seems to be what excites funders of core costs, and we have some quite productive phone calls. Paul goes off to draft an application.

I head down to the Young Vic, and grab some Chinese dumplings in the nearby restaurant before the show. A former student, Lucy, is sitting there, and in the absence of spare tables I ask if I can sit with her. She introduces her friend, who turns out to be the director Di Trevis - I've never met her before, but have admired her work for years (I remember her Arturo Ui at the National with Antony Sher with particular relish). These days, she's largely based in New York, with an emphasis on teaching.

The play is a production from Palestine, by a company called ShiberHur, which means "an inch of freedom" in Arabic. It's written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, who did the wonderful Alive from Palestine in the same venue. This piece, I am Yusuf and This is My Brother, is about 1948, and the way its ghosts are still shaping Palestinian lives. It swaps between English and Arabic (often for no apparent reason), and, in performance, felt just a little dull and worthy. So I was surprised, as I read the programme-script on the train coming home, at just what a brilliant piece of writing it is. Somehow, the production has directed the poetry out of the play. There's little sense of the mystery, of the presence of the dead, of music and rhythm. But the play is quite wonderful.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wise Thoughts

A very interesting meeting with Niranjan Kamatkar, who runs Wise Thoughts. We've known each other for a while - they used to be our neighbours in Chocolate Factory 2, and now they have an office above Wood Green Library. Wise Thoughts is an organisation for minority ethnic and minority sexuality people - and so particularly interesting to us as we prepare the Trilogy. Gabrielle from Polygon Arts (who is about to take some desk space in our office - making Wood Green more crowded than ever!) and I have been looking at creating outreach work around this, and we've had a chat with the Heritage Lottery Fund, who seem keen. Wise Thoughts are obvious partners, particularly since they run GFest every November - which could be a great platform for any work produced by people participating in the outreach project.

Niranjan is an incredibly committed activist. He tells me his priority for 2010 is called "LGBT Arts for All" - which translates as getting sexual minority work out of the ghetto and into the mainstream. Since all of our work is about opening up dialogues between the different groups in society, we can easily buy in to this.

I was wrong about China, by the way. The Mr Gay China event was closed down by the police. On a technicality.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A bit more on censorship

Since I wrote about Chinese censorship the other day, the news has broken that Google may pull out of China because of attempts to hack into the gmail accounts of human rights activists. Having famously capitulated to the censor, Google is now saying that it wants freedom to publish as it will. You'll remember that access to this blog has been pretty erratic in China - at a rough guess it won't be very easy to find it today - the firewalls are up very high.

On the other hand, sexual morality just doesn't seem to be an issue any more. To underline what I was saying last time, a comment in Chinese has appeared on my entry "New Year blog". On closer investigation, it turns out to be a link to a Chinese porn site.

Happy surfing, everybody....

Monday, January 11, 2010

China and the censor

A fascinating video has appeared on the Guardian website, about China's first gay pageant - Mr. Gay China. Apparently it's even been given positive coverage on the English-language branch of state-sponsored media (not yet the Chinese-language branch). Following on from last year's events in Beijing, with people calling in public for gay marriage, it would seem that the tongzhi community is now very visible - almost mainstream in the cities, at least. It's an important moment to be showing the Trilogy.

We've been discussing the censor, who will be wielding the blue pencil before the plays are shown in Shanghai. None of the gay scenes are a problem - although we can't be explicit about it. The problem - as so often - is politics. In particular, the Mme. Mao scenes in Dis-Orientations will never pass the censor. I'm going to see if I can re-work them, so it's all done through the performance of A Doll's House - which might be theatrically exciting, and will allow a Chinese audience to make their own connections. We can point things for the UK audience with projected titles, and then cut them for China. Well - that's the hunch, anyway.

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year Blog

Happy New Year everybody! I'm typing this on my new iMac - which will hopefully contribute to the development of Border Crossings over 2010 and beyond.

2009 has been an amazing year for the company - by far our busiest to date, and one which has clarified and defined our aims and identity for the future. For a start, there's a completely redesigned website, courtesy of Sam Hope-Evans at Phuture Design, with social networking and all that jazz! Now the iMac's in action, we should be able to get much more exciting content onto the web, with more videos to whet the appetite for performances, screenings, publications, workshops and talks.

The fact that I can list all of these things as Border Crossings activities is largely due to the Origins Festival of First Nations, which was the biggest single event in an amazing year. Just to present so much work in those two weeks was incredible - but what was even more exciting was the way in which the programme managed to lay down a coherent vision in terms of political, spiritual, artistic, social and environmental thought. All of which has shown its importance more and more as the year has gone on, with the Copenhagen summit rounding it off convincingly. If a gathering of world leaders, with the express purpose of slowing climate change, can be so dominated by petty economic self-interest as to fail to produce anything of any value whatsoever, then boy are we in trouble. We have got to start listening to ways of living on this planet which present alternatives to the power of the market - and First Nations offer them. So there will be more Origins Festivals: and in March I am off to New Zealand to start working on the next one.

On top of that, much of the year has been spent working on the development of Re-Orientations, the third part of the Trilogy, which we'll be presenting next autumn. I can truly say that February and August of 2009 were two of the most extraordinary, creative and open times I can ever remember - and I think the play, which we showed as work-in-progress in early September, more than proves the point. There's still a lot to do before we can perform them, but the foundations have been soundly laid. So look out in the autumn in Soho and Shanghai!

Outside of the company, it's also been a rich year culturally. In my freelance work, I've particularly enjoyed directing my first Brecht, The Good Soul of Szechuan, for Rose Bruford College, and beginning to write MA materials for the same academy - a job I'll be continuing in January. At the theatre, the highlights for me were Complicite's beautiful production with Japanese performers, Shun-kin at the Barbican; the Toneelgroep Amsterdam's six-hour epic Roman Tragedies at the same, ever-fertile address; and the National's staging of Wole Soyinka's classic Death and the King's Horseman - amazing just to see the play at last, and especially so well done.

In film, the London Film Festival was a highlight again, with Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah the star event. Obviously a film for a future Origins - unless it's had a huge general release first, which is far from impossible, given the awards it's harvesting! I've also read some great books - all of which inform my work, and the choice of which is of course informed by the work. So, in the early part of the year, I read Xinran's China Witness while in China - making its insights into the lives of older Chinese feel all the more immediate and all the more poignant. This also helped me think more deeply about the theme of Elders in the Origins Festival: the way in which First Nations value their older people so much more than we do in Western societies - and the social meaning of that value. So it was also very warming to spend a series of summer afternoons in the garden reading Seamus Heaney's book of interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll: Stepping Stones. Here is the quiet wisdom of one of our own Elders.

I've also spent quite a bit of time with David Mitchell, whose novels combine plot-lines and locations in ways which I find very helpful in thinking about our own devised work. I thought Ghostwritten, his first novel, of some years ago, was even better than Cloud Atlas: and experienced quite a shock while reading Black Swan Green, which at times felt uncomfortably like my own autobiography!

Have a great year, everyone....