Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I've been in Cardiff for a few days, teaching on the Rose Bruford Opera course's residential school. Last night was very memorable indeed: the WNO's Meistersinger, directed by Richard Jones, with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs.

I remember seeing a Graham Vick production at the ROH, years ago, with John Tomlinson as Sachs, and being very disturbed by the overt German nationalism of the ending. In Germany, it's so discomforting that one recent production actually stopped the opera at this point, and unleashed a debate - both onstage and off - as to whether these things could be said today. Richard Jones has wonderfully reclaimed the piece from the Nazi shadow, by relating Sachs' call for German art to a tradition of liberal humanist thought and artistic leadership which is totally contrary to Nazism. Bach, Handel, Goethe, Joseph Beuys, Marlene Deitrich, Brecht and many more are explicitly cited as the tradition into which Sachs tells the Romantic poet Walther he must become absorbed. We need youth, rebellion and romanticism, yes - but we also need control and rationality. In this incredibly dialectical piece, Walther unleashes the anarchy of Romanticism, which Sachs understands and is attracted to - and then fuses with the tradition. Of course, if you think of that tradition as racist and violent, then the opera is repulsive. But if the tradition is seen as open, humane and rational - then this is a piece for the current moment. It didn't feel so much German as European. Not conservative but radical. And actually, incredibly moving.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Life Streaming

LIFT is back as a Festival, and very exciting it is too. I went yesterday morning to see Life Streaming, knowing that it was a morning performance by the river, and would in some way relate to the tsunami (which interests me because of Re-Orientations).

It's an amazing experience. The "performance" (it is a performance, but not in a conventional way) happens through the internet. The 20 people in the London audience are linked to 20 people in an Asian country (we're only told which at the end, and asked not to spoil the revelation for others). So it's like a one-to-one piece - with moments of communion with the other performers and the rest of the audience. A lot of the time the piece seems to be about yourself - although, having compared notes with Nisha, it's actually a lot more precisely scripted than it at first appears. Through an awareness of our own affluence, our ease, and our own sense of loss, we are gradually led to question the relationship that is developing with the person in Asia - to think about its economic meaning, its politics, its emotional validity (or otherwise).

I emailed all my UK cast and told them to try and see it. It takes you to the heart of the tsunami experience, and places you in a discomforting relationship to it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Welcome to Thebes

We've been helping the National to publicise this show. They asked us because of our interest in African theatre - although I'm not sure that Welcome to Thebes is African theatre so much as Western theatre about global concerns, including Africa. That, I suppose, makes it intercultural in a way, and even closer to our remit. What makes it distinctly not the sort of work we do is that, for all the African performers on the stage, the African voice is not present in the play. The writer, Moira Buffini, looks at Liberia (and other post-conflict zones) through Western eyes, as perhaps she must - and the framing is Greek mythology. This made it a very interesting piece for me to watch: Brian Woolland and I have been talking about another piece which might meld Greek myth with the realities of the contemporary world.

In the end, I'm not sure Buffini quite pulls it off - but it's a brave effort. The allusive quality of myth is helpful in making the play not specifically about a particular situation, although you can clearly see the figure of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the new President of Thebes, Euridyce, and casting David Harewood as Theseus, the First Citizen of "democratic" Athens brings Obama to mind (even though the character is more like Bill Clinton). But the names, the presence of figures like Antigone and Tiresias, seem to pull the play into the philosophy of tragic destiny, and to deny the possibility of the change which the central character is attempting to create. Perhaps this is a dramatic tension, or perhaps it is a flaw. I can't really decide. But I know it's interesting.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Big hArt

On Friday afternoon, I was at Australia House for a presentation by Big hArt from Australia. This is a company we've been close to for some time, ever since we started discussing bringing their amazing production of Ngapartji Ngapartji to Origins last year. We didn't manage it - mainly because it would have involved 50+ flights from Australia, which is pushing it - but now that we are looking at the next Festival, they are also developing a one-man version of the piece, which is altogether more manageable. It's this idea which was shown to us on Friday.

Trevor Jamieson, who was part of our First Nations Advisory Panel and helped us to launch the Festival in that same room in 2007, tells his family history in this show. It's an extraordinary story of destruction and survival - and in this version he is juxtaposed with video footage of interviews with Elders (many of whom actually appeared in the original version). This less formal, less showy version of the show is in many ways more immediate for a British audience than the grand spectacle of the original.

Talking to Scott Rankin afterwards, I get the impression that this is how his thinking is currently moving. The new Big hArt project, with which Trevor will again be involved, is a direct engagement with the mining companies who are ripping up the Aboriginal homelands. He's right, of course - if we just make shows that talk to the converted, we get nowhere. The people who we somehow have to reach are the decision makers, the people with power. As Peter Sellars says about opera - talk to the people you think you don't like.

We're looking at working in partnership with the City of London Festival next year - and it's started me thinking about all those City board rooms.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ngugi wa Mirii

I got a copy of the latest edition of African Theatre, and saw an obituary for Ngugi wa Mirii. I hadn't heard - but he died in a road accident in 2008, aged only 56. The obituary, by his more famous namesake Ngugi wa Thiong'o, is very elegantly written. They worked together in the early years of African community theatre, especially the famous Kamairiithu theatre. The Moi dictatorship drove them both into exile. Ngugi was Thiong'o went to the US, and Ngugi wa Mirii to Zimbabwe - like many African intellectuals and idealists (among them Ama Ata Aidoo), who believed that the newly independent nation could become a model for the continent.

It was in Zimbabwe that I met Ngugi wa Mirii in 1997. He had been there 15 years, and had established ZACT (Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatres): an extraordinary organisation which facilitated Theatre for Development on a grand scale throughout the region. The methodology was similar to Boal in Brazil - he showed me a framed photograph of himself shaking hands with Paolo Freire, mounted proudly on his wall. He also gave me a T-shirt, which I still have. It lists the many types of theatre which ZACT presented on the back, and on the front it says "Theatre for Conscientization and Development". I don't wear it often - just when I want to make a point. It usually works.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


I've been reading Maria Delgado and Dan Rebellato's new book on European Directors. It's exciting to see a different angle on the role of the director - who is accepted in Europe as being a creative artist and not, as in Britain and America, as simply the interpreter of "the author's intentions". How are you supposed to know the author's intentions anyway? Who was the last person who spoke to Shakespeare? Even if we could ring him up, he might not know. People lie about their intentions - even to themselves. So, if you ask me, it's better to regard them as something we can't know, and get on with the business of being creative on a European model.

The idea of Europe and the idea of directing both encompass debates over democracy. I was in Brussels on Tuesday, for the annual meeting of the Platform for an Intercultural Europe. It was a fascinating event, as much as anything to see the European Commission paying for itself to be criticised, and strongly recognising the importance of the cultural sector in broader policy-making. But it was also very odd to see so few people present from the minority and migrant communities under discussion. An intercultural Europe is not a solely white, educated, Anglophone Europe. I volunteer to look into hosting a Practice Exchange session, where we can explore the ways in which cultural work can open up real dialogues, and to have the dialogues largely initiated by BME practitioners.

It's the same debate that runs through Maria and Dan's book. Declan Donnellan talks about the need for somebody to be in charge, and Romeo Castellucci, more intriguingly, says that his response to our individualist world is to stress the solitariness of the artist. This is in contrast to figures like Mnouchkine, who continue to believe in collective creation, and democratic collaboration within a theatre company, and between companies and communities. The book, perhaps not consciously, seems to regard Mnouchkine as rather old-fashioned in this respect: a hangover from 1968. The modern director, Castellucci's solitary artist, puts across a personal vision to which other individuals respond.

My own work, as a director of intercultural theatre, has to be closer in approach to Mnouchkine - so it's a bit disturbing to feel that Europe, which presents a more liberating model of theatre practice than Britain, may think I'm a bit past my sell-by date. But then, Europe is only to be trusted, and can only succeed, in so far as it becomes democratic itself. The Platform is a step towards democracy - but the Commission itself remains very undemocratic - operating like a "vision-imposing" solitary director. While this remains, it will never be intercultural and dialogic - and theatre which is imposed from above cannot espouse these values either.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Alaknanda's wisdom

Long chat with Alaknanda Samarth. As so often, she is incredibly inspiring, even in her deep pessimism about the present moment. "How can you put on stage the fact that everything is falling apart?" she asks me. "Even language". Of course - she's hit the nail on the head. That is the challenge - and a huge one.

I have some ideas, but they really need to be tried out experimentally. Alak tells me to contact the National Theatre Studio. Just as I decide to do so - they contact me. Which is a very exciting development indeed!

Two actors, Jeremy Tiang and Julia Sandiford, invited me to a play called Limehouse Nights. It's about the Chinatown which was in Limehouse in the 19th century, and is performed in the dilapidated old Limehouse Town Hall. A beautiful sense of ghosts hanging over East London.