Monday, September 26, 2011

Truth and Reconciliation

debbie tucker green's new play at the Royal Court is a brilliant piece of work. I've always liked her writing - stoning mary was another beautiful play - but this time she combines her characteristic poetic language and provocative stance with an amazing manipulation of space which makes the play speak with great immediacy. When you first enter the room, the audience chairs are distributed around the playing area (theatre-in-the-round, basically). You have to choose where to sit with care. A lot of the chairs have reserved notices on them - often saying things like "Victim's Family" or "Witnesses" - which lead you to believe they will be used in the performance, although in fact many are not. Every chair has the name of a victim from a recent conflict carved onto the seat. The chair I sat on had the name and dates of a little girl from Bosnia, killed in her first decade. It was, to say the least, discomforting. On Friday night, there were also surtitles for the hard of hearing, so another factor around justice and its relationship to where you sit came into play.

What was so exciting about all of this was how it blended into the performance itself. The first line referred to the hardness of the chairs for the families coming to a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The mother of a victim felt unable to sit in the room while she waited for the perpetrators. How people sat in relation to one another, how this reflects power structures and power struggles, became integral to the performance. There's been much talk of the theatricality of such events - and now the links were made explicit, implicating us as an audience in the reality of the political and moral crises under exploration.

Only two characters ever got to sit in the centre of the stage - and they were both ghosts. A Rwandan man and the South African child whose mother refused to take a chair. They were evoked to speak to those who had killed them, those whom they haunted, those who knew exactly how they died. But, even at the centre of the stage, they could not speak directly to those they had left behind and who were desperate for knowledge of them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I thought this film was wonderful. I came out of it feeling that the world had changed. People walking at night looked suddenly sinister, seething with subtext. Getting into the car to drive home seemed full of meaning and menace. The film had generated an atmosphere and I was still living in it - a real object lesson in dramatic art.

The Alec Guinness TV series was hugely influential on me in my teens, and I really didn't expect a two-hour adaptation to be comparable. Actually - in some ways it's better. Gary Oldman's performance as Smiley is astonishing - he is as mild-mannered and unassuming as Guinness, but he is also bitter, edgy and deeply disturbed. In one fantastic (and very theatrical) scene he is quite drunk (Guinness's Smiley would never have been drunk), and re-lives his one meeting with his great adversary Karla, using an empty chair to stand in as the other man. When the camera then takes Karla's viewpoint, the effect is totally chilling.

As with any film version of a complex book, there are losses. The mole is unmasked very near the end of the film, and Smiley's interrogation of him, which is the core of the novel and was brilliant in the TV version, is very brief here. Some of the great lines about the mole's loathing of America and Britain's role as "America's whipping boy" are sadly missed - I remember Ian Richardson delivering these with great elegance. But TV is more novelistic than film - and this film does what it needs to do with great elegance and power.

Whenever I see something really good, I try to learn from it. The next show is going to be about intensity and claustrophobia: I knew that anyway. Now I've maybe got a bit more idea how to go about it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Golden Dragon

Carissa, Zeynep and I all saw this fascinating piece at the Arcola last night. It's the first production my old university chum Ramin Gray has done in his new position at ATC - and it's characteristically inspiring stuff. The text is from a German writer called Roland Schimmelpfennig, and it looks at globalised economics and human trafficking through the microcosm of a Chinese restaurant and the various people who live in the block above it. I found the play's form really exciting - it's a storytelling piece in which the five actors play characters as far removed from their own persona as you can be - particularly in terms of age and gender. The entire cast is white - and that's been a source of some controversy - but for me it worked, precisely because there was no attempt to represent race or any other biological aspect of humanity. The actors were honest about who they were - a group of people in London right now, telling a story in a more objective, detached, but none the less affecting way. It's a different approach from our own, and every bit as valid.

Ramin asked us to join him for a drink - which turned out to be ATC's fundraising gala. He's laying lots of stress on international work with the company, as his speech / fundraising pitch made very clear. But it's not in competition with us in any way - Ramin's approach is collaborative, but it's also very clearly writer-led, and it's not cross-cultural in the way our processes are. I think we probably need to work quite carefully to define ourselves more precisely, so that people know what we do and why we are different.

Chat to Nick Williams, who used to be our ACE officer, and is now Executive Director at ATC. He fills me in on the current situation with booking tours. And I also get to chat with Maria Delgado, who is Chair of the company, and whose interests overlap with mine all over the place! I'd been reading her notes in the London Film Festival programme, and feeling annoyed that I'm going to be away for the whole of October. Maria says it's a particularly strong programme this year.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Woyzeck on the Highveld

As so often, I am hugely grateful to the Barbican's programmers for the chance to see a legendary piece of theatre. I'd known about William Kentridge's work with Handspring puppets for years (I mean, Handspring did War Horse, right?) - but never had the chance to see these pieces, which are so powerfully embedded in the early years of South Africa after Mandela's release, at the same time as drawing off European classics. Ubu and the Truth Commission is the most famous (and I missed it at LIFT all those years ago), but Woyzeck on the Highveld was actually first, and in many ways defined the new theatrical language of puppetry for adults which has become so important in recent years.

In spite of being nearly 20 years old, the production feels incredibly contemporary and immediate. I loved the combination of puppet performance (often with the puppeteers thrillingly visible, their intense concentration a model to us all), with scratchy charcoal animation and equally scratchy music. You could see exactly how everything was done, and that made it all the more magical. Magic in the theatre happens when the audience does know how something is achieved. You don't need high-tech: you just need concentration and integrity.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Slave - A Question of Freedom

I was at Riverside Studios last night for the opening of Slave - A Question of Freedom: the play that won the first Pete Postlethwaite Award in Manchester earlier this year. It was an extraordinary night - and not just because of what was happening on stage....

The play re-tells the life story of Mende Nazar, who was born in Nuba, and was taken into slavery at the age of 12, during the Sudanese Civil War. This was 1994. She was trafficked to the UK, and finally escaped slavery in 2000. It took several more years before she was granted refugee status: apparently "slavery is not persecution" in the eyes of the Home Office.

The play is engaging enough, especially after Mende's arrival in London, although the captors are constantly portrayed as melodramatic villains (there's even some wild laughter about rape), and Mende's childhood is portrayed as a rural idyll, which seems odd given that she is now trying to raise funds for a school and supplies of clean water. The morality seemed too simple: we all know that slavery is appalling, so how on earth can it still be happening, right here, right now? The central question was left unanswered.

But none of this mattered, given that Mende herself was in the audience, and sitting quite near to me. I could hear her crying at the accounts of rape and brutality. At the end, she was brought onto the stage, to a standing ovation, and made an emotional speech of thanks to the company. And then she said: "If I can make a difference, so can all of you". Which is true. She had absolutely nothing, and now is a celebrated campaigner. So people who have something have the responsibility that goes with it.

Oh yes - the director's father collapsed just before the interval and had to be taken to hospital. Apparently he was OK - but it was another moment of emotion and spectacle...

Thursday, September 01, 2011


I was at Central this afternoon, doing a panel discussion on "Narratives without Borders". Geoff Colman had asked me to speak alongside himself and Maya Zbib from Zoukak Theatre Company in Beirut, as part of the Haymarket's Masterclass series. It turned out that Maya is in London as part of her involvement with the Rolex mentor scheme, and her mentor is none other than Peter Sellars. So - much in common from the start. The discussion was fascinating, as much as anything because our positions on so many things seemed to be so similar, even though we were starting from such different places - both geographically and culturally. Zoukak is a collective in the fullest sense - there is no single director, and every project is evolved collectively. Border Crossings does have a director (me) and doesn't have a permanent ensemble - but the company's core methodology, bringing together artists from wildly differing cultural backgrounds and theatrical styles, necessitates a collective approach.

The audience was quite young, very focussed and very excited. Lots of people were asking about the riots, and how theatre might respond. I guess one reason was Maya's presence, and a sense that she and Zoukak might in some way be "responding" to the long wars of Lebanon and the current changes in the region. They are, of course, totally engaged with what is happening around them - and so are we. But we both found ourselves saying today that the role of the artist is not the same as that of the journalist or the social worker. Yes, culture can and should respond to historical change - but it requires time and reflection to do so. Yes, culture can empower and engage disaffected youth - but it cannot be applied like a sticking plaster; it needs to be integrated into the fabric of society in order to be truly civilising.