Tuesday, February 28, 2012

APAM so far

I'm in Adelaide, during its buzziest time of the year, the Festival period. Huge thanks to Arts Projects Australia and the Australia Council for this one - they've invited me here for APAM, which is a "Performing Arts Market". At times, this is every bit as crazed, commercialised and un-creative as it sounds - with much talk of "buying" and "product" - but it is also a chance to meet some amazing artists and cultural workers, see some remarkable shows, and hold some very important conversations, particularly about the next Origins and indigenous Australian involvement. I've re-connected with some of our key collaborators and advisors from previous years, including Rhoda Roberts of Dreaming Festival fame, David Milroy, who is here with his latest piece Waltzing the Wilara, and Michelle Broun from WA's Arts team. Other people who've been on the radar for a while include Marrugeku - I met Rachael and Dalisa years ago in Perth when they were performing the great Incognita, and more recently saw Dalisa on her home territory of Broome (where the work is deeply rooted). They're currently creating a new piece for her to perform solo - which sounds more manageable than their usual vast-scale performances. And I've made some very exciting new contacts, including Rachael Maza from Ilbijerri, whose piece Jack Charles v the Crown is an exciting example of the autobiographical genre. Rachael is working with a really edgy political theatre group called version 1.0 on a new play about a notorious death in custody on Palm Island. I saw version 1.0's play The Disappearances Project, which deals with the effects on families of missing persons cases, and I cannot wait to see how they come together with indigenous artists.

The other highlight for me so far wasn't to do with indigenous work at all - although it certainly crosses a great many borders in very radical new ways. This is a company called Back to Back, which is built around an ensemble of people who are perceived to have a learning disability. When I told Rachael Swain how powerful I found their work, she said that she thought they were the most important company in Australia - which, coming from her, is one hell of a compliment. Their piece is called Ganesh versus the Third Reich (there's a "versus" theme here....), and it deals with the Indian god's need to re-appropriate the swastika for its original, sacred meaning. The story opens up all sorts of debates about rights of representation and self-representation, appropriation, perception..... It's coming to LIFT later in the year, and needs to be seen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Posh and period

Bingo is one of the best plays of the last hundred years. Most of Edward Bond's plays are pretty good - but the Trilogy around Shakespeare (Lear, The Sea and this one) are truly amazing. It's also a very complex piece, and one that needs a clear, rational production to make sense. I saw a brilliant production of Bond's Restoration some years ago with Simon Russell Beale and my chum Vivienne Rochester, which was set on an empty white space, blazingly lit, with only occasional, very specific props, each of which glowed with economic and dramatic significance as a result. The new production, at the Young Vic, which I saw on Saturday, is in a very different style. In fact, it looks like a Sunday-night BBC period drama. As the photo shows - there are period costumes and heavy detail in the set and props. It all weighs the production down, so that it feels lacking in the mental energy Bond requires.

There is a lot of this sort of thing about, of course. Downton Abbey; Birdsong; Upstairs, Downstairs..... all of them are dramas to fuel the heritage industry. Never mind the way the Dickens anniversary has been treated. It feels as if the past has been appropriated by the right - and culture has become the repository of the worthy and dull. We've got posh and period mixed up with profound. It's a very strange thing to happen to somebody so avowedly of the left as Bond - but he's been packaged up as part of the 2012 heritage industry.

I recall, during the Thatcher years, Salman Rushdie commented on the preponderance of Raj nostalgia in books, TV and film (Passage to India; Jewel in the Crown; The Raj Quartet...). It happened, he pointed out, just as a right-wing government was reasserting British imperialism elsewhere. Today's manifestations of heritage culture have a similar background, though closer to home. The TV dramas celebrate the aristocracy just as a cabinet of Etonian millionaires squeezes the country dry - and even theatre, that most democratic form, is starting to serve up productions of socialist plays that make them cosy, nostalgic, and in thrall to the establishment.

By the way - I also think the Young Vic has one of the best programmes of any theatre I know - and I love most of the work there (including the current Changeling). So please nobody take offence - but I do think this debate needs to be opened up.

Monday, February 13, 2012


I don't think I'd ever seen a play in Welsh before. Sgint, which was thankfully super-titled, is a verbatim piece based on interviews with people in Carmarthen about their lives since the financial crisis kicked in. Good to be reminded that there are places outside London, outside all sorts of mainstreams, that are really bearing the brunt of the current lunacy.

I went along to see it in Cardiff, because the producing company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, is doing some amazing work in developing Welsh language theatre. I've thought for a while that Welsh and Scots Gaelic should be part of the Origins Festival - indigeneity close to home. Talking to Arwel and Elen, the directors, I sense a certain trepidation at the potential romanticism and exoticism of categorising the Celts alongside indigenous peoples from elsewhere. But there are very clear similarities of experience - the suppression of language and culture, the socio-economic marginalisation, the potential for new identities within both larger and smaller, more defined, political structures. It slowly turns into a worthwhile conversation - one we can develop as their new projects come along. At the moment, they are very focused on Elen's Welsh-language production of The Tempest for the 2012 Festival. We talk about my Indian Tempest and Toufann. Amazing how that play can resonate in so many contexts. But I do wonder how Elen will deal with the centrality of language to the piece, and the fact that the main language of the play is that of the coloniser, Prospero, and not the colonised Caliban. Will be fascinated to see!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Just got back from a very interesting couple of days at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. Faith Collingwood, who works in the Creative Learning department there, has been talking to us for some time about the possibility of collaborating on their Dare to be Different project for young refugees and asylum seekers. Since Plymouth became a dispersal centre in 2002, there's been a huge influx of displaced people into the city, and a lot of tensions as a result. On Tuesday night, I was able to watch the group in action. They're mainly from Africa, mostly in their teens, and full of energy. There's inevitably a certain insecurity around culture and language, but also (very pleasingly) a security and indeed a pride about who they are, about cultural identity. It was almost like being back in Botswana at times. But much colder.

This morning I met with Faith and her colleagues to talk through ways in which we can collaborate around May and June - so there might be quite a few Plymouth trips coming up. Then whizzed across town to the main theatre for a meeting with David Prescott, who programmes the Drum and is very interested in Consumed. So interested that he gave me some very good ideas on its artistic development, actually!