Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Chimerica at the Almeida
I hugely enjoyed Lucy Kirkwood's new piece Chimerica at the Almeida.  It's very striking just how much it has in common with Consumed, and the two Chinese plays in the Trilogy, Dis-Orientations  and Re-Orientations.  It's what they call the zeitgeist: we're very aware of China as a force in the world, and as the key element in global culture that we are currently trying to understand.  As Martin Jacques (whose book When China Rules the World is cited by Lucy Kirkwood in her programme note) put it in the piece he wrote for the Consumed programme: "Our ignorance about China is of Himalayan proportions. We insist on understanding the country through a Western prism. We are so used to thinking and believing that everyone should, or will eventually be, like us that we refuse to recognise that China is profoundly different, always has been and always will be."

That has been very much our philosophy in making our pieces about the dialogue with China - we have always made sure that Chinese artists are involved from the beginning, as part of the creative process, devising, writing and shaping the play in collaboration with the Westerners.  It's a process which recently got us onto Chinese TV: see the Propeller TV documentary at http://propellertv.co.uk/programmes/chinatown

If I have one concern about Chimerica, it is that the viewpoint of the piece is so very Western.  In fairness, it doesn't pretend otherwise; and there is a powerful sense that the central character's fascination with an anonymous Chinese "hero" - the young man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 - is a romanticised outsider's view.  But it seems odd that a play which appears to warn Westerners against imagining a China in a Western image should itself exoticise and "other" the culture and society.  In particular, the main Chinese character is arrested for sedition.  This felt particularly potent for me, as he is played by Benedict Wong - a wonderful actor who I also saw recently as Ai Weiwei at Hampstead.  The coincidence is instructive - our theatres seem to like their Chinese heroes in captivity, being tortured and interrogated by Kafkaesque authority figures.

I don't doubt the importance of this theme.  Any artist believes passionately in freedom of speech and expression, in the validity of cultural practice and open debate.  Anyone with a social conscience is stirred by the plight of figures like Liu Xiaobo.  But to make this the central plank in our discourse around China is to misread the culture.  What is significant in modern China is not so much the suppression of culture, art and debate, as the general consensus to go along with this.  A character in Chimerica says that the Tiananmen Square incident represents the moment when China shifted from a politically fluid society to one of commerce and compliance - and I would agree with that.  There is, from the leadership through to the people, a real fear of the cultural gesture - because the country has lived through so many disastrous cultural gestures - not least the Cultural Revolution itself.  As Ma Haili said in rehearsals for Dis-Orientations, the student unrest in the Square felt like the beginning of the Cultural Revolution again: and that was why it was suppressed.

This is not an easy context in which to make a cultural gesture.  But it is also, as Ai Weiwei constantly affirms, an essential one.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Zoukak Sidewalks

Zoukak means "alley" in Arabic - so Zoukak Sidewalks is a kind of pun - it's also a very good idea.  Not unlike our Laboratory in many ways.  Zoukak invite visiting artists to lead workshops, give talks and demonstrations, hold masterclasses, show videos of their work, and generally generate a buzz around performance.  In the last few months, that's included our own dear Patron, Peter Sellars, and other old friends like Mojisola Adebayo, as well as Nathalie Garraud from France and Bharatanatyam performer Rozina Shiraz Gilani. Last night it was out turn.  What was particularly exciting about this Sidewalks event was that we had been working with Zoukak through the week on ideas for a new play, and this was a chance to try them out.

What amazed me was just how much material we had been able to generate in only five days.  We were able to lead the audience through a possible structure for the entire piece, including a "spine" of scenes which Brian had already written, plus a totally new parallel narrative from contemporary Beirut, and a series of meditations from female voices on the place of women in the Iliad.  We were able to show quite a few scenes in some sort of theatrical form, and give a powerful sense of how the finished play might mix languages, periods, and styles. Several people commented on the way the play juxtaposed something very austere and classical with a grubby contemporary reality, and found it fascinating how the two inter-connected.  All very encouraging indeed. 

Thank you British Council...  a really inspiring week....  Now - how do we move forward???

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Beirut, Zoukak, and the question of settlement

An incredibly rich and inspiring couple of days in Beirut, working with Brian, Maya and the rest of the Zoukak company.  In fact, the Zoukak company plus  - as, for the first time, in this workshop Zoukak has invited a number of other Lebanese performers to join the process.  Given that they are normally a very tight ensemble of six people, this is adventurous to say the least - there are at a minimum three layers in the collaboration.

The fact of collaboration inevitably raises questions around ownership (I mean in artistic and cultural, not legal terms) and representation.  Maya feels that some of the work created in response to the stimuli Brian and I have suggested has been in danger of perpetuating some cultural clich├ęs, and that this may be the result of a subconscious shift which occurs when Lebanese people represent themselves to Western eyes.  It becomes "cultural" in the wrong way.  I hadn't felt this about the material - but perhaps that's all the more reason why she should be wary: orientalism and exoticism are the bane of the sort of intercultural work we attempt in Border Crossings.  The fact that this, and other key issues, are being clearly voiced in the workshop is very heartening - we have a genuinely open dialogue here, with an awareness of the broader issues with which our collaboration inevitably engages.

The starting point for our work has been The Iliad - the great epic of a long war.  Brian has been particularly interested in the end of the poem, when King Priam humbles himself to kiss the hand of Achilles, and so achieves a measure of uneasy reconciliation.  Before we left England, he also said to me that he wondered whether this would actually work as a model here - and it turns out that he was quite right to doubt it.  Forgiveness and self-abasement do not seem to be possible to contemplate in spaces where there has not yet been any measure of accountability, and where the conflicts are fed and fanned by forces very remote from the immediate actors on the ground.  Somehow we need to move our work on so that it addresses this level of complexity.

Well - it's only the third day!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Beirut - Day 1

Brian Woolland and I arrived in Beirut last night, just as the Syrian conflict spread over into Lebanese territory.  We're here for a week, thanks to the British Council, to start work with Zoukak - a very exciting theatre company in the city.  I met Maya Zbib, one of their core members, a while ago when we were on a panel about international work at CSSD - and it turned out that she was being mentored by Peter under the Rolex scheme.  Many a connection....  Brian and I had been discussing an idea for a new play with Middle Eastern collaborators for some time, so it's fantastic that we've finally got an opportunity to develop it, and ACE has given Brian a grant to write it too.

So this isn't quite like most of the development processes we've undertaken in the last few years, in that this time there is somebody in the room who will be the author of the play, and who has strong ideas about what it may turn out to be.  So it's not a devising process as such.  On the other hand, Brian is very aware that cross-cultural work is not about a single voice but about multiple viewpoints, and that real drama about global issues can only be generated out of different energies between people from distinct backgrounds.

Today has already proved the point.  Brian and I have been suggesting to the actors various scenarios and episodes, drawn from mythology, which might be dramatised.  What is fascinating is the way in which these become the way in to very immediate concerns in this region.  The figure of Delusion becomes a way into a fundamentalist Islamist rant for one group; while for another it generates a scene about a fatwa which allows jihadists to have sex with young girls as a 'necessary way of dealing with their violent male energy' - apparently this is happening in Syria at the moment.  The work is not only exciting in terms of content, but also theatrically vital - not least because of the ease with which Lebanese actors are able to shift between Arabic, English and French.  The Arabic here is very muscular - softer than in Egypt, but very energised.  It makes for very intense drama.

And so, of course, does the city.  Heavily armed soldiers everywhere.  Military checkpoints.  And buildings pock-marked by the bullets of the civil war.