Wednesday, November 27, 2013

EcoCentrix and Namatjira

This year's Origins Festival is refusing to go away.  Although the intense period of Festival activity ended on November 3rd, there was a further week of the EcoCentrix exhibition at Bargehouse, and from tonight to Friday, Namatjira plays at the Purcell Room.

EcoCentrix was a very exciting partnership for us: the chance to help present an exhibition curated by Helen Gilbert and her team on the Indigeneity Project, who have been researching indigenous performance and its place in the contemporary world for as long as we have been running the festival.  There were many overlaps in material, of course - work by Marrugeku, Fiona Foley, Rosanna Raymond and Victoria Hunt was in the exhibition as well as the Festival, and Rita Leistner's images from The Edward Curtis Project related to the themes she and Marie Clements had explored at the Origins workshop in 2011 (itself based on the play and images shown in Vancouver the year before…  journeys, journeys…).  But perhaps even more important than this was the way in which EcoCentrix was able to expand the range of what was on show - allowing audiences to look at indigenous performance in relation to its space, land and culture, and to think about the key issue of sustainability in new and surprising ways.

One of the many things which indigenous cultures are really good at, indeed one of the things which seems to me to define their particular place in the contemporary cultural ecology, is making new things out of old things.  That can be on a really basic level - a bit of packaging becomes a puppet, a discarded pot morphs into a ceremonial drum.  But it can also be on a much more complex level of high culture, where ancient ideas can be adapted and re-contextualised to operate in relation to modernity, losing none of their power in the process.  Indeed, what emerged most strongly in EcoCentrix was the way in which this process leads to a gain in power - the way an idea or image embedded in time and cultural continuity is renewed and regenerated by its being related to modernity.  It doesn't feel obsolete at all, but relevant and immediate.

Namatjira is also about this idea.  A great Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira was regarded as fit to sit alongside white Australians (and was the first indigenous person to become a citizen of his own country) because he painted in a style which could be recognised and understood by Europeans.  But that does not undermine the indigenous sensibility in what he did.  If you see his work at the Royal Academy, it leaps out from the European imagery around it, demonstrating a completely distinct approach to landscape, colour and the spiritual life and energy of country.  He stood in a continuum of ancient culture - but made it of the moment when he lived, intersecting with the wider world, utterly new and unique.  I suppose that's the essence of creativity.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Two Schmucks, Three Opinions

Steve Tiller, surrounded by food
A while ago, my friend Jonathan Meth got into a Facebook spat with an actor and director called Steve Tiller.  It was about Palestine - a subject about which they are both very impassioned, not least because they are both British and Jewish, in each case secular and non-Zionist.  The Facebook spat turned into three long lunches - each three hours long, in fact.  The conversations over lunch were recorded, and form the basis of a 90 minute dialogue called Two Schmucks, Three Opinions, which I witnessed at St Barnabas Church in Bethnal Green on Friday night.  And it is rather wonderful.

The evening begins with food.  I've been getting more and more interested in how food relates to theatre - we even had a restaurant as a venue for Origins - how the experience of eating together makes the exchange of ideas a simpler matter.  In this instance, the meal reflects the core of the play, and the audience become participants in the lunch that forms the springboard for the exchanges.  The conviviality of this construction is important to the play - because conviviality is its subject.  How, it asks, can the Israeli and Palestinian people live together?  Jonathan and Steve are too nuanced and sophisticated in their thinking to suggest that they have any easy answers to this most intractable of diplomatic problems - but the form they have chosen does at least go some way towards the inescapable conclusion that they need to sit down at the same table and break bread together.

I was sitting next to a young man called Ahmed, who was one of two Palestinians in the room.  As a child of 11, he had been shot by Israeli soldiers, when he and his friends were throwing stones in Gaza.  The bullet had entered his body under the rib cage, and left through his back.  He was very fortunate to have lived.  Sitting next to Ahmed, there was nothing abstract about the political ideas Jonathan and Steve discussed: he embodied their physical reality.  Without the meal and the conversation it brought, I would not have known this.

Jonathan and Steve also bring a physical reality to the discourse.  For one thing, even though they read the transcripts of their lunches, you're constantly aware that they are speaking their own words.  If you know them, you can hear the idiosyncrasies - only Jonathan could say "It's not umbilical at all".  They've left in the overlaps and unfinished interjections, the moments when they say really stupid things - they've edited the conversations but not at the expense of the messiness that characterises what people say in the thick of an impassioned debate.  I don't usually like verbatim theatre - I don't see that language is necessarily given dramatic validity by the fact that a "real person" said it - but in this case, where the parameters are very clear and where the "real people" are also theatre-makers who can structure their transcripts without losing the spontaneity, it becomes closer to a structured improvisation, and it really works.  For another thing, they begin the piece by locating the politics firmly in their own physical presences as Jewish men - Jonathan rather disconcertingly describes his circumcision at the age of 8 days at the very beginning, and you can't get much more visceral than that.

So - the politics felt very real in the room.  And the questions - horribly insoluble.  The last part of the evening passes the debate to the audience, and there was a clear sense from everyone that the need was for Israel, somehow, to change its way of thinking about the Palestinian people, to recognise them as inhabitants of the same land, to include them in a single, cross-cultural, secular state.  Is there a role for non-Israeli Jews in this, I asked them?  The answer was that they could do as they had - invite people to dinner, debate in public, open the discourse.  It's true, of course.  It's the only way.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Truth and Reconciliation

Samoan ava ceremony at The Origin of Origins.  Photo: Nick Moran
It's an incredibly rich and stimulating time at the Origins Festival.  More than ever, this third outing has managed to combine some really incredible performances and films with a real depth and passion in discussion - an intense engagement with the cultures and the issues explored.

Truth and Reconciliation is a big theme this year, and Tuesday evening at Rich Mix really explored this, with Justice Murray Sinclair of Canada's Truth Commission joining us by Skype, plus remarkable films and the music of Indigie-Femme.  I was very struck by Justice Sinclair's remark that Truth was something the victims could tell - but that any process of reconciliation actually has to start from the perpetrator.  In a way, that's what the festival is all about: westerners have to become actively engaged with indigenous cultures, and recognise the harms that have been done to them in the name of our absurd drive for wealth.   We have to find a new way jointly to inhabit the planet.

When My Spirit Raised Its Hands
Tonight's opening, Diane Benson's play When My Spirit Raised its Hands, is a further contribution to this.  Already Diane has been a powerful presence at our Festival, pointing out the parallels between the Alaskan Tlingit experience and that of Australian Aboriginals in her response to Fiona Foley's brilliant lecture on Wednesday.  Her play, which is at Rich Mix till Sunday, explores the Civil Rights movement in Alaska, and gives a rare (perhaps even unique) insight into Tlingit life and culture.  Diane is not only a theatre-maker, she is also a political leader - the adversary of Sarah Palin!  And that's got to be a good thing....