Tuesday, February 25, 2014

APAM 2014: Who enters whose world?

dirtsong - The Black Arm Band
I've been in Brisbane just over a week, enjoying some sun and taking part in APAM - the biennial showcase of Australian Performing Arts.  It's the second one I've attended - and again it's been a great resource for learning what indigenous theatre-makers are up to.  The great revelation for me was The Black Arm Band - an organisation I had heard of but never heard before.  dirtsong was a remarkable experience, with incredible music from performers like Emma Donovan and our old friend Trevor Jamieson, sung in front of poignant black and white film from the communities.  It's very simple, but it's pure artistry.

I enjoyed the other indigenous work too - and there was quite a selection.  Some of it I already knew - in fact Gudirr Gudirr was here - and I was able to connect with lots of friends from the past.  Even Natasha Wanganeen, who I hadn't seen since Bullie's House ten years ago, was here performing in a children's show. Some of the work in APAM is shown in full, some of it in 25 minute excerpts (as happened with Ilbijerri's Corranderk, for example), and some in the form of "pitches".  These last can be surprisingly useful - even though you don't see the production, you get a sense of what may be happening in a year's time.  Things to keep an eye on.

What I enjoy most is this aspect of an artistic community working together towards possibility.  The "market" aspect isn't really my cup of tea - the discussions around it absolutely are.  On day 2, I was asked to host a "roundtable session" on First Nations touring - a job I shared with a wonderful Ojibway woman from Canada, called Denise Bolduc.  It soon became clear that we weren't going to talk about the logistics of how - it's so much more important to talk about why.  What does it mean to tour indigenous arts?  How can this work be enabled to speak to European audiences?  Should it?  These are the big questions we've been asking in Origins - and it's very helpful to address them here in Australia.

There was a keynote session - a panel, not a lecture - which also went, very bravely I thought, into the thorny thickets of cross-cultural collaboration.  Ong Keng Sen was speaking, and suggested that the challenge of intercultural work was that every artist was in fact an individual, and so the idea of them somehow representing their culture didn't work in practice.  I take his point - but it was interesting to hear it challenged from an Aboriginal perspective: in indigenous cultures, the individual self is not as important as the community, the history, the culture.  Keng Sen's individualist standpoint is that of the globally dominant culture: and that's all the more reason why it needs a corrective.  Why, asked an Aboriginal woman in the audience, are indigenous people always expected to enter into the structures of the "white world" (this "market" being a good example), when nobody ever expects white artists and producers to enter into Aboriginal culture?

These ideas grew for me when I spent Saturday afternoon with Wesley Enoch - a very distinguished Aboriginal director who now heads up Queensland Theatre Company.  To Wesley's mind, the lack of any treaty between the colonial power and the indigenous people in Australia (a situation very different from that in New Zealand or North America) means that the relationship between the cultures is stuck in a paternalistic model, with no negotiation.  Aboriginal people have things done for them - with the subtext that they need to become more like white people.  Wesley's example is housing: "My family doesn't need a nuclear family home", he says.  "We all want to live together as an extended family.  We need a compound.  But that doesn't work within the colonial structures."

It's the old problem of homogeneity - and oddly, I felt that APAM reflected this in other ways too.  The dominant culture, with its desire to "market" everything, is so present now across the globe, that it is getting more and more difficult to find anything that is specific and local.  But theatre, to be valid as a live art form, has to be exactly that.  Many of the performances I saw this week were marked by their similarity to work I could see just as readily in London, New York or Toronto.  They all had video....  Of course, I quite like video in the theatre, and I use it myself to address globalisation....  but it seems to me that the real drama of the internet age requires the tension between the global and the local.  Otherwise we just accept a kind of blanding out - a sameness which is generalised and dull.  We need to be working towards theatre that embraces the culturally specific, and places it in conflict with the post-colonial dominance of the West.  We have to have the courage to enter into, and move between, one another's worlds.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Indoors and Outdoors

The Duchess of Malfi
I was lucky enough to go to the new Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at the Globe recently, to see its opening production, The Duchess of Malfi.  I've always had a soft spot for Webster - if that's the right term...  not least because my first ever professional production was The White Devil.  Never believed in making life easy for myself.  Not that this particular evening was really about the play - except in so far as it made sense to choose a piece that took place mainly in the dark.

The production is a fascinating experiment in how the indoor theatres of the Jacobean period might have functioned - and it suggests that this new space may well prove even more revelatory than the restored Globe has done.  After all, most of the great plays of the Jacobean age (including the major Shakespearean tragedies) started out in spaces like this - only moving to the Globe stage later on.  I often wonder how a play like Malfi or Macbeth would have coped with the transfer.  This Malfi is occasionally illuminated by the artificial "daylight" that comes through the playhouse windows, but most of the time the shutters are closed, and the space relies on an ever-shifting palette of candlelight.  There are chandeliers that fly from high above the stage to the level of the actors feet - candles on pillars, candles held by the performers.  There is a whole bank of votive candles illuminating the wax effigy of Antonio and the children.  And, of course, there is darkness - real, total darkness, when Ferdinand gives his sister the dead man's hand.  What is really wonderful is the way the candlelight reflects off the gilding which is so present in the decoration of the space, and the jewelled costumes of the performers.  In the 17th century, there would have been just as much metallic glitter on the clothes of the audience, which must have generated a magical glow, and a sense of complicity between stage and auditorium, as both areas were caught in an elevated, transformed, religiose world.

King Lear
I was still thinking about this when I saw the National's King Lear a week later.  Sam Mendes has read it in part as a play about homelessness, and that's fascinating, given the preoccupation of the Jacobean stage with indoors and outdoors.  Lear in an indoor space like the Wannamaker would be the intimate family drama of the interior: Lear in the Olivier is closer to the Globe - demanding acting that defies the scale of open space.  But the secret of the play is surely in the dialectic set up between the two - the sense of home, of family, even of love, set against the impersonal vastness of the elements and the implacable amorality of an atavistic universe bereft of gods.