Tuesday, October 21, 2014

London Film Festival

Charlie's Country - David Gulpilil
London Film Festival is a fantastic research tool.  Yes, it has Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley on the red carpet.  It also has hundreds of films from all across the world, almost all of them in UK premieres, many of them never to be seen here again.  When it comes to keeping your pulse on the cultural currents flowing around the world - it's a good place to be.

A film I'd been eager to see for some time was Charlie's Country - the third in a series of films made by Rolf de Heer with the great indigenous Australian actor David Gulpilil.  The first two, The Tracker and Ten Canoes, were quite extraordinary, breaking new ground in terms of indigenous film-making, with a full and genuine engagement between the film-maker and the indigenous culture, following the protocols and letting the culture speak in its own terms and its own rhythms.  In Charlie's Country, the process is brought powerfully into the present day, with Gulpilil providing not only a mesmerising central performance, but also the truthful underpinning of the story, much of which is painfully close to autobiographical.  In the first Origins Festival, back in 2009, we screened a British-made film about Aboriginal Australians, called This is Our Country Too.  Gulpilil appeared in the film, not as an actor but as a subject of documentary - clearly adrift from stability, poverty-stricken, awash with alcohol.  I have to confess that I didn't believe it - I did not want to believe it.  Seeing Charlie's Country, and hearing some of Rolf de Heer's very moving talk after the screening, confirms what was in Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr's film: but it also moves beyond it, as Charlie's Country gives this great actor a way back to himself, understanding himself and his cultural context through the process of performance, making sense of the conflicts in which he lives through the media of cultural expression.  It is a fantastic achievement, fully worthy of his Best Actor award at Cannes.  

At the end of the film, there is a sense of the way in which culture can offer the route to self-reclamation for indigenous communities, as the young of Charlie's tribe learn the traditional dances and songs.  I have long believed this to be the salvation of the dispossessed - an idea first clearly articulated for me by Yves Sioui Durand in that same landmark first festival, when he explained his ideas around the Theatre of Healing - a process that reconnects young indigenous people to their ancestors and their inherited cultural practice.  I also believe that these healing processes underway in indigenous communities are an example to the rest of the world - spaces where identity and community are reclaimed, and a sense of spiritual worth restored.  

There's a terrific blog by my friend Ian Henderson, which explores in more detail the "art activism" of indigenous Australia as seen in this film.  

The Dead Lands
The complexity and power of Charlie's Country was all the more marked by the contrast with the other indigenous film I saw - a film called The Dead Lands, which is actually in the Maori language.  Given that the only other feature ever to be made in Te Reo Maori is a rather conventional version of The Merchant of Venice, this was both a terrific opportunity and a great responsibility for the film-makers.  It turned out, listening to their Q&A, that the script had in fact been written in English, and was translated into Maori for performance.  So the subtitle "translation" was in fact the original script - a fact which is important given the very different epistemologies of Maori and western cultures.  What masqueraded as "authentic" was in fact a western construction of the Maori world - and the use of conventional Hollywood structures and tropes underlined this.  The film, ostensibly set in pre-contact Aotearoa, pandered to all the worst assumptions of the imperialist mind about the noble savagery of indigenous people.  There were conversations with a dead grandmother surrounded by green fairy lights, and long sequences of Jackie Chan-style violence, without the compensating humour.  I wouldn't be worried about this, were it not that the film's status in terms of language means that it will give off signals to the world, and they are not the signals that indigenous cultures want to be relaying.  It's not the first example of this exoticisation and regression to colonial structures that I've seen recently - the Canadian film about Inuit and Innu, Maina, was possibly even worse.  So I'm thinking that we need to have some active discussion of this in the next festival...  watch this space.  

The other film I much admired was by Chinese director Peter Ho-sun Chan, and was called Dearest.  Closely based on a true story of child abduction (I never cease to be amazed what the Chinese authorities will and will not allow drama to talk about...), the film has a surprising and rather wonderful two-part structure.  The first half of the film focuses on the parents of an abducted boy, and in some ways is quite a conventional quest narrative. The second half is about the woman whose husband was the abductor.  He had died since his crime, leaving her with her "son" (whom he said he'd had with another woman because his wife was barren) and her "daughter" (whom he said he found on a building site).  As Peter Ho-sun Chan said after the film, it is no accident that the abducted child was a boy (greatly valued in Chinese culture), while the abandoned child was a girl.  In other words, it may well be that the dead husband's second story was true.   What's fascinating about this is that the abductor's wife and "daughter" themselves become victims of the crime, as they are separated from one another and from the little boy, whose natural father himself comes to say that the "second abduction" (from the family he had grown up in) did more psychological harm to his son than the first.  The mother deprived of her children is also played by the biggest star in the film, Zhao Wei - so Chinese audiences who came to see their equivalent of Julia Roberts spent the first hour of the film wondering if they were in the wrong cinema....  It's a great lesson in what we need our political and social dramas to do.  

Switch the viewpoint.  Start to see things from the point of view of somebody you thought was the enemy.  Open up that conversation.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Reviving Xerxes

A few musings on my recent experience, reviving Xerxes at the ENO.

Xerxes -  Rhian Lois and Andrew Watts
To revive means to give new life.  As revival director for the ENO’s classic production of Handel’s Xerxes, my job was to give new life to a piece of theatre originally made in 1985.  Judging from a show of hands on the first day of rehearsals, that’s before about a third of the people working on it were even born. 

In the case of Nicholas Hytner’s Xerxes, the task of reviving the production is made all the more complex by the specific significance it had 29 years ago.  At that time, Handel was still thought of primarily as a religious composer, known mainly for his oratorios, The Messiah in particular.  He also tended to be seen as a German composer, even though he spent most of his working life in London and ended his days an Englishman.  The rediscovery of Handel as an operatic composer in the 1980s, and his appropriation into the canon of English opera, was largely a result of this iconic production, which elides Handel’s music with an English translation in the style of Restoration comedy (brilliantly done by Nick Hytner himself, often sounding close to Congreve); locates the story in a version of Handel’s own London, with the exotic world of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens inspiring the setting; and so places Handel – quite literally, in the form of his statue from Vauxhall – at the centre of the English national operatic stage.   1985 also marked Handel’s 300th birthday: the whole undertaking was characterised by a sense of his admission to the canon and commemoration as a national musical hero.  And the production is so very “English”, with its tea and cakes, its bowls and topiary, its redcoat soldiers and prim morality.

The England of 1985 was in a self-assertive mood, led by Margaret Thatcher, whose Falklands campaign had recently marked a resurgence of imperialist jingoism.  During the 80s there was a distinct nostalgia for Empire: as Salman Rushdie noted, in the aftermath of the Falklands we suddenly saw a rush of novels and TV series about British India: Jewel in the Crown, The Raj Quartet, David Lean’s film of A Passage to India.   At the V&A, the English galleries were re-vitalised, with a central place being given to the statue of Handel from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. 

Viewed from 2014, things look rather different.  British imperialism, and English assertiveness are no longer on the agenda.  A few days after we opened, the last vestige of the Georgian Empire teetered on the edge of disappearance, as Scotland voted on independence (Xerxes, it’s intriguing to note, was written just seven years before the 1745 Scots rebellion against the Hanoverians).  Thatcher said that she would never talk to the IRA: this year, the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuinness.  Nicholas Hytner’s tenure at the National Theatre has reflected a nation in doubt about its internal identity and its place in the world: his first production as the National’s director was a blistering Henry V, our national epic deconstructed and questioned against the background of the neo-imperialist invasion of Iraq.  At the current moment, I could not simply re-stage Nick’s Xerxes exactly as it was in 1985.  It had to be a darker, more disturbing piece; centring on a young King whose acquisitiveness towards Empire, objects and women is both his drive and his downfall. 

The politics of gender have also shifted dramatically in the last 30 years. Xerxes remains a gender-bending opera – but Boy George and Marilyn are no longer the key icons of the queer movement.  In the age of Eddie Izzard, Grayson Perry and Conchita, the “man who sings like a woman” could not simply be a self-pitying character, but becomes assertive and powerful.  Elviro’s disguise offered new possibilities around queer ambiguities, and some freshly minted jokes. 

None of these shifts in perspective and tone undermined the production – it was still very emphatically the classic piece of work that sits at the centre of the ENO repertoire.  The hedge-clipper still popped up, the busts were smashed.  Rather, my work in rehearsals was about allowing the performers to live within that powerful framework, and in order for them to live – for the performance to be “live” – they have to be fully present in the current moment.  Without that immediate presence, that awareness of the current context, a performance is dead. 

That’s the same word ENO technical staff use when a show is taken out of the repertoire: “It’s dead.”   Nobody would want that to happen to Xerxes.  After all, it’s only 29 years old.  That’s far too young to die.