Friday, December 04, 2015

Paris, Syria, and Ai Wewei

I have only provocations.  I have no answers.

Last night I was at a diplomatic party - and I met Hilary Benn.  I hadn't really expected to run up against the man who, less than 24 hours before, had won applause in the House of Commons for disagreeing with his party leader and voting to bomb Syria.  It seemed more than a little odd, given what he had said only two weeks before.  Click here and marvel.

The air strikes on Syria are a response of sorts to the killings in Paris, but they are a knee-jerk response.  Like everything David Cameron says or does, the decision to go to war was an unconsidered reaction to a short-term news agenda, playing for what he regards as immediate popularity, rather than looking towards any longer-term plan or future possibility.  I recognise, of course, that we must do something - but an intensification of the conflict Daesh desires is not it.  We are casting ourselves in exactly the Western crusader role they have given us in their apocalyptic narrative. The best analysis I have read of the ISIS / Daesh movement is by Graeme Wood, writing in The Atlantic.  If this article makes one thing clear, it is that the escalation of conflict is exactly what they desire.

So the current response is not only inadequate - it is dangerous.  And this begs the question -  if not by bombing, how should we respond?

On one level, as Diane Abbott and Caroline Lucas articulated very clearly on last night's Question Time, there are diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken.  We could start by stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  You can watch the debate and consider for yourself...

For me, as an artist, the question of response is not so directly political - though of course I recognise that the directly political is central.  The contribution of artists is in the cultural arena, and is to do with interventions in public space that shift the quality of thought.  Cultural activity changes the emotional temperature, the atmosphere.  It allows certain things to become thinkable, and certain things to become unthinkable.  At the moment, the unthinkable is becoming policy - and so the need for cultural response is very real.

I'm not saying that art can "Stop the War".  I'm certainly not saying it can stop Daesh.  What I am saying is that a mature society responds to events on a variety of levels, and that the response of artists is often the most profound - the response that can help others think through matters on a more practical level.  In pre-colonial Ghana, the role of the seprewa player was to provide music in the chief's hut, as a way of enabling him to think through what to do.  In Ancient Greece, the Athenian populace watched the plays of Euripides as preparation for jury service and the legislative process.

So - what music, what theatre do we make at this moment?  How do we counter destruction with creativity?  How can we re-member what was blown apart?  How can we find any sort of beauty to set against the violence?

The day before the Paris massacre, I went to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy.  A great deal of this show seems to me to be grappling with precisely the questions that Paris has thrown at us.  His subjects are almost always to do with meaningless oppression, destruction and death.  He makes art from his own imprisonment, from the vandalistic inheritance of the Cultural Revolution, from the bones of Mao's nameless victims.  Most strikingly of all, he memorialises the children who died in the Szechuan earthquake.

Straight is an overwhelming artwork, particularly as shown at the RA, where it is framed by the collected and catalogued names of the children, placed on the walls like a war memorial.  The 150 tons of steel bars that constitute the artwork are taken from the wreckage of the schools where the children died.  The buildings collapsed because these bars buckled so easily - Ai's video in the same room explains the engineering failures, and the huge challenges of gathering the names, finding out what he could about the children, straightening the bent metal.  But it has been straightened, and lies in the RA as a testament to an intense and difficult dedication.  The bars have to be straightened, the artwork says, because their not being straight is the reason 5,000 children died.  To straighten them is a memorial, an act of reparation, a political gesture.

If we can begin to inject something of this depth and emotional intensity into our own cultural space, if we can begin truly to memorialise our lost youth, then perhaps we can begin to move beyond the current simplistic 'eye for an eye', revenge-driven militarism.  Perhaps we can begin to think, and feel, a little differently. We desperately need to.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The changing face of Ma Ubu

Ubu and the Truth Commission
Ubu and the Truth Commission, like Gielgud's Hamlet, is one of those theatrical legends that I thought I had missed.  Originally created in 1997, in the thick of the South African transition, it came to LIFT in 1999, but I somehow failed to get there.  Since then, I have read and heard so much about this extraordinary performance, and even taught students about it, that it was hugely exciting to hear that it was being revived, with the original two leading actors, and coming to the Print Room.  I was not disappointed. 

When William Kentridge's earlier piece with Handspring, Woyzeck on the Highveldt, came to the Barbican in 2011, a lot of people felt that it had "dated", that its style was somehow outmoded.  I didn't feel this - and Ubu seemed to me every bit as much of the now.  In some ways this may sound a bit odd - because the play is so very much about the specific political moment of the Truth Commission, and responds to the hugely challenging questions around justice, reparation, reconciliation and nation-building that it raised.  South Africa likes to tell us that it has moved on: it is rather in the nature of Truth and Reconciliation processes that they encourage a "moving on" once they are complete.  But, as Rustom argues in his book on Terror and Performance, without some kind of reparation, a Truth Commission may in fact have exactly the opposite effect - it can reveal the injustice without setting it right.  As William Kentridge himself has said of the South African TRC: "As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done, they get closer and closer to amnesty, and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty."

In the programme for this revival, the writer Jane Taylor discusses the question put to her and Kentridge by a South African artist after its early performances: "Why have you not updated the play?"  Her response, which I find persuasive, is that "The pragmatic reality of inventing a viable post-apartheid country have shifted us away from the almost allegorical textures of the Commission and its purposes....  The play and its textures arise from the immediacy of the events: the play was made somehow 'inside' the epoch of the Commission.  A rewriting would falsify the uncertain balancing that captures the particular moment of precarious anticipation."   So the revival becomes an opportunity to look back - a deliberate viewing of a specific moment from the perspective of the changed present. 

However, the production is not exactly as it was in 1997.  For one thing, the leading performers, Dawid Minnaar and Busi Zokufa, are older than they were.  Like the audience, they are viewing the troubled birth of the new South Africa from a different, more distant perspective.  And, perhaps related to that, Busi Zokufa's Ma Ubu no longer has a white face.  

These two images, the top one of the current revival, the bottom one of the original show, make the point very clearly.  In the 2015 version, Ma Ubu wore white make-up only for the scene in which she appeared as a projected image, doing her TV interview.  In the original staging, the role was played entirely in white-face.  This was much discussed at the time - with many commentators saying she epitomised the Afrikaaner women who became obsessed by their own sensory comforts while their menfolk committed the worst crimes of apartheid.  If this was what the character signified, then her portrayal by a black actor in white-face made this performance an explicit commentary on such women from a black perspective.  However, to my mind the character was always more unstable than this: in the text, the very scene which retains the white-face even in 2015 sees her break into Xhosa as she turns on Pa Ubu from the screen.  So perhaps Ma Ubu is a more disturbing figure than a simple portrait of callow Afrikaaner women - perhaps she is also representative of how the black population could become complicit in its own oppression.  Seen like this, the decision of the 2015 production to take her out of white-face is a very bold, radical step.  

If, as Jane Taylor implies, the revival looks at 1997 from the perspective of 2015, and allows us to regard the events of that time (including the play) in the light of what has followed, then it needs to take on the emergence of a new black elite, massively wealthy and operating in close cahoots with the white plutocracy and global capitalism.  Alongside this, there persists a deep and enduring wealth gap, with the bulk of the South African population still living in poverty, their lot seemingly just the same as it was under apartheid.  The changing face of Ma Ubu confronts that appalling reality, and her voyage into the sunset with the exonerated white oppressor is all the more chilling as a result.

In a few weeks, I shall be going to South Africa myself, to begin working with Eugene Skeef on our new piece about the end of apartheid.  It feels very timely indeed.  

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Egor Bulychev & the Others

Andy Burse as Egor Bulychev.  All photos by Robert Workman.
In Tuesday's Guardian, Mark Lawson writes about a perceived trend towards "German-style" re-imaginings of "modern classics", citing the National Theatre's new production conflating three plays by D.H. Lawrence, and Chichester's Young Chekhov Trilogy.  I suspect he would have been deeply shocked, although hopefully also stimulated, to see what we got up to with Gorky's late play Egor Bulychev and the Others at Rose Bruford last week.

I'm more than happy to admit the Teutonic influence.  After all, Bruford calls itself "London's international drama school", I'm a Visiting Professor and I run an intercultural theatre company - it would seem logical enough that we should look beyond the British approach to naturalism.  Thomas Ostermeier's re-workings of Ibsen were very much in my mind as I started to think through Gorky's text   - he deliberately creates a hyper-real contemporary world in which to locate these pieces, recovering the social and political radicalism that made them so controversial in the first place.  I was also thinking about Simon Stone's version of The Wild Duck for Belvoir (recently filmed as The Daughter), which, although its approach is psychological rather than social and political, is a lesson in how form can be altered as a way of giving a piece the feel of contemporary narrative.  However, I suspect that even these productions, and certainly the ones cited by Lawson, are much closer than our Gorky was to what the writer had expected to see on stage.  It is one thing to modernise a play, either through a change of context or through a structural shift.  It is quite another to do both, in a deliberate attempt to turn the original inside out.  We deliberately renounced what Lawson called "absolute fidelity to what a playwright's intentions are perceived to be."
Austin Caley as Stefan, Katie Trump as Varya
Or maybe not entirely…  That "perceived to be" is a very interesting phrase.  Perceived by whom?  Intentions, after all, are very slippery things.  People lie about their intentions - even to themselves.  As Nesta Jones said at our post-show discussion, sometimes a play can be found to contain a "secret play" that subverts and attacks the apparent meaning.  Sometimes that is the play that has to be produced, especially when, as 21st century people in dialogue with a classic, we find that there are aspects of "what a playwright's intentions are perceived to be" with which we find ourselves in profound disagreement.  Some of my student cast had just emerged from working on The Merchant of Venice: you cannot simply buy into that text, knowing what we now know.  No more, I think, can we buy into the apparent meaning of late Gorky - plays written after his return to Stalin's Russia…  My first night card from Michael Earley was a painting of Stalin sitting at Gorky's deathbed.  I do not want Stalin there at my side when I croak.
Gloria Obianyo as Nkolika, Andro Crespo as Pedro, Celeste Collier as Georgie
Naturalism has been sanitised.  It has been forgotten that, originally, naturalism was the avant-garde.  We have come to think of “realistic” performance as a default position.  We have diluted it into family drama and soap opera, psychological thriller and “reality” TV.  In this process, we have lost touch with the radical origins of the form.  The English tradition of naturalistic performance eschews the socio-political dimension in favour of psychological “character study”.  We dramatise Freud.  But Freud’s ideas are diametrically opposed to those of Zola, Ibsen and Gorky.  For Freud, if you are (say) depressed, then that is your own fault – it’s to do with some internal problem in your personal make-up.  Psychoanalytical performance denies our relationship to others – the social, political and spiritual links that underpin our lives.  Maybe your depression is actually to do with living in a massively unequal society that saddles its youth with enormous debts; with the failure of mainstream culture to engage with the complexity of modern Britain; with God having absented himself from our dialogue with our own mortality.  In the 21st century, we have to revisit naturalism in a way that reinvigorates this more radical agenda.
Gloria Obianyo as Nkolika
In an age dominated by filmic narratives, the structures of naturalism are a barrier, not an aid, to contacting what is realistic in Gorky.  Because he is bound into a three-act, single set structure, he has to put himself through incredible contortions to engineer people into Egor Bulychev’s dining room at appropriate moments to encounter one another.  Take that cumbersome scaffolding away, and a series of short, punchy scenes is revealed.  Re-order those scenes, and the play begins to reveal its extraordinary modernity.  So we found ourselves re-imagining Egor as a Russian oligarch running an investment management company in London, with a family of calculating super-rich eager to pounce on his wealth when cancer finally overcomes him in the Wellington Hospital.  The loyal maid Glasha became his PA and lover Georgie; and his sister-in-law's convent was re-located to Nigeria, where it was attacked by Boko Haram.  The deserting soldiers who roam across Russia in Gorky's text, striking fear into Egor's family, became the refugees fleeing into Europe - and the gamekeeper who supports them became the family chauffeur.  Cars make great locations for claustrophobic scenes of intense argument.
Kizzy Dunn as Shura
Above all, I felt that we had to move Egor's illegitimate daughter Shura to the centre of the play.  Gorky indicates that she somehow moves towards the Russian Revolution of 1917 - but her process of conversion all happens offstage and becomes difficult to understand or identify with.  By shifting some of the scenes from the first Act to a new position near the end of the play, we were able to show her being used and abused by the self-interested money-grabbers around Egor's death bed, and so made sense of her radicalisation.  The revolutionary character Pablo (Yakov in the original) only appeared towards the end, as the London society we had created tipped over into the British Revolution of 2017. At the same point, naturalism gave way to a more dream-like style: was this revolution real, or was it Egor's dying dream?  Was the stylistic shift in itself perhaps a symptom of leaving behind a culture that has been proved decadent and wanting?
Final scene - The Revolution
I love doing drama school productions.  It's where the future is made.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Salisbury Odysseys

At the beginning of this year, Brian Woolland and I led some workshops with members of the Youth Theatre at Salisbury Playhouse, as a way of kickstarting some ideas for a new play.  The play will be a sequel to This Flesh is Mine: after our Iliad will come our Odyssey.  You read it here first!  On October 24th, we were back there, accompanied by some of the actors from This Flesh is Mine, to give a reading of some scenes from the new piece, again involving the young people.

A youth theatre attached to a provincial rep may seem an odd place to start work on a play based on Greek myth and engaging with current issues in the Middle East - But Salisbury Playhouse is no ordinary provincial rep.  For one thing, since Gareth Machin arrived as Artistic Director, it has become very focussed on new writing, and exciting, engaged, experimental new writing at that.  And, even more importantly for us, Salisbury is a city surrounded by the military - so many of the young people in the youth theatre are from services families.  This meant that they were ideally placed to respond to one of the key figures in The Odyssey - Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, who dominates the first four books of Homer's poem, and remains central throughout.  Most people think that The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus' voyage home: in fact, the stories of the voyage are all told indirectly within the wider story of his family and his land - Penelope and Telemachus are waiting for his return to a space that is increasingly dominated by suitors for Penelope's hand.  Occupiers, if you like.  Why does Odysseus not come back?  When he does come back, what sort of man will he be?  How will he related to a son who he has never known - a son who is now an adult?

These sort of questions were very immediate for young people from military families - and many of them responded in fascinating and productive ways during our workshops early in the year.  Their presence in the reading was extraordinary too - it made us realise how much The Odyssey is about a drama between generations - how very young characters engage with, or turn their backs on, the middle aged.

Brian's new play is going to be extraordinary - a really worthy successor to This Flesh is Mine.  Now all we have to do is make it happen.

London Film Festival

Ixcanul (Volcano)
I was in rehearsals though October (more of which in another blog post), so I saw rather less at this year's London Film Festival than usual - but there was still a lot of excitement!  Our old friend Adil Hussain, who was in the first version of Orientations, and was central to its devising workshop, appeared in several films this year, particularly Sunrise and the rather strange Kothanodi.  It was also great to meet up with Atom Egoyan again, at the screening of his new film with Christopher Plummer, Remember.

Of the mainstream films, the one that most excited me was The Daughter - the film version of Simon Stone's Wild Duck for Belvoir, which was one of my theatre highlights of last year. Simon had already made Ibsen more filmic, and this seemed like a logical development of the piece.  It wasn't perhaps quite so emotionally intense as the play - and I think this was partly because the social realism, the physical landscape necessary for film dissipated some of the concentration of energy given by the enclosed glass box set of the theatre production.  It also, perhaps, pointed up the lack of social concern in Stone's treatment of the characters - his approach is more psychological than Ibsen's, and so actually not the sort of drama I usually warm to.  Certainly the film version made the character of Christian (played by Paul Schneider) seem more directly to blame for the tragedy, and his malevolence seemed rooted in his own psychological problems, his jealousy.  I always worry about the sort of psychologically-driven naturalism that makes it seem as if people with problems are somehow to blame for them - as if there were no underlying social, economic, political issues that lead to our psychological malfunctions.  Perhaps it's good that the film made this more apparent - but I missed the play's extraordinary intensity.

I was also, as always, on the lookout for films from indigenous cultures, with an eye to the next Origins.  There were two that particularly excited me this year.  Ixcanul (Volcano) is a film set among the Maya of Guatemala, and reminded me of the wonderful Grupo Sotz'il, whom we hosted in this year's festival.  The film delves under the surface of the culture with great integrity - and in its closing minutes becomes genuinely shocking and incredibly powerful in relation to how that culture is being maltreated by the West.

The real revelation, however, was Tanna, a film from the island of the same name, in Vanuatu.  Like Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes, which the filmmaker Bentley Dean showed the people of Tanna as the project began, this is a piece of and about an indigenous culture, made in deep partnership with the people of the land and based on their own histories and customs.  It is based on real events in the 1980s, when a young woman was offered in marriage to another tribe, in order to bring peace between them.  She and her boyfriend ran away, and finally took their own lives, rather than be lost to one another.  The island community's acceptance of love as a reason for marriage dates to these events - although the film itself is actually the first public statement of this fact, and so, quite literally, makes history.  What is quite wonderful about the film is its total authenticity and integrity, made manifest in both how immediate and real the performances of the community members feel, and in the strangeness of their world to Western eyes.

Of course, this is something that cuts both ways.  Bentley was at the screening, together with the film's cultural consultant, the only man on the island who speaks English.  During the Q&A, he was asked what he thought of London.  His reply was largely complimentary and polite - but then he said how very surprised he had been to see so many homeless people on the city's streets.  This is a rich country, he said - but there are people who have nothing.  Tanna is not a rich country, but there are no poor people, because there is no money and everything is held in common.  In Tanna, nobody would be left out in the cold in this way.  It was one of those extraordinary wake-up calls that indigenous cultures sound from time to time.  The cinema applauded him, with a deep sense of "What have we done?"

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Brian Friel

Faith Healer (Finbar Lynch as Frank)
I first encountered Brian Friel's plays at University in the 80s.  A friend was in a student production of Translations.  It was not only the first Friel play I had seen, it was also the first post-colonial play.  I was studying history, and had an awareness of the context from with the ongoing Troubles sprang - but this was the first time I had seen theatre engage so powerfully and immediately with that complex shared past, leading its audience to re-assess the present.  At the centre of the play is the question of language, and Friel's theatrical device of delivering the whole text in English (the language of the audience) even when the characters are understood to be speaking Irish, was a glorious revelation.  Here was theatricality and comedy uniting stage and auditorium in an understanding of misunderstanding.  It was, I suppose, my Road to Damascus moment.  I have been travelling that rocky road ever since.

A few years later, I was in Dublin, doing a short period of study at Trinity, and was able to engage much more fully with Friel's work, coming to an understanding of his huge significance, not only as a dramatist, but as a cultural activist.  I read all his plays voraciously, and was lucky enough to see superb productions of Philadelphia, Here I Come (directed by Joe Dowling) and Faith Healer.  The latter would be one of the first plays Border Crossings ever presented, when in 1995-6, Richard Cave's production toured a series of overseas venues, acquiring new resonance and meaning as it responded to widely differing contexts.  The thought of it performing in Cairo seems extraordinary now, but Michael Keneally's review bears witness that, twenty years ago, it really did happen.

But for me, the most important influence of Brian Friel was in the form of the company he created with Stephen Rea, supported by Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin - Field Day.  Inaugurated with Translations in 1980, Field Day was the first contemporary Irish company to operate through the entire island of Ireland: a statement made all the more powerful by the fact that its base, and first performances, were in Derry / Londonderry - a city which at that time was a by-word for The Troubles.  The programming saw the gradual emergence of a clear vision for cultural regeneration.  Productions of Chekov and Molière translated into an Irish idiom, new Irish-English versions of the Greek classics by Heaney and Paulin, new Irish plays and (perhaps most tellingly of all) Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena - all pointed up the centrality of language to meaningful political change.  The company went on to publish a series of pamphlets, starting with Paulin's A New Look at the Language Question, and a Dictionary of Irish English.  The entire project sought to regenerate the post-colonial space through the claiming of literary stature for Irish English, establishing a richer and more resonant language through the public practice of drama, enabling the possibility of new ideas and new expression within the emerging polity.  The heir of Synge and the ally of Fugard, Soyinka, Virahsawmy and Dattani - Brian Friel created a theatre that was genuinely transformative.  I believe that the current Northern Irish peace process owes far more to his endeavours than is acknowledged, and that the Irish future will be forged in the cultural revolution he began.

May he rest in peace.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Aboriginality on the London stage

Nicôle Lecky in This Heaven
In the past week, I have seen two very distinct representations of Aboriginal Australia on the London stage.  The first was a play by an indigenous Australian writer, Nakkiah Lui's This Heaven, which has just finished its run at the Finborough.  I was asked to take part in a post-show panel discussion, which, given the play's concern with the issue of deaths in custody, inevitably turned to Beautiful One Day, and also to Bullie's House (the latter ends with a death in custody, although here the implication is that the Aboriginal man dies because of his separation from land and community, rather than as a direct result of police brutality).  Like both of those plays (to a greater or lesser degree), This Heaven is the result of the Belvoir Theatre's sustained engagement with indigenous culture - and so it is perhaps all the more disturbing to hear in it the voice of discontented Aboriginal youth, in the character of the trainee lawyer Sissy, expressing fury that even her success as an indigenous person is measured in terms of a white world view.  But isn't this exactly the problem of the whole "development" agenda?  We measure "improvements" in the post-colonial space and the lot of indigenous peoples solely in terms of how close they can come to our way of living.  We praise them for becoming more like us, and lament our own failings when they refuse to do so.  We assume that economic prosperity is the only measure of human endeavour, and we impose this on those whom our ancestors once conquered.  Theatre may be as guilty as every other field of endeavour, and Lui is right to provoke.

Gary Wood in Our Country's Good
I was still thinking about these concerns when, the next night, I saw the National Theatre's production of Our Country's Good.  In spite of its "modern classic" status, I'd actually never seen the play before - though I knew Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, on which it is based.  Since Tom also wrote Bullie's House, I had expected another nuanced and provocative engagement with Aboriginal culture.  Indeed, The Playmaker is dedicated to "Arabanoo and his brethren, still dispossessed", in a direct acknowledgment of Aboriginal man who worked to build a relationship with Captain Arthur Philip, whose expedition to Australia forms the background to the story.  In Tom's novel, this relationship is central - but in the play, it has been abandoned.  There remains, however, the figure of "The Aborigine", whom the text shows as speaking four times in a direct audience address.  These moments have the potential to be powerful theatrical interventions in the colonial narrative: for example, the second scene of the play is titled "A lone Aboriginal Australian describes the arrival of the First Convict Fleet in Botany Bay on January 20, 1788", and the spoken text reads: "A giant canoe drifts onto the sea, clouds billowing from upright oars.  This is a dream which has lost its way.  Best to leave it alone."

This language is sparse, poetic and evocative.  It was also totally lost in the National production.  I'm not sure if it was even spoken, or, if it was, whether it was spoken in English.  Certainly there was no contact between the Aboriginal character and the audience.  Every production decision was calculated to make him distant and "Other" - exotic, and therefore of no concern to us.  Michael Billington's review talks of him "exerting some mysterious Puck-like power", as if the indigenous were literally another world.  The production brings him into the action whenever there is violence or cruelty between the white characters, as if he were the embodiment of their savagery.  This is about as far from the open spirit of Belvoir as it is possible to get - and it really saddens me to see it on Britain's national stage in the 21st century.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Aapravasi Ghat

Photos of indentured labourers, taken on arrival in Mauritius
I've been in Mauritius for the last couple of weeks - largely for family reasons, but (of course) with an eye on the theatrical and the intercultural.  This was, after all, the place where the Macbeth production happened, and before that Paul and Virginie.

One of the things that was most striking about the Paul and Virginie experience was how little awareness there seemed to be in Mauritius of the island's slave history.  Given that there is no indigenous population here at all, and that almost all the population is here as a result of some sort of transportation, whether for slavery or indentured labour, that is surprising to say the least.  But the emphasis that Asian cultures place on 'shame' has resulted in what feels like a consciously self-induced act of collective amnesia.  And the result of this is a cultural barrenness, which needs to be overcome if there is to be any chance of the nation finding a cohesion, a dynamism, a democratic reality.  Roshni Mooneeram, who is a former Border Crossings board member, recently wrote about this in Le Mauricien - with two rather perturbing comments on the site!

In the face of this, it was heartening to visit Aapravasi Ghat - the UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been created at the Port-Louis dock, where almost half a million indentured labourers arrived on the island between 1834 and 1920.  The first date is significant: 1833 was the year when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, and "The Great Experiment" of indentured labour was the colonists' response to the loss of a cheap workforce.  The museum makes it very clear, in a prominently displayed quotation from correspondence between the Governor General and the Colonial Office, that the shipping of Indian workers under a supposedly free contract was a direct response to a perceived need to find a source of labour that was as 'economically viable' as slavery.  The fact that this only ended in 1920 is even more shocking. 

A couple of weeks ago, David Olusoga's brilliant pair of BBC documentaries explored how the "compensation" paid by the British government to the slave owners laid the foundations for contemporary British capitalism.  In Mauritius, the situation is perhaps even more extreme - given that the bulk of the population is descended from slaves or near slaves.  The compensation paid to slave owners in 1833 led to the setting up of the Mauritian banks and many of the businesses that dominate the island's economy today.  This process has been carefully researched by a Truth and Justice Commission, but the reports of this body have not been used as the basis for any sort of reparation.  Truth may have been unearthed - but it remains largely ignored and unknown, let alone transformed into Justice. 

Aapravasi Ghat perhaps represents a beginning in a national process of historical education and cultural revitalization, which may eventually help in the development of a more inclusive society and a participatory democracy. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Deaths in Custody

Beautiful One Day.  Photo: Ponch Hawkes
Today, August 4th, marks the first anniversary of the death of a young indigenous Australian woman, Julieka Dhu, in police custody.  It's still not clear exactly how she died: what is known is that she was taken into custody for not paying her parking fines.  There's a sensitive and touching radio programme on the subject here.

There's a horrible air of familiarity about this story.  Just over a month ago, our Origins Festival came to an end with Ilbijerri's wonderful production Beautiful One Day, which was made in response to the notorious death in custody of indigenous man Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004.  As well as the play, the case has led to a book, a documentary film, an art installation by Vernon Ah Kee, and (of course) riots...  You would think something might have changed.  The case of Julieka Dhu seems to suggest otherwise.

2004 was also the year when Border Crossings first became involved with indigenous peoples and their theatre, when we presented Bullie's House.  At the end of that play, there's a strong sense that one of the indigenous characters, Jimmie, will die in custody - and I discussed that with the writer, Thomas Keneally, in an interview on our website.  Tom's sense at that time was that the experience of incarceration alone could be enough to end the life of an indigenous person, and that may well be partly true - but it has become ever clearer that systematic police brutality is also a huge part of the problem.  Such brutality is only possible when people think of those they are oppressing as less than human.  It's probably naive to suppose that cultural education can solve a prejudice that deep - but we have to start somewhere, for the next generation if not our own, and it's only through culture that the humanity of the other can finally be perceived.

Thinking about this has taken me right back to the experiences which led me to set up Border Crossings in the first place - directing in West Coast America after the LA riots had been set off by the police attack on the black taxi driver Rodney King.  And it had brought me very close to home: the 2011 riots in Wood Green, where we have our office, were sparked by the police shooting of the black man Mark Duggan.  I am not saying that these events are all equivalent to one another - but I am saying that they are part of a recognisable pattern across the world, where black communities feel that policing had become an instrument of oppression rather than protection.

Contracting the police force and asking them to operate on a slimmer budget is not going to help overcome this.  Only a sustained engagement on an educational and cultural level will overcome it, and that is something that is very unfashionable right now.

Oddly enough, the day Mark Duggan was shot in 2011 was August 4th.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Origins 2015

Voladores de Papantla
Origins came to an end last Thursday night, with the second performance of Beautiful One Day - the production that critic Matt Trueman said was "the most important show I've seen all year".  We must be doing something right. 

Actually, it's been by far the largest scale and best received festival to date - and we're genuinely delighted with the response.  It's going to take a bit of time to process all that was achieved: in fact, not all of it has been achieved yet, as the education and community work is ongoing, with a whole film project and oral history work coming later in the year.  It's pleasing to look at statistics which tell us more than 500 people came to Horniman's Pleasance on a wet Saturday to see the Voladores fly, and that 1,500 people turned up at the British Museum to see how very much alive the cultures shown in the museum's exhibition turn out to be.  It's great to know that the whole of Cavendish School came off timetable for a week to experience the festival, and that every child spent every day of that week exposed to indigenous cultures at first hand.  It's exciting that there are some clear marks of permanent impact - quite literally so in the case of Elliot Tupac's amazing mural at Acklam Market. 

The real impact, of course, will take longer to emerge. But, at this stage, I just want to say one thing.  We had proposed three key themes for the festival - Elders and Youth, Politics and Protest, Food and Environment.  These were present in spades, of course - but during the festival itself a fourth theme started to emerge very organically from the work being presented, and from the encounters between artists and between artists and audiences that were generated.  And that theme was one of fundamental change.  It probably seems odd to say this in the aftermath of an election that put the right very firmly in power in our country - but the festival served to put this in a much broader context, and left us all, artists and audiences, feeling that corners were being turned, and that our coming together in London was part of a genuine movement towards global justice.  Justice in terms of equality, land rights and self-determination.  Justice in terms of the environment and food sovereignty.  Justice in terms of a revitalized youth and respect for elders.  It felt real.

The festival included the solstice, which marks a time of change.  The Voladores ceremony, which is about the environment and regeneration, was traditionally only performed at the solstice and the equinox - so it felt appropriate.  We coupled it with the Guatemalan play Oxlajuj B'aqtun, which was not only about the solstice, but about an entire change of era in the Mayan calendar, and ended with a profoundly moving sense of spiritual and cultural resurgence for the Mayan people, as they emerge from the near genocide in Guatemala towards an era of renewed strength and vitality. 

This may just be the festival effect talking.  But I don't think so.  I think we're on the edge of something. 
Zugubal Dancers at the British Museum

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pathway 3: Food and Ecology

Winona LaDuke
Our third pathway through the Origins Festival is themed around food and ecology - and the start point for that just has to be Winona LaDuke's Lecture on Monday 15th June.  Winona is the founder of the Honour The Earth project, which she runs from the White Earth reservation in Minnesota.  She combines a deep understanding of her Native culture with an impassioned engagement in contemporary issues, that has led her twice to stand for the Vice-Presidency of the United States, running alongside Green candidate Ralph Nader.  Honour the Earth states:  "We are committed to the understanding that Indigenous peoples are key in the work to address climate change and energy justice -- from our teachings and wisdom of thousands of years living within our cultural practices, to our strategic position in terms of renewable energy and retaining agro-biodiversity in a time of climate change. Our work is in restoring these knowledge systems and practices, strengthening consciousness, and creating the durable energy and food economies for Native America. "  The rare opportunity to hear this inspirational speaker in London really is unmissable.  We are also screening a film about her life: Thunderbird Woman.

Another inspiring Native American woman is Chef Lois Ellen Frank, who joins us with Chef Walter Whitewater to create an amazing Native American Gourmet Lunch.  It promises to be totally delicious, way outside our usual London food experiences, and imbued with the traditional food knowledge and ecological beliefs of First Nations people.  After the lunch, Lois will be talking with Graham Harvey about Food and Spirituality.
Voladores de Papantla
Also ecological in inspiration is the spectacular ceremony of the Voladores de Papantla.  An ancient Totonac ritual, associated with regeneration and natural cycles, it is particularly appropriate that it is performed in London at the summer solstice.  Their ceremony at Horniman's Pleasance is followed by another Meso-American performance about regeneration: the Mayan Grupo Sotz'il present Oxlajuj B'aqtun.  At the 2012 winter solstice, the Mayan calendar moved into a new era: in this shamanic play, the meaning of this cosmic change is explored in terms of our relationship to the Earth, to the animals, and to our common humanity.

Oxlajuj B'aqtun
If all this leaves you in need of some personal re-balancing, why not try a little Ayahuasca, courtesy of José Navarro?  The Amazonian halluconegenic may be a bit tricky to find in London, but José's solo performance for an audience of one is about the closest you can get!  Book your slot for a five-minute encounter with this masterful piece of puppetry.  

The environment is central to indigenous Australian culture too.  The Tracks exhibition at the Rebecca Hossack gallery features some remarkable paintings, made in response to the spiritual idea of "Country"; while Charlie's Country, screening at Hackney Picturehouse, makes a powerful case for a re-connection to the land and to traditional ways of finding and preparing food - the mass-produced food of the white world is poisoning Charlie's people.

Two other films finish off this particular pathway: from opposite ends of the earth, they each deal with the relationship between indigenous people and the natural world.  From New Zealand, the classic Whale Rider sees a Māori girl form a powerful bond with the great sea mammal - and from the Canadian Arctic, Uvanga offers a rare glimpse into the life of the Inuit, and their close ties to land and sea.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pathway 2: Politics and Protest

Oxlajuj B'aqtun
Origins has always been a political festival, and this year's programme particularly reflects the worldwide indigenous protest against continuing imperialism, economic colonisation, and the destruction of the environment.  Grupo Sotz'il, for example, are performing their great production Oxlajuj B'aqtun, which has been acclaimed across Latin America for its moving response to the genocide committed against the Mayan people of Guatemala, and especially the assassination in 2010 of the group's inspirational founder Lisandro Guarcax.  His words form the epigraph to their work: “We wish that all our efforts will be translated into the knowledge of the others”.
Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke, who gives this year's Origins Lecture, is probably the most important Native political leader in the United States.  Founder of the project Honour the Earth, Winona lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, where she practises an environmentally balanced lifestyle, at the same time as leading the protest against the destruction of indigenous lands, which is a threat not only to indigenous people, but to the whole of humanity.  She has twice stood as the Green candidate for the Vice-Presidency of the United States.  On 15th June, she will speak at Rich Mix about the indigenous approach to ecology, politics and protest in the 21st century.  And, if you want to know more about her, there's a film about her life too, called Thunderbird Woman.  

There are plenty of other talks with a political edge - but the one we'd particularly mention is the Menzies Centre talk with Indigenous Australian writer and campaigner David Milroy.  David has been involved with Origins from its inception, and is always fascinating and entertaining at once when he deal with his passion for Aboriginal land rights and cultural survival.
Our film programme is equally uncompromising in its approach to political questions.  Standstill, which opens the film festival on June 10th, find links between the long resistance of the Mohawk people to colonisation, and the current situation of the Palestinian people.  To view the Palestinians as the indigenous subjects of a colonial power throws a whole new light on the conflict there.

Benny Wenda and the Lani Singers
West Papua is another land where the indigenous people are fighting against aggressive colonialism today, and the Festival welcomes their exiled leader Benny Wenda - twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - to the screening of The Road to Home, a documentary about his remarkable life, and to sing the songs of his native land at The Origins Concert.  Meeting Benny is an experience you will not forget.
Just Another Sámi
Closer to home, the Sámi people of the European Arctic are also engaged in a struggle for land, ecology and culture.   Norwegian company Ferske Scener's Just Another Sámi is a dramatic and musical howl of protest against oppression in lands surprisingly close to home.
Beautiful One Day
The Politics and Protest Pathway reaches through to the closing event of the Festival, brought to London from Australia's Torres Strait Islands by Ilbijerri Theatre Company.  Beautiful One Day is a protest against ongoing racism and the scandal of Aboriginal deaths in custody, starting from one particular death on Palm Island in 2004.  It is also a love letter to an environment and a way of living that somehow endure, in spite of everything.

After the Festival is over, the echoes of protest will remain.  Palpably so, in the form of Elliot Tupac's street art.  Elliott has re-defined mural painting in Latin America with his fusion of indigenous Andean art and the roar of the contemporary city.  Origins brings his work to London, leaving a lasting reminder of the Politics and Protest pathway.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Pathway through the Origins Festival. 1. Elders and Youth

Zugubal Dancers
The programme for the Origins Festival is vast - our biggest yet by far - so it can be quite a challenge to find your way around it.  To help out, we've traced three Pathways through the Festival, following the key themes that we used in programming, which we will publish over the coming days.  The three  themes are:
  • Elders and Youth
  • Politics and Protest
  • Food and Ecology
So today, we start with the Pathway -

Elders and Youth

The Zugubal Dancers almost embody this theme in the make-up of their group: eight young dancers, and two Elders who are travelling with them from the Torres Strait Islands.  Indigenous Australians have a great reverence for Elders, and these two are coming to provide stability and guidance for a group travelling far from their home 'country'.  You can see them performing at the Origins Concert and Indigenous Australia Late - Origins Festival at the British Museum.

The host for that night at the British Museum is another Australian Elder, Francis Firebrace, who will give you a taste of the traditional Elder's welcome.  If you want to hear more of the wisdom Francis has accumulated in his 80 years, then come to his storytelling event at Rich Mix, where he will be yarning for children and adults alike.

Museums are, of course, all about the relationships between generations, and we are really excited to be working so closely with the British Museum.  To find out more about the dialogues going on between museum curators and indigenous communities, come to the panel debate at Rich Mix, where there will be a wide range of differing opinions to be heard!

Staying with Australia, the Festival is really excited to be presenting all three of Rolf de Heer's films with the great veteran Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil.  The most recent, Charlie's Country, is the story of an Elder who finds it impossible to live in the contemporary world.  With strong elements of autobiography, Gulpilil charts a process of dislocation, and shows the possibility of redemption in Charlie's contact with the young.
Hamaca Paraguaya
A very different film, Hamaca Paraguaya also looks at the world through the eyes of the Elders: in this case an ageing Guarani couple, whose son has gone off to the Chaco War.  Originally commissioned by our Patron Peter Sellars, the film is an extraordinary meditation on time, mourning, and old age.

Our other Latin American film is El Regreso  from Venezuela - a film that concentrates not on Elders but on Youth.  The protagonist is Shliwala, a ten year old Wayuu girl, who survives the massacre in her village only to be faced with the alien world of the contemporary city.  The child actors are quite incredible.
Oxlajuj B’aqtun
Staying with Latin America, your Elders and Youth Pathway leads to our special outdoor event at Horniman's Pleasance, and especially to the inspired Mayan theatre company Grupo Sotz'il.  Their ritualised play Oxlajuj B’aqtun was made in response to their founder's assassination and the great change in the Mayan calendar, and so embodies a shift between generations and eras.

Finally, let your Pathway wind back to the Torres Strait, and Ilbijerri Theatre Company's Beautiful One Day at the Southbank.  A play which unites theatre professionals with the Elders and Youth of Palm Island, Beautiful One Day is full of a love for country and community, as well as an anger at their destruction.  The calm presence of Auntie Maggie Blackley at the centre of the performance is a reflection of the truly integrated nature of indigenous cultures: especially as the company will also be travelling with a very young baby.  The next generation of Palm Islanders will be here to direct your eyes forward beyond this Pathway.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Well done Tessa

Tessa Ross
It takes a brave person to step down from what could be considered the top job in British theatre within a few weeks of taking the reins.  Tessa Ross is clearly a brave person.  We don't know the ins and outs of her decision to leave, but we know it seems pretty amicable, and that both she and Rufus Norris felt that the model of a Chief Executive supervising the Artistic Director just wasn't working.

It's a model that the National sneaked in.  When Norris was announced as Nick Hytner's successor, the general sense was that he would be Director of the National in the same way that the previous five had been - the person at the head of the organisation, leading it artistically, with the administrative staff reporting to him.  The senior post arrived with no fanfares, but senior it was.  This has happened with disturbing regularity in recent times, particularly but not only in larger organisations, presumably because boards have been feeling that in the age of Osborne business acumen is what keeps arts organisations on track.  "Balances the books".  The extreme of this is the ENO board's response to being placed in special measures by the Arts Council: hiring as Chief Executive a seconded management consultant with no arts experience at all.

They could not be more wrong.  When an arts organisation does well - by which I mean produces work of quality and significance which excites and builds audiences - it is always because of the vision of the artist who makes the work.  An artistic leader does not always operate in direct relationship to the work - Nick Hytner programmed seasons with plenty of other directors involved - but it is always the result of an artist's vision and ideas.  When an arts organisation does badly - by which I mean produces work which is dull and loses the interest of the audience - it is usually because they are trying to "be more commercial", to "give the audience what they want", to be led by commercial rather than artistic considerations.  What audiences actually want is to be surprised and inspired.  Which is not something you can do with a business plan.

The ENO's troubles do not come from a poor business model.  They come from a crisis in an art form that does not currently know how to respond to the 21st century, and which needs a new creative drive if it is to flourish.  Business planning and sound financial management are all well and good - but they have to serve artistic ideas, rather than dictating them.

Tessa Ross is not a management consultant.  She was OUDS President when she was a student, and started her career as a director.  She's been a very successful film producer.  So, at a guess, she could see that what was needed at the National was real artistic leadership, which is something that in the end has to come from a real artistic leader.  I think she's done a brave and noble thing, and I hope the Arts Council and the boards of arts organisations take note.

We might also apply the same model to the election.  Everyone is talking about their ability to manage and to "balance the books".  Nobody is talking about their vision for the future.  Where, oh where, have real leadership and imagination gone?

Friday, March 27, 2015

African dramaturgies

The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco: Gary Beadle as Jungle
Last week, I saw two Zimbabwean plays on consecutive nights.  They couldn't have been more different from each other.  I've been mulling over both the productions and the audience / critical response, and finding some very interesting questions about the whole nature of culture and dramaturgy being raised.

Tiata Fahodzi's production Boi Boi is Dead is a play by Zodwa Nyoni, a young black writer of Zimbabwean ancestry who lives in Britain.  The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco, which was at the Gate, is a piece I've known and admired for some time, written by a white Zimbabwean, Andrew Whaley.  Just to add to the complications, Andrew is now in exile from Zimbabwe, and lives in South Africa.  What was so fascinating and provocative about seeing the two pieces in juxtaposition was the realisation that the dramaturgical approach, the sense of culture, was rooted far less in the playwrights' distinct heritages, and far more in the immediacy of their experience.

Boi Boi is set in Zimbabwe, sure - and both the striking orange of the design and the carefully cultivated accents of the cast bear this out.  But in many ways, the piece is actually very Western in its approach.  This is a family drama, set in the aftermath of a charismatic father's funeral.  Relatives and lovers descend, and secrets are pulled out of the past with the atavistic energy of Ibsen.  The presence of Boi Boi as a trumpet-playing ghost is as much a theatrical reminder of this past (like the brother in Death of a Salesman) as an African ancestor-spirit.

Where such spirits seemed to me far more manifest was in Fiasco.  The title character, thrown into a police cell as if from nowhere, is apparently a veteran of Zimbabwe's independence wars, who has been in hiding, unaware that freedom has been achieved.  So he is a ghost too - but a living, present, embodied one - interacting with the other figures in the cell / the stage / the country.  And this 'spirit' evokes the past in a way that is much less naturalistic than in Boi Boi - so that the other characters, and the audience, come to re-experience the process of national self-creation.

This leads to all sorts of strange shifts in the play, which seems to move from the cell to guerrilla camps in Mozambique, villages, and the campaign trail.  Space and time are constantly transformed, evoking a powerful sense that the past is not past - that it exists in the now, shaping the contemporary experience.  On one level, this is the African cosmology evoked by Soyinka and by traditional healers - it is also very close to critical theory, and perhaps especially Marx.  And it is intensely theatrical, because it is about the embodiment of historical forces - spirits - in the immediate physical present.

Or so it seemed to me.  I was very surprised to see the Gate only about half full - so I looked up the reviews.  Almost all of them say that the play is not "clear", that it is "confused" or "messy".  Michael Billington, for example, craves "more information and rather less theatrical game-playing."  That does make you wonder why he goes to the theatre instead of reading historical accounts.  The game-playing, the playfulness of the play, is surely what makes the history being explored emotionally real - which is what theatre is there to do.  If you want facts, there are other places you can go.  What these critics are really saying is that the play failed to fit in with their own pre-conceived sense of what theatre ought to be - that it was not Western, rational, readily understood.  Whaley's is an African approach to theatre - and that is precisely what gives it such power.  Indeed, I would say that its power is even greater in a Western context, precisely because the form becomes as disturbing as the content.  It is (pace Brecht) a process of making strange.

Unfortunately, I saw the last performance.  Otherwise I would be campaigning to get the play an audience.  One that understands it emotionally, not one that seeks only the Western virtue of clarity.