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.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why I am not boycotting Israel

A wounded boy in Ramallah
So - Netanyahu has been re-elected.  It is truly extraordinary, and terrifying, that a democratic process should lead to victory for a leader who was responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 Palestinians, of whom over 500 were children, in Gaza last summer; a leader who has categorically rejected any possibility of self-determination for the Palestinian people; a leader who seems determined to agitate for war with Iran.  There is something rotten in the state of Israel.  It comes as no surprise to me that many of my distinguished colleagues in the field of art and culture, including personal friends and artists whom I admire very deeply, have chosen to signal their boycott of the country.

I was asked to sign this pledge.  I thought about it very hard: agonised, actually.  And, in the end, I decided not to.  It was a very difficult decision - not least because so many people expected me to do it.  After all, our most recent production, This Flesh is Mine, was presented jointly with a Palestinian company, Ashtar, and we made no secret of our political position.  We rehearsed the play in Ramallah, where we saw at first hand the indignities heaped upon the Palestinian people.  We shared the horror of the oppressed when Mohammed Alazzeh, the teenage brother of one of our actors, Razan Alazzeh, was shot by the Israeli military.  Surely, of all British artists, I should be the one to pledge my cultural boycott of the oppressor?

But people's expectations of your political position cannot in themselves dictate that position.  As Kazuo Ishiguro recently said:  "We’re well-meaning, but most of us are just being swept along. We’re not sitting down and really examining why we’re taking certain stances. We belong to certain tribes, and there’s always the correct slogan and position on every issue for our little tribe." Uncomfortably, on this issue, I find myself out of step with my tribe.

This is not to say that I don't, in some ways, boycott Israel already.  I avoid buying Israeli goods - in fact,  I've got that down to a bit of an art.  Barcodes often give away products that otherwise hide their Israeli origin: it used to be 729, then, in an attempt to circumvent the boycott, it was changed to 871.  I actively seek out Palestinian goods: the olive oil is superb.  It is part of the little I can do to boost the Palestinian economy and to undermine the aggressors'.

I do not, however, regard a cultural boycott as a logical continuation of an economic one.  To do so is to reduce culture to another commodity - and there's far too much of that going on already.  Culture is not the same as olive oil.  Indeed, it would be my contention that culture is one of the few human activities that might actually do some good in this appalling situation, and that for artists to withdraw their services in this way denies the value of who they are and what they do.  Art, theatre, performance - these things are about the generation of empathy.  They allow us to see the world from somebody else's point of view.  They generate a sense of common humanity.  In a place where a regime's propaganda systematically de-humanises those that it oppresses, there can be nothing more precious than this.  If moderate Israelis - those who are critical of Netanyahu and his hawkish retinue - can be supported by the words, the presence and the emotional force of international artists and particularly Arab artists, will this not be of value in overturning the lies on which the regime is built?

My tribe - the moral, principled people who signed the pledge - often cite the downfall of apartheid as evidence that cultural boycotts do have some efficacy.  Personally, I rather doubt that the refusal of certain performers to play Sun City was really instrumental in that process.  What brought about change in South Africa was partly the sense that, with the fall of the Soviet bloc, the apartheid regime no longer stood as a bulwark against the perceived advance of communism in Africa; and partly an awareness of the regime's moral bankruptcy, engendered by vociferous opposition both within the country and internationally.  You could, of course, argue that the boycott was an important part of the latter - but my assertion would be that the really important role played by culture was in fact an active one, rather than passive withdrawal.  The work of politically engaged artists like Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Nadine Gordimer, Maishe Maponya, Gina Mhlophe, Barney Simon, Eugene Skeef, was hugely important to the raising of understanding and awareness across the country and internationally.  It did this because it operated across the racial divide, and in itself demonstrated the potential for a different political model.  It told the world about apartheid, yes - but it also did so much more.  It helped to imagine a world beyond that tarnished present, to dream a common future for a divided and disoriented humanity.

So my contention would be that we need more cultural engagement with Israel, not less.  We need them to hear our voices, the voices of the Palestinians they oppress, the voices of the Iranians they threaten.  If they hear those voices rich in warmth and humour, in grief and pain, in sorrow and in anger, through theatre and poetry, painting, song and dance - then they will hear the call of our common humanity.  This is, of course, a statement of faith; but if I did not have faith in art and humanity, then I would not be an artist.  That is why I cannot renounce this belief in the power of art to effect real change.  I shall never renounce it.  Even if that leaves me separated from my tribe.  My friends.

It has been wisely said that "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends.  You talk to your enemies."  And do you know who said it?  Moshe Dayan.