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?"