Monday, July 18, 2016

Needles and Opium

Needles and Opium - Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis
Back in 1992, as a young director just starting to make work that veered away from the standard British approach to text and performance, I saw Robert Lepage's Needles and Opium during its very brief, 16 performance run at the Cottesloe Theatre.  That night was a game changer.  I'd already been interested in the use of projection and the way imagery and music could generate new layers of meaning beyond mere realism - in fact I was just about to direct my first opera...  but what Robert achieved in Needles and Opium was so much more than an aesthetic shift or a display of technical wizardry.  This was the first production I had seen that used the full vocabulary of theatre to generate profound meaning that could not be achieved in any other way.  It made me understand how the British critical tradition, in which everything is a code for something you can explain in words, totally misses the great joy of performance, which is its lived immediacy - its ability to reach our spiritual heart through the combination of image, movement, tone, word and rhythm.  I searched out other work by this extraordinary artist - I saw The Dragon's Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota live; I watched Tectonic Plates on video - many times; I showed the documentary Who is this nobody from Québec to several years' worth of students at Rose Bruford.

Not that I was alone in this.  If you look at world theatre from the mid-90s onwards, it won't take long  to find the influence of Lepage.  Think of how Complicite moved away from their clowning roots.  Think of Ariane Mnouchkine's embrace of projection in Le Dernier Caravansérail.

So - when I heard that, 25 years after its creation, Needles and Opium was coming back, I was actually rather nervous; and this grew worse when I heard that this was a new staging of the play, one that brought it more "up to date" in the use of technology.  I will confess that, in some of Lepage's recent work, I've found the technology a bit overwhelming.   It's as if the game-playing that is possible with the machine of theatre and all the new developments in the digital world has at times eclipsed the simple desire to tell a story.  Medium becoming message.  I dreaded that the emotional purity of the play's three intertwining storylines might be swamped by technological showmanship.  So I decided not to see it.  And then lots of friends whom I totally trust, including Tony Guilfoyle (an actor who works regularly with both Border Crossings and Lepage) told me I had to.  And I did.

It's clear from his programme note that Robert shared an element of my trepidation.  And that's exactly why the new production is such an extraordinary success: because it reinvents the play for 2016 (and in work of this kind play and production are the same thing).  It makes next to no attempt to recreate what was so beautiful before, because what was beautiful in a live setting in 1992 is mere nostalgia today.  Instead it searches for the beating heart of the piece, and transplants it into a healthy new body.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bits of the new version that are least successful are those that come closest to the original that I (still) recall with such passion.  In the original, a key element was an overhead projector, located behind a single lycra screen, which was used for amazingly creative shadow play.  In one astonishing moment, Robert, silhouetted as Miles Davis, was injected by a vast syringe - the liquid spilling around him.

Needles and Opium - the syringe in 1992
Like most theatrical magic, it was really clear how it was done.  It was also terrifying and beautiful at the same time.  In 2016, there is a second performer to play Davis, and so the character is seen fully on stage.  The projections all come from the front, onto an extraordinarily versatile revolving half cube.  And this means that the injection now becomes absorbed in the busier world around it, less clear, less intense.

Needles and Opium - the syringe in 2016
Most of the time, the imagery is fresh and energised - finding a contemporary way to bring 1949, the year of Cocteau's visit to New York and Miles Davis's to Paris, into clear view for an audience today. We know that we are looking at these men and their time from the perspective of now.  And so we find ourselves asking what their stories might mean for today.  And Robert's own story too.  At the centre of the piece is his autobiographical story: his own journey to Paris when dealing with the end of a love affair, and his reaching in to his cultural antecedents, French thought and imagery, American jazz, to find the consolations of creativity.  In the new version of the play, the central character has aged, like his creator, and has acquired a longer view of his emotional turmoil.

In what I'm pretty sure is a new section of text, he tells an unseen therapist about his problems in terms of his Québecois identity.  Central to love, and central to art, is always the question of identity.  As a Québecois, Robert finds himself part of a cultural identity that is not quite European, not quite North American, that can be, and often is, rejected by both and that therefore tends to reject both in turn - but which must ultimately embrace its own inherent diversity in order to reach a psychological equilibrium.

At this moment of extreme identity crisis in Britain, the play felt incredibly immediate and potent.  And consoling too.

Needles and Opium - the cube

Friday, July 15, 2016

LIFT 2016

I've been meaning to write about LIFT for a few weeks.  Brexit rather took my attention elsewhere.  Or rather, it made me write in a more direct way about some of the things that constantly preoccupy us as an organisation and as artists working around international exchange.  As in previous years, LIFT was full of work generated through the meetings of artists from different countries, different cultures, different spaces.  It enabled this diverse country to be galvanised and inspired by encountering the results - a ripple effect of "things could be different".  And, of course, all of that is now under threat.  The first piece I want to talk about was funded directly out of the European Union.  The second was itself European.  The third drew powerful resonance when I sent some guests on our European Playmaking Laboratory to experience it.  Their visits were, of course, funded by the European Union.

At LIFT 2014, I'd loved Lola Arias' piece The Year I was Born.  For this year, LIFT had joined forces with other European organisations to commission her new production, Minefield - a meeting between British and Argentine veterans of the Falklands conflict.  In some ways, the idea behind this is close to our own model - bring together performers from different cultures, and see what results.  Except that Lola's actors were not performers - or they had not been before this show.  They had a range of professions: I particularly remember one of them being a Special Needs teacher.  What brought them together was their status as veterans of a war I remember from my late teens...  and it was very striking for me personally that the Argentine men were about my age.  One English soldier said how, when they finally arrived in Port Stanley, they noticed how young the Argentine soldiers were.  One of them told how he survived the sinking of the General Belgrano.

Minefield was defined by honesty.  I was about to say it didn't take sides, but that's not entirely true.  Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri both came in for some pretty hefty and totally justified satire.  The point is rather that there was no sense of right and wrong in the warfare itself, although the men on stage continued to disagree about the issues behind it.  What mattered was that these former "enemies", men who had been in a position where they could easily have killed one another, were able to come together in art, and to find out more about themselves by understanding the common experience they shared.  It was a perfect example of theatre's capacity to place you in another person's shoes.  To see things through another person's eyes.

The Hamilton Complex
I don't know if Mark planned it this way - but that sense of looking through the eyes of an Other felt central to this year's festival.  Perhaps it was just Brexit making me feel that way...  In The Hamilton Complex, a group of 13 year old girls helped us to see the world as they did - with an anarchic humour, a healthy lack of respect, and a deep, touching sweetness.  Matt Trueman has written superbly about this play, and I won't repeat him: I'll just point out how the production not only provoked the audience to see the world through the eyes of these girls, but also to question our own eyes - to think about why we look at young girls and mature women in the way we do, to recognise the political structures underlying these preconceptions.

It's all about empathy.  And my other highlight of this year's LIFT was Clare Patey's extraordinary Empathy Museum on the Greenwich Peninsula.  It sounds the simplest thing in the world to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes, while listening to their recorded voice on headphones.  For everyone who did it - it was profoundly moving.  Almost everyone felt that there was some strange coincidence to their choice - that the experience of the person whose shoes they wore was particularly close to their own, particularly specific to them.  One of our European guests had suffered a recent bereavement similar to that of the person whose shoes she wore.  Another felt the migration story he heard reflected his own.  A young German found herself in dialogue with a survivor of the Holocaust.  The truth, I suppose, is that all of these specifics are part of our common humanity, that is too often suppressed and enclosed.  The job of art is to find the connections.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Revolt of the Provinces

Ludmilla Euler and
Mateusz Ochal at our European workshop
Can it really only be eleven days?  On the morning of Friday 24th June, I woke up very suddenly to the radio alarm, and the shock news of "Brexit".  Every morning since, the process of waking has felt like times of bereavement: for a moment or two feeling the way into light, and then the terrible reality comes crashing in.  On the evening of the 24th, Lucy and I welcomed guests from Denmark, Germany, Greece and Sweden to take part in our week-long European Playmaking Laboratory.  They were funded by the EU, under the Erasmus + programme for educational exchanges.  It was difficult to welcome them - and more difficult still to keep a sense of balance as the workshop explored themes of migration, the horrors of the refugee crisis, the shifting sands of European and national identities.  All around us, fallout tumbling like toxic snow.

On Tuesday 28th, I had dinner with Coll Thrush - the historian from Vancouver whose work on indigenous travellers to London was so important to our Hidden Histories film.  We found ourselves searching the past to find any analogy with what was occurring - and landed in 1642, at the outbreak of the Civil War - dubbed The Revolt of the Provinces by John Morrill.  Then as now, a London-based elite with strong links to the continent was perceived to be arbitrary and arrogant in its attitude to the country more widely, leading to a conservative revolution.  Then as now, Scotland and Ireland were serious flash points.   Then, there was a rapid descent into violent anarchy, halted only by the imposition of a military dictatorship.  I realise this probably sounds sensationalist - I hope it is.  Coll's response was: "We tend to think of ourselves - Europeans, North Americans - as being immune from that kind of history.  But it has happened before and it could again."  Of course it could.  Think of Ireland.  Think of Yugoslavia.  Think of the 500% increase in racially motivated hate crimes in the week following the referendum.  Think of the way the extreme right steps in when economies fall apart. Think of what Yanis Varoufakis has been arguing about European disintegration leading to a return to the 1930s.

Even before the vote took place, we had already seen the first political murder of the Brexit era.  I have been criticised on social media for calling the death of Jo Cox a direct result of the Leave campaign's xenophobic rhetoric: Thomas Mair was mentally ill, the apologists say.  Of course he was.  So were Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, but that did not prevent anyone locating their murder of Lee Rigby within a discourse of Islamist terrorism.  Disturbed individuals are open to suggestion, volatile and unstable: of course an atmosphere that breeds hatred will carry them into acts of violence, as it serves to identify their targets.  And make no mistake - the Leave campaign deliberately, cynically, sought to breed hatred and racism.  There has been much discussion of the poster Nigel Farage unveiled on the very day Jo Cox was killed - its image of Middle Eastern refugees (who, of course, have nothing to do with European freedom of movement) directly derived from a Nazi propaganda film.  

Less remarked upon has been the leaflet delivered to many households - including mine - by the Leave campaign, which featured a map of "Countries set to join the EU", in which Iraq and Syria were prominently named.  This propaganda was produced in cold calculation by intelligent people with the deliberate purpose of misleading the less informed, stoking prejudice, and firing up hatred.

There was poor campaigning on the Remain side too, of course, as one Project Fear competed with another - and this did nothing to assuage the revolt of the provinces - but at least it was not blatantly misleading, manipulative and incendiary.

We are in a terrible position.  Terrible in the sense of morally abhorrent, and terrible in the sense of deeply frightening.

So - what can we do?  On a long term basis, those of us who work in culture, education, the media and other aspects of public discourse have to reclaim public space for intelligent, nuanced and morally acceptable debate.  The referendum result, hard on the heels of cuts in public spending, is making the work of organisations like Border Crossings infinitely more challenging - and more necessary than ever.  We have to carve out spaces in which we can meet Other human beings AS human beings - overturning the insidious language of labelling and recognising our common humanity.  We have to make emotional connections with the refugees on Farage's poster, with Poles and Romanians, and with the people across the country who voted Leave in protest against their exclusion from political and social processes.  As the great Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker said in 1986: "If ever there was a time and place that called out for the solace and rigour and passionate rejoinder of great drama, it is here and now. There is a whole culture to be achieved. The politicians, visionless almost to a man, are withdrawing into their sectarian stockades. It falls to the artists to construct a working model of wholeness by means of which this society can hold up its head in the world."

But there is a short term need as well.  We have to fight tooth and claw to remain a part of the European Union, and to assert our identity as an outward-looking, engaged, international and - yes - democratic people.  I recognise that it may sound deeply anti-democratic to suggest that the referendum result should be overturned - but consider this:

  1. The Brexit vote was the result of manipulative and hate-inducing propaganda worthy of Goebbels.  If the campaign is not based on truth but on lies, how can it be considered a democratic process?  Many people who were misled into voting Leave have stated that they now regret this: a second vote would almost certainly show a strong majority for Remain.
  2. The vote is not binding.  We have a representative democracy in this country, not a delegated one, as Edmund Burke explained in his 1774 Speech to the Electors of Bristol.  There are very good reasons for this: a simple yes or no question put to plebiscite is inevitably simplified, while the processes of lawmaking in Parliament are complex and nuanced, allowing for detail and a full exploration of the real issues.  We would not choose to make (say) health policy or education policy by simplified yes or no questions put to the popular vote - and we must not allow something massively bigger to be decided in this debased way.  Our membership of the EU is enshrined in Act of Parliament, and Parliament is sovereign.  It is not therefore up to the next Prime Minister, whoever that may be, to use Royal Prerogative powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in response to the popular vote - that would in fact be the arbitrary and tyrannical option.  Not democracy but ochlocracy.  The referendum is - as its name suggests - a referral.  It is advisory, but it does not carry the force of statute.  David Cameron was quite wrong to call the referendum in the first place - there was no significant popular demand, and it was, like all his decisions, purely tactical -  but it would be far more wrong to treat it as a binding expression of the will of the people.
  3. Given the advisory nature of the referendum, and the malign nature of the victorious campaign, the margin of victory has to be considered.  In any other global polity, major constitutional change requires a substantial majority - at least 66% in many cases (for example Germany and the USA).  It would be wildly irresponsible of the government to take irrevocable action that totally changes the nature of the country and its status in the world on the basis of a 3.8% margin.    
  4. Any democracy, in responding to the will of the majority, also has to take into account the position of substantial minorities.  The positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland are crucial here.  Enacting Brexit would lead to the break-up of the very polity it seeks to preserve and celebrate, namely the United Kingdom.  This is clearly untenable.  Switzerland, the only complex democracy that makes regular use of referendums, requires a double majority of both the electorate and the cantons for precisely this reason.
So - the avoidance of Brexit would not be an overturning of democracy but its assertion, and this is what we must call on Parliament to do.  It would, I am sure, lead to huge dissent, probably to some violence.  But it would not be so dangerous as the alternative.  If we remain in the European Union, and we still can, then we have the opportunity to work with our neighbours to establish genuinely democratic processes and institutions that are fit for purpose in the globalised world of the 21st century. To leave would be to retreat into the shallow rhetoric of the nation state - a notion of sovereignty outmoded since the time of Wilberforce.  

We are part of a continent, we are part of a world.  We have to embrace the other, not separate ourselves from them.  We are interdependent, and so our politics and culture must express our common humanity.  As Jo Cox said in her maiden Parliamentary speech: "We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."  

This blog was written by Artistic Director Michael Walling in a private capacity and does not represent an official view of Border Crossings as an organisation or its board of trustees.