Monday, June 04, 2018

Imperious spaces

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Germany for a meeting on our MORE THAN WORDS project, and took the opportunity to pop down to Dresden, where Avatâra Ayuso was showing her extraordinary new dance piece UKI - a collaboration with Ink elder Naulaq Ledrew.  I'll probably have more to say about the performance at a future time - today I want to write a bit about the theatre itself, and some thoughts it stirred around space, history and culture.

Hellerau is on the outskirts of Dresden.  Travelling there does not feel like a journey to a major European arts space: the suburb sits within a forest, and is deliberately not "urban".  It was built in the early 20th century, as Eastern Germany's version of the Garden City movement - with the vast Festival Theatre incongruously surrounded by rather twee, Hansel-and-Gretel style workers cottages. The theatre site, on the other hand, is vast and imposing.  It reminded me of the Cartoucherie in Paris - partly because of its sheer scale and the resonance of workmanlike celebration in the spaces, and partly because, like that disused ammunition factory, it carries a military history.  That's good for a theatre - these are spaces where explosions should happen...  

In the case of Hellerau, however, engaging with the history remains a challenge, to say the least.  The theatre's website coyly remarks: "in the 1930s it served as a military camp; later the Soviet army used it as their barracks."  The 1930s were, of course, the Nazi era - and it's clear how the combination of the theatre's austere and imposing facade and its folksy surroundings made it deeply appealing to deranged nationalism.  The open space in front of the theatre used to be called "Adolf Hitler Platz".  Of course, that name no longer features on any map, but the space has never been re-named, and so suffers from an uneasy anonymity.

Has Germany really come to terms with its past?  These days, the discourse around Nazism is deafening in its silence.  It was an attempt to confront that past that led to the Baader- Meinhof Gang, and (more productively) to much of the disturbing power in the drama of Heiner Müller and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Gerhard Richter (himself from Dresden) uses his art to tackle the deliberate suppression of memory in German culture.  Otherwise, all you see are a few ghosts - the little bronze plaques that mark the last sightings of German Jews in the streets of Berlin, the Jewish Museum, bizarre survivors like the Olympic Stadium.  Hellerau is full of ghosts - and to my mind it would be a much more powerful and evocative arts space if it were to embrace that, rather than rebuilding everything to a de-historicised, virginal blankness.  I would love to see it preserve the military "look", the imposing vastness of the square that threatens to become a car park, the peeling plaster on the outer walls of the former barracks walls.  In such a space of memory the wonderful progressive initiatives of the theatre - its Refugee Arts Centre, its Intercultural Garden - would acquire deeper meaning and resonance, being located in a continuum with history.  I can see it is uncomfortable to maintain that past - but it is actually what gives energy and hope to the present and the future.

I was still mulling these thoughts when I went to see Brian Friel's great play Translations at the National Theatre.  The reviews for this production have been adulatory, and justifiably so.  Translations remains one of the greatest plays about the process of colonisation - the way in which systems of oppression are established in the minds of the oppressed, partly by a discourse of superiority, but also by a wiping out of language, of history, and so of identity.  In my mind, it sat with Hellerau in a ying and yang relation - if oppression is made through the obliteration of folk memory, then might not that process be just as dangerous when applied to the oppressor?

The National's decision to present the play is laudable for precisely that reason.  It is the second time in recent years that a great post-colonial play, a theatre piece striking back against our country's imperial history, has been staged in the Olivier Theatre (the first was Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman).  I can see the reasoning - and yet somehow the vastness of the Olivier space, its sheer imperial bombast, its architecture of national arrogance, militated against the play's attitude of delicate resistance on a human scale.  Translations is set in a hedge school - a space that is theatrically powerful in relation to the invading army precisely because it is small and poor.  And the most effective response to the army does not come from anger or (offstage) violence, but through the cultural engagement followed by the schoolmaster Hugh and the emotional engagement of the "peasant" Máire.  It's one of the play's many provocative ironies that Máire views the English language, and her burgeoning love for the English Lieutenant Yolland as a means of potential escape into a "modern" world; while Yolland responds to the "authentic" and "natural" world that Ireland and Máire seem to present to him.  Their great scene of mutual comprehension and incomprehension - when Máire the "uneducated" switches from Irish to Latin in an attempt to communicate and the "educated" colonist doesn't even realise she has done so - is played with great delicacy and warmth; but I couldn't help feeling that its point was intimacy and physical proximity, and that the scale of the theatre was expressing almost exactly the political opposite of the play.

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