Friday, December 29, 2023

Looking Back at 2023


When I started to think about reviewing 2023, the logical first step was to look over what I'd written last December about 2022. That was the year when we issued THE SLIGO MANIFESTO, and my account of the year followed its structure, examining how we were moving towards those new ideas about what Border Crossings needs to do and to be in today's shifting world. Much of 2023 has been about laying the foundations for that emerging model.

The year began by consolidating and polishing the work we'd been creating in 2021-22, particularly the final stages in the prolonged and searching ORIGINS Festival we'd made through that time. BOTANY BAY may officially have ended a year ago, but the process of working through what that huge project had actually achieved was in itself a major undertaking, and it wasn't until the start of March that we published Carolyn Defrin's reflective post on this blog. SONGSTREETS, which we'd also been developing through ORIGINS, was launched in the Spring, and remains available to download and experience. It's one of our most exciting ventures yet in digital performance - Thor McIntyre-Burnie's sound world shifts the experience of walking the streets of Brixton, animating them as Tony Cealy shares histories and dialogues with the locals, with the music brought out by Jessie Lloyd becoming manifest as the soundtrack to their lives. It's been fascinating to live with this work over the last few months, watching how the shifting seasons change the experience, how the cold day of the launch emphasised the challenges facing the community, while taking the walk in summer made it a story of resilience and celebration. 

Early 2023 also saw the final phase of X-EUROPEAN: the project exploring Third Space methodologies in which Border Crossings (Ireland) was the theatrical collaborator. It was only days after we held our last project meeting in Aalen (Germany) that the city of Adana, home to our wonderful Turkish partners at Çukurova University, was hit by a devastating earthquake. İlke Şanlıer's deeply impassioned and pained guest blog post came in the immediate aftermath. Somehow, Adana has re-emerged as the vibrant, busy city it was before (although its neighbour Antakya remains a site of devastation): we are now working closely with İlke and her colleagues on SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA, which promises to be the first of our theatrical creations fully to embody the principles and ideas outlined in THE SLIGO MANIFESTO. We undertook the first phase of development in Turkey during November, and are hugely excited to be starting work with British and Irish actors in January. The next week or so will also tell us whether or not we've been successful in a large funding bid which would enable a second 2024 project - one that would reach performance in the autumn...  


So there are definitely reasons to be hopeful as we begin the New Year, though at the same time the great crises facing the world seem to be coming into sharper, more intense and horrific focus than ever before. Cop 28 has ended with an agreement to phase out fossil fuels, and yet the president of the summit himself intends to continue investing at record levels in the production of gas and oil. The war in Ukraine is heading towards its third year, while in Gaza there are unprecedented levels of civilian and child casualties. In the UK, the government remains determined to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, despite the Supreme Court having ruled that this is illegal; and in Ireland we have seen the radical right unleashed on the streets of Dublin in a frenzy of racially motivated violence.

We need the arts. We need our cultures. We need spaces of exchange, depth and emotional sharing; spaces where, in the face of the reductive, shallow sloganeering that passes for a public discourse, we can encounter one another in the fullness of our common humanity. 

Lucy and I experienced this very deeply during our November in Adana, where we worked with Syrian women on our new theatre and film project, SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA. We heard stories of horror, and stories of tenderness. We saw tears, and we heard laughter. While we were there, we also had the privilege to present an online reading of THE GAZA MONOLOGUES, created by our partners in Ramallah, ASHTAR Theatre. In these moving stories, written by young people in the aftermath of a previous conflict, we again recognised the vulnerability that makes people loveable, the simple presence that makes them dear.

As we move into the New Year, it is in cultural spaces like these that we retain our hope to turn the page of history. 

Friday, December 15, 2023

Statement from the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Occupied West Bank

The destruction in Jenin Refugee Camp - photo: Estefania Vega

This post is a statement from The Freedom Theatre, who are based in Jenin Refugee Camp, in the Occupied West Bank. This is distinct from Gaza: what is happening to theatre artists and others in Jenin demonstrates the spread of hostilities throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The statement in this form dates from the evening of 14th December.


On the morning of the 13th of December, the Israeli army began attacking and ransacking The Freedom Theatre. They shot from inside the theatre, destroying the offices and knocking down a wall.

The army then went to the homes of Ahmed Tobasi and Mustafa Sheta, blindfolded,  handcuffed and took them away.

That evening the army went to the home of Jamal Abu Joas and severely beat him and then took him.

We can confirm (15:05 EET) that Tobasi has been released. He is suffering from leg and back pain where the Israeli Army beat him. We will update on his condition as soon as possible. 

After over 60 hours the full scale invasion by the Israeli Army has stopped. However invasions have been almost daily and we expect their return, and continue to be concerned for the safety of all

Upon being realised Tobasi said “They treated us like animals. They are trying to hurt us in any way they can, but its important we stay strong” 

We continue to ask people to demand the immediate release of Mustafa Sheta and Jamal Abu Joas, as with the over 100+ people taken by the Israeli Army in the last two days.

These attacks follow the murder of three members of The Freedom Theatre in the last few weeks including 17-year-old theatre participant Yamen Jarrar, 26-year-old Jehad Naghniyeh and 30 year old Mohammed Matahen. In June 2023 15-year-old Sadeel Naghnaghia and 17-year-old Mahmoud Al-Sadi theatre youth participant , were also murdered.

Earlier in July The Freedom Theatre was damaged due to bombing, during a three-day invasion and Technician Adnan Torokman was detained for four days by the Israeli army.

For decades, Palestinian artists have been arbitrarily detained by Israel, sometimes for years, who also target and destroy cultural buildings, a war crime under international law. In the last few weeks in Gaza, an unprecedented number of writers, poets, theatremakers and journalists have been killed, including DR. Refaat Alareer, who was deliberately targeted and murdered.

We thank everyone in Palestine and worldwide who has worked tirelessly to demand Tobasi’s release. Our friends and allies continue to prove that collective action works.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Gaza Monologues - guest post by Ali Abu Yassin

Last night, we gave an online reading of THE GAZA MONOLOGUES as part of the International Day of Solidarity with Gaza. The monologues were written by young people in Gaza in 2010, in the aftermath of the first assault, guided by Ashtar Theatre. We were lucky enough to partner with Ashtar in 2014 and 2016, so their cause is particularly significant for us. Today we are publishing a letter from Ali Abu Yassin, who is one of Ashtar's directors, working in Gaza.  

Ali Abu Yassin, in the wreckage of Gaza
My friend

When I read your letters asking me to write a word about Gaza, I usually answer you immediately. This time, I was silent for days; the words escaped me. Why? Maybe because of the horror of what we are living, because early this morning, my family and I miraculously survived a crazy missile that destroyed our neighbour’s house, and threw all the rubble onto our house? Or because I feel that the pictures I see are more eloquent than all the words? or because I am no longer very convinced of the usefulness of talking, especially since we have been talking about the justice of our cause, in the midst of the daily killing, siege, starvation, and state terrorism which we have been subjected to over 75 years; with no answer?

My friend, yesterday, the Israeli occupation forces, bombed the Baptist Hospital in Gaza, and so far more than 500 people have been martyred. They were cut into pieces and became a pile of meat.

As playwrights, we know that one of the cruelest theatrical tragedies is the play Antigone, in which King Creon refuses to bury Antigone’s brother, and from here the dialogue between them revolves around what it means to be human, what is dignity, what is value, what are rights, even after death. Antigone sees the body of her brother in front of her and cannot bear leaving him unburied. While the bodies that we saw after the Baptist Hospital massacre, without heads, hands, or feet, are the new tragedy of our era.

An old woman at the rubble of the hospital addressed a nurse asking him: “Son, give me that hand lying there. I recognize it from the ring. It is my daughter’s hand that I leaned on in the morning when she helped me sit on the chair to watch the news. That hand that turned on the TV for me. She greeted me and kissed my hand before leaving. That hand that always embraced me and patted my shoulder. That hand that combed my hair and always cut my nails. That hand, my son, was the source of all my strength in my last days. Let me give her my last kiss, so that it will spare me the need to have more of my daughter’s body.”

My friend, I do not know what more to write. If you consider this a word, then read it to your friends and give them my thanks and appreciation, because I know that free people with big hearts, human attitudes, and principles have become very few these days.

We will meet one day, when I am free like the rest of the inhabitants of this earth.

Ali Abu Yassin
October 18, 2023

You can donate to Ashtar Theatre's work with traumatised young people in Palestine here:

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Remembering Dev Virahsawmy

Shaun Chawdhary as Prospero &
Catherine Mobley as Kordelia in TOUFANN

The Mauritian playwright Dev Virahsawmy, who has died at the age of 81, was one of Border Crossings' 21 Faces, when we marked our 21st anniversary with a retrospective in 2016. He wrote then that our 1999 translation and production of Toufann, his fantasy piece loosely based on The Tempest, had helped him become known outside Mauritius, and had convinced his sceptical countrymen that writing in Morisien (his preferred term for the Kreol language) could lead to international recognition. But truly it was we who owed a debt to him. Dev was a true pathfinder in the thorny thickets of intercultural work, showing how language, theatre and culture can and must combine in the process of forging new, more just socio-political spaces for a decolonising world. He was my constant guide to the shifting fortunes of his island home, with his penetrating intelligence constantly placing the Mauritian experience in its global context. When we made our play on Mauritian history, The Great Experiment, it just had to be Dev whom we invited to be our interlocutor for the online discussion conducted during lockdown. 

That was three years ago. Looking back to that time, I realise that in May 2020 Dev also wrote us a "Guest Blog of Farewell", marking his retirement from public life. He knew then, of course, that he was ill, but he didn't really retire. Only in August, Nisha and I were able to visit him at his Rose-Hill home, where he told us about his excitement that Morisien was finally to be used as a key language for schooling, enabling Mauritian children to be taught in their mother tongue. It was a triumph that he had accomplished, with the help of some far-sighted Catholic bishops, after a lifetime of campaigning, and it was wonderful that he lived to see it. On the other hand, he also talked about the way in which Narendra Modi's populist India was becoming ever more dominant in the Mauritian economic and culture spheres, countering the entire de-colonial process with which he had been engaged throughout his life.

As he always did, Dev gave me copies of his latest books, mostly poetry, and inscribed them with very personalised and touching words. This time, however, Loga, Dev's wife of 59 years, gave me the book he had always refused to write, and which she had therefore taken on herself. Lotus Flower: A Conversation with Dev Virahsawmy is a biography, a dialogue and a love letter by the person who was closest to him, and it taught me a huge amount I didn't know about my friend. You can read it online - please do!  What Loga is able to show is what the various obits and Dev's Wikipedia page fail to understand. Dev was not a political activist who also wrote plays and poems, nor was he a language scholar who insisted on writing in the obscure dialect of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. Rather, Dev's life project combined language campaigning with cultural activity and political activism as a single, unified project - you cannot understand any one part of his achievement without the others. Dev realised very early in his life that Morisien was a real, dynamic and poetic language, and was also the sole common cultural property of the Mauritian people. In the language, therefore, lay the potential for the emergence of a national culture, and in that lay the potential to escape the ongoing colonialism that continues to exploit the peoples of the global south. In his youth, Mauritius was a British colony, and retained close links to France (to this day there is a lobby that maintains, absurdly, that Morisien is actually just a bastardised French). He was 28 when Mauritius achieved independence, and he was active in the campaign to prevent the independent island going the way of other former colonies in the region. As Loga explains: "The sugar barons who had complete control over the economy of Mauritius were planning to set up apartheid in Mauritius with the help of apartheid South Africa and apartheid Northern Rhodesia under Ian Smith." After that threat was avoided, Dev's politics and writing were both focused on building an independent nation with its own language, fighting off the neo-colonial incursions of the superpowers. In his 1981 piece Zeneral Makbef, the battle is with the warring giants Yankidola and Rouspoutik. By the time he came to Toufann, he was already aware of the emerging Hindu hegemony in Mauritius, and the threat posed to the intercultural island by an alliance between that single ethnic group and an increasingly assertive Hindu nationalist movement in India. If Dev's Indian Prospero had managed to take revenge on the former coloniser Lerwa Lir (=King Lear, =Britain and France), then that did not in itself mean there would be any hope for the mixed-race Kreol Kalibann. By the 2020s, Dev's worst fears were being realised, and one of his last interviews is an extraordinary plea with the Mauritian people to resist this new colonisation. 

I said earlier that Dev knew in 2020 that he was ill. Actually, he had always been ill: he had childhood polio which left him without the use of one arm, and suffered from post-polio syndrome. What sustained him throughout his life was his total commitment to social justice, and the love of his family. I send my love and sympathy to Loga, Saskia, Anushka, and Dev's grandchildren Anastasia, Yann and Rachel. 

"Apres sa ena zist silense."

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Arrival, Adana, Antakya

Women making bread by the roadside, Antakya

Just over a week ago, Lucy and I arrived in Turkey to begin work on Suppliants of Syria. We're partnering with our old friends from Çukurova University in Adana, where the wonderful İlke Şanlıer combines her role in the Film and TV department with directing the Research Centre in Migration.  It's the perfect combination for a project that combines theatre and film with an active engagement in the ongoing refugee  "crisis". The theme is being lent additional potency by the current situation in Palestine: just after we arrived, a very large protest in support of Palestine took place at the airbase in Adana, where American planes and personnel are stationed. The police used tear gas and water cannon to prevent people entering the base; but that doesn't mean that the government isn't sympathetic to the protestors' expression of solidarity between Muslims.  

We've been able to establish a relationship with the Meryem Women's Co-operative: a fabulous organisation that enables Syrian women to work in areas like gardening and food production. A group of around 20 of them are in the process of becoming our Chorus. We've also been filming and researching in and around the city. I don't want to write too much about this as yet, because it needs time to absorb what we're seeing. Today we went to an area of Adana known as "Little Aleppo" on account of its large Syrian population.  The poverty was very apparent. Many of the people there seem to eke out a living by selling discarded or recycled clothes which they show piled in the streets. Earlier in the week I visited Antakya: the city to the south of Adana which bore the brunt of the earthquake earlier this year. Antakya also has links to Syria: the majority of the pre-earthquake population spoke Arabic, and Syrian maps still show the area as part of their country, which they regard as having been annexed by the Turkish Republic in 1939.  The city is utterly devastated. My friend Ali, who now lives near me in London, showed me round what remained of his childhood home. He often could not work out where he was, because there were no landmarks remaining. He would occasionally stop and examine the remains of a cornice or a metal door, and then say "This must be the old bank..."

And yet, in spite of everything, life endures. Ali's parents had a 100 year old house in the rural hinterland: it was destroyed.  But Ali's father Mehmet, at the age of 69, has single-handedly build a new living space beside the rubble where the old house stood, and on Wednesday night we ate the traditional meal for the end of the olive harvest and the production of the new olive oil on that land.  In the middle of the wreckage, Ali pointed out a plant. "It's a tomato plant", he said. "It used to be on the balcony just above where it is now." Somehow it survived - and is thriving. 

Monday, October 30, 2023

Film and the Indigenous

Chasing the Light

Back in 2017, I had an email from Martin Scorsese's office. We were screening a film called Chasing the Light, by Navajo director Blackhorse Lowe, as part of ORIGINS. "Mr Scorsese" the email told me, "would really like to see this film." I put them in touch with Blackhorse. Hopefully something came of it.

What's undeniable about this little footnote in film history is that it proves Martin Scorsese really does do his homework. His new epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, is a deeply serious engagement with Indigenous culture, specifically that of the Osage people. Ceremonies, language and culture are all meticulously recreated, and (I understand) this is done with total accuracy. The story it tells is a true one, and is appalling: an Osage woman whose married name was Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) had her family murdered by her husband Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), so they could get their hands on the wealth that came to the Osage when oil was discovered under their reservation lands. 

The film is a masterful piece of storytelling, but it also seems to be a white man's story. Mollie and her family have little agency in the film. At one point she travels to Washington, although even that is to appeal to the President. Otherwise they are on the receiving end of active malice. It is also very much male malice, and the Indigenous characters are almost all women. Somehow, despite all the careful research, the conventions of the movies still seem to be winning through. The key relationship in the film is not even between Mollie and Ernest, but between Ernest and William. Beside the history, it seemed to me that the key source text was actually Othello. De Niro's Machiavellian manipulator plays Iago to DiCaprio's naive, gullible Othello: and the result is that the audience ends up feeling sorry for Ernest. Yes: the hero of the film is the man who murders his Native American family. And that is discomfiting, to say the least.

Killers of the Flower Moon

I was very struck by the comments of Christopher Cote, who was an Osage consultant to the film. "This history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love." Quite so.

I did, however, see a truly great Indigenous film at this year's London Film Festival, and that was The New Boy: the latest feature by Kaytetye (Indigenous Australian) director Warwick Thornton, whose previous work includes Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country, both of which we've screened at ORIGINS. The success of those films has given Warwick a lot of kudos: he was able to attract the great Cate Blanchett to appear in The New Boy. When I meet him at the screening he jokes "She was a bit raw when she came to the shoot, but we managed to get her into shape." However, it is not Blanchett who dominates this film but a child actor with scarce a word to say, Aswan Reid. 

Aswan Reid in The New Boy

Reid's character, known only as "the new boy", arrives at an orphanage run by Blanchett's Sister Eileen, where he encounters Christianity on a very profound level, accessing it through his own Indigenous spirituality. Actual snakes, real blood...  Thornton, like many Indigenous artists whose people encountered the church in its complex amalgam of compassion and exploitation, has long had a very ambivalent relationship with the Christian faith. In his 2011 short Stranded, a figure hangs on a neon cross above the red desert landscape of the Australian north. The title of Samson and Delilah is Biblical.  I don't think this makes him a Christian filmmaker, least of all in this new work, but it does demonstrate an understanding that Christianity is not only an oppressive force, and that on some level it may be able to enter into a genuinely productive dialogue with Indigenous worldviews. 

Of course, that won't happen until the cultural landscape gives equal weight to both sides of every story.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Invisible Indigeneity

Rafael Montero and Kate Smith in LOYOLA

Back in August, I directed a short opera for El Parnaso Hyspano at the Arcola’s Grimeborn Festival. We called it LOYOLA, but it was originally titled San Ignacio Loyola, and was written by Domenico Zipoli, a Jesuit musician, on the missions in Latin America. Given that the missions’ purpose was to evangelise the Indigenous people, and that the title role was sung by Rafael Montero, who is himself an Indigenous Latin American, this was never going to be a “straight” opera production. As I wrote in an earlier post, we felt obliged (and excited) to take on board the Indigenous viewpoint on the context in which the piece was originally created, and to ask what this music could signify in the very different historical moment of its present performance. That was why I decided to turn it into the dream of a dying Indigenous man (also called Rafael Montero - the name was on the hospital bed); to emphasise his rejection of conventional religion in the figure of the Demon (who became a priest, in a way that was entirely consistent with Zipoli’s text); and to read his passing on of his mission to a younger colleague as a call to action for an activist allied to Indigenous causes. 

The weird thing was: nobody seemed to notice.

This isn’t a rant about bad reviews. Actually the reviews were very positive. Nor is it an artistic flip about how audiences can’t understand my creative genius. But I do think it’s important to ask why, when something so basic as a performer’s ethnic and cultural identity becomes central to a production, it should be almost universally overlooked. In a way this isn’t even to do with my directorial decisions, which were as much the result of Rafael singing the role of Loyola as of my own interest in Indigenous issues. It’s to do with how the performing body is read in the current political and cultural context.

What does it mean to cast performers “from diverse backgrounds”? “Diverse” has come to mean “non-white” (as if whiteness were some neutral norm from which everything else is a “diversion”), rather than its original meaning, a synonym for “various”. We are all “diverse”. But prevailing modes of thinking tend to assume that the labels of identity politics only apply to people who have in some way been historically excluded. So “gender” is regarded as something that women and trans people have, but is rarely applied to men. “Ethnicity” is seen as something that Black and Asian people have, but white people do not (I remember a director saying that she wanted a cast with “more ethnicity”, not realising that there could only be as much ethnicity as there were actors). I am a great believer in diversity, particularly in theatre, because it leads to difference, richness and the fusion (or fission) of multiple viewpoints, all of which are conducive to drama and to democracy. So I find it odd when “diverse casting” is treated as something inherently desirable but also as something to be ignored. As the Chair of our board, Jatinder Verma, has often argued, theatre signifies through the live body on stage, and so the audience reads that body, including its various identifying characteristics. We do see race, gender, age, (dis)ability etc. - whether or not people are cast according to the character they play having the same characteristics as the performer. This is why it’s possible to make audacious and brilliant casting decisions like Adrian Lester as Rosalind or Henry V, Kathryn Hunter as Richard III, Nahil Shaban as Haile Selassie. These performers bring themselves to the roles, disrupting the way the audience views the character by virtue of who they are. I realise that all these examples date from some years ago. Maybe the landscape is a little different now, a little more literal, a little less open to disruption? 

Related to this is the current orthodoxy that characters who are from non-white backgrounds, trans characters, disabled characters etc. must be played by actors who share those specific characteristics. I don’t disagree with this. It’s not an absolute and eternal rule, of course, but an ethical movement specific to the present time, an adjustment that needs to be made in view of the historical injustices that have led to people with these characteristics being excluded from the stage and screen, where they were portrayed through such “virtuosic” performances as Laurence Olivier’s Othello and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Christy Brown. The idea that only black men should now play Othello is what Gayatri Spivak has called “strategic essentialism”. Race is not actually essential - but at the present moment in history it is in the interests of justice and equality to behave as if it were.

How does this relate to what happened when Rafael performed LOYOLA? I think the audience found itself faced with a choice between two prevailing ways of reading his Indigenous body. One would be that the character is literally (perhaps “essentially”) an Indigenous person, which St Ignatius Loyola clearly was not. So the audience (and the critics) turned to the second orthodoxy, which is that ethnicity and cultural background should be ignored when non-white people play “white” roles. The possibility that the performer’s ethnic identity might be considered when they play a character of a different race, even if the whole production is structured around this, seems to be something that can no longer be considered. 

This is very unfortunate, and plays absolutely into the hands of the theatrical establishment, which has always survived by being what Lawrence Stone called the British aristocracy - “An Open Elite”. Apparent outsiders are absorbed and assimilated, so long as they continue to play by the rules. “Look at us, aren’t we wonderful, we’ve got a black Hamlet / Hamilton / Harry Potter.”  The underlying mythologies of the great tragic prince, the founding father or the boy wizard are not in any way questioned or undermined by such casting - indeed, they are reinforced by the “inclusive” gesture. It makes it very difficult to offer an audience casting decisions that genuinely shift the ground, because the audience has become very nervous of reading them that way.

In the scene where he sent his follower Frances (San Francisco Xavier) out to fulfil his mission, Rafael’s Loyola sang about the need to bring truth to the poor people who dwell in ignorance.  And pointed at the audience.

LOYOLA: Tara Venkatesan, Biraj Barkakaty,
Rafael Montero

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Loyola - opera meets the Indigenous

Rafael Montero

I've been directing a new opera production for presentation at the Arcola's Grimeborn Festival, for a company called El Parnaso Hyspano, led by the Indigenous tenor Rafael Montero, who was so impressive in the Celebrating Peru performance we curated at the British Museum last year. The piece, which we're calling Loyola, was originally entitled San Ignacio Loyola, and was written by a Jesuit composer called Domenico Zipoli for the missions in Latin America, where the performers would have been Indigenous singers and musicians. The score suggests that they must have sung and played European baroque to a very high standard, and at the same time hints at the inclusion of musical traditions from the locality itself. The inclusion in our production of Johnny Rodriguez on percussion and Andean pipes follows through on that line of thought, and it sounds wonderful....  

Johnny's presence, like that of Rafael singing the title role, is entirely "authentic", but of course feels strange and radical in the context of a European performance. Zipoli wrote his da capo arias and secco recitatives for Indigenous people to perform, but a European audience associates these sounds with European singers and players. What's more, the title character was none other than the founder of the Jesuit order: a hero of the European Counter-Reformation, determined to evangelise what he regarded as the ignorant pagans of the Americas and Asia. The Jesuits, whose successes included being consulted by the Emperor of China himself, were in many ways a triumphalist and militant prototype for contemporary models of ideological globalisation. 

The conductor Gabriel Garrido, with whom I worked on Xerxes for ENO some years ago, and from whom I learnt a lot about the jazz-like world of the baroque, made a recording of the opera which you can watch on YouTube. I like the musical performance, and the staging is probably as "authentic" as you can be - but it is also, frankly, ludicrous, and feels almost offensive in the 21st century. We really cannot perform a straight, unquestioning glorification of cultural imperialism in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, least of all with an Indigenous person in the title role. But perhaps that Indigenous presence suggests a way in which this music can be re-created for the 21st century, revisiting the cross-cultural dialogue that was, in its own lop-sided way, at the heart of the original creation.

What if our Loyola is not a Jesuit firebrand but an Indigenous teacher? What if the people who live in ignorance are not the Native people of the Americas and Asia but the imperialists themselves and their descendants, who continue to profit from their ancestors' incursions and whose profiteering now threatens the planet itself? How, in that case, might we portray the Angels who tell Loyola to get out of his convalescent bed and become active in the world? Who might be the Demon that tempts him towards a life of ease and complacency? What legacy might he want to pass on to his chosen successor, and how might we portray that missionary figure for today? 

These questions have been the spur to making our production. 

Friday, June 02, 2023

Antigone in the Amazon

Antigone in the Amazon:
Kay Sara on screen, Frederico Arujo on stage
On April 17th 1996, at a place called Eldorado de Carajás, in the state of Pará, Brazilian police opened fire on a group of land-reform activists who were occupying a stretch of the Trans-Amazonian highway. Nineteen people died immediately, and a further two died of their wounds shortly afterwards. Many more were injured. The leadership of the Landless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) continues to commemorate this massacre, with the anniversary marked as the International Day of Peasant Struggles.

This year, as part of their collaboration with NTGent and director Milo Rau, MST re-enacted the massacre in the place where it happened, with as much accuracy as possible. Rau has re-created historical events before, for example in The Last Days of the Ceausescus, but this time the reconstruction was made specifically for film, with the aim of framing it within his new theatre-piece, Antigone in the Amazon. The cast includes a part-Indigenous Brazilian actor, Frederico Araujo, who was told he bore a marked resemblance to the first activist who was shot. In the complex, self-reflexive dramaturgy that was evolving, that young man and Araujo himself melded with the figure of Antigone's dead and unburied brother, Polyneices.

I took the Eurostar, changed trains in Brussels, absorbed the beauty of the city, visited the exhibition about Rau's recent work, and watched the play. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of Milo Rau, having watched many of his pieces during the online theatre-fest of lockdown, read the Golden Books and (only a few weeks ago) watched Hate Radio live at BAC. His understanding of the need to make theatre that embraces and exposes global issues is very much in tune with our own work; as is his insistence on real, deep, international, intercultural collaboration. There are even some weird coincidences: we have both made films in Matera, for example! The fact that Antigone in the Amazon was to be a collaboration with Indigenous activists made this one of my most eagerly anticipated theatre experiences. And it was certainly a long time coming...  The first discussions between MST and Rau took place in 2018, and the development of the project began in early 2020, only to be interrupted by Covid. The pandemic was particularly intense in the Amazon, with a neo-fascist government under Bolsanoro that refused to impose lockdowns, while his ministers called it an “opportunity” for illegal logging in the Amazon. The hospital corridors of Manaus were lined with corpses, and people had to be thrown into mass graves. Nevertheless, NTGent continued to remind the world that the project was still bubbling away, particularly when Kay Sara, the Indigenous performer and activist cast as Antigone, delivered online the speech with which she was to have opened the 2020 Wiener Festwochen. 

It is an extraordinary, moving and intense piece of oratory. From the start, Kay Sara is clear that she is personally safe: "Nature surrounds me, it protects me and nourishes us too. I live in the rhythm of birds singing and the rain and perform an ancient ritual for my protection. For the first time in over 500 years, Europe and America are separated again." That last sentence seems particularly resonant, coming from an Indigenous woman at a time when an imported virus was once again coursing through her people, as has happened to Indigenous Americans ever since smallpox arrived with Columbus and Cortés. Colonialism, in all its monstrous, rapacious arrogance, remains the root cause of the agonies besetting the Amazon and its people. If only Europe were separate from America, she seems to be saying, then perhaps we could heal.

And so, she goes on to tell her European audience: "Now it is time for you to be silent. The time has come to listen. You need us, the prisoners of your world, to understand yourselves. Because the thing is so simple: there is no gain in this world, there is only life. And that’s why it’s good that I’m not on the Burgtheater stage. That I’m not talking to you as an actress, because it’s not about art anymore, it’s not about theatre anymore. Our tragedy happens here and now, in the world, before our very eyes."

In the past, Milo Rau has been accused of a lack of equity in some of his international collaborations. Orestes in Mosul, for example, was criticised as having made use of Iraqi performers within a largely self-serving European structure, led by "white saviours". I'm not sure I entirely agree with this assessment: after all the play featured Susana AbdulMajid, whose heritage goes back to Mosul, and led to the establishment of a film school in the city. But it's been striking how, since that production, Rau has deliberately engaged in close dialogues with significant figures from the communities featured in his work, for example casting the Cameroonian activist Yvan Sagnet as Jesus in The New Gospel. Kay Sara's performance as Antigone continues that positive trend.

Except that she wasn't there. 

Quite early in the show, Frederico Araujo holds up a phone and plays her voice, introducing herself as an Indigenous woman. She is seen in the film, crying over his body as Polyneices, introducing the European actors to people in the Amazon. She was in Ghent for rehearsals. But, as Milo Rau rather cryptically puts it in the programme: "We understood only  during the film shootings in Brazil and during the last weeks of  rehearsals in Europe that Kay Sara’s place is in her home country, as part of the political Brazilian struggle." This is very resonant with her speech for the Festwochen: it seems that Kay Sara has come to feel that she is better off separating herself from European people as far as possible, and working within her own community. I understand that she has stated this will be her last collaboration with Europeans. Of course, I don't know the details, but the departure of this remarkable, insightful and impassioned artist is troubling for any European hoping to open up channels of communication between cultures, and to address global issues through theatre. In order to deal with globalisation, the child of colonialism, we have to address ourselves to European and North American cities, because that is where the colonial project began, and that is where it is still entrenched, at enormous profit (as today's Guardian makes clear). It would be narcissistic to imagine we can or should do this alone: we have to work in dialogue with peoples whose lands and cultures were and are colonised, and we have to recognise the challenges and nuances of such collaborations. But if the dialogue is refused or the collaboration is withdrawn, then we are left to wait in silence for a global revolution that will come from elsewhere. Perhaps that is what we have to do - but it feels absurdly passive at a moment when we are starting to accept responsibility and to understand the necessity of global collaboration as the only way forward.

Antigone in the Amazon deals with these questions very well: it's been forced to do so, and perhaps that's a good thing. As well as presenting the horror of the 1996 massacre and leading the audience to understand its context and the need for activism, there is also a reckoning with the ambiguous position occupied by the European activist and artist. The Flemish actor Arne De Tremerie reflects on the experience of being in the Amazon, the privilege he felt that he could go there while most of the people he met were unable to travel, his sense of “a guilt complex disguised as activism.” As well as his original role as Polyneices, Frederico Araujo plays the onstage Antigone: and there's an extraordinary sense of his reaching towards his Indigenous identity at the same time as being aware of his own form of privilege, encapsulated in his distance from that heritage. I was left wondering whether the play was made poorer or paradoxically richer by Kay Sara's physical absence. But that isn't really the point, of course. The play is an intervention in an ongoing and profoundly complex political process, and so it expresses the current moment in that process, the place where we stand right now, which is (rightly) very uncomfortable. As the first of the rolling titles says: "This is not The End".

I am grateful to the Research Office at Rose Bruford College for funding my visit to Ghent. 

Monday, May 08, 2023

The Coronation - A Theatrical Reading, and why it matters

Penny Mordaunt carries the sword at the coronation

It's not very surprising to find people talking about the coronation as theatre. Great costumes, spectacular setting, a carefully rehearsed rhythmic exchange between spoken text and music, some remarkable characters.... The Guardian has even published a review by Michael Billington, in which he calls it "Shakespearean...  immensely touching", and gives it four stars. However, if you look at what actually happens within the coronation ceremony, it starts to seem a lot less theatrical than it may at first appear. And a lot more significant.

The impression of theatricality comes, I think, from the fact that most of us watched the event on television. That was true of the previous coronation too: a lot of British households bought their first TV in 1953 so they could watch the live broadcast. It was not true of any coronation prior to that, though, and the form of the event is very long established: many parts of it go right back to the crowning of Edgar at Bath Abbey in 973. The televised version is deceptive, in that it shows to the "audience" what is happening in the coronation chair and at the High Altar. Our received image of the ceremony is so ingrained from the endlessly repeated footage of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher crowning Elizabeth II that I was genuinely quite shocked to discover that the coronation chair did not in fact face the public, but rather formed a barrier between them and the very intimate space occupied by the monarch and the clergy. Add to that the fact that Westminster Abbey has a choir screen, and you realise that the supposedly privileged congregation is very much excluded from what is actually happening.

The anointing screens for Charles III

So these recent televised coronations are very different from any others, in that they invite spectatorship, and hence feel theatrical. There's a very real tension in this: a tension made clear by the insistence of the King that the moment of his anointing should be hidden entirely from public view, behind three screens. This was not what happened in 1953 or before, when the anointing took place under a canopy; but Elizabeth II stipulated that the footage of her anointing should never be shown again. Even this still image of the canopy is a rare find.

The anointing canopy for Elizabeth II

The reason that the monarchs are so wary of the anointing becoming spectacle is very simple: they believe it to be a particularly sacred moment, in which they are consecrated as sovereign. Handel's famous anthem sets a text from 1 Kings 1:38-40 - a text which has been used in every coronation since Edgar's - "Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King."  In other words, it is in this physically intimate and vulnerable moment that God places the monarch at the head of the nation. The fact that this is  still not permitted to become spectacle makes it clear that what happens here is still regarded as real. Our hereditary Head of State, referred to in one of the few public-facing moments of the ceremony as "your undoubted King", holds his office because God put him there.

If you think about it, what other theoretical justification can there be for an hereditary monarchy? Other "modernised" European monarchies tend not to bother with coronations: their theoretical underpinning seems to be that "it's just the way it is", and a lot of the debate around monarchy in the UK is also couched in those terms, making it much easier to accept and muddle on. But it won't do really, will it? 

Think about what happens in the coronation when the the Sword of State and Sword of Offering has been strapped to the King's side as part of his sovereign regalia.  It is then passed on to the Lord President of the Council, who represents the King's Ministers, the Executive arm of the government. All the fuss made about Penny Mordaunt's sword carrying skills just serves to obscure the very potent symbolism of this: the government receives the power which this sword represents as something delegated from the King, who in turn receives it from God. And where are the people in this? Nowhere to be seen.

Of course, it is often argued that "in reality" the government draws its power from an elected Parliament, and that we actually live in a democracy. I beg to differ. There are many powers exercised by the executive which are in fact the prerogative powers of the King, and which do not require the consent of Parliament. This was how Tony Blair was able to take us to war in Iraq without a vote in Parliament, even in the face of the largest popular protest in British history. There was nothing remotely democratic about it. It's only one example - there are many more - but it makes the point abundantly clear. Parliament may draft, debate and pass legislation, but it is the King who signs it into law, and there are many precedents for changes being made in order for the monarch to feel comfortable doing this. Many laws, including recent ones, include exceptions for the practice in royal households.

On Saturday, the Metropolitan Police arrested 64 anti-monarchy protestors, not for any public disorder, but on suspicion that they might commit disorder. Many activists and commentators have responded with justifiable concern, mentioning the "right" to peaceful protest. But the problem with this argument is that we don't have a proper Bill of Rights in this country, nor can we have unless and until sovereignty is vested in the people. While the Head of State remains an hereditary "undoubted King", consecrated by God, then we simply cannot say that he is "Not My King": he is, whether we like it or not, and we have no say in the matter. So the Police were correct - we cannot protest against the Coronation. 

We are not citizens, but subjects. In the 21st century, this is surely not tenable.

I had best include a disclaimer on this post, that what is argued here is my personal opinion only and does not represent any political stance by Border Crossings, which is a charity. 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Hate News

Hate Radio

I became very interested in Milo Rau's theatre-making during the lockdowns, when I was able to see several of his pieces online. Lenin, The Last Days of the Ceausescus, La Reprise, Orestes in Mosul, The New Gospel...  all very remarkable.  And I read the text of Compassion - The History of the Machine Gun too.  Wish I'd seen it. But online theatre only goes so far, and the experience of seeing Hate Radio live at BAC last week took my admiration for this extraordinary director to another level. It was terrifying.  

The piece has been described very well in lots of reviews, so I won't go into detail here. For those who want to read more about the show, I particularly recommend this blog by Lily Climenhaga, who like me arrived at the performance from a position of some knowledge, and was perhaps even more stunned by the work as a result.  As Lily explains, the performance is received in a number of distinct ways. You listen to the broadcast from RTLM as the original audience in Rwanda would have done, via your personal radio set with headphones: an experience that is oddly personal and intimate. At the same time, you watch the people who are broadcasting - distanced from you in a perspex box. By contrast with the audio experience, the visual one is cold and detached. You observe the movement of the silent soldier who continually tidies the space and offers snacks and drinks to the presenters. You see the maps and posters with which they surround themselves. You watch them dance along to the pop songs they play, you see the shoulder holster revealed when Kantano Habimana takes off his smart jacket, you suddenly notice the pistol sitting casually on the sound engineer's desk. When Valérie Bemeriki comes close to losing all self-control in one of her diatribes against the "cockroach" Tutsis, you can see her and her fellow presenters "dealing with it" in their various ways during the cheery song that follows - but you can't hear what they're saying. Through this combination of involvement and detachment, the performance at once draws you in to the apparent light entertainment of the radio station, and fills you with horrified fascination at the outpouring of invective that it unleashed. 

The recreation is detailed. The set was made in response to precise accounts given by Valérie Bemeriki herself when interviewed in prison by Milo Rau and designer Anton Lukas. In 2011, the piece was actually performed in the former RTLM studio in Kigali, with the audience listening on their radios in the street outside, watching the actors through the full-length windows. Lukas took a photograph. 

Hate Radio in Kigali

This hyper-realism is framed by accounts of the genocide itself, based closely on fact but spoken by actors presenting fictional characters on video. The play's last line is spoken by one of these survivors: "When there’s been one genocide then there will be many more." Out of context, this sounds clichéd and trite, but at the end of this performance it is incredibly chilling, because Hate Radio has led you to understand just how easily people can become embroiled in and intoxicated by the rhetoric of extreme violence. 

The performance was perhaps even more telling, even more necessary, in the week when 16 year old Ralph Yarl had been shot in the head by Andrew Lester when he accidentally went to the wrong house in Kansas City's Northland, while trying to pick up his younger brothers. Andrew Lester is an older white man: Ralph Yarl is Black. Lester's grandson Klint Ludwig has given a frank and telling account of how his grandfather has become entangled in the invective and deceit of populist media, particularly Trump's adored Fox News. "He’s become staunchly right-wing, further down the right-wing rabbit hole as far as doing the election-denying conspiracy stuff and COVID conspiracies and disinformation, fully buying into the Fox News, OAN kind of line.” Ludwig says his grandfather had been immersed in “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia.... It’s stock Fox News, conservative American stuff. It’s ‘anybody who gets an abortion is a murderer.’ And ‘fatherless Black families are the reason why crime exists in this country.’ ”

There's very little distance between Rwanda's Hate Radio and America's Fox News.

Hate Radio

Friday, April 14, 2023

Veronica Needa

Veronica Needa in MAPPA MUNDI

Veronica Needa, who died on Wednesday, was a great friend to Border Crossings and a hugely significant figure in both intercultural and community theatre practice. I first met her as long ago as 1999, when I was assembling the cast for MAPPA MUNDI: the first production we did that was fully funded and our first foray into intercultural devising. I was looking for someone from a Chinese background who would be able to improvise and create, and who could also bring some knowledge of traditional forms. I got in touch with David Tse, who was then running Yellow Earth, and he suggested Veronica. 

We met at the ENO's old rehearsal rooms in West Hampstead. Veronica didn't have a stereotypical Chinese "look", and it emerged very quickly that she was an embodiment of cosmopolitanism in her DNA. As well as Chinese, she was of British, Japanese and Syrian descent; usually describing herself as a "Hong Kong Eurasian". The year before we met, she had turned her extraordinary family history into a dazzling one-woman show called FACE, and this re-telling of personal histories from diverse viewpoints (very fashionable now, but highly innovative then) was clearly a passion of hers. As well as making her the professional writer-performer that she was, this passion fed into her leadership role in the Playback Theatre movement, both in the UK and around the world. As the founder of the School of Playback Theatre UK and London Playback Theatre, Veronica brought this very immediate, deeply therapeutic form  into the centre of Applied Theatre practice. This skill and passion meant that she could not only be at the centre of our devising company: she was also ideally placed to lead community workshops alongside our development work.

As we started to develop MAPPA MUNDI, Veronica's influence on the whole company was profound. Without my ever stating it as the through line of the play, we all found ourselves re-telling stories from our family histories. Veronica's Chinese grandmother Lily (whose Chinese name was Wong Seui Gum) became a central figure in one key narrative: a quiet spectator of Hong Kong's turbulent 20th century. Veronica always said that she wasn't political, and sometimes resisted my attempts to place Lily's story in a wider historical framing - but in truth she was deeply political, above all in her burning desire to bring the stories of marginalised or overlooked people onto the stage. It was high politics, soiled by ambition and corruption, that she so mistrusted.

Although she only did that one show with us, it was a landmark one, and we stayed in touch thereafter. Veronica was one of the "21 Faces of Border Crossings" who marked the organisation's birthday with a retrospective publication in 2016. She wrote there about our intercultural work as "such an important, rich and healing creative endeavour", emphasising that it had only grown in importance since the early days. She came to see the work, particularly when we were collaborating with Chinese performers and companies. She was a bit unsure about DIS-ORIENTATIONS - I suspect because of its overtly political elements - but she loved the more intimate CONSUMED in 2013, bringing her friend Anna Chen, who wrote a glowing review in the Morning Star (ironically the most politically aware commentary we received on that play). In 2014 she came to THIS FLESH IS MINE ("it's SO interesting") - and I realised this morning that I had not seen her in person since. Nine years... The Hong Kong actor Indy Lee, to whom she introduced me, had mentioned she was ill. Today Indy sent me a WhatsApp with the words "Sad news" and a link to a website set up for tributes. 

It says: "Veronica always loved stories. Feel free to share."

Saturday, April 01, 2023

April 1st 2023 - An Open Letter to Barclays Bank

1st April 2023

To the Directors, Barclays Bank PLC

As you will be aware, Border Crossings has been making use of Barclays’ banking services for 28 years now. During that time, we have been very impressed with the way you run your business.  We have never had to charge you interest as you have always retained a healthy level of reserves and balance. Given the very challenging nature of the current environment for banking, the fact that a small organisation like yours has even survived, let alone thrived, is remarkable. We are truly impressed with the way in which you have weathered the last decade, when the government has been undermining your industry so catastrophically, with many banks having to close because of the funding cuts.  

In spite of your having been such good bankers to us for 28 years, we have now decided, for a reason we will not explain to you, that we urgently require information about your board of directors, and the people who would be liable (albeit to a very limited degree) should you become insolvent. We are aware that the details of directors are available on your website and at Companies House with your accounts, because you are very careful about your annual filing duties, but we prefer that you tell us separately because that means more unnecessary work for you. We were surprised to discover that there are no details or accounts available via the Charity Commission: should you ever wish to know anything about us, that is another route that you could decide not to follow.

Because these details are so crucial to us, we have decided to write to you every few days about it. Knowing how crucial the provision of intercultural performance is to the smooth running of your bank, we have also decided to threaten a withdrawal of this service if you do not respond to each of these letters within 10 days of its date. We will not, however, actually post the letter on the day when we purport to write it, and we will use a very slow postal service. This should mean that the threat will already have expired by the time you get the letter, meaning that you will be very worried by it.

The letter will ask you to phone a particular number. After lengthy delays and requests for security information, you will then be privileged to speak to one of our staff. We will take care to ensure that this is never somebody you may have spoken to before, or anybody who has ever heard of Barclays. They will proceed to ask you the same questions that you have already been asked on numerous previous calls. In case you should start to become in any way carefree in relation to the need to do this every few days, we will also send you emails that remind you about the letters.  Your Chief Executive is someone whom we hold personally responsible for not telling us things we already know, and as we are fortunate enough to possess his personal mobile number, we will also be texting him on a regular basis.

One of our key requirements is that you provide us with a list of the names of people with limited liability in the event that you become insolvent. This list needs to follow a particular format, which we will send to you after your fifth phone call. It will be sent by email. However, our email system is not simply to send an email with an attachment. We will send you an email which will direct you to a secure site that you have not previously used, on which you will need a username and password to access the real email with the attachment. Once you have managed to download this attachment, you need to use it as a template to write a letter on your own letterhead, which must then be signed by one of your board, and sent to your branch.  

If the Chair of your board is feeling particularly helpful, he may choose to deliver this to the particular branch of Border Crossings that deals with Barclays. Unlike our Chair, who is a charitable trustee and so unpaid, your Chair may regard this as a good use of his time as he is well paid to undertake meaningless activities. At this point, we will once again send you a letter requiring you to phone us, at which point we will tell you that we have not received the letter. When you explain that it was personally delivered to the appropriate branch of Border Crossings by your Chair in exact accordance with our requirements, we have instructed our operative to sigh audibly and explain that s/he is unable to contact the branch to request the hand-delivered letter, that this process could have been done by email, and that an original signature is not in fact needed, even though we previously told you that it was. We will then send another email giving you a link to a site containing a further email to which you can reply attaching the letter that your Chair had previously delivered in person but which we claim not to have received because nobody who works at Border Crossings is capable of talking to anybody else who works here.  

We hope you are following all of this information with care, because if you do not go through this incredibly important process we will have no choice but to withdraw the provision of intercultural theatre services from Barclays, and that would be crippling for you.

In the event that there are any challenges to you in fulfilling these urgent requirements, do not worry, as there are many ways to contact us. You can go into one of the few remaining branches of Border Crossings, where you will need to wait for an hour before having a conversation with somebody who tells you that they can’t do anything about it. You can sit on a telephone helpline for an hour before being put through to somebody who tells you that they can’t do anything about it. However, our preferred method of communicating with our bank is via the Border Crossings app. This is really intended for your Chief Executive’s personal theatre-going activity, but we are happy to extend the invitation to him to use it for Barclays as well. We particularly like this method of communication, as it does not involve our having to pay any staff at all, even the ones we exploit in Bangalore call centres, but is run by something called Artificial Intelligence. We are letting you into a secret here, because most people would never know that they aren’t accessing real theatre through this app. We are particularly proud of one phrase which it likes to use when our bankers seem upset about the way we treat them: “If I would have face the same issue, I would have felt the same way.” The grammatical inaccuracy is what gives this a real human touch, don’t you agree?

Anyway, we’ve kept you long enough from the important services we’re sure you’re providing to many other small theatre charities. If you could find a moment to send us vast amounts of personal information about your directors, we would be grateful. After all, it’s important to know exactly whom you are trusting with your money.

kind regards

Border Crossings

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

China re-opens

Ningbo Tianran Stage Theatre
This weekend, I was giving an online class to Rose Bruford students. Because the classes are done remotely, there are students all over the world, including China. One of them, Xuyu Zhang, lives in Ningbo, a city to the South of Shanghai where I used to go quite often to lead work for the University of Nottingham's campus there.

The class was about the effect Covid has had on theatre, using Rustom Bharucha's wonderful lecture series as a start point.  Towards the end of the class, the image of Xuyu went dark.  It turned out that she was in a taxi - although the connectivity remained perfect and she was still able to share a presentation while travelling!  She explained that the Grand Theatre in Ningbo was finally re-opening that evening, with a play called The Face of Chiang Kai-shek, and she simply had to be there.  I hadn't really taken into account the different speeds of re-opening, and the huge amount of pressure people in China must have been under as the rest of the world returned to social activity and performance, while they remained in their apartments, masked and isolated.  

As the class ended, the taxi drew to a halt, and Xuyu turned her phone towards the theatre.  She walked up the imposing staircase, and joined the very long queue at the Box Office.  It was wonderful to be there.  

The Face of Chiang Kai-shek

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Reflecting on BOTANY BAY - guest blog by Carolyn Defrin


BOTANY BAY celebration - Manchester
BOTANY BAY was a major Participation and Learning project, which we ran as part of ORIGINS 2021-22 with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  Here our External Evaluator, Dr. Carolyn Defrin, reflects on the project's journey and impact.


The timeline of BOTANY BAY, from its launch in the peak of Omicron to its completion in what now feels like a post-pandemic landscape, speaks to its imperative value. In the last three years the entire globe has been visibly impacted by a health crisis. But Covid’s necessary slowing down of society has created space and time to more clearly witness and experience the long interconnected crises between people and the planet. The entanglement of Covid, the Climate Crisis and Colonialism is deep and complex and a project like BOTANY BAY enters the conversation by creating numerous pathways into understanding our inter-relationships with people and land, illuminating how we might start tending to both with more care, awareness and deliberate action.

With attention on Indigenous practices and principles, BOTANY BAY aimed to address the critical need to look after our world differently. Indigenous inspired growing and gardening practices have a lot to teach us about how interconnected we are and how much care is needed to keep those interconnections alive and thriving. By shining a light on the values and cultural traditions of a range of Indigenous communities across the map, BOTANY BAY platformed looking back as a means to look forward. Drawing out more complete histories of plant origins and the ways in which politics have complicated those stories invited understanding and acknowledgement as a means to grasp at large concepts of Colonialism and Climate Change through a series of experiential activities.

Through museum visits, treasure hunts in heritage gardens, special visits from heritage experts and performances from artists with direct links to Indigenous backgrounds, BOTANY BAY offered a wide set of access points for children to encounter new knowledge. Children became more inquisitive about the environmental repercussions of deforestation in the Amazon as they watched intricate puppet animals created and performed by José Navarro lose critical access to their food and homes. As students acted out a game with the Manchester Museum, where they had to follow butterflies to find specific medicinal plants and flowers, they embodied not only the inter-relationships between humans and animals, and the mutual care needed to sustain such ecologies, but also learned of the detrimental impact of certain types of farming, land ownership and extraction on those relationships as the game began to introduce obstacles for the students to find the butterflies.

BOTANY BAY is not encapsulated through a box ticking exercise of finite learnings and rote memorisations. Rather it is a programme of multi-sensory, embodied learning activities that built skills in attention, care and individual thinking and adaptation. As Manchester Museum's Curator of Indigenous Perspectives Alexandra P Alberda, an institution can be a conversation starter, and BOTANY BAY feels very much about starting conversations, activating ideas, getting one’s hands literally and metaphorically dirty with some messy problems in our current world.

As students created their own gardens- planting, tending, growing and cooking their own food inspired by Indigenous practices and principles- they witnessed acts of visible growth and change. They paid attention to what fruits, flowers and vegetables need to survive, learning how to adjust the plan when survival wasn’t at its optimum. In the final months of the project they considered how to invite others in to appreciate and enjoy their harvest and their learnings.

These essential observations and actions manifest the literal attention and awareness needed in our current climate emergency and the metaphoric care and iteration needed across our inter-personal relationships where social inequities continue to divide us.

Inquiry begets further inquiry. Several questions arose from the partnering schools, museums and heritage experts as BOTANY BAY drew to a close. How do we learn from Indigenous principles? How do we adapt them to a UK context? How do we embed the learning more deeply and continue to grasp large and sprawling concepts like Colonialism and Climate Change that need our attention urgently?

These big ideas underpinning BOTANY BAY are not only conceptual (and in need of translation depending on the audience), they are also in an early phase of becoming more mainstream. Between the pandemic, the building attention around socio-economic disparity deriving from far-reaching impacts of colonialism, and the climate crisis becoming ever more visible, institutions and communities are growing an awareness around the need for systemic change. But this is slow, long-term work. BOTANY BAY and its numerous impacts on several stakeholders, including Border Crossings, offers a huge opportunity to develop and build the kinds of relationships that can contribute significantly to such systemic change.

There are many immediate and long-term positive impacts that have emanated from BOTANY BAY. The practical skills built in gardening, growing, cooking and ceremony making, the strengthening of critical soft skills like confidence, team work, communication, planning and adapting are valuable outcomes– especially coming out of numerous pandemic lockdowns that hampered such skill development. Theses skills will have life-long residual impacts for young people resonant with the Indigenous principle to create sustainability by thinking 7 generations in the future.

Carolyn Defrin