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