Sunday, 30 November 2008
Spent most of yesterday working with Hsiu Chin on her PhD. Her thesis is that Taiwanese national identity has been kept alive through the sentimental TV dramas imported from Japan and Korea.
In other words the education reforms pursued by both political parties the KMT - who believe that Taiwan is a bastion representing the true 'anti-communist' China and the DPP who believe in Taiwanese Independence lead to an imposed understanding of Taiwanese-ness, challenged only by the domestic moralities represented through infiltrating TV dramas.
It's a complex and layered argument and I have to admit to fearing the worst whenever national identity is taken as a serious concern. The troubles in the Balkans can be directly linked back to a body of Serbian academics and intellectuals who in the late eighties used literature, song, cultural artifact and poetry to argue the case for a Greater Serbian identity, distinct from the construct of Tito's Yugoslavia - sure the politicians manipulated this scholarship -but academic freedoms took a highly politicised form. It led to genocide.
Reading the work made me realise the links between Taiwan and Serbia - particularly the desire to assert a distinct sense of self after years of apparent occupation and the emmotive pride of maintaining a true flame alive.
Interestingly, as satellites to a larger republic, neither Serbia nor Taiwan seriously argued that they'd been territorially invaded. However, both countries have kept alive a certain consciousness that something of value has been safely protected, within the national border and imagination, in preparation for a future rebirth.
For nations like these the role of stories, poems and dramas take on a huge significance leading to resistance and conflict.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
It's all gone a bit manic! Kasia took a scratch performance of Destination GB, a show she's devising with current and former students up to he Junction in Cambridge on Tuesday, the company rolled home in the early hours of this morning tired, but happy.
Meanwhile back at base, we're racing against time to submit an Education Partnerships in Africa project grant application to the British Council by Friday's 4pm deadline.
After this morning's Drama in the Community session on Myths and Ritual, where we began exploring the campus as a site for stories, memories, re enactments and rituals I rushed into town to meet with Theatre for a Change's director, Patrick Young and Matt, fresh and tanned having flown in from South Africa yesterday, to go through amendments and beef up the proposal.
It was a very good meeting and the future of our collaboration seems positive. The aim is to send our current first year Applied Theatre students to Malawi in Spring 2011 (their final semester with us) to work on projects with students from Mzuzu University, in the north of the country. The work would look at ways in which interactive theatre projects can promote gender assertiveness and sexual health, advocating strategies for young people to protect themselves from the risk of HIV infection.
Already Matt has begun training the St. Mary's students in Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, which form the backbone for this work. Initial workshops where the students refine their facilitation technique will take place Richmond Schools in early December.
We also talked a little about exchanging examples of good practice through e.postcards, and video, creating a joint archive of transformative learning moments. This could be a very exciting way of developing projects prior to our arrival in Africa.
The day ended at the Bush theatre where I went to see I Caught Crabs in Walberswick, which has been brought into town by Suffolk touring company, Eastern Angles. Having won some acclaim at the Edinburgh festival last summer.
It's a sweet play about parent child relationships, neatly told by a cast of five young actors, who touchingly recreate the confusion of teenage life, stuck in a seaside town. There wasn't a load to get excited about in the storytelling... but little to knock either. A writer in search of a better plot, perhaps?
Monday, 24 November 2008
I see a lot of theatre and I enjoy most of it. Every now and then I see something absolutely wonderful and extraordinary. August: Osage openning tomorrow at the National, fits into that category. It's my play of the year!
The Weston family have gathered back in Osage County, Oklahoma on the disappearance of their patriarchal father and are forced to try and support each other through the unfolding tragedy. It's Eugene O'Neill, It's Tennesse Williams, It's The Sopranos.
This is a huge, sweeping play; epic and domestic at once. In common with much great American dramatic literature it deals with the struggle between the controlling power of one generation and the need to reform of the next. As the tectonic plates of family life pull part the skeletons come dancing through the cracks, twisting and turning the plot. There are an awful lot of skeletons in Osage County.
At the centre of this is a great script and a great acting by the Steppenwolf ensemble. Amy Morton who plays Barbara, the eldest daughter, simply gives one of the most towering performances I've ever seen.
The play doesn't have a perceptible state of the nation message, just that wonderful American ability to move the action forward without indulgence or sentiment. The three and a half hours flew by without a dull moment.
The curtain call happened just before eleven to a standing ovation. None of us wanted to go home.
Sunday, 23 November 2008
Escaped form the Rugby overspill on the streets of Twickenham and headed to the Richmond Odeon to see W. Oliver Stone's biopic about George Bush. It's a strange film, far too large in scale to go beyond cliche and over layered with weighted simplification. The cause and effect of this telling makes for an Oedipal epic, rather than a political analysis.
I'm fascinated by biopics, however, and do think they can bring an interpretation to history that is both revealing and meaningful. Alex Jennings played a far more astute Bush in David Hare's Stuff Happens, a play which, shockingly, through imagined dialogue, helped me realise how irrelevant the neo-cons found the diplomatic arguments of 'old' Europe. Hare gave us an early analysis of how quickly rumour and revenge become policy and order.
For now though, Peter Morgan is the man for me - his screenplay for The Queen - which might as well be called Tony - provided a fascinating analysis of the mood shift in Britain at the end of the nineties and recognised New Labour's opportunism in using Diana's death to further justify their social democratic mandate. It's a smashing film about celebrity, tradition and democracy.
Morgan's trick is to focus on a specific moment and forensically examine it. Biography tumbles out in response to the significant event. It's the formula that he repeats in Frost/Nixon (which is the next film on my hit list.) It's how we respond that makes us who we are. Not even Presidents can control history.
The final image of W. is a studied metaphor. George, suited in presidential elegance, fielding in the outfield, loses the baseball in the glare of the floodlights. For all his good ole boy Texan, people person, bonhomie, at key moments, 9/11, Katrina, Desert Storm - it's exactly what he did.
It's a salutary counter argument to that tenant of the American dream that anybody can grow up to be President.
Friday, 21 November 2008
The Bfi are running a fantastic Tennessee Williams season, so last night Feda, Aida and I made a return to the deep South to see A Streetcar Named Desire and gaze in awe at the matinee idol performances of Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh on the big screen.
It really is a mountain of a play, a great emotional epic. I can't think that much written in the field of naturalism or poetic-naturalism in the twentieth century can hold a candle to it. The Cherry Orchard? View from a Bridge? Perhaps. But British classics such as Look Back in Anger, Roots, even Roddy Ackland's superb Absolute Hell feel positively urbane and second class in comparison.
I was amazed at Brando's performance - light years ahead of its time and made all the more wonderful by the obvious studio locations, savage cuts from one shot to the next and emotive soundtrack. In every other way the film is nostalgically dated, but Brando is not. And then there is Leigh, whose speed of thought and tone, makes every moment with her on screen spark and fizz. Together they are thunder and lightning.
Even though we knew it was coming we found it hard to take Blanche's final descent into breakdown and ended up watching through our fingers, hands over our faces as she collapsed, regained composure and walked out to the car with the doctor.
Beautiful brutal play, beautiful brooding movie.
Thursday, 20 November 2008
It's been a very good twenty four hours. We spent yesterday afternoon over at Ham House, introducing The Tempest company to the space and talking through the technical logistics of the show with Tina and Alistair. It's great having the chance to work in situ and ideas flow so much faster when you're able to walk actors through the actual space.
We're trying to pay homage a little to the House in the production, which plays with the conceit of Miranda as an old lady, established as Queen of Naples, remembering her past and telling it back to the children in the audience. The play becomes a reconstructed memory, with the children constantly helping Old Miranda to recall the sounds, sights and events of her time on the magical island, through soundscapes and puppets.
The Jacobean House itself then becomes a contemporary royal palace with the pictures on the walls relating to the characters - we've costumed accordingly.
The trip seemed to give this evening's rehearsal and added buzz. Perhaps seeing the space made the show ever more real and brought focus to the company. We worked through several of the more complicated sequences with fresh energy and new understanding. It was a very good session.
This morning Mary (74) and Fiona (59 - today!), from Richmond Poetry Society came in to help the third years with a reminiscence class. We run this as part of our Drama in the Community module each year and each year I find it the most fascinating and heart warming activity.
Our guests were generous and open with their stories and the students seemed to really enjoy listening and asking questions. Stories ranged from evacuation, to attending a Beatles concert, to first husbands, to winkle pickers, to black outs, to visiting America in the sixties, to filling tin baths, to seeing King George VI in Buckingham Palace and Twiggy in Oxford Street. It really was a thrilling hour of unofficial late twentieth century history.
The students then worked on dramatising the stories that they'd found most appealing or significant and played them back to a great deal of laughter. Both Mary and Fiona were moved by the evocative nature of the work and charmed by sensitivity in which their lives were dramatised. A very rewarding way to spend the morning.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
Another day another review uncovered for Yard Gal.
This time in The Spectator (see below)
It's a provocation and a half and although I'm pleased for the girls, who are justly applauded here, I'm also left mildly fuming at the hijack of the play through such a bigoted analysis. I suppose if any publication was going to give me the rise it's The Spectator - but grrrr! ... the arrogance!!!
There is nothing here to suggest that a life of benefit handouts and liberal sympathy might result in a loss of self-esteem and provoke anger, depression, violence. The message I got from the play was that Boo and Marie deserved better, not more of the same.
Where the review is useful is that it makes a debate and gives the show a burning contemporary relevance. Boo and Marie, undoubtedly have vital lives to lead, but whether the excitement of baseline survival is an optimum state for them and their class is crucially open to question.
Monsay, back in Uni now the show's down, read the review with me. We talked about aspiration and she made the very clear point that she'd never understood the teachers who told her to apply herself or - 'She'd end up working in Tesco!' Most of the kids in her class had parents who worked in low pay jobs, so the advice felt patronising and insulting. Dreams of knights in shining armour were also in short supply on the Tottenham estate where she grew up - the aspiration was to have loads of children rather than a fairy tale wedding; so men, or a specific man, didn't necessarily come into the equation.
For all this, the issue goes deeper than mis-understanding. There is an underclass and they are exploited in our society. Low paid jobs offer subsistance living, but that's fine, because when the struggle becomes too much the rich will always sell them credit.
In terms of creating a genuinely socially mobile society we'll only really make waves if we can create a system of education that offers alternatives and provides mechanisms by which opportunities can be taken. This isn't social engineering - it's cohesion.
Blast of real life
Wednesday, 12th November 2008 Yard Gal - Oval House
Last week I saw a little-known play, Yard Gal, which I’m pretty sure is a classic. Written ten years ago by Rebecca Prichard and revived with scintillating and furious energy by Stef O’Driscoll, the play follows the lives of two drug–whore teenagers, Boo and Marie, living in the badlands of Hackney.
The girls exist in a boozed-up whirl of crappy nightclubs, tainted coke and rough sex with strangers. An early scene gives the flavour. Marie fellates a bent copper in a squad car and when he fails to pay up she exacts revenge with her teeth. ‘Smallest meal I ever ate.’The plot is slender. Boo falls out with a rival gang member, there’s a bust-up, a stabbing and a prison conviction. All fairly predictable. What makes the play special is its political indifference, its assumption not only that the girls’ lives are worth chronicling but that they’re worth living too.
Stephanie di Rubbo and Monsay Whitney inhabit the roles of Boo and Marie with such easy authority, such skin-tight perfection that the play performs that rarest of handsprings and leaps beyond the limits of the theatre and aligns itself with real life.And what a blistering and uneasy light it sheds on our present attitudes to social policy. We have a generation of politicians, social scientists, think-tank wonks and charity hacks all toiling away at a theory of class eugenics which postulates the existence of some mechanism by which the lumpen underclass can be propelled into the ranks of the parmesan-grating bourgeoisie.First, the challenge is bigger than they realise. It’s not about ‘changing the world’, which would be hard enough, it’s about changing human nature, a feat beyond the greatest minds of all time, even those with a 2:2 in sociology. Secondly, the life of the crack–whore in her squat is, to her, not just acceptable but attractive. She has attained a kind of excellence, an insurpassability. No one can sink lower than she has and this gives her a sense of eminence, uniqueness even, in which she’s bound to take pride.
She has proved she can survive conditions most women would find intolerable so she feels battle-hardened, self-reliant and secure. She has no reason to abandon her hard-won criminal expertise or to trade in her life of triumphant adversity for a soft-soap yuppie existence with its merry-go-round of petty demands (setting the alarm-clock, dressing for the office) and its alien index of achievement (graduation certificates, property ownership, romantic fidelity, career status).
What underlies our quest for ‘social mobility’ (code for ‘making chavs eat sushi’) is the assumption that we posh folk have more fulfilling and varied lives than the tower block helots. Not on this evidence. Boo and Marie live lives of Homeric intensity. Every day is a deadly game of chicken played with tainted drugs, psychotic punters, pilled-up pimps and jealous boyfriends. The range and depth of their experiences would leave an Afghan war hero in the shade.After watching this thrilling blast of real life I found myself floating homewards in a euphoric state of wonder and certainty. We should chuck all this social-mobility garbage (which involves posh self-worshipping ghetto-tourists validating their own morality by bribing the underclass to adopt bourgeois gods) and let the crack–whore–chav–scum get on with it.
The problem with being poor is it takes up a lot of your time. The problem with being rich is it takes up a lot of other peoples.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
To the National to see Enda Walsh's critically acclaimed play The Walworth Farce as it comes to the end of its London run.
A few years ago I saw a production of Walsh's Disco Pigs and last year his teenage parable Chatroom won plaudits in the Cottesloe.
I'm still not sure what to make of his work. Here he revisits common themes of power relationships, inter dependency and the struggle to control a collective biography.
Dinny, an Irish exile from Cork, living in a council flat on the Walworth Road has spent the last twenty years bringing up his sons Blake and Sean. Every day he makes them physically enact a farcical version of the events leading up to him leaving their mother and running away across the Irish sea. The only time he lets them out of the flat is to buy the props needed for an accurate and detailed retelling. They are hostage to his version of history.
The tyranny of this kinesthetic form of education is revealed when the private ritual is interrupted by Hayley, a young black checkout girl from Tescos, who realising that Sean, tasked with the morning shop, had picked up the wrong bag, calls round to correct the error. With her friendly demeanour and curious questioning she represents everything the boys, trapped in their father's vision of events, are not.
It's a provocative piece of work and for all the heightened clowning, genuinely disturbing, particularly as Dinny, unsure how to cope with the intrusion into his tightly controlled world by turns enlists, kidnaps and terrorises Hayley, at one point coating her face in white hair cream so that she can authentically take on one of the roles in his story. Meanwhile Blake, lost and confused by the break of routine kidnaps, binds and threatens her with a knife.
In usurping the very idea that biography can be authentically staged, the play jokes on the idea of a theatrical event inevitably being a cathartic therapy or revolution for change. It's a delicious and cheeky dig at the positive power of storytelling. If the teller is both deluded and fixed the damage becomes incalculable. In the fun of the farce this is all preposterously enjoyable and the black humour is positively gothic.
Beyond the laughter is the sinister undertone. We only have to look at the case studies of Joseph Fritzl in Austria and the Fred West in this country to understand how fragile a child's understanding of normality can be, and how easily a sick parent can pervert it. Although moral panic needs some temper, it's also helpful to explore our darkest recesses and our most hideous nightmares.
As stories are powerful... they can also be dangerous. As stories are inspiring they can also be liberating.
Friday, 14 November 2008
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Until Nov 15
Two teenage girls swagger on to an almost bare stage like they’re holding champion staffs. Audience members flinch. One girl clutches her boyfriend as if they’ll be blown away by the maelstrom. But Boo (Stefanie Di Rubbo) and Marie (Monsay Whitney) are armed only with their violent tale of drugs, prostitution, girls gangs and gang bangs, and an unshakeable resolve to tell it.Rebecca Prichard’s ‘Yard Gal’, which won her the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award in 1998, is the story of two best friends who run the daily gauntlet of urban dysfunction, or as Boo puts it ‘chatting shit, getting fucked, getting high and doing crimes’.
Monday, 10 November 2008
Sunday, 9 November 2008
Saturday, 8 November 2008
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Monday, 3 November 2008
The Evening Standard review for Yard Gal has just come out.
I've reproduced in full here...
Yard Gal is astonishing
By Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard 03.11.08
It is a rare and delightful treat to encounter a production as splendid as this, especially in a lesser known fringe venue. A credit-crunch-friendly £8 buys entry to 21-year-old director Stef O’Driscoll’s revival of Rebecca Prichard’s terrifying look at two teenage girls posturing around the streets of Hackney. From the opening seconds, O’Driscoll’s confidence-packed production has us gripped, as Boo (Stefanie Di Rubbo) and Marie (Monsay Whitney) saunter on and eyeball individual audience members with menacing intent. Thus begins a hurtling 90-minute account of drug taking and dealing, casual prostitution and girl gang etiquette. Di Rubbo and Whitney are charismatic young actors with great futures. They capture with unflagging vocal and physical energy the high spirits and black humour of these lifelong friends, as well as recounting the exploits of fellow “yard gals”, including one who loved fighting so long as it didn’t mess with her hair. All the bounce in the world, however, cannot mask the frighteningly nihilistic lives that Boo and Marie lead. A bigger yard — or transfer to a larger theatre — would be just reward for these astonishing gals.
Well done team!!!!