Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Recce at Chiswick House

We went over to Chiswick House to recce in preparation for the schools' show next May. Head gardener Fiona showed us round. At present the park is a bit of a building site, but even dodging the bulldozers and trucks it's clear that it's a very magical place, full of potential.

We began to identify natural theatres and stages within the ground. An amphitheatre circling a perfectly round pond, a hump back bridge, a row of holly bushes leading to a stone gateway and the funeral way that leads from the statues of three roman senators past urns, Sphinx and two gorgeous Cedar trees to the Palladian house itself.

Our budget isn't huge for this work, so we need to be judicious in selecting five or six places where we can really create a focus for the story and perhaps use the larger open spaces for pre-show play and post-show celebration. In a way the risk is that we try and incorporate everything - the clever thing will be choosing what to leave out.

It was great to have the full company with us and Fiona was really generous with her time and stories about the architecture and the history of the garden itself.

We've fixed the date for Thursday 28th May. Now the hard work begins.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

This Island's Mine!

A wonderful day!

Up early and off to Stratford upon Avon to see the matinee of The Tempest performed in riotous colour by the young Baxter Theatre company from Cape Town, supported by Tony Sher as Prospero and John Kani as Caliban.

The production itself is incredible - carefully structured around key lines drawing on the dynamics of colonialism. The ending where Sher's Prospero - fights his lines but ultimately fails to convincingly forgive his enemies only to turn the final As you from crimes would pardon'd be, Let your indulgence set me free to Kani's Caliban who angrily rushes back onto the stage to break up the Epilogue, is literally breathtaking. They walk alongside each other in distrust and only once Sher has quit the stage, watched all the way, does Kani throw away the crutches he's been leaning on throughout and stand to reclaim his land.

Twenty minutes later he greeted us warmly at stage door and we went off for coffee.

'I based my whole interpretation on Caliban' line This island's MINE...' said John, tapping out the rhythm on the table in front of him. 'Caliban is not a slave... never a slave. He is not subservient. He spends the entire play trying to murder Prospero. The idea that he is some slippery servant, half man, half fish is in other's minds. In his own he is a force of resistance just waiting to reclaim his own land. How else could he find the language, the power to deliver Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. They're the most beautiful lines in the play.'

Matt brought out his lab top and showed John the images of each signature in The Robben Island Bible. John greeted each new picture with a whoop of recognition and launched immediately into a story for each man.

'I knew all the brothers. Nelson, Govan (MBeki), Ahmy (Kathrada), Walter (Sisulu) of the older generation. They were sophisticated political operators, distinguished men, thoughtful men. My elder brother was also imprisoned for five years on Robben Island. It is impossible to understand how the Boers in Pretoria could not negotiate with these men. When one of us asked Walter why the ANC couldn't respond to events quicker he shrugged and said Well it takes a long while to get all these elderly gentlemen together.'

'I was in the next generation of ANC with Saths Cooper, Steve Biko, Govan's son Thabo. We were really into Africa as a nation. We had huge Afros and at the start of every meeting we would open by putting our hands on our hearts and singing....' John paused to allow us to fill the gap.
'Nkosi Sikeli Africa?' I guessed with reverence
... 'No...Young, Gifted and Black...' sang John, laughing and grabbing my arm to reassure me that I wasn't the first to fall for the story.

'Saths thought he was an actor... but none of them were really. The were just revolutionaries and when you are a revolutionary you sacrifice everything for the message. This becomes shouting, it's not a play. You can't act it. We met Athol Fugard - but because he was white there was suspicion of us working with him. He is a revolutionary, but he understands struggle as a play'

John and other black theatre makers like Mannie Manim and Winston Ntshona association with Fugard led to deeply humanistic pieces such as The Island, Sizwe Banzi is Dead and Master Harold and the Boys which as they toured Europe and America in the seventies and eighties provided a consciousness raising clarion call to support the anti-apartheid movement. At home producing work in an apartheid regime was often difficult.

'When I first played Othello I kept being detained because every night I was kissing a white woman, so every night I was committing an offence. The officer would say to me. On page 7 it says you embrace and you kiss her... why does this happen. I was impressed he'd read it. Most authority doesn't read literature, because they don't understand metaphor. Authority is literal. So I would say well, it would be great if Laurence Olivier continued to play this role, but whenever he kisses actresses his make up rubs off on them and they don't like it.'

'Often though there was great protests. I can remember I gave the first kiss between a black actor and white actress, Sandra Prinsloo, on stage in Miss Julie it was 1982. Every night hundreds of people walked out. One protest was led by an eminent professor who gave the signal to walk out by standing up at the moment of the kiss. The chairs went up and 300 people went out... but 200 stayed and booed the protest and gave us a five minute standing ovation to encourage us to continue.'

'I had many death threats during this run and one night I was careless. If I ever thought I was being followed in my car I would turn left and left again. If the car still followed I'd go straight home. This night I didn't see the car. It rammed me from behind, another car blocked my path ahead and I woke up fifteen days later in intensive care with eleven stab wounds, I'd been left for dead. For a while nobody could find me. The hospitals didn't want any publicity so I wasn't registered. Two years later my younger brother, a poet was shot dead reading a poem at the funeral of a nine year old girl killed by the police during a riot.'

'The problem is that we are often talked about as victims, but we are the victors - we were just waiting. We were angry at the end and Nelson had to convince us about the concept of reconciliation. We didn't want it. We wanted revenge and tribunal. Truth and reconciliation? There was nothing to reconcile. Nelson said If we can save lives through this process will you give me the mandate. When the truth and reconciliation commission came to our town I asked my mother if she wanted to go and see the man who murdered my younger brother, but she didn't want to live with the memory and she felt her story had been told already by the many other mothers who were facing the murderers of their children. I couldn't go. I was not ready. So I wrote a play instead. The act of creation helps to unearth what is in the heart.'

As he talked it became more and more apparent to me why The Tempest truly is a powerful play about the recent history of South Africa. Mandela and the other brothers in the ANC were at once Caliban and Prospero, caught in a storm. Their story was not just of resistance to the colonial power but of refining their art whilst waiting to be brought home from exile.

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

Friday, 20 February 2009

MA a Go Go!

Great news at the end of the week with Kasia's MA Physical Theatre (International Ensemble) course going through external validation. This means that from September we're able to run the course and add to the department's portfolio.

The new degree will focus on a one year training for practitioners from all over the world who will come to London and form a company for a year. Half of the time they'll focus on skills acquisition based on the European tradition of Jaques LeCoq, Phillipe Gaullier and Monika Pagneaux and for the rest they'll work towards productions to be shown at the BAC or the Pleasance up in Islington.

With support from our friends at NIE it's a completely unique course and the hope is that through practice based research will create new dimensions and approaches to visual storytelling.

We've already had great interest in the course and Kasia can now begin the audition process in earnest.

Meanwhile this afternoon Stef and the cast of Yard Gal came in to do a short workshop and Q&A with the first year. It seemed to go quite well particularly the Q&A which helped to unravel some of the motivations behind the team's passionate commitment to the production and gave some suggestion of alternative approaches. It's been a real fast year since the show was first performed last March and Stef's aware of the need to move on now. There's only so long you can dine out on your initial reputation. Finding the right play or project is proving more tricky, however.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A Night Less Ordinary.

Early meeting with Nicholai Labarrie, who runs the wonderful Oval House Youth Arts programme which is increasingly drawing St.Mary's students to its extra curricular workshops and in-house productions. We spoke a little about possible collaborations and I hope he'll come and run some sessions down at University for us. I think we're both really aware of how much damage teachers can do when they put their own egos in the way of the creative momentum coming from the students and it's clear both from this morning's meeting and from the work I've seen coming out of The Oval in the last year that his encouraging mentoring approach, rather than a slavish insistence on methodology, is producing excellent theatre makers.

From Vauxhall to Chiswick Park with Emma H to tie up details of the summer show - which looks set fare for May 21st (providing the schools agree.) We met trust manager Sarah and head gardener Fiona and have arranged for a 'reccie' of the site next Tuesday. It's exciting to be up and running with this project again.

This evening to the launch of A Night Less Ordinary at The Orange Tree. This is the arts council scheme, prompted by the McMaster report to encourage younger audiences to go to the theatre by offering a set number of free tickets aside on certain nights. Most of the talk was about Nick Hytner's article in the Times on Monday bemoaning the lack of practical training in Universities and Drama Schools. I have to say that I read the article and found it a bit of an unnecessary storm in a tea cup - although it does support the recent moves we've made at St.Mary's to increase the practical training for single honours students.

The problem is if everybody is learning to be a performer - who is learning to watch and objectify? Ultimately a 'me do' culture puts the power of received judgement, criticism and taste in the hands of an increasingly old elite few. It's why I think going to the theatre and forming robust opinions about the work and practice is vital, particularly if you're making claims to be a practitioner yourself. The renaissance ideal would be that we can both create and critique with equal confidence - and that we'd be brave enough not to let the latter interfere with the former.

Sam, The Orange Tree's artistic director, playfully wondered whether we wouldn't encourage more young people to attend if we made theatre going a forbidden activity - but exciting as rebellion is, it burns out fast enough and I hear enough 'geek' (a form of reverence in the homogeneity) comments aimed at theatre going students to recognise that regular, committed attendance already marks you at as unique.

Theatre, at its best, tackles problems, issues, the meaning of existence without fear or censorship. It should be... possibly is... the most radical of pursuits. Set against our mediated sense of the world, it's already curious and rebellious in nature.

I'm still slightly bemused, however, by how little live theatre some Drama students expose themselves too - especially as we're on the doorstep of the greatest theatre city in the world. I hope the scheme will work and will help us to move to a culture where observation and reflection form as important a part of practice as self-expression. We'll chuck the baby out with the bathwater if we don't try.

Friday, 13 February 2009

John Kani and Future Projects.

It been a busy day at work. Matt has heard back from the RSC and things are looking good for a special reading of the Robben Island material at the Richmond Theatre as a kind of pre-show for the The Tempest - which the company are co-producing with the Baxter Theatre of Cape Town and touring to the theatre in March with Tony Sher as Prospero and John Kani as Caliban.

It's a huge coup, particularly as John has agreed to participate and as the day moved on it became clear that a bit of a story was developing with both The Daily Telegraph and the Andrew Marr show making enquiries about the project.

Richmond Theatre are being brilliant in helping to arrange the event and the next stage is to do some editing and structuring of the transcripts to create a tight half hour or so of material.
This is the busiest time of year for the department. The second round of collaborators shows are in the theatre and they'll be swiftly followed by the third year directors pieces in a fortnight's time.
Next Tuesday we have a rehearsed reading of Irish Flames, a play by local playwright John Waller and Kasia has just taken Howard Barker's The Possibilities into rehearsal with the third year acting company.
A bit further down the line will be the Chiswick Park project, an in-house Physical Theatre production of The Visit, Ian's Vagabond Flag launch, the MA Directors productions at the BAC and Los Banditos, who are going to take Destination GB up to the Edinburgh Fringe in the summer.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

England People Very Nice!

To the National to see the first night of England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. A huge, rolling, epic show of Brechtian proportions and aesthetic. It marks another staging post, after Mother Claps Molly House and Jerry Springer, the Opera in NT boss Nick Hytner's fearless attempt to mix populist theatre with contemporary political debate. The result isn't subtle, but it is funny. In many ways this is Stratford East fare and sits a little uncomfortably with the Surrey commuters in Waterloo.

A group of asylum seekers at Pocklington Immigration centre, decide to devise a play to pass the time as they await the 'brown envelopes' which will tell them whether they can remain in the UK

The play they perform is set over four hundred years in Bethnal Green and follows the waves of immigrants from the French Huguenots, to the Irish, to the Russian Jews through to the Bangladeshi community on Brick Lane. All watched over from The Britannia pub by the never aging publican Laurie, barmaid Ida and Barbadian regular Rennie.

Each group fears the arrival of the next and territorial battles over housing, jobs and cultural rights are provoked at every turn. The brilliance of the production is to show that these fears are neither culturally nor historically specific. And for romantics there is one Romeo and Juliet style cross cultural affair in each confrontation to suggest that love can transcend both language and orthodox faith.

Towards the end of the twentieth century a couple, not so different from many of us in the audience, arrive 'to try and make a difference' and delight in the fact that a racist stabbing has occurred on their doorstep because it makes the area 'visceral' and 'edgy.'

The show is long, but rarely dull and occasionally, in it's own scurrilous politically incorrect way, outrageous and devastating. I suspect there might be a backlash at the unashamed cultural stereotyping, but the purpose is a broader one and relates to the need for communities to feel secure enough to laugh at themselves and in so doing find immunity from offence. It's important that the National puts on work like this knocking over sacred cows, whoever they belong too.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


To The Orange Tree to see the dress rehearsal of Greenwash a new political comedy by David Lewis. Recent graduate Andy Brunskill has been assistant director on the show.
I liked it very much and although the actors are still finding their feet, and at times rather overplaying the action rather than just allowing it to flow, I think it'll do well.

Set at an 'intervention' for Charlie, a former Republican presidential candidate a cast of duplicitous characters try, and spectacularly fail, to hide their political and emotional feelings leading to chaos, recrimination and panic. The lies told to seduce each other are used deftly as a parallel for the persuasions used by the Bush administration to justify a war on terror. Greenwash - the disingenious process of pretending to be environmentally friendly, when you're not - is, here, as personal as it corporate. Faux Liberals beware!

In the funniest and most moving scene Charlie, dressed in full clowns regalia and prompted by his PR guru friend Alan, uses post-9/11 rhetoric as an excuse for his own insensitivity, to coax the therapist who is meant to be helping him, out of the bathroom, where she has retreated with a gun and a suicide threat.

Although the piece is overwritten at times, which puts more onus on the actors to play fast, there is more than enough here for a really enjoyable evening of farce.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Cheer Up Sleepy Jean.

It's been a busy weekend. The six nations began on Saturday with England hosting Italy and me hosting my Milanese siblings Paola and Paolo.
Paolo is a sports photographer and takes fantastic pitchside images of the matches. Two years ago, he smuggled me in with a borrowed press pass to the complete confusion of the other Italian journalists who, despite some brilliant acting on my part, smelt a rat when I was unable to answer any of their questions. I had no such luck getting through security this year so whilst Paolo went to work, Paola and me found the roaring fire in the William Webb Ellis and watched the game in warmth and comfort.

Twickenham on match days has a completely different character to it and I learnt a while ago to either join in with the merry making and bonhomie or catch an early train out!

After the game we went down to the Barmy Arms where a very merry, but fairly ugly looking, crowd sang loudly to popular anthems and danced manically on the tables - until one of them (tables not crowd) collapsed during the chorus of Daydream Believer spilling beer, splintering wood and dislocating kneecaps in all directions.

Meanwhile back in college the Collaborators were finalising their devised performances, which were performed this evening. I think it's one of the toughest modules we offer, as each small team has to negotiate their production on every level and without any ascertainable director the process can lack drive and determination. What is offered instead, I guess, is the opportunity to take genuine risks and experiment with both form and content - this of course carries its own risk for assessment.

The first of tonight's pieces was simple and brave with each student choosing a different form to tell a traumatic story from their lives ending with the statement 'This is who I am.' This was followed by a film noir spoof which was very funny, but needed a rocket boost in terms of pace and attack and finally an interesting story about the life of Ellen who, having spent her life institutionalised, was released into the care of her niece. This piece explored both the full theatrical space and by using flashback helped us piece together the history to understand the impact of her release on both the community and herself. It ended with four semi-tableaux of Ellen as an old lady dancing in the rain, as a girl on a swing in the hayloft pushed by her lover, of her intolerant father condemning her and finally a nurse gently playing the piano which underscored her complicated memories.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


Rushed back from Birmingham and straight to the press night for Complicite's new show Shun-Kin at the Barbican. A Japanese cast directed by Simon McBurney.

The piece, adapted form the writings of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, tells the story of the fifty year sadomasochistic relationship between the cruel, blind Shunkin, a virtuoso of the stringed Japanese shamisen, and her passionate pupil, the devoted Sasuke.

When the temperamental Shunkin's face is disfigured in a brutal attack, Sasuke pierces his own eyes out with a needle, so that she will not have to be seen by him. Blind loyalty.

At its heart the play explores the shades of unconditional love that cannot be described, but only sensed. This metaphor of revelation through darkness is used as to contrast a Japanese emphasis on the importance of a shadow world with the connection in Western cultures between light and truth. The suggestion is that beauty, in its purest form, is more visceral provocation than an accurate visual representation of reality.

There is a fascination and respect for the guru here, an admiration for the devotion of servitude, which, beyond the obvious attraction of cruelty, I'm always slightly wary of. The real discordant clash, however, comes in aesthetic terms. The mesmeric, stripped, deliberate efficiency of Kabuki and Noh theatre, both alluded to in the production, smacks headlong into the rough, messy, dressing up box of ideas that has informed the companies process since the early eighties. At times this overflow of playful ideas undermines the simple clarity of philosophical reflection. Can a Western aesthetic escape the desire for work to be looked at rather than absorbed through the skin? Or is our theatre process inevitably slightly indulgent, vain and precocious? The deliberate irony for this show is that even in shadows it still shouts 'Look at me! Look at me!' I couldn't help thinking that the same material in Peter Brook's hands would have been given essence.

I often think that McBurney's shows reflect his current psychological pre-occupations - (why wouldn't they) - and, if this is so, he's in edgy mood, possibly close to crisis. The visual fireworks and perfectly timed jokes of an earlier body of work may be gone but in his ingenious over reach and subsequent inability to tie down the various component parts of the show, the piece is vintage, brave Complicite.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

In Praise of Corinth.

In 1942 a brave band of men and women from Sutton Coldfield, just north of Birmingham, started work on building a theatre to serve their community. They requisitioned a Mission hut, that had been used by trainee soldiers in Sutton Park during the first world war and, under the visionary leadership of John English, diverted their talent and energy, brick by brick, towards the project. It was one of several Little Theatre's created during and immediately after the second world war as Britain repaired and reconnected.

Sixty six years on Highbury Little Theatre is still thriving and I was privileged to be given a tour by the twinkly Brian 'Dickie' Bird, one of two survivors from the original 1942 company. He joined as a fifteen year old and now in his eighty third year is not only the president but chairs the finance committee, advises on each seasons plays and sells programmes for the evening performances. He's excited, magnanimous and positive about the theatre's future.

From modest beginnings the building and the Highbury's activities have expanded slowly, but surely, over the last six decades. It is still run by a 175 strong membership, all are volunteers and all fully invested in the well being of the society. The original intimate 108 seat auditorium is now complimented by a second studio, a workshop, a fantastic wardrobe, an active youth theatre, new rehearsal facilities, a coffee shop and dining club. Everywhere we went there was industry, sawing, sewing, rehearsing and above all else the kind of camaraderie that both values and encourages friendship and well being.

The original theatre was driven by a need to establish a strong community venue as an escape from austerity. It's testimony to the great things that may be achieved when no one person claims the credit.

Amateur theatre, at it's very best, has always offered a touch of blue sky and the selfless investment put in by Dickie and his pals all those years ago continues to provide a place to which people of all ages are proud to belong.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Walpole Letters.

St.Mary's is built in the grounds of Strawberry Hill - a beautiful, ridiculously quirky, little Gothic castle. It's a unique site, the vision of Horace Walpole, son of the Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister. Horace was more interested in letters and travel than power and prestige and our delicate Italianate home is the result of these life long passions.

When I first started working here I couldn't believe it. I felt like I'd been appointed to Hogwarts.

For the last year or so we've been in a bit of a building site as a full blown restoration is carried out with a public reopening planned for a little over a year's time in conjunction with an exhibition at the V & A. We're going to take a full part with two shows commissioned by the Strawberry Hill trust - one for children and one for adults, tentatively we're beginning the research and planning.

The Tempest company very generously gave me a collection of Walpole's letters after our Ham House gigs and I've spent the last couple of days reading through them. What a gem they are - witty, humane and gossipy - he's like a soft Samuel Pepys (the best of the early bloggers!!!) At one moment we're standing in front of the house looking out at the long since developed vista down to the Thames and onto Richmond Park, the next we're in the middle of the Drury Lane riots or attending the executions of rebel Lords. London as exciting, various and lively in the mid-eighteenth century as it is today.

It's going to be wonderful working on them.