Friday, 26 February 2010

Measure of Greatness!

It's always best just to get back on the ass and in contrast to the disappointment of last night's Dream I caught a cracking Measure for Measure at the Almeida tonight with a stunning performance by Rory Kinnear as Angelo.
The turns the play into a parable for our litigious times suggesting clearly the folly of using fear as an instrument for programing society into conformism. It may be bawdy vice which is the excuse for a clampdown in Angelo's Vienna, but it's easy to spot director Michael Attenborough's parallel sniper fire at the alienating protectionism that inhibits debate, argument and idealism in our own times and ultimately destroys those who've strung the bow too tightly.

Nobody plays the revenge of the playground reject like Kinnear (his Malvolio - when it comes -should be knockout.) Comprehensive when surrounded by the law, but incomprehensible when asked to temper his own authority with justice, this is an Angelo whose repressed discomfort is revealed in every glance, gesture and sigh. As his narrow, but unswerving logic and monstrous denial of his own desires fatally explodes, he's left grinning sheepishly quite unable to end his isolation or to empathise with those he's abused. It's a chilling portrait of a dangerous loner, sure of themselves, but unable to understand how anything can be mutual.

There's exceptional support from Anna Maxwell Martin's fierce campaigning, but ultimately stranded, Isabella, Ben Miles' socially experimenting Duke - whose bored manipulations seem, by the end, as malevolent and dangerous as his deputy's hypocrisy. Whilst Lloyd Hutchinson's wheeling Lucio, without ever promoting an image of virtue, surprisingly becomes as close as the production can have to a hero. His pragmatism and philosophical acceptance of the relationship between power and corruption, bleak and nihilistic as it is, stands in stark contrast to the moral posturing of the rest and gives us hope that a world exists and thrives beyond the strictures of the hardline.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Judi Regina.

To The Rose Theatre in Kingston this evening to see Peter Hall's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a strangely lacklustre.

The promising premise was to play Titania as a portrait of the mature Elizabeth I and to allow exploration on the theme of love and power to grow from there. Unfortunately the symbolism got stuck on this clever visual crossover and despite Judi Dench's effortless and beautiful performance, went no further.

The real obstacle was the support. Puck and Oberon unexplainably mugged, prated, camped it up and did everything to demonstrate inferiority to their Queen. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision to underline the gulf in class, but how much more exciting and liberating for the story it would have been to play the Fairy King as a young tiger, Essex or Leicester, full of self-confidence, ambition and desire? How much more interesting to allow Puck's 'on the make' malevolence some reign and leave the gags to Bottom and his crew.

As it was I saw no reason for this Titania to waste more than a cursory moment of her splendour in their company. This Oberon certainly wasn't worth falling in love with.

The mechanicals provided, as they always do, a little relief and the lovers attacked their roles with energy and clarity but, truth be told, I found the production lazy. Hall had clearly focused on the verse speaking, but beyond that it felt as if his direction had been texted in. As a crowd puller Dame Judi is a coup, but sadly, having persuaded her to take part, an opportunity to reframe the play was carelessly lost. Maybe her presence alone was deemed enough.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Community Safety Day.

We took our forum theatre play to Twickenham Stadium for Richmond Council's Community Safety Day. It was a long but rewarding day with five, hour long workshops back to back involving 150 year nine students from across the borough.

First years Katie, Matt, Emma, Andy and Melissa did a cracking job playing five very different audiences and were always on the ball, engaged and professional in everything they did. It was impressive work.

The twist in our play revolved around peer group pressure and focused on James, played by Matt, trying to stay out of trouble by standing up to the popular Ben, played by Andy and Bella, a girl he fancies and who fancies him, played by Emma. Eventually egged on by them he's arrested for criminal damage and anti-social behaviour.

Many of the students who got up to try and solve the problem did so at the expense of the friendships; with one uber-confident girl from Teddington School proudly proclaiming 'Individuality NOT Popularity!' to the rest of the audience. But my favourite intervention came from fourteen year old Courtney who goes to Whitton School. She replaced James three times and on each occasion refused to give up on Bella, working overtime to keep the friendship alive, whilst avoiding giving into peer demands. She didn't totally succeed in finding the balance, but she did give the whole audience a lesson in loyalty and emotional maturity. It's what I love about forum theatre it makes you respond with your heart, as much as with your head.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Mixing the Palette.

Leaving Sarajevo is hard to do. It's an almost dreamlike city, where the best of life tries to survive. I could spend longer here strolling amongst the shops in the old town, eating cevapi, having conversations over long drawn out cups of coffee or browsing through the bookshops. Nearly everybody I've met on this trip is cautious, but also in possession of a gentle self -deprecating humour, generous and full of allowance for the beliefs and peculiarities of others. Light strokes, gentle mergers.

After breakfast I headed off to buy a couple of prints and a beautiful watercolour of pigeon square to remind me of the trip. We've got thousands of words of transcript and the Sarajevo Marlboro' stories themselves of course -but the scope and shape of the show remains to be discovered.

I've been trying to find a counter factual parallel in an English context for what happened here. Of course it's impossible to transport the fraught history of the Slavs to the UK. It's also very difficult to project Sarajevo's story onto a city as internationally important as London but...

Imagine if, fuelled by media scare mongering, perhaps over asylum and immigration, perhaps in a climate of increased Islamophobia, the BNP find themselves in a future coalition government and began a similar project of 'ethnic cleansing' to try and reassert the rights of an 'indigenous white population' through the creation of 'pure' areas. To begin with these might be villages in the South, in Surrey and Kent where estate agent are instructed to only sell to white clients.

Then one night, the white population of Leicester pack their bags, leave their houses and move out - claiming that they are a persecuted minority in a predominantly Asian city. The sight of white refugees causes national outrage and the army, under government instruction, lay siege to the city - which is in turn defended by the remaining Asian population. Leicester becomes a test case for the British future.
As an outline it's far fetched and surely the positive nature of race relations in the UK acts as a barrier to this particular doomsday - but it is what happened here eighteen years ago and nobody could prevent it. Bosnia is still living uneasily with the divisions.

'I always make the same mistake when I paint with watercolours,' said Kurt, the smiling Danish lawyer, who's also staying at Halvat 'I dab here... dab there and I nearly always do too much. I always forget that when working with watercolours you need to let the paper be part of the picture. One stroke too many and the whole thing is ruined.'

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Sarajevo Theatre of War.

Sarajevo is in thaw. It's noisy as the snow frees itself from the rooftops and crashes down onto the pavements. The Milijacka river gurgles in full flow and has turned red bringing down mud and minerals from the surrounding hills. Through the drains, the many springs and tributaries that run underneath the city can be heard and the green line of Spring is slowly but surely creeping up the Treskavica Mountain dominating the town to the South. The year is on the move and our time here is coming to a close.

We took it easy today, pottered about and enjoyed the cafe culture that helps make this a very special place.

In the evening we went to see an exciting and expressionistic version of The House of Bernarda Alba at the Sarajevo Theatre of War (SARTR) performed by the impressive SLG company from Slovenia.

The space itself has a noble history of resistance and during the siege managed to cobble together enough resources, artists and audience to put on over 2000 performances. Its slogan 'Theatre against Death.'

Tonight's production seemed to fit perfectly with the chaos and surreal nature of war. Unlike so many British productions of Lorca, which treat the writer as a sacrosanct naturalist, the company found a hugely impassioned physicality to unleash the repressed desires of Bernarda's five daughters.

With every hurt magnified, every relationship deteriorating, the stage was very quickly strewn with physical debris - clothes, liquids, broken things. With the civilised diplomacy of trying to live through seven years of mourning exposed and shredded in free flowing visual metaphors, the survivors are left to pick their way through the fragments and try and connect them back together again.

It was rich, terrific and very moving.

Beginning Again at the End of the World.

Friday 19th February

I was nervous about today. We caught the bus East over winding mountain roads to Srebrenica, the furthest place in Bosnia, just a few miles from the river Drina and the Serbian border.
In July 1995 the town was the site of the worst European genocide since the Second World War when Serb forces overran the town, which had previously been demilitarised and designated a safe haven by the United Nations. Women and young children were quickly evacuated to Bosnian controlled territory in Tuzla, they were told the men would join them there once further buses were available. Helpless the Dutch peacekeepers stationed there also withdrew. With the witnesses gone and the international community dithering, Serb soldiers took only three days to massacre the 8,000 Muslim men left behind. The bodies are still being recovered from the mass graves that surround the town. It was the most shameful of betrayals.

Fifteen years later and a three hour bus trip from Sarajevo we were greeted in the Primary School at Potocari, which is now trying to work with a new generation of Serb and Bosniak children. Stef immediately launched herself into an impromptu Drama class. I'd stupidly left my camera on the bus and so went into town with fourteen year old Rasima to see if we could find the driver.

Rasima's story isn't unusual. Her family had managed to escape the enclave at the start of the war and she was born and brought up in Tuzla. Then in 2002 her parents took the brave decision to return to the town and make their own personal commitment to ensuring that the project to ethnically cleanse the town would not be successful. Rasima, as the youngest, returned with them, but she dreams of being with her older brother and sister who have escaped to Ljubljana and are bringing up her nephew and niece as Slovenes. For the most part though she was less interested in her place in Balkan politics and more in whether I thought Lady Gaga or Leona Lewis was the better singer.
To my relief we found the driver, reclaimed my camera and were driven back to the school by Senaid, the social worker in charge of the NGO responsible for relocating families back in the town.

'The real problem is not cultural,' he said 'It's economic. If you have a secure job you tend not to blame your neighbour. You don't start the - he got my job because he's a Serb - story. Ethnic tensions only really rise when there isn't enough work to go round. So the real job is ensuring employment for the families who want to come back. It's pointless just making a gesture.'

I pointed out the newly rebuilt mosque, sitting less than fifty metres from the orthodox church and suggested that it told a positive story of the possibility for a multi ethnic state, even here deep in the Republic Srpska.

'I don't know,' he sighed 'My opinion is that there are too many stories in Bosnia. Everybody has a story to tell, but nobody knows how to listen. We all seem to have so much to say.'

After lessons had finished we made our way up to the memorial centre, close to the site of the Dutch base to meet Hatidza Mehmedovic, who now runs the Srbrenica Mothers Association. A support group for widows of the massacre, actively campaigning to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice. She greeted us warmly.

'The Republic Srpska is the only country in which genocide is rewarded,' she began 'but we will speak for the dead. We will ensure that those who stand trial at The Hague are punished for their crimes. Only then can we begin again. I don't want revenge. I don't agree with Jihardists who seek to kill. I just want to live in my home and know that it is my home. I lost two brothers, two children and a husband - but I will not leave this place. It is everything to me. My home. I will never accept the legitimacy of a Serbian state in Bosnia. Here I speak for all the mothers. We will never forgive the international community. We will never forgive you for abandoning us! Now there is much work to do. I wasn't interested in war, but it was interested in me. We must never forget that it can happen and we must never let it.'

Quite simply she was one of the most impressive women I've ever met. Stef asked if we could take her picture and I got my camera out.

'Good camera,' she said 'did you really leave it on the bus? If only I'd been lucky enough to find it. It would have made my day to have a camera like that. Now let me see the picture. I want to make sure my eyes aren't closed.'

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Tunnel Vision.

This morning we caught a cab to a small garage on the northern side of the airport runway - which for three years hid the only tunnel in or out of Sarajevo. Food, arms, casualties and occasional dignitaries were smuggled through this cramped space. Every day hundreds of people crouched their way along the 700 metres of dark and damp claustrophobia, each trying to carry as much as possible to prolong the time before they next had to make the dangerous trek. The opening at either end originally led into a maze of trenches designed to give the weary travellers a chance to escape the snipers in the hills and get their precious cargo home.

Now only thirty metres of the tunnel exists, but it's enough to understand how tough it must have been to ferry enough supplies for the 300,000 people trapped in the city. As you'd expect use of this survival passage was strictly regulated, with travel only allowed in one direction at a time. Given these conditions it's amazing that this tiny space managed to ferry over a million people in and out of the siege. At just a metre wide it was the slimmest gateway to a better future.

In the afternoon I had a meeting with Ines Kadic, a young curator at the Bosnian Institute. She took me round the art collection and we talked a little about image, literature and symbolism. (she's doing a PhD on Metaphor.) As with many of the young people we've met, bright intelligence was married with a sad resignation about the future. Tired, I tried to challenge it.

'Wherever I go I hear that the war will begin again,' I suggested 'and then I see these wonderful paintings and I wonder why so few Bosnians seem to believe in the creativity needed to prevent it? This pessimism is scaring me a little'

'...but you can't stop history repeating,' Ines replied 'the story is already unfolding.'

'Of course, but whilst it's being written, you can change it. You can write an alternative. You need vision, leadership, you need art - but I can't accept that all is already lost. Can't you think that time will pass and peace will hold? Isn't this institute an investment in the belief that Bosnia will grow in confidence and begin to consolidate its right to exist? And that life will be easier?'

'Maybe, but shall we say Bosnia is in a deep depression. Maybe even trauma. How can we look forward - just practicing a routine existence is hard enough. You talk of creativity, but this is not possible in depression. For now it is too aggressive an act to contemplate.'

'I think I understand. My parents lived through the second world war and you could say they are partly defined by the experiences they had and the lessons it taught them. In turn I carry some commitment to prevent the repeat and I hope that if I became a father I would pass this on to my children. All the time the immediate memory fades, but knowledge of the horror does not. The balance is what matters.'

We finished the tour. As I prepared to leave Ines produced another thought.

'Why tell your children?' she asked. 'They can't empathise with what your parents experienced. Why terrorise them with your fear? Better to let them live and make up their own minds.'

'Now I'm scared of your optimism,' I said and headed off towards dinner at a restaurant on Marsala Tita avenue, where the eternal flame pays homage to those who liberated the city in 1945.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

What country, friends, is this?

This morning it was Nefa's turn to open up. Over breakfast she began to tell us her version of Bosnia's story. It was a lyric and moving account.

'Originally we were Illyrians and had our kingdom - but we were curious and as others arrived we welcomed them and learnt from them. So now what can we do? The waves of history keep hitting us and we are just the still point. Time, culture and men rush through the Balkans and we receive them all. Too big to be a lake; too small to be absorbed into the ground. We began at our destiny and have lost ground ever since. Now we learnt not to invite, not to trust and all our stories are about defence, they are not about the future. We can't do that. Perhaps we don't care? Perhaps it's honest to say that. But isn't honesty a form of madness?'

Passion is everywhere in Sarajevo but Nefa's romantic pride comes at huge personal cost. Originally she is from Zvornik in the East, but after the Serbs ethnically cleansed the region she, still a child, was sent to a concentration camp before escaping to Zagreb. Now back in Bosnia she unsurprisingly has little time for - 'those who murdered my family' - and has no desire to return to her home town now firmly within the Republic Srebska.

'We are a tolerant people,' she says 'did you see how we preserved the cultures of even those who were attacking us. We have never looked for revenge.'

We set off to the Zemaljski Muzej (National Museum) to see the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah. A book brought to the city by the Jews who arrived in 1492. It's stunning and amazingly, for the time, portrays the world as being round. A Muslim scholar hid it during the Holocaust and it was taken from the library only days before that was destroyed in the shelling. In itself it's a wonderful symbol for a country that seems to value the academic and the plural over nationalism or partisanship. I get the sense that this open honesty is Bosnia's great strength, but may also be it's fatal weakness.

This afternoon we caught a bus across the Dayton drawn border into the Republic and the mountain town of Pale - which was the military centre for the Bosnian Serbs during the war. Both Military Commander Mladic and the Bosnian Serb president Karadzic were based here at times. It's a place to make you shudder - just twelve kilometres from Sarajevo there is no memory of the siege, only a memorial crucifix dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives trying to capture the city. The Serb story is that they were fighting to keep Yugoslavia together, to stop Bosnia ceding. Beyond this is a crazy belief that the attempted destruction of the Bosniak people was just the final liberation of the Balkans from the tyranny of Ottoman influence. It's dark age logic - in such contrast to the illuminations we'd spent the morning with. We walked around for twenty minutes in stunned silence and caught the first bus back out. It's a journey I don't need to make again.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

On Tour with Valida.

We had a wonderful morning with Valida, who runs Halvat with her husband Mumo. She gave us a walking tour and told us hundreds of stories about her lives (and there have been many) in Sarajevo. We looked in the Mosque - with beautiful carpets made by hand, the Cathedral where the Pope delivered a sermon at the end of the siege, the Synagogue, which has been here since the Jews were exiled from Spain in the fifteenth century and the Orthodox church whose icons were protected throughout the war. Finally she took us to her favourite coffee shop in Bascarsija. Mumo was sitting in a corner sipping coffee and reading the newspaper, but he quietly slipped out when Valida began attacking the owner for buying a plasma screen TV.

'What do you want? Lots of gorilla men in here staring at football and not talking?' The owner shrugged, smiled and brought over a small plate of Turkish delight by way of appeasement. Settled and happy Valida began again.

'In the war my brother used to try and catch pigeons in this square - he made a box from discarded cardboard, a stick and some string. He'd put a seed under the propped box, pull the string and trap the pigeon underneath. He was only fifteen - but on a good day he could catch five. I would never eat them because I heard they gave you TB. He set up a business with my cousin who was twelve. They became the pigeon catchers of old town - available for all your dining or party needs. The next day h went back to the square and a man came up to him and shouted at him for taking pigeons - didn't he realise other people needed to eat? My brother offered him a reasonable price and was physically kicked all the way home and warned not to show his face for a week. He was sobbing so much.

It was about this time I met Mumo - he was a soldier but I didn't like him so much. He was so boring - always asking me to dance, always telling me he could steal electricity from the police station so we could watch a movie or something. Eventually I agreed to have a coffee. Four days later he asked me to marry him. I said 'yes' and then hoped we could laugh it off. We saw each other for two months without mentioning it and then he said 'you know we agreed to marry? Well I was serious!' I think I was too proud because I said 'so was I.' So we got married.

My grandmother always told the story of watching my grandfather standing out her window in the old town. Men were not supposed to see women and the window had downwards slats so that she could see him. Sometimes she would put a handkerchief out of the window and he would hold the other end like they were touching. His father was a tailor around the corner from here, she always told me how beautiful he looked and that one day, when he'd given up hope of having her - he'd heard she was marrying somebody else or some story - she saw a single tear trickle onto and down his grey suit. That was when she fell in love. I always said - 'grandma are you sure? Maybe it was raining?'

I'd always dreamed of being some princess for my wedding, but the only thing that was glamorous was my figure. I was 48 kg by this time. We were all so hungry and thin you see. It was the only time I ever saw Mumo's adam's apple, now I can't even see his neck. We managed to get enough food together for ten people - our parents and a couple of friends and stole some electricity from the police station. I used a beautiful dress that my grandmother had somehow managed to protect. Mumo found two litres of whisky - I think he drank it all. Now when we have a row and I threaten to leave he says - 'Fine but also leave the twenty kilogrammes you've added since we were married!' He's been a great friend. I still don't think I married for romantic love, but he's wonderful. I think you should maybe always just start something, not be afraid, love will come later. Now he doesn't say he loves me, but he always puts a blanket over me when I fall asleep. I would never do that for him. I'm such an idiot. You know what? Stone, diamonds, jewellery; there is nothing stronger than the human spirit.'

And with that she went back to work.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Mountain Climbing and a Dodgy Chekhov.

After breakfast we set off up into the hills to the East and climbed for over an hour until we reached the skyline. From here you can see how vulnerable the city is in it's bowl. The Sun was out and we talked as we walked about where Sarajevo Marlboro might go.

One option is for Stef to workshop it at The Oval with a young company with me providing the adaptation and scripting sections. This could potentially begin in April with a possible July showing. Otherwise we might be looking at carving out a week in May to do some development work - but this journey seems slower and less secure. I think we both feel that it's important to keep the work moving. Slipping and sliding we made our way back into town.

It's the Winter Theatre Festival here and so we took the opportunity of going to see a version of The Three Sisters at the Kamerini 55 theatre this evening. It was tough going mostly because the script had been cut and the four performers from Mostar just told the story of the Prozorovs' relationship with the dashing Vershinin and the cuckolded Fiodor (both played by the same actor.) All this put Masha firmly at the centre and a black and white comparison between the two men was evident throughout. With all other sub-plots expunged, the actors filled the gaps, and scene changes with meditations on the play in direct address monologue. All this might have worked had the acting been stronger - but there was a sense of forced emotion and clumsy staging which gave a dark and cliched air to the whole proceeding. Perhaps it's all lost in translation, but this seemed a Chekhov for unremitting masochists. Still the space was gorgeous and it's good to start to understand what's being programmed.

Check Mate.

Into Sunday 14th February.

We ended up spending Saturday night in Sloga - a throwback, late eighties, pre-war bar - which went out of its way to justify Sarajevo's reputation as a rock n roll city. It was packed, cheap and good fun. We'd been recommended it by Nefa, who works afternoons at Halvat - well to be fair she recommended Basement - but gave the place such a build up that we weren't sure we'd cut it.

'I like it in there,' she said 'All Bosnians who go are very beautiful. All over 1 metre 90 and dressed in the most stylish clothes. Sloga is for more ordinary people I would say.'

So Sloga it was.

Sunday was recovery and a bit of a catch up. We took another stroll up to the bus station and back. Ema is sorting out some interviews for us for later in the week and so in the meantime we're left with planning, re reading the stories and chance meetings.

Outside the Saborna Crkva the men were playing outdoor chess at great speed on a huge board.

'They're impressive, aren't they?' Said a stranger who was standing next to us.

'They are,' agreed Stef, 'do you play?'

'I used to, but not once I'd left the city,' he said slowly.

'Oh?' we nodded and prepared to listen.

'I have a great sorrow for what happened here. I'm back to visit my sister, but now I moved to Germany and have my family there.''

'Is it strange coming back?'

"Not so much. It's still strange there though, often I'm asked - 'what nationality are you?' - I always say - 'Yugoslav!' - and they always say - 'No what nationality? Croat? Serb? Bosnian?' - I won't answer this question. It doesn't exist this question for me. You know that when you travel you get to see great things. The Cathedral in Koln, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. All these great things and you ask - 'how could humans make this? How could they make this in the Middle Ages?' Now in Sarajevo I don't ask 'how could?' I say 'what now?'"

Back at Halvat we repeated the conversation with Ema.

'Felt sorrow?' she said smiling gently 'So he should! He left.'

Where are the Stories Now?

Saturday 13th February.

We're staying in a wonderful guest house called Halvat on the edge of the old town and are clearly going to be royally looked after. Some interest in our project has been generated through email exchange. This morning we were able to finally meet some of our initial contacts.

Firstly Ema, a literature student, who does the breakfast shift at the house. She seemed genuinely excited to meet us and pledged lots of help with arranging meetings. She made us pancakes and talked a bit about where she felt Bosnia might be.

'I don't like that the fact that the war is always in the background of stories about Bosnia.' she said challengingly, 'It's so commercial. What used to be a kind of therapy is now just a way to make money.'

'So what stories need telling now,' I asked 'are any artists exploring the possible futures?'

'What future? We stopped thinking about the future a long time ago. We just live day to day and that's it. In Sarajevo we have a saying - it could be worse. That is Sarajevo - it could be worse. We don't have stories for the future. We're stuck in the present.'

We headed out into town and orientated ourselves by walking westward from the bazaars, up Marshall Tita Avenue to the Holiday Inn, which housed the international press camped out during the seige, before coming back along the river to the old library where some two million books and manuscripts were lost in the fire storm of a mortar attack in August 1992. Finally we climbed up, through the cemetery to the yellow fort and watched the black dotted silhouettes of people walking home highlighted by the Winter pink sun of a pale afternoon sparkling off the snowy rooftops.

'All over the city sheets of burnt paper, fragile pages of grey ashes, floated down like a dirty black snow. Catching a page you could feel its heat, and for a moment read a fragment of text in a strange kind of black and grey negative, until, as the heat dissipated, the page melted to dust in your hand.'

- wrote the chief librarian, Kemal Bakarsic, after the attack. Putting together our fragments in hope of finding a story worthy of telling is going to be a complicated task.

Balkan Bonus.

Friday 12th February.
With reading week approaching Stef and I set off to Bosnia for our long planned research trip. The next phase of a project to try and dramatise Miljenko Jergovic's Sarajevo Marlboro short stories sometime later this year.

Our early morning flight connection to Munich was due to leave at 6am. We stayed up overnight and caught a cab to the airport only to find that Bavarian snow had led to a cancellation. With all subsequent flights booked up with half term skiers and their families, Lufthansa were left with a mob of tired and grumpy passengers to deal with.

Eventually after a four hour wait slumped over our suitcases we reached the front of the queue and were immediately dispatched in a taxi to Gatwick to try and catch the 10.15 Croatian Airways flight to Zagreb, which would then connect later in the evening with Sarajevo. Only problem was we had just an hour and a half to get round the M25 at the height of rush hour, check in our bags and negotiate security. The harassed ticket officer assured us it was possible and chucked in £20 of food vouchers to keep us going.

Somehow, despite the road works, the bag drop woman sharing her nervous breakdown with us, a snarled 'you'll never make it!' from the man checking the boarding cards, the ritual removal of belts and boots for the metal detectors and a long sprint down the corridor to the departure gate, we did it with seconds to spare. Exhausted we collapsed onto the plane and only woke two hours later when we bumped down on a snowy runway the opposite end of Europe.

So without meaning or planning we were in Croatia with six hours to wait. We changed some Euros for Kuna and headed into town.

Deep in Winter, Zagreb felt like a picture postcards full of statues of equestrian knights, modest squares and gabled houses with icicles hanging. It was all rather beautiful. We caught a tram to Ban Jelacic Square and walked up to the Kaptol where the body of a cryogenically frozen bishop lay mournfully in state. Over the road the Dolac market was closing up for the day so we found our way to a bar on Tkalciceva and watched the clock over a couple of very tasty beers before making our way back to the airport for the final short leg of a long day. Our host Mumo was waiting for us and finally, twenty hours after leaving home, we were welcomed to Sarajevo.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Twenty Years Ago.

Some days are better than others. Twenty years ago today I gathered with a few beers and some University friends in the front room of my student house and watched Nelson Mandela walk to freedom. It was the most amazing single moment in an incredible few months which had seen student uprisings in China and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and would go on to witness the Poll Tax riot and finally the resignation of our bete noire Margaret Thatcher. It felt like time was on fast forward and that new possibilities were opening up almost weekly. In our optimism we were sure we belonged in the emerging new world and for many of us the rolling events felt a vindication of our beliefs A tangible sense of what our generation might be able to offer in the years ahead. The decks were being cleared.

We had to wait for Mandela. The BBC were there and a long lens camera focused on the road down which he was scheduled to walk. A voice over described events and the heat shimmered off the tarmac meaning that when he did finally appear, two hours late, it was as a blinking dot on the horizon which gradually came into focus. He approached us hand in hand with Winnie. We cheered, toasted, put our favourite records on and danced all afternoon.

As I write this Matt is busy working at the Market Theatre in South Africa, looking for new ways to tell the stories of the brave men who were Mandela's comrades during the long exile on Robben Island. It's incredible to realise the changes in South Africa over the last two decades and more important to remember that even in the most difficult or cynical times we can join movements that both plan a better future and work towards achieving it. I think students have not just the possibility, but the responsibility to be brave. to imagine, to desire. It's tough, but exciting, work. Our job as lecturers is to support, to provide the maps and if we cannot then to simply get out of the way.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Bang to Rights.

Early morning briefing with Katie, Andy, Emma and Matt in preparation for the community safety day the week after next. The forum play has shaped up well, but with PC Phil and his colleagues in attendance we were given a really great opportunity to tidy up the few remaining concerns we have over the protocol and authenticity of the work. We've only got 45 minutes with each of the groups so we have to get it right.

Phil showed us a couple of different approaches to stop and search. I asked Matt to play difficult and I think we were all astonished by how quickly and expertly he was cuffed and arrested for his trouble.

We tried out a range of different options and some of the variations that we've discovered through the weekend rehearsals and Phil patiently showed us how he'd deal with each. For the most part we were spot on, but none of us realised quite how physically close a police officer gets to a suspect when questioning them. Phil demonstrated how this proximity stops whoever he's talking to from taking a pop at him - it just allows him to block. We stayed for a good couple of hours but came out feeling that we'd done our homework. We're going to dry run the piece for a five or six of the first year tomorrow lunchtime.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Arabian Nights.

The level 3 Acting students production of Arabian Nights opens tonight - I managed to get in to see the dress yesterday evening.

It's Patsy's first show as a director here and she's done a great job pulling out some surprising performances from the acting company. Fahad in particular as the leader of the group of travelling players, singing for their supper, on the road from Basra to Baghdad seemed to me to catch perfectly the combination of pride and humility needed to survive in a world where every meal must be begged for; the cost of every performance negotiated.

Elsewhere there were some neat, well played cameos, including four musicians who underscored the piece, helping to texture and occasionally adding a splash of humour.

The show looked incredible. Patsy moved the action with confidence, playing with the full canvass of the large theatre space. It was also wonderfully costumed and exquisitely lit - giving the performers every incentive and encouragement to explore their imagined world and commit to persuading us that their stories were worth the price of a meal. I hope it goes well.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Boy and The City.

After Matt and Aida married in Indiana the summer before last, a group of us took a road trip across America from Indianapolis via Chicago and Memphis to Louisiana in the deep south. It was a wonderful adventure, with amazing discoveries all the way.

... but it was New Orleans that haunted me. The debris of hurricane Katrina was everywhere and there was a real sense that the city was still waiting for rebuilding to start. Sure the party atmosphere was strong in the French Quarter and as tourists our money was welcomed everywhere - but I couldn't help feeling that a skeptical resentment remained. In the aftermath of the disaster the city had been abandoned, support and resources were late arriving and inadequate when they came. Thousands of citizens forced without supplies into the makeshift hell of the Superdome - hot and unhygienic in high summer. Why? The nagging doubt was that with little hope of protection from subsequent natural disasters, perhaps New Orleans had been written off. Why invest in a place that's always going to be geographically in the line of fire?

But killing off a city is hard to do - Coventry, Dresden even Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been rebuilt. Sarajevo and Baghdad are beginning to polish their treasures again and hopefully, in time, Port Au Prince will once again regain its glory. Cities aren't just accommodation or administrative centres - they also house thousands of stories, associations and memories and without a physical place for these to be situated, meaning is lost and the future becomes difficult to make sense of. It is they, not the buildings that are irreplaceable.

Tonight another chapter. New Orleans Saints met Indianapolis Colts in the Superbowl Final in Miami. A nightmare of split loyalty for me, but even worse for the Colts quarter back Payton Manning, a New Orleans boy and the son of a Saint's hero Archie Manning. Payton's spent the last five years ploughing money from his foundation back into the town of his birth as it gingerly gets back on its feet.

Beyond munificence Manning is a giant in the game, inventive, reliable and unswervingly accurate. Supported by agile and destructive offensive runners he was expected to put the Saints to the sword.

The first quarter went to plan, but the Saints bravely held on and clawed back to be just four points down 10 -6 by the end of the second. The third quarter was nip and tuck, until remarkably in a moment of madness or genius - it's hard to say - Manning, for the first time in a long career, threw with his heart rather than his hand. He threw low. The pass was intercepted by Tracey Porter who, leaving Manning on his backside, ran an amazing 74 yards to tie up an emotional win for the underdogs. New Orleans has a new signpost on the road to recovery, thanks inadvertently to their former son.
Cities are beautiful and proud but it's stories that keep them alive.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Saturday Auditions.

We had another interview/ audition session today as we begin to put together the pathway groups for September. It was a really positive day with some very promising candidates. If anything the standard of applicants seems to be rising which gives real cause for optimism.

I find audition days fascinating, particularly as often it's the first time I get to meet the people, who I may spend the next three years working very closely with. It's important that the meeting makes this work seem possible.

A year ago we expanded the process and all candidates now go through audition, interview and workshop which gives them the chance to meet different members of our team and us the chance to see how they work or respond to three very different situations.

Although qualifications can be important in securing an interview, we will call anybody who interests us and once you arrive at the audition it's your opportunity to show us who you are. It's always going to be about what you can do rather than what you know.

I pleased we've diverted resources into doing a really thorough selection process. We're just more likely to get it right and perhaps over a day it allows students, who are considering us, an opportunity to see not just the shop front, but the working dynamic of the department. I hope it gives them enough so they can also make the right choice. The bottom line is that it's a life changing moment.

Friday, 5 February 2010

It's a Laugh!

The first really sunny day of the year and with the change in weather comes positive thoughts for the future. The marks for the first semester have gone to the University board which means that we can look forward to shaping work for next academic year and beyond.

I went up to Camden this afternoon to have a long and very productive meeting with Keith at The Comedy School about ways our partnership can develop in September. His team are going to use their experience to deliver our Level 3 Prison Theatre module. We put it through validation two years ago and it's exciting to see it reappear on the horizon. I'm hoping it'll open up some understanding of how drama can be used as an empowering educative tool.

Keith's also excited by the prospect, but we have to wait on the result of the election to see how possible it'll be to base at least some of the work inside a prison. Ideally we'd like to at least build in a series of visits to Feltham or Ashford - but we both realise that both of the political parties will want to look tough on crime over the next few months and arts rehabilitation is occasionally a casualty of the inevitable posture.

We also talked a bit about the development of stand up at St Mary's. We're keen to repeat the Freshen Up!!! comedy event which we pioneered last September. Eighty students came to the show from which nine went on to claim bursaries to support their attendance at the School's funny festival. This week two of the nine, Jennie and Emma, signed up for a ten week course. It's a steady rather than spectacular return, but I'm keen to push on. Stand up seems an excellent discipline for students to learn. It's challenging, political and brave; but also cheap to create. The ultimate job for a freelance practitioner.

I'm thinking of putting up a module which would end in an assessed night at the Student's Union. It might not get through in time for September, but I'd love in a couple of years to see St. Mary's overrun by imaginative, vibrant and talented comedians, responding with wit and immediacy to events both on campus and beyond.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Arrested Development?

Another weekend spent on the community safety material. Melissa joined us to play a police woman and so we spent quite a bit of time working through the protocols for 'stop and account' and 'stop and search'. It was slightly slower progress this week, partly because we're questioning everything from language use, to demeanour, to procedure. Sometimes we find a way forward, sometimes we record our confusion so we can ask Phil and Tony back at Twickenham station.

In effect, armed with a manual, we've been trying to cram in a police training course into a couple of hours rehearsal. It's important that we get it right and because it's forum Melissa has to learn not only her initial role, but how she would react to every possible situation that the audience throws her way.

I'm really enjoying the work, however, and for all the focus on accuracy there's a playful banter and supportive spirit in the rehearsal room. I hope we can find some life for the work after it's initial showing at Twickenham rugby stadium on the 24th February.