Thursday, 31 May 2012

Meeting Chuk.

Off to Clapham Picture House to have a meeting with Chuk Iwuji, who we're hoping will take part in The Robben Island reading the Purcell Room on the 3rd July.

Chuk has an impressive Shakespearean CV. He played Henry VI for the RSC a few years back and was Buckingham to Kevin Spacey's Richard III at The Old Vic last year. It'd be a real bonus to have him in board. We showed him the script and Matt talked in broad terms about the project, whilst I focused on the cuts and the new shape that we've brought to the material.

Chuk was full of questions, but seemed very taken with the way in which Shakespeare provides a subtext and resonance for the stories of the prisoners on the island in the seventies. In a way the play tells the story twice. Once as a verbatim documentary and then again by borrowing the Shakespearean passages chosen by the men.

We talked in general terms about accents, sense of place, sense of character and the difference between a Shakespearean actor tackling the text and a group of political leaders being led by the words themselves.

For my money I think it important we don't 'act' the men acting Shakespeare, but rather use the experience and technical skills of the cast to allow the texts to speak. I think we can rely on the audience to use the description of the men's struggle to provide a context and bring new understanding and readings to these often familiar passages.

The text is still one draft away from being finalised and this will only happen once we've got all three actors confirmed. Chuk went away to have a proper read and will let us know in a couple of days.

A rare sunny afternoon so a proper cycle home up to Putney and then all the way along the river to Ham.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Hosting Canterbury College.

We had a visit from Canterbury College students this morning. They drove up from Kent to have a look at how Drama St Mary's works. We offered them lunch, a couple of workshops and a Q&A about taking Drama at HE. It was a really positive day.

I think these kind of extensions are going to be vital as we try and keep our applicant numbers up in the next few years. The hike in tuition fees does mean that those in their final year at School or College are going to be more choosy about where they study and I think we're going to need to be more interventionist in our approach to marketing and promoting Drama St Mary's.

There are several ways to do this - including taking our work into local Schools and Colleges, as well as finding time in our schedule to invite sixth formers in for the day.

Ideally we'd develop partnership relationships where teachers from St Mary's taught with local sixth form providers and sixth form educators would be more engaged with our curriculum and visit us regularly.

It might be worth our while running a Drama teachers forum where we invite scrutiny from teachers in and beyond Richmond borough. The more we can do to earn the trust and confidence of those teachers who get students through their BTEC and A-levels the more we'll be able to develop programmes of work that make sense for the students and prepared them for the challenging world of employment.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Kiss from a Rose.

We've been asked to put together a short forum theatre piece for a Teenage Cancer Trust conference in London next month and much of the day was spent with preliminary research.

The Trust are keen for us to look at post-cancer care and have provided us with several stories of young people who struggle with the transition from patient to 'survivor' - a term which, even in itself causes controversy.

The initial problem seems to be how we can create a composite scenario with a clear protagonist for the delegates to swap in for. What exactly is the oppression of post-cancer care and as ever, when using the arsenal of the oppressed in a pre-scripted situation how do we ensure the work has credibility?

One former patient Natasha Vince has written an extended account of her whole journey from initial diagnosis, as a fifteen year old, to her sense of herself as a healthy young woman in her early twenties. The story has, as you'd expect, massive ups and downs, but also reveals a few surprising moments.

Two ideas struck me straight away. Firstly the abruptness Natasha felt when she reached eighteen and was transferred from a paediatric to an adult oncology unit. Suddenly she was the youngest on the ward by several decades. Doctors didn't wait until her Mum was with her before undertaking invasive and painful procedures and visiting hours were restricted to blocks of time. She also, despite having lived with cancer for a couple of years, had to negotiate new relationships with the doctors and nurses at the new unit. The anxiety is very similar to that many children go through when leaving Primary  School and heading for Secondary

The second thing that really came through was Natasha's sense of guilt once she'd been given clear scan, which seems in part linked to the idea that she made it, when many of the friends she'd met through treatment and on the wards hadn't.

The guilt it seems is exaggerated by the relief that everybody around you feels and the attempts to celebrate this return to healthy life.

I'm not sure how we can convert these ideas to the play yet, but it's important to try.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The North Bank.

With summer comes a more relaxed attitude to work. There's still plenty to do, but with the students all gone, the marking finished and next year's planning still in the earliest stages there is a chance to draw breath and enjoy living in this part of London.

The weather's not really been on our side this Spring and chances for long cycle rides around Richmond Park have been limited. Instead I've found myself drawn to the North bank of the Thames where after Kew Bridge the wonderful world of Strand on the Green opens up with it's riverside pubs and twice a day flood tides.

In fact the entire Middlesex bank is one giant crawl from Brentford right the way to The Dove in Hammersmith. All well served by the Fuller's Brewery at Chiswick Reach.
The Thames is coming into sharp focus over the next week or so with the huge Jubilee river pageant scheduled for next Saturday.  At Chiswick today about fifty narrow boats from Liverpool, Birmingham and all points on the canal network, were practising manoeuvres and turns, ready for the big day.

I often wonder whether the students are aware of the river. It passes so close and harbours so many stories, supports so many interesting lives and really is still the artery that keeps London one of the most fascinating cities on earth. Few of the tourists go further west than Westminster Bridge and tend to take the train out to Hampton Court, which means that the histories of Fulham, Hammersmith, Chiswick, Brentford and Isleworth are for the most part untold.

There's a healthy tradition of artists moving out of the bustle of central London to take meditative refuse in these parts. William Morris had a house at Hammersmith. Hogarth escaped the degradation of Leicester Square by retreating to his cottage in Chiswick. Alexander Pope' Catholicism meant he wasn't allowed to live an closer to London than Twickenham. In more recent years John Osborne wrote most of Look Back in Anger on a barge moored next to Kew Bridge. For creative artists it's an inspiring place to live and work. I wonder if we draw on it enough.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Milkman and the Mountain.

As part of their dissertations, Drama St Mary's students are allowed to write plays. One of the best this year has been put together by Beth: The Milkman and the Mountain. The Mayor of a cash strapped Alpine town decides to hire out the entire valley to rich rich business men in an attempt to rejuvenate the local economy. The first business man who arrives has a marvellous time and in particular falls in love with the artisan cheese made by Hans and his small herd of happy cows. The business man sees great potential for expansion, wealth, franchise and global domination, but is foiled by Hans unwillingness to want more than a quiet life in the mountains, making just enough cheese to keep his customers and cows content. As the play continues the business man becomes more and more Machiavellian, the Mayor more and more desperate and the cows more and more confused as to why anybody would want to swap the idyllic life in the mountains for fame, glory and power.

It's a beautiful morality story for kids, a charming piece drawing with nods to Durrenmatt's The Visit and Gogol's The Government Inspector.

Beth hasn't rested on her laurels, however, and, with the able help of Jo, has been touting the work around The Unicorn, Polka and The Little Angel.

Today she's found out that the a recent reclaimed pub in Vauxhall, The Tea House Theatre have agreed to give the work a three week run on a book office split in July.

It's not the big time, but it's exactly the kind of opportunities graduates should be looking for. Taking work developed in the safety of the University and pitching it on the fringe. It's a window to showcase the writing and also, through the casting, give some young actors the chance to begin the difficult task of becoming recognisable to directors, audiences and critics.

Most graduates need to find a job straight away and many are forced to gravitate to retail work to pay the rent. It's important, that they find the energy to keep their theatrical ambitions ticking over, at weekends, in the evenings. Graduation isn't an arrival. It's just the beginning of the hard work. Students, like Beth and Jo, who understand this, give themselves the chance to flourish.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012


To the National to see the new production of Antigone starring Christopher Eccleston as Creon. It's a brilliantly topical production, transposing ancient Thebes to a Pentagon-esque bunker where, protected by reinforced concrete walls and surveillance reports, military strategists and spin doctors swarm to the King's command in the desperate goal of protecting the state at all costs.

In a chilling opening sequence which mirrors Obama's inner sanctum settling down to watch Operation Neptune Spear, the State sanction execution of Bin Laden, delivered live to the situation room via a camera strapped to a navy seal's helmet, Creon's chiefs of staff watch the final moments of the fatal battle between Oedipus' sons Polynices and Eteocles with all the anticipation and excitement of a sporting event.

It's a clever touch, immediately reminding us that the state in its form is never a harmless abstract, but real, visceral and capable of grotesque acts of brutality in order to justify its existence.

Eccleston's performance reveals the inflexibility of a leader assured that freedom can only flourish beneath firm authority. A decision which, as his world collapses around him, is revealed to be ultimately self-destructive. His final image a brooding monstrous shape, casting long shadows down the dimly lit corridors of a hidden secret world.

In contrast Jodie Whittaker's Antigone comes across as a bright light of protest, looking for truth in the corners, bravely refusing to give in to threat and intimidation. Her failure to acknowledge the subtleties of statecraft becomes her most potent power. Not for her the protocols of his self-perpetuating regime.

Most haunting of all is Jamie Ballard's Teiresias, skin burnt, a reminder of the indiscriminate victims of chemistry and bombs. His prophetic presence both a visual and spoken assertion of the tragedies unfolding.

This is a beautiful piece of work using an ancient text to throw light on a contemporary question. One that all of us, living in the modern world need to ask. What duties can the State justly expect of its citizens? And what are the consequences that await those who do not obey?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Academic Writing and Drama Students.

The exam board today and so finally the grades for another year have been agreed and signed off. There are a few resits to get through, but overall the students seem to have done really well and all is set for a happy graduation in July.

There is a small, but noticeable gap developing between the quality of the written work coming through and the practical. Over the last four years we've shifted the focus of the Drama programmes to provide as much training as possible. Half of the modules on the programmes carry are assessed solely through practical work and from September this bias will be even more pronounced as the curriculum shifts further to two-thirds practical, one third lecture/seminar. No University in the country offers as much workshop/ rehearsal contact time to their students. We're breathing down the necks of the Drama Schools.

The result of this is that graduates are now coming out with more sophisticated performance skills and we are beginning to have some real success in sending our students out into the profession. The downside however is that if we relegate the importance of the formal academic work, so students increasingly seem to treat the art of assignment writing as an irrelevance or irritating adjunct to the main thrust of their work.

The temptation is to look for ways of phasing academic assignments out all together and look for assessment tasks that more accurately reflect the way in which we're asking students to prepare as actors. What the shape of these assignments would be is still anybodies guess. I dread the insistence of log books and and the kind of reflective writing favoured at sixth form, which encourages students to seek out flaws in their technique in an attempt to shape an alternative approach. Unfortunately acting isn't so formulaic. Each actor is constrained, even after training, by their body and voice. A more useful research might be linked to a historical or social understanding of the world of the play or text being looked at in the rehearsal room.

However, it must surely still be useful for actors to know a little about the way in which Dramatic literature has evolved over time or the way European practitioners have influenced taste and culture in the UK? And these things take some effort to read and understand. The idea that actors just rely on their instinct and 'talent' all seems a bit X-factor dodgy to me.

My feeling is that good academic writing is possible, and should be positively encouraged, within the current curriculum. We don't particularly want to produce a new generation of cultural critics, who can deconstruct everything, but struggle to create anything, but it's clear that the best actors are the ones who do their homework and are able to articulate their complex ideas clearly.

Until we can find a way to link what goes on in the library to what goes on in rehearsal, we're going to struggle with students who see academic research simply as the tedious means to the end result of passing a degree. The possibilities are so much greater.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The World's First Theme Park.

A day trip down to the Isle of Wight to help Eleanor with a research trip to Blackgang Chine, which claims itself to be the world's first theme park. It was originally opened by an enterprising publican in 1842 to exhibit the bones of a whale washed up on the shore up coast at the Needles. The Victorians were fascinated by these creatures of the deep and flocked in their hundreds down to the chine to take a look. For them the Island was already seen as a little escapist Eden, and, the pleasure gardens must have represented a core within a core.

The bleached skeleton of the whale is still in situ, cramped in a tiny exhibition hall and ignored by most visitors who make their way to the water slides, mini roller coaster and simulated frontier town at the foot of the canyon. Coastal erosion is slowly destroying the site and the crumbling paint flaked exhibits, giant dinosaurs, fairy tale characters and fibre glass smugglers are periodically moved up the cliffs in a bid to extend the park's life.

It's a truly nostalgic place, not just because I had some very happy childhood holidays here, but because, a little like the rest of the island, it seems stuck in a more innocent time. Blackgang Chine has ignored developments in CGI or 3D reality, preferring instead to provide its thrills with the whistling pistons and clunky shakes of early animatronics and poorly made models. The rides have little or no narrative attached and there is little in the way of spectacle or visceral excitement. Still, until the land finally falls away, there's enough room to imagine yourself a caveman, cowboy or fairy princess.

We went briefly onto the donkey sanctuary at Wroxall and then went for a walk along the beach at Bonchurch, underneath the house where Charles Dickens spent a season and would be bad boy poet Swinburne spent his childhood, fixated by the sea, before catching the evening ferry back to the mainland and the twenty first century.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Africa Utopia.

To the South Bank for a meeting with Martin Colthorpe who has programmed a rehearsed reading of Matt's Robben Island Bible on July 3rd as part of the Africa Utopia season. I'm going to direct it.

The Bible in the title refers to a disguised complete works of Shakespeare belonging to Sonny Venkatratham, a prisoner in the infamous jail on Robben Island, where so many activist opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa were sent in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

I've spent the last couple of days editing down the vast amount of verbatim research that Matt's carried out into a 45 minute piece. It's been tricky work , not least because so much of the sprawling text is fascinating, but in the end I've been guided by a need to focus on the simple dramatic story of The Bible itself. How it was originally smuggled onto the island. How it was passed from prisoner to prisoner and finally the individual stories of why each man chose the Shakespearean passage they did to sign and be remembered by.

In the process some great narratives have been cut and filed away. The story of the men's arrest. The brutality of the guards in the early years on the island. The patience of wives, children and friends left on the mainland and the disappointment that the Utopian republic that many of the men had dreamt of has not come to fruition. I hope in another instance these stories will find a way to be told.

We're sharing the platform with Ashwin Desai, whose just written a book on education and Robben Island called Reading Revolution. I'm looking forward to meeting him and placing what we know about The Bible in the wider context of the makeshift University that was set up to share knowledge and equip the men for revolutionary activity beyond the prison.

The more I look at the interviews and read the passages chosen in the context of the struggle for liberation that all the prisoners on Robben Island, regardless of faction, were involved in. The more I'm struck by the resilience of words and the importance of language in crystallising acts of resistance, defiance or bravery.

One man teaches a colleague how to smuggle a gun across a border, in return he is given insight into the meaning of a Sonnet. The exchange leaves both better prepared for the future they will need to face. Both are acts and once carried out cannot be reversed.

It's interesting, but perhaps unsurprising, to note how many of the men, incarcerated for 10, 15, 20 years chose passages relating to Time. In Shakespeare this grand theme takes on two antithetical dimensions, both of which are made apparent in the interviews. One one hand 'time' is the great enemy of love. A destroyer of the perfect moment, a threat to beauty, youth and promise. On the other it is an urgent force refusing to wait, unable to be patient. It's easy to see how Shakespeare offered inspiration, encouragement, warning and solace to the men who would later construct the first multiracial democracy in South Africa.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


To the Royal Court to see Bola Agbaje's Belong in the intimate theatre upstairs. It's a sharp edged little gem of a play, carefully crafted in twelve episodic scenes that follow former British MP Kayode, who, having suffered defeat at the general election returns to his native Nigeria to recharge his batteries, but quickly finds himself cast as the 'African Obama,' vowing to sort out political corruption and violence.

Lucian Msamati plays Kayode as a man driven to achieve, but caught between two competing worlds. His family back in Nigeria bemoan his lack of children and blame his long suffering wife Rita, played touchingly by Noma Dumezweni, who despite her own Nigerian heritage, has no inclination to return to Africa. It's quite a shock late in the piece to discover that it is she who has tempered her own maternal desires to support Kayode's political ambition.

Family and nation are the parallel themes of this work. The UK electorate rejects Kayode, so he reasserts his Nigerian identity, only to discover that his place in his mother's house has been usurped by Kunde, a young idealist, deeply embroiled in the tribal politics of Abuja. It's Kayode's struggle to balance his own re-education with a desire to impose a functioning democracy on local affairs that gives the play its tension and drive. Finally his inability to incorporate these two strands into a coherent political message leads to a bloody conclusion.

Despite the play's moral ending their is an optimistic undercurrent running through the work that suggests for all the displacement of the post-colonial diaspora, there is also an ability for subsequent generations to move fluidly from one cultural context to another. For ambitious self-made men like Kayode it's not a case of being neither one thing nor another, but rather an opportunity to be either as time and circumstance suggests. His triumph and tragedy is that he doesn't really care where he belongs.

Friday, 11 May 2012

An Afternoon on the Left.

A fascinating afternoon of overtly political left wing theatre, as surprising as it was refreshing to see. First the Level 2 Theatre Arts performed Dario Fo's Can't Pay, Won't Pay which director Mitch Mitchelson had cleverly modernised and set during last summer's London lootings and then a hot foot over to Richmond Theatre to can't a wonderful revival by Northern Stage and Live Theatre of Alan Plater's eulogy to the mining industry Close the Coahouse Door. Both plays, in different ways, are a call to arms and a timely reminder that in a time of hardship it's rarely the bosses on whom the austerity falls. We are NOT in this together.

I particularly enjoyed the updating of Plater's play, which ironically begins under an enormous billboard advertising Meryl Streep as The Iron Lady - a reminder that how ever sympathetic and emotional we find the human tragedy of her personal collapse in dementia - her policies did more to destroy the communities and optimistic socialist principles that kept the collieries open and productive. Bin your sentiment at the door. This is a true history lesson told in a time honoured Marxist tradition of lecture, music hall song and political satire.

There are other touches which director Sam West and adaptor Lee Hall have added to bridge the gap between the play's original 1968 script and today's Tyneside. In a smart finale the ensemble cast down instruments and attach headsets. Where once a young man might follow his father down the pit, he's now more likely to make his way to the call centre.

I wonder whether, in the current climate, we might have a renaissance of this kind of work, a kind of rough, cabaret theatre that educates on the big issues, reclaims history and raises class consciousness through music, song, comedy and a shared understanding of the power structures governing our lives.

It's an antidote both for the despair of domestic naturalism and the escapist spectacle of some many forms of populist entertainment.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Steps Forward in Cumbria.

Up to the north of England for my annual external marking duties at Cumbria University. It's always great to have an opportunity to see what colleagues in other institutions are doing and I've really valued the four years or so that I've been making the journey up to Carlisle.

The Drama department up there is, despite suffering from some of the same challenges as St Mary's, really flourishing. There's a buzz about the place and a renewed vibrancy. The two institutions have many things in common, especially in our desire to put creative theatre making at the heart of everything we do. Like us, Cumbria have appointed a theatre manager and this combined with a front foot strategy to using the curriculum to serve the production has generated a sense of involvement and belonging in the student body. The seem proud to both be getting their degree whilst being part of a bigger enterprise. It's a model that I think the best Drama departments will increasingly adopt over the next few years. A Drama School, within a University.

It was good to see that the management at Cumbria have taken a pragmatic approach to the success of the area and there is increased provision for design and build workshops. Of course there is never enough space, but there is a sense that recruitment and achievement is being rewarded with the opportunity for growth. As ever the technical and particularly the costume design aspects of the work were very impressive indeed. As long as the staff don't burn out or get side tracked responding to administrative demands I can see them going from strength to strength. I'm back up next month for my final board.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Counter Terrorism at Waterloo.

With most of the work out of the way we've all settled down to a pile of end of term marking. The Olympics, and the fact that we're a pre-games training camp, means that we've had a condensed term and so everybody is looking pretty exhausted. The up side is that we're going to have a slightly longer summer than usual. So we enter the final push.

Yesterday we had our final interview day. For all the talk of increased fees we've managed to keep our numbers up. Theatre Arts and Physical Theatre are clearly still very popular subjects at A-level; whilst Applied Theatre with its focus on employment and professional links is attracting quite a few candidates who have an eye on the future.

All three programmes have upp-ed their game. Kasia is increasingly looking for opportunities for the Physical Theatre students to have their work seen publicly and in a week or so her Stories and Visions students will be performing a short showcase at the BAC, whilst two days ago the Theatre Arts Level 3 performed their end of term showcase at the Soho Theatre.

I didn't make it because it clashed with one of the Applied Theatre TIE pieces. In the main it all went well. The only snag came when two of the students needed a small table as a prop for their duologue. Neither drive and no van had been booked to ferry stuff to Soho - so they tried to make the journey on public transport.

All went well as far as Waterloo, but arriving for rush hour, they were told that they wouldn't be allowed to take it on the tube until the crowds had cleared. Without any sense of how far away the theatre is they didn't know what to do and so they sat on the table, on the concourse and waited until ten o'clock to try again.

As soon as they moved the police, who'd been watching them on CCTV, moved in, shouting and arrested them under counter-terrorism procedures. They were cuffed and taken to a small cell in the bowels of the station, the table was confiscated and accusatory calls were made back to St Marys to find out what was going on.

Eventually they were let off with a warning. In Olympic year it's clear that furniture on London transport represents a significant threat to the public.  And the table? Who knows? I suspect it was taken to a quarry on the outskirts of London and destroyed in a controlled explosion.