Friday, February 9, 2018

Mirror, Mirror

I don't know much about what it is like to be a black woman in eurocentric societies. I know things that I have heard from authoritative sources - that one experiences daily microaggressions or worse, that one's voice is rarely heard politically, that one is restricted to certain forms of visibility (eroticised, rendered primitive, feared), and that if one moves outside of these restraints, there are harsh disciplinary measures waiting. Then there are the first person accounts of racism, for example in the field of journalism, which if you listen to them, oscillate between horrifying and a kind of WTF? WHY??

I've heard these things, and have also actively researched them. And yet I feel I still know, and will only ever know, an extremely small part of what this life is like. That's not to be defeatist, just to say that this is fundamentally not any reality I could possibly inhabit, and so attempts to empathise based on my own experience or knowledge will always fall short.

Nevertheless, attempts are regularly - and not without bravery born of necessity - made to communicate this experience across various subjectivities that comprise a given audience. Soul Sisters' Mirror, Mirror, a work first developed in 2017 and undertaking its second rendition at Ballhaus Naunystraße, attempts to do just this. It's beauty is in its simplicity - 5 black women tell their stories to an audience, with some slight variation and mixing of formats. Stemming from initial writing from Soul Sisters founding member Christine Seraphin, the collaborators have crafted a warm invitation to an audience to empathise, relate, and possible to cross the divisions that a difference in experience brings.

Image Credit: Soul Sisters

Monday, January 15, 2018


In 2013 I wrote of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit:

“Who does it serve? Initially, I thought, surely it is the country (Iran) itself. As the night wore on, I whittled this down to 'the individual', optimistically hoping for a Beckettian, Orwellian or Ionescoian argument. Finally, I was left with, sadly, only the writer himself.”

So it was with some hesitation that I approached the playwright’s latest project, which is simply titled after the playwright’s first name Nassim. Because I suppose that, if you were going to realise a self-valorising objective as an artist, you would create a play titled after yourself. Hmmm.

Almost a sequel to the globally successful White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim does a lot to elucidate that initial project. The audience arrives on the premise not unlike its predecessor: that they will see another play in which the script is read by an actor (an obliging Thomas Spencer for the premiere) who did not yet read it. However, a twist is thrown in while the house lights are still up: this time, the actor would be reading from a projected screen. Nope, wrong again. This time, we would be blessed with the presence of the playwright himself, as Soleimanpour is fetched by the actor and brought to the stage to wild applause.

Image: David Monteith-Hodge/Studio Doug

At which point, this really becomes the Nassim show. For a playwright (who sometimes have a year-long response time), Soleimanpour has a great sense of wit and timing when interacting in his second language, and the play proceeds through some entertaining modes of Farsi class, learning about each other’s lives, and storytelling – always returning to a faintly nihilist ‘what do we do next?’ moment hovering in the air. Through this, we are offered seemingly private information about the playwright, discovered through interactions with him via the premise of learning: we get to view his passport, we get to send a message to his wife, and we even get to speak with his mother in Iran.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Voila! Festival Wrap-up

Theatre naturally lends itself to moving through worlds.

The etymology of the word ‘theatre’ has architectural connotations – it comes from the Ancient Greek word for the ‘place of seeing’. That place is quite specific, connected with architecture, but not necessarily bound within it. Although this is challenged by today's theatre artists treating place quite loosely (site-specific theatre, for example) and also exploring the flexibility of form (participatory theatre, for example). In its western form, theatre is a place facilitating a constructed reality.

Such that, perhaps, visiting the theatre today, one is not even moving through cohesive 'worlds' anymore, but experiencing something like a multi-track reality, that the individual desperately tries to fuse into a harmonic whole.

All this to say, by the end of the Voila! Festival, your correspondent couldn't shake the feeling that maybe he had moved through a few too many realities than a capable physician would recommend. The chaotic fusion of politics and art that was my experience at COP 23 in Germany (containing its own strange geopolitical displacement of Fiji and Germany effectively sharing the event, or if you view it more cynically, as I did, Germany hosting the event and Fiji unfortunately playing the role of some exotic, symbolic window-dressing) was replaced with the Euro-UK project of Voila!, which itself took me through some of the more distant areas of highly diverse London, and some equally kaleidoscopic staged ontologies.

It's fair to say that I was pretty spent by the end, magnified by the usual problems of not being paid for much of it, this type of labour being seen as largely valueless in contexts that favour labour that creates material wealth directly, or is involved with other types of more fashionable simulation such as IT. Compounding that is my own increasingly fluid categorisation, moving between nation states, residing in some, speaking the language of others, sometimes doing that badly. Draw from social security? Ha, good one. Ask a neighbour for help? Don't count on it. Get that random 10 euros back that you were charged for withdrawing 20 pounds? Doubtful.

But you can afford it, right?

I'm certainly not alone in this state of transience and permanent negotiation with dominant structures over which I have virtually no control, as was proven in almost every show that I saw in Voila!. It’s also a precarious time for the festival itself – perched uncertainly within the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, it finds itself thrust into a quasi-activist platform, where even existing as a European becomes something of a protest. I’ve always found the UK’s relationship with Europe strange, one of total interdependence mixed with fierce proclamations of autonomy. Expect nothing to change on that front. For the theatre, which benefits hugely from intercultural exchange and diversity, there are challenges ahead.

Some of these I outlined in a practical/theoretical workshop in London’s Cockpit Theatre, entitled Performing Europe's Non-Withdrawal: Crises of Environment and Identity at COP 23, and part of the Voila! Festival. The event was essentially a demonstration of the work from Bonn, with a performance of Gaia by Canadian writer Hiro Kanagawa, acted out by Shaila Alvarez and ably supported by Frank McHugh, who had earlier performed in (and in the case of McHugh, organised) a Climate Change Theatre Action in London earlier in the week. We finished with a short demonstration of the exercises which were used to demonstrate material in Bonn.

The full text of my presentation, is available here.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Voila Day 3 - The Bacchanals (UK)

Disclaimer first: This will be the idiot’s review, as I am not familiar enough with Euripides' play The Bacchae, its various re-stagings, or even Classical Greek Theatre.

But I know what I like.

The Bacchanals is certainly deserving of a more informed critic. Adopting the metatheatrical frame of actors preparing before a performance, the play tells the story of the power dynamics behind the all-female chorus of 6, as they strategise, form alliances, and plot against one another. The central figure of Dionysus – omnipresent and yet invisible – presents both an object of their anger and their chief tormentor. What follows is a kind of classical tragedy re-set in the dressing rooms of the British theatre, as the women jostle, ally, and attack their way through various formations of human struggle.

It’s a faultless premise that renders the politics of the original play accessible for a new audience, while casting informed and refreshing comment on the play itself. Watching the actors back-stab and bitch their way around the all-white Ikea set which forms the casual environment of the dressing room – intensely private, almost sacred – is as deeply interesting as it is pleasurable. Their machinations are only interrupted by bursts of seamlessly-inserted direct quotations from Euripides’ The Bacchae, which itself brings a certain dream-like violence. It’s a play that’s not afraid to be trashy as hell, and the effect is a kind of Real Housewives of Camden, only with a higher potency, and probably less men. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Voila Day 2 - Crossing the Line (UK)

Day 2 took me to the Cockpit Theatre in North London, historically the venue for the Voila Festival in its previous French-focused manifestations. This year's edition has expanded the number of venues from 1 to 3, incorporating both Applecart Arts in  Stratford, and Etcetera Theatre in Camden. The three venues are widespread - with Etcetera and the Cockpit sharing a little corner of North London, and Applecart Arts being something of an outlier in the far east. It's a situation the festival has used to its advantage, encouraging a cross-fertilisation of culture among different areas of London.

The evening ended with esprit de corps' accomplished Hyperion, based on the text from German poet Hölderlin. Coming off the back of a season at Edinburgh, I am amazed to find no significant critical writing about the work so far (at least, not that google provides). Unfortunately I won't be the first - as I missed the beginning of the performance (gotta listen out for those bells...). Nevertheless - Hyperion clownifies Hölderlin's novel about solitude, borrowing selectively from the text to generate a kind of comptemporary ode to humanity's isolation. It's a perfectly executed performance, deserves more attention than I can give it here. Suffice to say - it's a welcome addition to the festival program, and indeed would be to many others.

Prior to that, UK-based duo Przymierska Morgan (Margot Przymierska and Nicholas Morgan) present an ensemble performance of Crossing the Line, in its second performance after a development at Rich Mix. The show takes the form of a series of fast-moving vignettes, stolen from TV and film, arranged around the theme of ‘borders’. The ensemble change accents, personas, and roles in rapid-fire succession throughout, with locations and situations transforming from a meeting between politicians of GDR Germany and the USSR to a mistaken border crossing from Mexico into Texas. The situations twist and turn, plummeting the audience into the daring night-time escape across the Berlin wall, to a karaoke performance of Elton John’s Nikita, all the time rotating around the central object for examination.

Image credit: unknown

It’s an interesting and weird object of study. Borders occupy a troubled place in human history, representing initially a way for governance to be defined, and lately an oppressive tool for the nation state to assert its dominance over people. There are many times when their existence is vague, or a purely arbitrary ideological tool. Neoliberalism would have us live in border-free societies, in the meantime, creating conditions in which the border ironically reinforces itself.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Voila Festival Day 1 – Expat Underground (UK/ITA)

My day #1 (the festival's day #7) of this whirlwind schedule saw me out in the far east of London, visiting the newly-minted Applecart Arts for the first time.

The theatre has an interesting recent history. This year, the former Stratford community centre transformed from its roots as a Methodist Church, opening with a new lease and an arts-focused agenda. It’s not an uncommon story for London – a former church turned community centre, no longer profitable due to its surge of Olympics money coming to an end, then goes to tender to try and find a new buyer. Inevitably, property developers swoop, and the church must choose between profit and community.

This time, they chose the latter. Applecart theatre is the result – a hybrid of community centre and theatre, housing many of the former non-profit activities and housing a loosely curated program of festivals, events, and one-off shows.

Voila!, I’m reliably told, is its first major event hosting – and it’s a great way to plant seeds, both for the  future of UK-European collaboration. The venue has seen several performances as part of the festival, including a British collaboration about Goethe, and last night, two monologues from women about immigrating to the UK – Expat Underground (UK/ITA) and Rootlost (POL/UK). I’ll focus on the former, although Rootlost, professionally performed by nomadic world citizen Magdelana Krohn, contains some interesting crossovers with its preceding show.

Unless you happen to be not human, it’s hard not to love Expat Underground. Developed in the wake of the UK’s referendum on European Union membership, the show is an autobiographical retelling of performer Cecilia Gragnani’s 9-year emigration to London. Beginning with naivety, the show traipses through the struggles and disappointment of menial jobs, to her romantic encounter with a British man and feeling like a foreigner in her own country. All the time, London speaks to her – literally, in golden BBC voiceover by Steve Wickenden – explaining to her the hidden rules and regulations of being a Londoner.

Image Credit: unknown
It’s admittedly a somewhat cliché premise, that could be the beginning of any number of shows on the subject. But Gragnani’s charismatic personality, expert management, and openness as a performer, as well as some great writing by herself and compatriot Jvan Sica, more than overcome any lack in originality in the premise. The dramaturgy and direction from Katharina Reinthaller arrange her personal account into chapters that weave together beautifully – from the opening interrogation by a imaginary Border Agency officer (“but what if we got married? What do you mean, it’s too late?”) through to Cecilia’s personal experiences, to the finale which contextualises the struggle within a political situation shared by countless others currently in the UK.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

COP 23, and the Myth of Choice

Well, that was quite a time.

The COP 23 negotiations have carried on, as I suppose they will. After some initial wrangling over the agenda, in which Germany was called in to stop Turkey from intervening and delaying the negotiations, things have been proceeding 'smoothly'. Who knows what this actually means? Smooth - as in, the negotiations are doing what we want them to do? Or alternatively, that there has been no opposition?

My experience of the COP has been limited by schedule, as we're ostensibly here to work on a project with the Umweltbundesamt, or German Environment Agency. The work involves collaboration with refugees living locally, on a performance that is presented alongside a forum about Climate Migration.

To say this work has been difficult for esteemed collaborator Sonja Hornung and I is highly understating that point.  Entering the fray of refugee politics, where the smell of blood permeates what should be matters of simple humanitarian organisation, with a group of vulnerable people is an extremely difficult thing to try and do. Compounding that, is our limited experience working with vulnerable people, and the fact that this particular collaboration is with German government - who are not always the most sensitive to either art or vulnerability. Furthermore, there's the context of this COP, itself seemingly favouring the pre-existing structures and not, say, agitating for change. All of which makes the stakes for that project high, and the pressure reasonable immense.

 Image: Victoria Bartetzko

We were aided by a group of collaborators who proved to be tremendous. I have long maintained that the resilience and openness of many of or seeking refugee status is precisely the kind of spirit that I want to coexist alongside. The experience of fleeing conflict is one that Europe believes it knows well - and yet circumstances today are quite different to 70 or even 25  (in the case of the Bosnia-Serbia conflict) years ago, as is the geography. Whereas 25 years ago, 438,000 refugees entering Germany from Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Serbia and Kosovo seemed like a logical conclusion, in 2015 a media hysteria ensued.