Last week, the award-winning Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar posted a disconcerting message on Facebook, regarding his play Pah-la.
My dear Tibetan Friends, in Tibet and in exile, who have contributed extensively to the writing of Pah-la, I regret to inform you that the play has hit a roadblock again.
It was supposed to open on 4th October 2017, at the Royal Court Theatre, in London, with its poster printed and rehearsals fixed, when the British Council China pressurised the theatre to withdraw it from opening because of a program in China that they were running together.
The Royal Court Theatre has cancelled a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play about grooming and sexual exploitation. The cancellation came after it was revealed in October that Max Stafford-Clark, who directed the original production and co-directed the revival, had been forced to resign as creative director of Out of Joint due to multiple allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour.’
The venue had recently staged No Grey Area, an event in which 150 stories of sexual abuse and exploitation were shared over the course of an afternoon. The Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone has called for the British theatre community to reckon with the abuses of power, just as Hollywood is doing now that the extent of Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behaviour has been revealed. In this context, says the theatre, staging Rita, Sue and Bob Too is “highly conflictual.”
This week 59 Productions (the radical design and production company than I had a hand in setting up) announced their latest project. Its an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by Duncan Macmillian, the acclaimed writer of People Places Things. The show is directed by my friend Leo Warner and is a co-production with Home and the Lyric Hammersmith.
City of Glass (part of Auster’s New York Triology) is an intriguing post-modern detective story that plays with ideas of reality, identity and imagination. I think its a perfect fit for the kind of art that Warner and the remarkable 59 Productions team create. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he outlines their approach. Continue reading “59 Productions to produce City of Glass for the stage”
An extremely odd and disconcerting story was reported in the Guardian this week, regarding a National Youth Theatre play that has abruptly cancelled, just two weeks before its opening night. There are fears that ‘Homegrown’ was pulled due to the sensitive subject matter: young people drawn to ISIS.
In my essay for the Sunday Herald I made the case for the necessity of the swearing and offensive chatter that makes up much of the dialogue in Black Watch:
They are working class, inarticulate and insecure boys with no prospects other than the army. And when these men speak, they swear. It is integral to their vernacular. To sanitize their words would be to silence them.
Unfortunately the constraints of the page forbade me from elaborating on this point…. but luckily, I have a blog.
The swearing of the enlisted men is also important because of the contrast it presents with the officer class, and the politicians who have sent Scottish soldiers into harm’s way for centuries. The show has a marvellous musical number where Lord Elgin, in full highland dress and regalia, prances around the stage, beckoning the young men to sign-up: “hurrah, hurrah!” He speaks the Queen’s English, and he is as mendacious as they come (“did I mention it would be all over by Christmas” he says as he sends the soldiers off to Flanders in 1914). In this context, the Fifer accents of the soldiers are a necessity. Homogenising the language would be an act of class warfare.
To my mind, the final genius of Black Watch lies in the juxtaposition between the coarse language and the stunning physical theatre. One reason why Steven Hoggett’s choreography is so powerful is because the precise and often tender movements emerge from characters who have been f-ing and c-ing just moments before. The combination jars the audience and is compelling, and it is the rude words that tee-up this possibility.
A headteacher in Kirriemuir has caused controversy by banner her pupils from studying Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland production that I worked on in 2006. What with this history, couple with the free speech work I do for English PEN, this is perhaps the perfect issue for me to write on. Over the weekend, The Sunday Herald published my essay setting the issue in its context.
Free speech controversies are like solar flares. They burn hot and bright. Right now, it is Angus that is feeling the heat. Last week, the Sunday Herald reported that one headteacher in Kirriemuir had pulled Black Watch off the Highers syllabus because it is “offensive”. Parents are angry at the decision, and have demanded an explanation. Continue reading “Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom”
Tenacious readers will recall that I had some small involvement in War Horse, the preposterously successful National Theatre production that transferred to the West End, and now Broadway. Fifty Nine Productions has just published a short film on the video design element of the show.
In the Guardian, Patrick Kinsley has a round-up of the New York reviews, including some emotional blogging:
“I wept silently yet uncontrollably,” writes blogger Lisa Lindblad. “I am not capable of emotional distance in the face of an animal’s pain nor an animal’s love. I was distraught. And, so, I made it through until intermission and then left. Reluctantly, sadly, but self-protectively.”
Here are the puppeteers behing the show, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, speaking (and performing) at a TED talk. I worked with them in the early workshops for War Horse, and it was fascinating to see how they developed the subtle movements that made the wooden contraptions so lifelike.
For full geek points, you might like to look at this experimental stop-motion animation I made in 2007, one evening after work at the National. In one shot you can see the horse puppets in the background, swaying in the air-conditioning and looking not unlike a real animal resting after a hard day in the field. It was odd yet brilliant that even the most rudimentary rehearsal models seemed to have that life to them.
As were, somewhat crucially, Jude Law and Kevin Spacey. Here are my photos of the event:
The demo began outside the offices of Grayling PR, who have set up an office in Minsk and promote morally compromised businesses in Belarus. Keenly aware of the PR damage such an association might cause, the CEO of Grayling posted a blog on the issue. Michael Murphy pointed out that companies he promotes in Belarus provide local jobs, and lauds the ‘economic opportunity’ that they provide. However, without free expression and democratic checks, this so-called ‘opportunity’ is meaningless, limited only to those who acquiesce to Alexander Lukashenko brutal methods of control. Murphy’s words are hollow, his reasoning unsound and amoral.
A salient fact from the blog sticks out:
There are no UN sanctions against Belarus
Well, quite. This is a huge political failure. Leaving Grayling’s offices behind, the demonstrators walked down Victoria Street to the Houses of Parliament, to lobby British MPs on this issue and demand a tougher stance against Lukashenko and his cronies. New and free elections are sorely needed, and the political prisoners – journalists, activists and presidential candidates – must be released.
Now watch this video of the demonstration, including a short and eloquent paean to freedom of expression from Mr Law:
While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech. Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments. As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.
Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.
Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.
However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.
The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.
Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.
Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.
Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.
Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.
Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.
For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.
No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?