Some home truths and realities

March 14, 2010 12:00 am | Updated November 19, 2010 12:58 pm IST


There's a new wave washing over London. At the BITE 10 International Festival and the Tricycle Theatre recently, VAYU NAIDU discovers a lot on story-telling and drama.

...there is no arguing how warm you can keep in a theatre in the Pantomime season, all cheering and huddling together.

This letter from London to Chennai is a storyteller's meta journey through the back alleys to the stage door leading you backstage past the entire crew and actors to feel the pulse of why we enter the world of plays. Today, more than any other time. And, the climate, real and economic, does not play a small part in what is written, produced, toured, and reviewed in what is theatre that receives state subsidy, in London.

But first, and not to make too big a point of it, there is an economic difference across theatres in London possibly inherited from Shakespeare's time. Simply put, there are theatres in the West End of London that are commercial – making their income directly from box office, have vast casts, are quite often musicals with a high entertainment value and run for seasons that turn into years with a change over of cast and crew, and is a sizeable attraction matched with tourism.

Wide ranging

Then there is theatre that is also building-based, spread right across London's boroughs (National Theatre among them), that encourage new writing in small, mid and large scale, present touring independent companies, that partly or wholly receive state subsidy but have also to make income from the box office to achieve stability. But there is a strong ideological basis relating to freedom of expression allied to craft in this kind of theatre, and there are diverse incentives of encouraging participation in theatre. The range and scale is expansive – from design, lighting, acting, direction, drama as education, drama schools; there's a whole universe that is vibrant in spite of the horror of funding cuts at this time of recession. But it is the stuff that allows Beckett, Soyinka, Ayub Khan-Din, Kwame Kwei Armah among others to be heard, seen, and become part of the fabric of British theatre and household shifts in thinking, become aspects of study, and also whose work transfers to the West end.

Christmas in London was treacherously beautiful. The fields, road, parks, pavements were covered with icing-white snow. When the winds whistled, there was no drift. Temperatures had hit below zero and now the cake-like icing softness was sheer ice. Is this possible?

In its cold clarity there was a point of virtual reflection. The sub-zero temperature was possibly a good reason for more theatres being attended. TV would be more expensive sitting at home trying to keep warm while the heating bills get as high as the unemployment figures. Winter holidays were out of the question for many, and there is no arguing how warm you can keep in a theatre in the pantomime season, all cheering and huddling together. Apart from this domestic reasoning during Christmas that is the marked family season of the year, there is something else happening to theatre in London. It is the revival of robustness in the meaning of theatre.

The first dose of mood shift reflecting robustness was in collective self–discovery with “11 and 12” by Peter Brook – co-commission by the Barbican (London), CICT/Theatre des Bouffes du Nord (Paris), The Grotowski Institute (Warsaw). This was as much a play about identity as it was about collective responsibility in engaging with the notion of tolerance. This is the underlying theme of Amadou Hampate Ba's work ‘A Spirit of Tolerance' that informs the play.

“11 and 12” is set in Mali and is about the consequent formation of two groups from one religious group – based on the question of how many times one should pray for the journey of the spirit in the living world to meet divinity. This minute variance in the doctrine could not be clarified as the Master dies before the disciples could ascertain what he really instructed. To pray 11 times, or 12 times? For one set of believers the number has a mystical value, which divides them from the set who believe what they heard the Master said. This eventually leads to civil strife, massacres and confrontation with French colonialism in Africa. In Hampate's own words, who wrote of the real situation between the two heads of the groups, Tierno Bokar and Cherif Hamallah, “intolerance, closely related to ignorance and to a lack of spiritual maturity, is not limited to any one race or to a particular community. It is a common human disease…Intolerance always threatens to bare its claws as soon as we encounter in our neighbour something different that we cannot understand.”

It is particularly relevant as the form of storytelling makes it – even across a vast stage with a cast of eight multiracial performers – for our time. The recession has created a sharper edge toward differences – employed/jobless; married/single/other; class/race/migration; politician/self governance; differences in beliefs other than our own – religious or secular. While ‘destiny' signifies what ‘is meant to be', pacifism is about fighting to assert the truth, without harming anyone. Tolerance is a denial of violence and is a passionate affirmation; a ‘refusal of not to go and pick up the gun' as Brook remarks.

Shifting moods

The audience was enraptured by the atmosphere of storytelling, but was also in the mood to listen to stories about a past slightly distanced culturally from their own, to understand the motives of religious leaders, and the interference of colonists. Brook's drama is in not having answers to the question of God or certainties – that space of departing from reason and arriving at experiencing the other is where he sees the drama, both for the theatre, and in life. It's possible we are entering a moment of the theatre of experience. The performers however lacked the presence of storytellers; while the story was relevant in signposting miscommunications about Islam, Islamisation, and the Muslim world.

While “11 and 12” was part of BITE 10, an international festival, there was a tightly presented production at the Tricycle Theatre in North London. Peter Brook's work is in ensemble, Frank McGuinness's play “Greta Garbo comes to Donegal” comes from the convention of a tight script with a special brand of Irish irony. This play looked at tolerance from the perspective of tightly knit families being their own worst enemies in blocking change. Mc Guinness's play is set in 1967 when there is change – sexual, gender, social, technological, thick in the air. Greta is a celebrity recluse who loves her aloneness and is able to connect with the ‘Housekeeper' at Donegal. It's a moment of stating what is otherwise the closeted truth – independence from all that is crushingly familiar. Difference is about perspective, offering choices.

While the recession is playing roulette, threatening independence, theatre seems to be leading the way in holding the mirror to some home truths and heightened realities. There is a new wave that is washing over London and the signposts for the return of a meaningful and robust theatre reflecting our times are well directed.

Next time we'll look at the live streaming of theatre, and the new wave washing over film. Just as I close, Katherine Bigelow wins the Oscar for best director for ‘Hurt Locker'. The first woman, but more than that, re-looking at social addictions to war and war-mongering must herald change. Hopefully tolerance is beginning to bare its grin.

Dr. Vayu Naidu is a storyteller and theatre person based in London. She is also a writer of children's books and adult fiction. For more information, log onto: Email: >

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