Tuesday, August 04, 2015

This is why I write what I do

"Theatre needs to be written for the world and about the world.

The problems that confront us are global: an artistic response based on the dilemmas of a single individual, or a single individual within a single nation, is no longer adequate.

all traditional values are no longer adequate to handle the dilemmas that confront us.

our political ideas and institutions are no longer adequate.
our economic values and institutions are no longer adequate.
our scientific values and institutions are no longer adequate.
our ideas of gender, of what it means to be male or female, are no longer adequate.
our artistic ideas are no longer adequate.

We have to create new values, new institutions, new economic and political structures. Or we will destroy ourselves.

It is the responsibility of the artist to help dream, envision, create these new values and these new structures.

This is the focus of my life and work."

I don’t quite remember when I wrote that. It was when I first set up my web page. Around 2002, maybe.

It seemed completely obvious to me at the time. And strangely enough still does.

In the late eighties I’d travelled to southern California and Bangladesh within 2 or 3 months of each other. So I’d been in one of the richest countries of the world; and then in one of the poorest.

And in between I’d been in Egypt and watched the Berlin Wall being broken down.

I knew that everything I’d been taught about the world up till then was false. That the conflict was not between East and West. Not between the ‘freedom’ of the West and the ‘tyranny’ of the East. 

Perhaps it was between North and South: certainly between the rich and poor countries of the world. And that it wasn’t just the Communist bloc that was held up by the Berlin Wall, but the capitalist world too.

It was a very powerful vision I had and I travelled back to Bengal to spend some time in a village near Kolkata. Out of it I wrote my LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE.

The play caused me much suffering; and I was so hurt when one of its commissioners, Hampstead Theatre, turned it down and the play did really badly when it eventually opened.

But I’ve come to understand that people don’t want to be told unpleasant truths. And certainly not the kind of things that the Goddess Kali told them:

The children lie in the gutters and stare
At the rich in their towers of sculptured glass
and the rich ignore them
or feel self-righteous if they spare a tiny crust
prisoners in their towers of glass
prisoners afraid to feel the rain
Prisoners of vanity, Mukherjee,
Prisoners of lies. Stealing all the riches of the earth
forgetting that in the end 
They’ll have to pay for them.
For they must pay. Everyone has to pay.
Pity the rich Mukherjee. Pity the rich.
Thinking of nothing but their clothes
Enriching themselves from blood and hunger and disease
And holding their noses so they won’t suffer from the smell.
Precious people Mukherjee. Refined people of sensitivity and taste.
And don’t tell me you’re poor.
Don’t tell me of the comforts that you lack.

I was so angry in those days. In my deep heart I still am. But I hope a little less arrogant.

But it’s as clear to me now as it was then that capitalism is failing and will fall, as the other economic systems that had prevailed in the world before it. 

And it’s no use the contemptible David Camerons of this world trying to erect more fences, whether they’re around the Eurotunnel terminus or (much more powerfully) around our imaginations. They will fall.

We live in one world and we are all responsible for each other.

And how cross I used to get with all the artists who persist in creating according to capitalist values. Who continue to believe that drama is about individuals in isolation and in conflict.

I don’t want to keep creating capitalist art. I want to create post-capitalism art.

After ”Light In The Village”  opened, someone said to me: “You are a new age playwright”. And it made me so happy that someone had understood.

Those were more optimistic days. Before the criminals who run our economies and our world had managed to colonise our brains and fill our imaginations with their landscapes of greed and despair.

But in my obstinate way I keep on trying to resist. And I don’t believe drama is at all about conflict. It’s about togetherness. It’s about love.

And how characteristic of this disastrous era we are living through that even to write that makes me feel as if I am being ridiculous.

But it’s true. My last two plays, EVERY ONE and THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE were not about conflict at all. And nor is THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

This is the beginning of what a post-capitalist art might look like.

And how happy I was to come across Paul Mason’s new book - called POSTCAPITALISM! - and find him saying:

“The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted…”


“The most obvious ‘economic’ thing to the Shakespeare of 2075 will be the total upheaval of gender relationships, or sexuality, or health”.

I am no Shakeapeare, and this is still 2015. But I know that me and my amazing companions on this journey - Director Susan, Archangel Annabel, and St. Claire of the light switches - have created something different and have created something new.

And something that is of the theatre, which I so profoundly love, but does not need one. A show that can be performed anywhere and which just needs its creators, the clothes I am wearing, and the suitcase I bring on stage.

And a tin of yeast to make bread with.

We don’t know if it works or not, though we hope it does. We did our technical rehearsal today; and the first preview is tomorrow.

And then we will see….

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN opens at 10.45 on Wednesday August 5th in the Old Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Summerhall and runs till the end of the Festival.


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Friday, July 31, 2015

performing and arthritis

When I look at the films we made before and during the performance last year I tend to wince.

I look at myself, bandy legged and waddling along as old people tend to do when we have sore hips and knees.

I know I’ve no reason to feel ashamed: but I do.

And when I began to come out using a stick for the first time, that is exactly what it felt like. Coming out. Making myself be open and proud of something I’d been made to be ashamed of.

I don’t wholly understand why old people and disabled people are made to feel ashamed of who we are. Perhaps it’s because we remind everybody, starting with ourselves, of human frailty and human decay. 

That, and the unavoidable approach of sister death. And we don’t want to think about that.

I know I was in denial last year and trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

That’s one thing professional actors have to learn to be good at. Concealment and denial. Because we are supposed to be able to dance, sing, play multiple music instruments, fence, ride horses and motorbikes and never do anything like show weakness or fall ill.

I, on the other hand, often can’t walk properly. And it embarrasses me.

But there it is. The arthritis began in the left knee, and is now in the right knee and hip.

And note how when I write this I say “the” instead of “my”. As if I still want to believe this is all happening to somebody else, and not to me.

But it is happening. I can’t walk any distance, climb stairs with any ease, or stand for any period of time.

It’s hard for us to talk about this, director Susan, archangel Annabel, and me. Or at least it’s hard for me.

But there’s no choice, really. I don’t want to suffer performing and the only way to begin to deal with any pain is to at least acknowledge it is there.

Luckily one of the many things I admire about director Susan’s style of directing is the way she makes use of space.

And the stairs in the Old Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Summerhall have lots of railings.

And the script now acknowledges what is happening and maybe the way I perform does too.

I hope somehow that in the process, in this show that openly acknowledges all our frailty and mortality, something beautiful will be made of it.

And eventually, too, that I’m able to create my new show about old age and death.

But that’s another story. For now it’s this one that has to be told.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

No longer a lonely traveller

There’s a story Queen Jesus tells in the play that I’m proud of.

Proud of the writing, anyway, and so it’s one that I enjoy telling.

Director Susan frowns a little.

“You’re always off when you do that story”, she says.

She means off centre, my voice not coming from quite the right place. 

Nor the rest of me neither.

Director Susan doesn’t do scathing. She doesn’t even do mild reproach; more a sense of someone waiting.

A sense that this is something I may not want to hear just now. Or maybe something I’m not able to hear.

But one day I will..
The story is a version of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The son discovers she is her father’s daughter, is driven out of home and goes to live in a far country. But eventually comes home and is reconciled to her father.

Suddenly I realise it’s also about me and my dad.

He was always terrified and outraged at my being “sissy” and didn’t quite know how to handle it.

He did his best to be good to me, but didn’t really know how.

I remember once being terrified when he shouted at me after I had stolen a doll; but mostly, like many things that caused him emotional discomfort, he repressed it.

This was what his generation was taught to do.

He died in his early seventies, while we were still estranged from each other, without knowing or understanding who I really was and without even really taking on board the fact I had become successful.

It grieves me that I never could come out to him or that he never truly understood or accepted who I was.

In the middle of discovering all this, we have to move out of the rehearsal room and I leave my stick behind. 

When director Susan retrieves it on the Monday it appears with a label attached.

A cardboard label tied on with string of the kind that always used to be attached to my suitcase when I was a boy. 

And also, when I was sent off to boarding school, attached to me.

My mum used to put me on the train at Cheltenham Spa for the journey down to Swanage, me and my little brown suitcase. With our labels attached.

(And the suitcase, I remember, was the same as the suitcase I carry on stage)

My mother used to hate sending me off on these journeys. She’d try to hide the fact she was crying: but I still saw.

My father thought they were good for me, and could never understand why I wasn’t prepared to send my daughters to boarding school too. “You’ll want to get them out of your way”, he’d say testily.

And so there I was, a small boy of 8 or 9 years old in his school uniform setting out alone on these long train journeys.

And maybe these solitary journeys prepared me, somehow, for the long journeys I was to take later as a writer.

Inner journeys to dark or frightening places, alone, to try to bring back something of value or of beauty.

But this time I have companions. I think of director Susan so thoroughly working on the script; archangel Annabel trying to balance budgets and make sure the right people come; and st. Claire seeking out the right tea lights and towel. 

And I understand there is something very beautiful about this journey that starts at Summerhall a week today and leads to who knows where: the fact I no longer have to make it alone.

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