Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dickens in Dhaka

I have to write the programme note for the "Great Expectations" tour.  Rehearsals start on August 20th, very soon now, and the show opens in Richmond on September 12th, and goes all round Britain before, early next year, finally opening in the West End (http://www.greatexpectationstheshow.com/).

There's been so many false starts, and so many setbacks, and the courage and persistence of Bruce MacKinnon has been tested beyond all reasonable limits. So I feel a bit superstitious about putting it out in the open. But I've a feeling that at last it's actually going to happen. It deserves to.

It's a script I'm proud of. I'm proud of what I've written in the programme note, too, but I'll resist the temptation to publish it here. It's time will come - in the programme, and as an introduction to the published script.

I opened the filing cabinet to refresh my memory, and came upon an article I wrote for the Glasgow Herald, as it was then, written by John Clifford. As I was then.

I wrote about the experience of seeing the show in Dhaka. It's worth recalling. It totally transformed my life. This is what I wrote:

"The first days in Bangladesh were like days in jail. To be sure, the bars of our cage were gilded. The hotel saw to that. No expense was spared to ensure our stay was comfortable; nothing was too much trouble if it helped convince us the bars did not really exist. But the dates were guarded; and the minute you stepped outside them you felt under siege.

Beggars waited at every intersection to tap at your windows, pointing at their hungry mouths and sightless eyes. Waving the stumps of amputated limbs. Street children would clutch hold of you, women with babies tug at your sleeve.

And the city would rush past, relentless; crazy beaten-up lorries, spluttering three-wheelers, buses impossibly crammed, with passengers clutching onto the roof and the outside of all the windows. Cars hooting. The air thick with exhaust. And rickshaws. One million rickshaws.

A cruel city. Its population swollen by hordes of the landless: people cut off from their earth, from their family, from their roots. People on the edge. People holding onto life with their fingernails.

And if they fail, their dead bodies being thrown into the river like garbage.

The problems are unimaginable; the suffering immense. It is easy here, for a westerner, to become sunk in despair, in shame, and in disgust. I was rescued y a little girl in an orphanage. In Sreepur. She put her arms around my neck and would not let go. She was about the size of my youngest child.

She was being fed and cared for, given clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. She reminded me that whatever good we can do is never altogether lost. She hugged me and she gave me strength.

After that, it somehow didn't seem so completely irrelevant or absurd to be sitting in the lighting box of a theatre in Dhaka, watching "Great Expectations". Listening to Mike and Kiz, the Traverse technicians, whispering to each other down the phone, trying out new ways to improve the lighting; and watching the cast always striving, right up to the very end, to enrich and improve their performance.

It all began to make sense.

The Dhaka audience knew their Dickens well: their comments were often better informed than anything I had heard back home. Their appreciation was judicious; their criticisms exact. Their response was heartfelt because they saw in Dickens' London an exact image of a world very like their own.

The continual destruction of children, the despair of the abandoned spinster, the cruelty of the division between rich and poor, the relentless struggle to survive - all these are not literary abstractions, not images or figures of speech, but lived reality. Part of the air they have to breathe.

Bengali traditions of theatre and poetry are far more ancient than ours, far richer and in many ways far more alive. It was no coincidence that this, by far the poorest country we visited, should have possessed the best equipped theatre.

For drama flourishes in Dhaka, even under the most adverse conditions. In theatres with no wings, no space backstage, only the crudest equipment. Theatres that in summer are like ovens. Bare concrete for the auditorium floor; splintered, rotting wood for the stage.

No-one makes a living from the theatre. They create it out of love. They work by day, rehearse and perform by night. They have eight or nine plays in repertory and put on at least one show a week. The theatres are full.

There are at least 60 or 70 such theatre groups in Dhaka. hoe actors, writers, and directors I spoke to are some of the most admirable people I have ever met. Women of extraordinary courage and vision trying to overturn millennia of oppression. Men of enormous intelligence and sensitivity. All driven half out of their minds sometimes with bitterness and frustration. But persiting in the struggle to create art in the theatre.

In the struggle to create a future."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Trying to listen to the heart

It all began last Sunday night.

Out of nowhere I'd begun to write the first scene of my new play. The dialogue turned up in my head, somehow, and I had no choice but to write it down.

I'd not been too well that day. I'd been cleaning the house, having to stop and rest with improbable frequency, and after typing it out on the Monday I'd woken in the early hours of the following morning with my heart pounding, and my whole being in the grip of fear.

I knew this place. It has a Latin name, timor mortis, the fear of death, and can be a symptom of heat failure.

I'd been there before, when my heart valve was first failing ("incompetence" is the rather cruel medical term); and I had been there again when my heart had gone into atrial flutter.

Later that morning, after it had subsided, a rather important stage direction popped into my head, and I had to write it.

The moment I did my heart started pounding again. All the breath seemed to leave my body. And again I was seized by terror. I felt like an alcoholic who had been given an anti-alcohol drug but had gone on and drunk anyway.

There was an unmistakeable message to stop, and stop immediately.

I haven't written since.

I write this after six days of silence a little uneasily and a little furtively also, as if I could somehow cheat my heart into thinking I could be doing something else.

I've lost count of the years I've spent writing, writing, writing each day and forcing myself to do so, even when I hadn't wanted to or it felt I had nothing to say.

Being forced to stop has left me no choice but to try to reflect on it all.

It's not an altogether noble impulse. It's partly to do with the crazy economics of the theatre industry. With learning early on that if I wanted to earn a living I'd need to write fast.

It's partly to do with the even crazier insecurities this culture fosters in the transgendered, and our attendant deeply damaging lack of self worth.

Whatever it is, it hasn't stopped, except when illness has forced me to.

Even now I'm creeping back into it again. I imagine because I must.

But I doubt, now, this fear will ever leave me.

It leaves me naked. There's no escaping it, it seems, except through the door which leads to the place I am most afraid of.

Years ago I wrote a play called "Playing With Fire". It had the devil coming out of a stove. It had a man dying and being brought back to life again. It had a king who thought he was made of glass and a beggar for whom death was a friend. I remember asking for a special door.

Death's door.

It was an abstraction then. But now...

Of course, I reassure myself. I go to the doctor, I get myself checked over. I take the pills.

This is just a rehearsal, I tell myself. The very beginning of rehearsals. And they will go on for years.

In the meantime I am so open. Open to the piercing joy of love. Open to the overwhelming beauty of the world.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Dreaming the future

The personal is political we used to say in the early seventies. Planting our potatoes, living as a commune, and then sharing childcare. It mattered how you lived because we knew the structures of capitalism and the nuclear family disturbed our personal lives and so trying to live in a way that resisted them was part of our resistance to an unjust and oppressive society. Which we imagined would collapse, I think, out of its own contradictions, or maybe by the force of our righteous anger. It didn't, of course, it's contradictions and injustices have just become more intense, and now often seem to meet with a dull apathy whose close cousin is despair ). But we were right. The personal is political. Reflecting on all this after seeing a screening of Maja Borg's beautiful and haunting FUTURE MY LOVE (). There is a new world waiting to be born, and we live through its birth pangs as acutely as we suffer the death throes of the old. The film explores both, personally and politically, looking at the decline of our social structures in the context of the loss of a loving relationship. Change is so difficult. It's hard, as I remember it, just as it was hard to lose my old masculine self. John suffered, to be sure, but his suffering was something I was accustomed to, something I knew I could handle - as opposed to the new and terrifying sufferings awaiting me as Jo. This painful individual process needs to be collectively endured. It's unlikely we undergo it voluntarily. Intense suffering and collective breakdown will almost certainly be necessary to force us through it. The film somehow saw all this but refused to surrender to fear and despair. It focused instead on the work of Jacque Fresco (http://www.thevenusproject.com) a visionary scientist and dreamer who can see that there is an alternative to the grotesque injustice and destructiveness of our market-based economy and is devoting his life to creating it. So that in the end this very wonderful and profound film did what art must do in this time and place: help us dream a new world into being.

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