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."
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