Feasting on justifed anger

Trash Cuisine –Belarus Free Theatre @ Young Vic, booking until 15 June

Sitting on the Victoria Line as the tube wound its way towards the end of the line, two women, well-dressed and weighed down with bags, were busy working out their frustrations over the complexity of French employment law when it came to hiring locals to work in their second home. One of the pair wondered whether their 20-year old daughter was old enough to live alone in London.

Trash CusineAs I sat and listened, I found it hard not to imagine Liam Holden. Liam Holden? I hadn’t heard of Liam Holden until about two hours earlier. On the 21 June 2002 Liam Holden conviction for murdering a British soldier in Belfast was quashed. In 1989 he had been released from prison having spent 17 years in jail. During his interrogation at Black Mountain Primary School he was waterboarded 6 times, he was stretched up against a wall and beaten for 2 minutes. He had a gun put to his head and told if he didn’t confess he would be shot and have it blamed on the loyalists. By 2002 he had spent almost 70% of his life accused of the murder of Frank Bell, the British paratrooper. Liam Holden was 18 when he was convicted of murder.

I thought to myself that twenty is probably old enough to live alone in London.

Belarus Free Theatre should need no introduction. They are a banned theatre company in Europe’s last dictatorship. Having said that they need no introduction it is likely to be depressing to find out the percentage of people who do not know that Europe still has a functional dictatorship. That a country in Europe still has the death penalty. That theatre companies can still be banned.

Their theatre is raw, angry and political but it avoids polemics and comes alive in its contradictory nature. Trash Cuisine does not have a narrative but it tells many stories. Stories that are intensely local but have a global reach. Stories that are not new but that you have not heard before. Stories that tell of human action but not of humanity.

This could easily sink into the theatre of the righteous. Sub-par Brecht that preaches to the converted and ends with a self-satisfied slap on the back. Belarus Free Theatre has too much at stake and too much talent to allow this to happen. With no state funding they are, in the most literal sense, singing for their supper. With this hunger comes a razor sharp sense of purpose.

They spin steel into their silken storytelling. Scenes unwind into absurdity and farcical slapstick but their messages slice through the levity. Want to hear impressions of different types of death penalty? Well the impression of an electric chair – two minutes of screaming with a ten second break – is an impressive counterpunch.

As the stories unspool one after another like tapes in a broken recorder, each finds a way of piecing together its own meaning. Throughout they mix together a playful sense of the unexpected with a reality that is brutally grounded by the horrors of the language.

Belarus Free TheatreThe story of Nicky Ingram told through the inhabitants of an American nightclub is a beautiful juxtaposition of the everyday lives of American liberals with the final hours of Nicky Ingram, an inmate on death row. Nicky Ingram was one of Clive Stafford-Smith’s very few failures. 300 death row case and a 97% success rate. Nicky Ingram is one of the unlucky ones. For not getting off, and for being born in one of the very few western democracies that routinely kills adults under the auspices of its legal system.

Belarus Free Theatre is never going to win the Audience Choice award. Trash Cuisine is without doubt a harrowing experience but could it be anything less? For the play to succeed it should fill the audience with a sense of outrage that can’t be quelled in the bar after the show. Not every element is entirely successful. Meaning can’t be gleaned from every tableau but as the performances unfold, the company’s idiosyncratic style overwhelms all and beneath the discordant surface an underlying structure reveals itself.

And that structure is built of anger. Anger at the deaths of Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov, both 26, both executed in Belarus last year, both protesting their innocence. Anger that the death penalty remains in use in 94 countries across the world. Anger that the state-sanctioned violence can lead to a situation like Nyarubuye in Rwanda where 28,000 people were killed by their fellow citizens. Nyarubuye, where it is said only six people survived. That is something everyone can get angry about, and rightly so.

Olympic Opening Ceremony: Boyle’s Brand Britain Brings Belief Back

Be not afeard / This isle is full of noises [The Tempest]

Etched onto the largest bell cast at the Whitechapel Foundry and overlooking a pastoral idyll of Britain – maypoles, shire horses and, naturally, cricket – Danny Boyle took from our great playwright a statement of intent that he then used to totally reimagine a way a country uses such events to present itself to the world.

Years in the planning but managing to remain one of the most well-kept secrets in this age of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, yesterday we finally got to find out what happens when you spend £27 million on a one-off show. The results were as thought-provoking as they were spectacular. It showcased a Britain that may finally becoming at ease with its history and its place in the world.

After 50 years of declining world influence, colonial guilt and compounded by the growing financial crisis that may yet see the balance of power transfer permanently to the emerging economies, there is an anxiety that undercuts our patriotism. Boyle does not deny our history and does not gloss over the seismic transformations that fractured Britain and then the world. It is an incredibly bold move and one that only a mature country confident in its heritage could countenance.

When Beijing hosted the Games in 2008 they put together a spectacular that no country in the world could hope to match. It was also exactly the sort of thing that a regime that only pays lip-service to democracy would put together – encompassing thousands of people but with no sense of communal spirit and full of gloss. Boyle strips all this away – it has long been recognised you could not hope to beat Beijing at its own game. At times it felt chaotic and unmanaged but it had heart and soul. It put the volunteers themselves front and centre rather than being units in a large structure.

Boyle’s Britain is at times a terrifying place. Given our history, our colonial past and the traumatic impacts of war and social-cultural revolutions it could never have been otherwise.  Having been lucky enough to be in the Olympic Stadium during the technical rehearsal I can testify to the cauldron of noise created by the two thousand drummers. A faint rumble from the Olympic Park signifies the arrival of the industrial era, the growing wall of sound creating a pulsating beat as the green pastures of Britain is stripped away and out of the ground great towers begin to emerge and metal works creating molten rivers. The vibrations of technological chance ripple through the audience and a brutal landscape grows out of nothing. At times it is hard to tell whether we are being shown Britain or Tolkien’s Mordor.

Victorian industrialists, led by Kenneth Branagh as Brunel and given the task of delivering Prospero’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ speech in the absence of Mark Rylance, summon up the towers as if praying to some new deity. Boyle understands that these traumas are fundamental to our consciousness and to ignore them would be to hark back to ‘the green and pleasant land’ of William Blake’s Jerusalem whilst ignoring the all-important ‘dark satanic mills’.

The use of the set to deliver the Olympic Rings was visually magnificent. It had the all-important reveal and there were audible gasps as the audience began to realise how all the pieces fitted together. As the rings started to crackle and spark it was obvious why Boyle demanded a late start. The image of the Olympic Rings built out of British industry and burnt into the night sky will become one of the iconic images of the 2012 Games.

A sense of reminding the world, and Britain itself, of the innovations Britain has given it was at the heart of this show. Brand Britain was on display and Boyle (with an awful lot of help from his long-term collaborators, Underworld) displayed his usual mastery of the magpie approach – cherrypicking his way through our shared history. James Bond was an obvious touchstone and there was clearly a global thrill of showing him meeting the Queen but it is a shrewd move to include Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean. In this country we recognise Bean but perhaps don’t realise just what a valuable brand Bean has become worldwide. Rowan Atkinson has long-established a legacy as one of the most gifted physical comedians of all time, and deserves to stand alongside true greats like the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, and much deserved his slot at the event, alongside slotting in his much needed humour during the Chariots of Fire sequence.

Perhaps the most emotional honour, and clearly a cornerstone of Boyle’s whole vision, was the prominence going to Sir Tim Berners-Lee; perhaps the man who has transformed Britain, if not the world, more than any other at the tail end of the 20th century. His anonymity is as incredible as it is unforgivable considering that he invented the architecture for global communications – the world-wide web. What better stage – a UK audience of at least 26 million and a global audience of up to 2 billion – to give him the status he richly deserves?

Brand Britain also included two of our crown jewels – the NHS and the BBC. The show started with the uniquely British shipping forecast – unrecognisable to people who don’t live here but a cosy reminder of all things British– and included a long section involving NHS volunteers in a vibrant number that also celebrated the importance of children’s literature. A reminder to the world about how British authors have set the global standard in this field; JK Rowling was given the honour of stage-time but the show harked back to the golden age of Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Here, as throughout, Boyle didn’t take the easy route of simple-minded jingoism but looked deeper into the soul of the nation and realised that Britain has never shied away from looking into the darkness in order to find light.

Lord Coe promised to ‘inspire a generation’ in 2005, and in 2012 this vision was realised with a left-field choice for lighting the Olympic cauldron. Standard practice is to give the torch to an icon or suitable dignitary. Would any other country have decided to abandon this practice and give the torch to unknown young athletes who have been selected by our current greats? What message does this send to the children watching around the world? And how, in 2016, will Brazil manage to top such an audacious, and pretty much uncriticisable, choice?

And special mention must be made of the Olympic cauldron. An unbelievably spectacular artwork in its own right; something that almost managed to upstage everything that came before. An art-installation with practical purpose, built with copper petals carried by every nation of the games. Amazing demonstrations of the Olympian ideal of unity and togetherness that towered above the athletes and was a fitting send off to the evening – alongside the spine-tingling sound of 80,000 people booming out the inevitable na-na-na-na’s of Hey Jude.

Danny Boyle was given something that was a chance of a lifetime but, in the wake of Beijing, deeply unenviable. His career to date has displayed an unshakeable knack of hitting the cultural pulse in any genre he has taken on – small-scale urban drama in Shallow Grave, a kinetic slice-of-nation in Trainspotting, global understanding in Slumdog Millionaire and in 127 Hours an audio-visual montage that served as a warm-up for some of the video sequences employed in the show. Here he has cemented his reputation and for him the world becomes his oyster.

He has given a Britain that we can believe in, that we can be proud of and that balances the light and dark of our history in harmony. He has given the world a Britain that recognises its contribution to the world, that has given the world great industrial and social change, that has provided an imaginary world for its children and an audio soundtrack to people’s lives for the past 50 years. And you really can’t ask for more than that.

For more on the global media reaction to the Opening Ceremony click here

The best of the Opening Ceremony

Tower of Babel crumbles to reveal evidence of shonky workmanship

Babel – Performed at Caledonian Park,  until May 20th 2012

When it was announced that a collaborative project involving Wildworks, integral to The Passion of Port Talbot; the Theatre Royal Stratford East, previously home to Joan Littlewood;  the Battersea Arts Centre, long-term supporters of Kneehigh and Punchdrunk; and the Young Vic, would focus on the story of Babel as part of the World Stages Festival there was a feeling that it could become the theatre event of 2012.

Involving a cast of over 300 and creating an immersive experience in the middle of London, Caledonian Park to be exact, Babel had the potential to create a truly gripping experience that would draw an audience together in a piece that would explore questions that have remained fundamental to human nature since the  birth of our earliest civilisations.

The story of Babel is a story of primeval humanity and the development of language. Primarily thought of as biblical, it has antecedents common to a number of ancient civilisations. This is not uncommon in origin stories, and Babel in particular touches on questions of a universal root language that is as central to modern linguistics today as it would have been to ancient thinkers. It is hard not to imagine an oral tradition passing the story of Babel down through the generations as an an answer to the question of how it came to pass that humanity, rooted in theistic societies, spoke with such a multiplicity of tongues?

It is a story that has many resonances with the modern day, particularly in a world where Twitter bridges culture and internet search engines can  translate web pages instantaneously. Perhaps after thousands of years humans are beginning to hurtle back towards a supposed original state where humans can converse across a universal language. The fact that Babel so singularly fails to address any of these questions is only the starting point of a troublingly flawed production.

In business circles, it is often felt that any negativity in performance appraisals should take the form of the infamous ‘shit sandwich’ – for those unaware of such a delicacy, it generally involves a criticism layered carefully between two positive statements. Unfortunately in the case of Babel, there is far too little of the positive to create a sandwich, at best you might be able to fashion some form of Danish Smørrebrød but even that appears optimistic.

<< Click here to continue to full review>>