Monday, 30 May 2011

Hidden stories and imagined worlds

It seems that there are demonstrations and protests in several European countries. Every so often there's a brief mention in the press - but it's usually an aside or footnote to another story. A fellow-blogger, travelling to Madrid on business was startled to find every square in the city under occupation by protesters - and it seems that other Spanish cities have been occupied as well. The Barcelona occupation did get a mention in the British press - in the football reports. Apparently there were fears that Barca would be unable to celebrate in the usual square, as it was occupied. A search on the internet quickly brought up video of the Spanish police trying to disperse the protesters with considerable force.

It seems that Greece has large protests too. Syntagma Square in Athens may still be under occupation and I found mention (in Greek papers in English) of further protests in Thessaloniki and Patra. Then there were references to protests and occupations in France - not just in the Place de la Bastille in Paris but in other cities as well. Struggling through information from a variety of courses and a variety of languages, I discovered that people in each square came from a variety of political and non-political background - but were almost always outside the mainstream - and that they worked co-operatively and consensually to write their own agendas for change.

This may all fade away. People may just accept the poverty and exploitation which comes with finding their country "bailed out" from a crisis caused by their government, bankers, and multi-national countries. But I find it far more interesting than the sex-life of bankers or the dresses worn by the wives of a president, a prime minister and the heir to the heir to the throne. And I wonder why the British press is ignoring it while similar actions in some Middle Eastern countries merit front page coverage. I have, however, noted that protests in some Middle Eastern countries get more publicity than others - the press now has little to say about Syria, Tunisia, Morocco Bahrain - and last Friday's protests in Egypt were barely mentioned.

When so much is happening abroad - and when there are plenty of political struggles at home - it seems slightly bizarre to spend time at a theatre festival. But NEAT11, Nottingham's new international arts and theatre festival is practically on my doorstep. If I wished, I could walk to some of the events. And while some are rather expensive (Opera North still offers too few cheap tickets), others are cheap or even free. I made a few extravagant bookings and promised myself hours of indulgence away from the anxieties of the Age of Austerity.

It didn't quite work out like that. Who would have thought that Henrik Ibsen wasn't always a gloomy Scandinavian but a writer of political comedy? The League of Youth, receiving its professional premiere in Britain nearly 150 years after it was written, was one of Ibsen's most popular plays in his native Norway, at least during his lifetime. And, more surprisingly, it turns out to be a satire on Nick Clegg. I came away from the Playhouse both cheered and musing on the effects empty rhetoric still has on voters who are fed up with the current system and desperate for something better - and a chance to be heard. The League of Youth runs till Wednesday so there's still a chance to get tickets.

I also made it to a free play-reading of Anna Yablonskaya's play The Irons. Yabolnskaya is one of two people associated with NEAT11 to be killed in an act of terrorism this year. (The other is Juliano Mer Khamis.) She was killed in a random and barely-explained bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport. I thought the knowledge of her death might affect my response to the reading but it was so complex, even in a semi-staged reading, that I was caught up in the characters and events. But again it led me back to the world of politics. At the centre of the play was a young man collecting irons and ironing the flags of countries that no longer exist - and this wasn't just some intellectual metaphor but part of the characters' experience, reflecting a world that was both known and imaginary.

The reading I attended was a shortened version of the full play (which is being read in full next week) and was followed by a discussion of theatre in Central Europe, with representatives of a Hungarian theatre company, a Kosovan theatre festival and Natalia Koliada of the Free Theatre of Belarus. While theatre in Hungary has experienced cuts and press attacks - and may suffer in the future under a recent Media Law - it is in a far stronger position than Kosovan theatre, which is desperately under-funded and suffering the effects of war, poverty and unemployment. But the problems in Belarus made others seem insignificant.

Natalia Koliada is living in exile; she has been warned not to return since her arrest and imprisonment last year. Her country is a dictatorship, torture is routine and her theatre company is prevented from giving public performances. Requests to perform plays by British playwrights including Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Edward Bond were turned down. One of the reasons given was that the plays show homosexuality, suicide and mental illness, which "don't exist in Belarus". So I was back to politics again, marvelling at the power of the arts and fictional worlds to upset those who rule and administer totalitarian regimes. I marvelled too at the courage of those who continue to make art in difficult circumstances, finding something within them that will not bow to the demands of authority.

These theatrical experiences were shared with other members of the audience and quite easy to discuss. I also chose two solitary theatre experiences. For one I had to download tracks to my MP3 player; for the other I was provided with a mobile phone.

Threads by Andy Barrett is the more conventional drama. It's also free for anyone with access to a computer and MP3 player. In a way, following Threads round Nottingham's Lacemarket is like listening to a radio play. But there's something different about following a play which asks you to look intently at your surroundings while listening - it requires an acuteness of visual observation and risks being interrupted by external factors such as a crowd of clubbers or loud conversation in a bar. While the events of the play are fairly slight, it's the accompanying visual intensity that stays with me - and the play itself demands that the listener look at people and places anew.

More disturbing is Ulrike and Eamon Compliant which was devised for Venice but has been rethought for Nottingham. As the solitary audience member, I picked up a mobile phone, turned it on and listened attentively. I was asked to choose one of two identities from the real (historical) terrorists Ulrike Meinhof and Eamon Collins. Clutching the phone to my ear I walked through streets that were suddenly unfamiliar, made choices, followed orders and heard snatches of Ulrike Meinhof's experience until my identity began to blur into hers. I did not entirely stop being myself and a pacifist but for half an hour or so I saw Nottingham - and the wider world - as a terrorist might see it: angry at the injustice and cruelty of the world, prepared to sacrifice myself and others for the dream of a better world.

Sometimes - often at its best - theatre challenges its audiences to imagine things they do not want to understand. I felt at times that being Ulrike, even for half an hour, had messed up my brain and my identity. But I also knew that I undertook the experience voluntarily - and paid for it too. In a world as complex as ours it may help to understand. Just at the moment, theatre seems closer to world events and dilemmas than anything I find in the British press.

As I made my way to the bus-stop after a day of theatre, I passed the Old Market Square. No-one was demonstrating. If anything it seemed slightly emptier than usual at that time of night. But suppose it had been occupied by a peaceful protest camp of people wanting to change the world, I wondered if I'd have been able to read about it in the next day's papers. I'm glad I don't live under the kind of totalitarian regime that people experience in Belarus. But perhaps in Britain too there are some things that aren't mentioned in the press because they don't happen here. And who knows what anger that press silence would evoke?