Sunday, September 12, 2010

My Lai and Games

South Vietnam - 16 March 1968, in what became known as the My Lai massacre, a unit of the US army killed hundreds (estimate 347-504) of unarmed and unresisting civilians, the majority of whom were women, children (including babies) and old men.

‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (Shakespeare - King Lear)  What turned some soldiers of Charlie Company, described as a normal cross-section of American youth, with an average age of 20, into babykillers? One GI’s mother said “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.”

In Games (1971) by James Saunders, a company of four rehearse a piece of experimental theatre based on a Reuter report of the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley for his actions at My Lai.

In a note to the text, James Saunders explained: ‘Games is about freedom, responsibility and choice, treated not as theoretical concepts but as aspects of an actual event which takes place during rehearsals and during each performance.  The play is about the fact of its being put on; but this fact concerns not only the actors who have chosen to do it, but the audience – which is both an audience and a collection of individuals – who choose to accept or reject it, to let it proceed smoothly or to interrupt it or to wreck it.  But it is not enough to present an audience with the fact of a choice; the possibility of using it must be put within their limits.  Gauging these limits so as to try to avoid the two extremes of frozen acceptance or an untheatrical chaos means that there is no such thing as a definitive performance.’
The play deliberately sets up a conflict between the unreality and game playing of theatre versus the carnage of what was a contemporaneous war.  It is a witty indictment of theatre and a critique of the compassion fatigue of audiences – or is it?  Does it, through the medium of theatre, challenge us to break through our apathy by contrasting our passive obeying of the conventions of theatre with that of soldiers obeying orders? Make us consider the ethics of theatre, of cultural voyeurism, of appropriating the stories of others, as well as the ethics of war? By employing theatrical techniques such as agitprop, irony, parody and verbatim theatre can it provoke some sense of social responsibility?
American journalist Jonathan Schell commented: ‘The massacre calls for self-examination and for action, but if we deny the call and try to go on as before, as though nothing had happened, our knowledge, which can never leave us once we have acquired it, will bring about an unnoticed but crucial alteration in us, numbing our most precious faculties and withering our souls. For if we learn to accept this, there is nothing we will not accept.’
Jersey Arts Centre youtheatre will perform Games on Wednesday 22 September as part of An Audience for George Ritchie.

found no 7 - wall

Saturday, September 11, 2010

An Audience for George Ritchie

An Audience for George Ritchie is a fundraising event at Jersey Arts Centre on Wednesday 22 September comprising a performance of James Saunders' Games by the ever-inventive Jersey Arts Centre youtheatre followed by a concert by Le Rocquier Big Band for the second half.

George Ritchie was Jersey Arts Centre's first director when it opened its doors in 1983.  In 1984 he directed a production of Lorca's Blood Wedding in the chapel at Trinity Manor in which I had a small part.  It was my last public performance (happily!) but it was a wonderful experience and helped inspire a strong attachment to the newly blooming arts centre in St Helier.

Jersey owes a great debt of gratitude to its Arts Centre directors who have ensured that it is cut-off only by water and not by ideas or inspiration.  They have brought world class performers and artists to the islands and, as importantly, helped to encourage, nurture and develop creative talents and to stimulate debate.  Long may it continue!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September is film month

The Jersey Film Society launches its new season of 17 films at the Jersey Arts Centre on Monday 13 September in what promises to be a strong and varied programme.  I'm particularly looking forward to A Single Man (described as 'a ghost story, a study of grief, a love story viewed from its wake'); Bright Star (Jane Campion's take on poet John Keats); Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood on John Lennon) and Duncan Jones' Moon, which I never did get to see at last year's Branchage...

...speaking of which, the third Branchage International Film Festival, 23 - 26 September, again offers eclectic delights in unusual locations - from Battleship Potemkin in a tugboat and Lourdes in the Town Church to Horses in a horse box...Out On His Own with Jersey resident Gilbert O'Sullivan should be interesting, also new British comedy Tamara Drewe, post 7/7 drama London River, and Tilda Swinton in I am Love as well as many others, including shorts - and after all, I think that to get the best out of festivals, you have to immerse yourself for a few intense days and be open to new work that you might not otherwise have seen.

Despite, or perhaps because of, being an island with only one remaining cinema open, Jersey festival organisers and venue managers are admirably creative - as well as the above, recently there have been al fresco films in Howard Davis Park and silent cinema in Caféjac and November will bring the 6th Jersey Amnesty International Human Rights Festival to Jersey Arts Centre - bound to be thought-provoking and powerful.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


rooms and death

I was looking through the book reGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow recently and was struck by a series of photographs People Who Died Alone 2003 by Mieke Van de Voort.

Undertaken in collaboration with Amsterdam social services, the photographs show the interiors of apartments as they were found by social workers researching the identity of people who had died without any known friends or relations.

I am thinking about why I find the photographs so powerful.

At first it is the rooms themselves and what they reveal and hint at or hide, a kind of voyeurism, looking for clues, reading objects - about order, disorder, collections, rituals, routines, beliefs, history, memory, memorabilia, the physical, obsessions, compulsions, possessions, structures, the outer shell, our 'living rooms', the unfinished, the hidden or forgotten stories...

and through the objects the strong presence of the absent person - the missing life, anonymity, being invisible, isolation, the spiritual, the inner life, the finished life...

and the presence of death - the room as shrine, funerary objects, mementoes, the past - as if by looking hard enough you can see how it announces itself, see it coming for you...

found no 5 - door

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Treacle in St James

photo: David Stokes

This year Jersey Arts Centre has showcased the uniqueness and versatility of St James as a local performance space in an initiative inviting theatre groups and artists to take up residency to explore, experiment and devise new work.

January saw The Frequency D’Ici take shelter in the church after an apocalyptic flood, in a scratch performance of Free Time Radical.

In June 1157 Performance Group’s Tao of Hamlet deconstructed the classic text in a haunting, evocative and richly visual experience.

Not to be outshone, in March the Arts Centre youtheatre presented an innovative mad-Brechtian-science-lab Life of Galileo and a delightfully quirky, psychedelic and immersive Alice in Wonderland in July.

Each of these productions transformed the energy of the space, and the relationship of the audience to it, in a new and exciting way.

Last night was the turn of Robert James Anderson in a solo show which encompassed piano playing, running, original and haunting love songs, delicate poetry, strutting his stuff beneath a disco mirror ball while women tucked dollar bills in his pink underwear (in a neat bit of audience interaction in response to his written instructions) strong coffee and green tea, a suspended mirror, video, acting as his own lighting and sound technician and culminating in possibly the first live art/performance art experience in Jersey Arts Centre’s 27 year history.

Belying the T shirt he wore at one point which read ‘Average at Best’, RJA is multi-talented, and good at judging mood and at modulating his relationship with his audience, moving fluidly between comedy and intimacy and eliciting participation at key moments.

The highlight of the evening for me and many others was the live art sequence in which audience members used paintbrushes to coat his now naked body in treacle (which dripped off him onto paper in luxuriously viscous drips) and others then washed his body in a tender ceremony of almost religious simplicity, which it was a privilege to see.

This was a show of many parts and which could be developed further in different directions. Expectations about rehearsing and perfection versus spontaneity and liveness differ between theatre and performance art practice. At times I imagined I was in a Manhattan loft apartment watching the unfolding story of a character, who might or might not be Robert James Anderson, going about his day, exercising, dressing, composing poetry and singing torch songs.

There was a baring of skin but also a baring of emotion and, what held it all together, a generosity of spirit that engaged and embraced the audience.