Frasier Crane

Suddenly, I feel like a footballer on loan or somebody offered a second place to stay for weekends. Anyway, I’m a guest blogger over at the New Welsh Review, which I’m currently imagining as one of those luxurious log cabins that Frasier always stays in when the urge for farce takes over with Niles, Daphne, Martin and a well-endowed, but otherwise lame girlfriend in tow. Let’s hope I don’t outstay my welcome amongst the pines or upset my hosts while I sleep on their sofa, drink too much, play their music too loud and generally misbehave.

For the ineffably lazy amongst you, posts will migrate back to this space a week later and maintain a dual residence.

I went to see Roy Williams play Days of Significance last week and, as I was waiting in the foyer, a complete stranger came up to me and said, “Are you the person who writes that blog?”

To be honest, I was a bit startled and replied along the lines of, “Well, it depends. I do write a blog, but haven’t updated it for ages.”

He said, “You’re the one who went to Iran, right?”

“Er… yes.”

“I thought so. Just wanted to say, don’t stop. Keep going. There are people out there who’ve missed it – in case, you thought that there weren’t.”

So, to that gentleman, thank you very much…

As it happens, I’ve had quite a lot on the go recently, but I’ll report in again soon.

Not a Welshcake

Not a Welshcake...

As an appendix to the two diary posts about Tehran, I thought I’d point anyone interested towards some links and create a bit of context in the process.

Of course, Iran is very much in the news at the moment.  Alongside commentary on the new tone being set by President Obama and anxiety about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is also thirty years since the Iranian Revolution that established Iran as an Islamic theocratic state. This Saturday (February 7th), the BBC begins a new series entitled “Iran and The West.” It is made by the producer Norma Percy, who produced such definitive documentaries as “The Death of Yugoslavia” and “Endgame in Ireland.” Like her previous programmes, Percy’s success lies in persuading those people intimately connected to the events to offer their personal testimony. Apparently, President Carter will talk for the first time about the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and its effect on his Presidency.

Last Friday (January 30th), the Front Row arts programme on Radio 4 presented a special edition on Iran. It looked at the Percy documentary, “Unveiled – New Art from The Middle East” at Charles Saatchi’s new gallery and offered a report on Neil MacGregor’s visit to Isfahan – one of the country’s most beautiful cities – where The British Museum’s Director has negotiated the loan of treasures for an exhibition about Shah Abbas, the Persian King thought to have re-made Iran in his own image and done most to project its power onto the rest of the world.

A few weeks ago, the BBC also broadcast five short documentaries on Radio 4 entitled “The Flight from Tehran: British-Iranians 30 Years On,” which was a fascinating insight into the legacy of the Revolution in the UK. 

Despite the damaging impact of the Iraq war and other military interventions, the bigger picture is that over the last five years the UK has tried to put greater emphasis on “soft power” as a means of engaging with the world. In 2007, Demos published a report entitled Cultural Diplomacy, which successfully articulated its value as an alternative to military power and traditional diplomacy while aligning itself with the UK’s international priorities. However, the main conclusion was that cultural diplomacy should  not be an instrumental tool of public diplomacy, but that:

“The value of cultural activity comes precisely from its independence, its freedom and the fact that it represents and connects people, rather than necessarily governments or policy positions.”

It also argued that:

“In the future, alliances are just as likely to be forged along lines of cultural understanding as they are on economic or geographic ones.” 

The Demos report cannily built on the aspirations articulated for the first time by the government that culture should have an international dimension that was strategic, especially in the aftermath of the successful bid by the UK to host London 2012 . Having published its International Strategy document in 2006, the UK government followed this with a Progress Report in 2007. Within this framework, Iran has been a priority region for the UK government. 

Until recently, DCMS was working on a Memorandum of Understanding with the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that could have been incredibly productive for both countries. Having run into some political difficulties, negotiations have now broken down as a consequence of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza and Israel’s military intervention.  It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Neil MacGregor has circumvented this breakdown to negotiate an arrangement for the upcoming exhibition about Shah Abbas.

Visiting Arts, as I have already indicated, has had a relationship with Iran for several years and many of us have benefitted from the programmes it has operated. Last December, a benchmark was reached with the Barbican’s Iran: New Voices season and the launch of a Producer’s Forum – a network for professionals to exchange ideas and share experience about developing links with Iran’s theatre artists.

Anybody who would like to know more, or who is interested in taking this work further is welcome to get in touch by leaving a comment.

This is not a pomegranate...

Not pomegranates...

Monday January 26th

Having lost a few of our party to the more salubrious Federossi, the remaining outcasts decided to pay a visit to some of the national museums. Unfortunately, we managed to pick the day that they were all closed, so, after a walk around the area, some fresh pomegranate juice and a negotiation with someone who spoke very little English but wanted to sell me “ancient books,” we returned to the hotel to hear about the arrival of the final member of our party.

Closed on a Monday

Outside the National Museum

Outside the National Museum

Closed on a Monday

Jill had arrived in the early hours of the morning, but, due to an oversight on the part of DAC, had not been met by anyone. The female official at the airport had been very helpful, getting on the phone to all the contacts Jill had with her, but, as it was 3.30am, received no reply. Seemingly abandoned to a night sleeping on the floor of the airport, Jill was rescued by two friendly Iranian men – one a sculptor, the other an artist – offering to drive her into Tehran. However, the men insisted on stopping at every sight of interest along the way – “Do you know the Eiffel Tower? This is the Iranian Eiffel Tower… Do you know the Empire State Building? This is the Iranian Empire State Building” – in order for her to take a photo. Wanting nothing more than to get to her hotel after a six hour flight, she had to politely decline at each opportunity. In the middle of the journey, Jill received a call from the woman at the airport to ask if she was still safe, which, happily, she was. Arriving next at the wrong hotel, they were given short shrift by the owner, annoyed at being woken up in the middle of the night. Finding their way at last to the Ferdossi, Jill was initially informed there were no rooms, but someone at the hotel was woken up and asked to sleep elsewhere in order for Jill to finally get some rest.    

Apparently, there are many theatres in Tehran, but only a few that are open and producing. Most closed after the revolution and few have re-opened. These days there is concern over the level of audience demand and anything resembling a “commercial” theatre is non-existent. While audience attendance at the festival was very strong, it is widely felt that it represents the re-cycling of an essentially small number of people.

One consequence of this is that Iranians have a tendency to view theatre as “pure” and “serious” in a way that is more recognisable in Europe than in the UK. This seemed to be borne out in much of the programme for the festival, so it was with some interest that we made our way over to Molavi Hall again to see “Molla Nasredin” – a piece inspired by an Iranian comic hero of the same name. Unfortunately, so many people were trying to get in that the stewarding broke down and none of our party were able to get in. 

Molla Nasredin

Molla Nasredin

However, I did manage to talk at length to one director whose work had been recommended to us because of its physical and innovative qualities. This was the true story of how challenging it is to work in theatre in Iran. Having had some early success in his career, one piece of work was allowed to play out of competition at the previous year’s festival despite some controversial elements. This year, the director’s work had been excluded and seven months of rehearsal and preparation had come to nothing. Unfortunately, artists can only pay themselves if they get commissioned and the festival is the main source of commissions. Despite his dignity, his sadness and anger was palpable.

After an increasingly frustrating day, the group headed to an apartment in the North of Tehran where we had been invited through a contact to see an underground performance. Contemporary dance is prohibited in Iran, so we were intrigued by the promise of a piece of physical theatre with no text. Initially thinking we were seeing the performance in the apartment itself, we were then directed to the basement – literally underground – where a large group of performers were waiting for us.

I am reluctant to go into too much detail about the piece, as I want to protect the performers, but it was an extraordinary demonstration of the collective bravery of the group that they were willing to transgress so many Iranian taboos and persevere with such great commitment to their self-expression. It was a touching and extraordinary experience watching artists risk so much over things that we would take for granted in our own country.

By comparison, the text-based piece at The City Theatre – “Brown/Gold” – about a Christian mission sent by The Vatican to Sarajevo during the Balkan war of the nineties, seemed turgid and slow-footed by comparison.

Tuesday January 27th

After a short meeting at the Federossi, we set off with our guide – “The Carpet Man” – for a tour of the city bazaar, which covers a ten kilometre square area at the heart of Tehran. The Carpet Man turned out to be called Majid and claimed to be a good friend of Channel 4’s own Jon Snow, having sold him a carpet on his last visit to Tehran.

Majid

Majid

The Bazaar itself was overwhelmingly busy with small alleys accessing its maze like interior, which Majid knew like the back of his hand. Each part had its own identity with sectors given over to men’s suits, gold, ironmongers, household goods, shoe repairs and carpets etc. In fact, Majid told us that the bazaar sold everything we could possibly have thought of – aside from food, which is only available on its outskirts.

Parts of the bazaar are a thousand years old and, not so long ago – when Tehran was merely a village, not a city of 12 million – the whole of Iran was governed by the leading merchants of the bazaar who used to meet once a day in the square at the old Shah or Sultani Mosque (now named after Imam Khomeini).

Imam Khomeini Mosque

Imam Khomeini Mosque

In the heart of the bazaar, we visited a very ancient mosque, which had elements that were six hundred and even a thousand years old. The interior of the mosque was wonderfully ornate with a ceiling decorated with thousands of reflecting mirrors. Having been told that no photographs were allowed, Majid happily encouraged me once we were inside to take some if I wanted to. As he explained to me later, “In Iran, we have a saying that we always obey the first law, after that it doesn’t matter.”

Mosque in the Bazaar

Mosque in the Bazaar

Entrance to the Mosque

Entrance to the Mosque

Mirrored ceiling

Mirrored ceiling

Later we were treated to a display in Majid’s carpet shop which showcased an infinite range of styles and makes from a Kurdish “war” carpet that had Kalashnikovs, tanks and warplanes woven into the design to silk carpets that were incredibly soft to the touch. We saw then how some of the carpets were made, including a demonstration of how they are shaved to finish them.

Carpet maker

Carpet maker

In the afternoon, I saw a remarkable production by a small company from the south of Iran called “White Rabbit with Red Eyes.” Much of the work to this point contained a surprising amount of Christian imagery and reference, partly due to the influence of the predominantly Christian Armenian minority in Iran, who hold a reputation for being both canny and successful. “White Rabbit with Red Eyes” seemed to come straight from the heart of Shi’a culture, however.

White Rabbit With Red Eyes

White Rabbit With Red Eyes

The play focussed on the Iran-Iraq war and its legacy for the people of the region. It was imbued with a deep and painful sadness, reflecting the cycles of suffering experienced long after the war ended. The Iran-Iraq war is known as The Great War in Iran and my understanding is that the authorities prohibit treatment of it that is not patriotic and uplifting. Having squeaked past the censors, the production felt a little marginalised in the festival.

That said, the production was beautifully realised with profound visual simplicity and extremely concentrated work from the actors. Perhaps in the UK it would seem heavy-going and unrelentingly bleak, but the content had a reality for the company that they have had to live with everyday. In Shi’a iconography, the blood of the martyr is pervasive, so, in one powerful moment, a jug of blood is spilt over the white plaster of Paris flooring. In another scary health and safety moment, a pan of cooking has a jug of water thrown over it, suffusing the theatre with the acrid stench of fat and smoke.

The fact is that “White Rabbit with Red Eyes” was not a comfortable performance to watch, but the heightened style and concentrated performances made it a highlight for me.

Afterwards, Peter (who is Swiss) and I revisited some comedy moments through a chat about how the Welsh had founded Switzerland.

Me: The Welsh?

Peter: Yes.

Me: Are you sure? Was this something to do with religious freedom?

Peter: No, no, this was thousands of years ago.

Me: But the Welsh didn’t exist thousands of years ago.

Peter: Of course, they did! In Switzerland!

Me: Don’t you mean the Celts?

Peter: Well, they were Welsh weren’t they?

Me: Not exactly. The Celts were all over Europe. The Welsh were just the last vestiges of the Celtic tribes pushed to the margins.

Peter: But in Switzerland they built menhirs! Menhirs!!!! Still standing today!

Well, it made me chuckle.

There were two further performances that day – one was inspired by the Oedipus myth and called “The Princess Mouse Trap,” while the other was a traditional piece of Iranian folklore called “Rostam and Sohrab.” 

Featuring metal cages being pushed around the stage by hard-working actors, “Princess Mouse Trap” was, unfortunately, as if Meccano had collaborated with Scrapheap Challenge in order to make some shouty theatre. At one point, gas canisters which had been adapted with long pipes were set alight and whirled furiously around the stage. Flames trailed behind in the almost compulsory H&S moment of actor endangerment. In the audience we confidently expected an explosion at any moment.

Rostam and Sohrab

Rostam and Sohrab

On the other hand, “Rostam and Sohrab” – an Iranian-Hungarian collaboration – was, for all its conservatism, a more satisfying affair. Telling a story derived from the epic narratives of the great Persian storyteller Ferdossi (who the hotel is named after), it was good to see, for once, an all-female cast with some evocative singing and movement in what was essentially a piece of theatrical storytelling.

Wednesday January 28th

The last full day in Tehran began with a meeting with the company that had created “White Rabbit with Red Eyes.” Apparently, it is a sign of bad luck to dream of a white rabbit in their hometown. We talked about their work and the difficulty they had in creating it. Rehearsed over a period of seven months in basements and apartments, it had been a challenging journey. The director works full-time in a hospital and the lead actor works in an oil refinery, yet, despite this, there was a considerably developed theatrical aesthetic at work that referenced words like “minimalistic,” “post-modern” and the Russian director Meyerhold in conversation. 

Director of White Rabbit With Red Eyes - Amir Hossein Noroozi

Director of White Rabbit With Red Eyes - Amir Hossein Noroozi

Back at the House of Arts, we had a conversation about the possibility of feeding back to DAC our feelings about some of the best work that we had seen. The conversation shed light on the problems of engaging in dialogue with the regime even at a cultural level. It has been clear from many of our conversations that artists are being blacklisted and marginalised as a consequence of the choices in their work. The danger is that Western producers could make life even more difficult for certain artists as we forge links with them and promote them. It seems that Homayun Ghanizadeh, the director of “Daedalus and Icarus” performed at The Barbican in December, is one who is now being affected by the perception that his work accords with “Western values.”       

Without internet access or television, it has been strange not knowing what has been happening in the wider world. Coincidentally, news seeps through of President Obama’s comments that:

“The U.S. has a stake in the well being of the Muslim world and the language we use has to be a language of respect … We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world.” 

Many ordinary Tehranians seem thrilled by this new approach and are desperate to see the ideological hostility of the regime backfiring on Ahamdinezhad in the June elections. However, there will be many who will be beyond such entreaties. Today, Vicky and Leyla almost strayed into some of them as they found themselves inadvertently walking towards a crowd of angry demonstrators outside the British Embassy.

In the afternoon, we watched “Tragedy of Maklet” – a piece of post-modern trickery that hybridised “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” into one single narrative that demonstrated that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark, Scotland and, conceivably, somewhere nearer to home too. The tone of this inventive production was playful and off-the-cuff, featuring casual interventions from the director and an element of spontaneous inter-action between the actors. I very much liked the relaxed and self-aware acceptance of the lack of a fourth wall, but the Iranian audience seemed uncertain of how to take it. Perhaps it was this, or their own lack of familiarity with the aesthetic that made the actors seem unusually nervous to begin with, but the company grew in confidence as the piece progressed. With some additional polish, not least in costume, this might make an interesting option for a wider UK audience.

The Tragedy of Maklet

The Tragedy of Maklet

There is no equivalent to The Knowledge in Tehran. It is quite common for taxi drivers to accept a fare and not have a clue where they are going. They tend to work out their destination by asking other taxi drivers or passers by when the traffic stops. Their cars range from new green and yellow cabs (some of them for women only) to decrepit white cabs smelling strongly of petrol and exhaust fumes to unmarked cars which, apparently, tourists are advised not to use in case of kidnapping. This explains why, having set off to see the only Iraqi entrant in the festival perform a dance piece at a location in the south of the city, we arrive with only two minutes left till its conclusion; added to the fact that there was a misprint in the festival programme so that the performance had begun half an hour earlier than advertised.

The return trip was with an Armenian taxi driver. In broken English, he told us about how he had converted from Islam to Christianity four years previously. He said “many, many” Iranians were now doing the same, despite the risks involved. Conversion is considered apostasy in Islam and punishable by death in many places. Most of the time, he worshipped at home by accessing religious channels on satellite TV. Once a week he would attend church with his family where security guards provide protection on the door. He asked us to pray for Iran and, while driving through traffic, searched for a passage in his Farsi Bible. He told us that it was about the future of Iran and that we should read it when we returned home. He was referring us to Jeremiah 49, which has a verse about Elam – a region now covered by South West Iran.

Pure Dream of Snow

Pure Dream of Snow

Of the last two performances, “Pure Dream of Snow” was the more memorable. With the same writer as “White Rabbit,” this was a more naturalistic affair, which seemed to focus on the impact of a man whose life is changed after an accident and his daughter marries and becomes separated from them. Despite lacking confidence in the performances, it was again marked by some stylish direction and memorable images. The French collaboration “Where The Sky Stops,” on the other hand, was a disappointing and incoherent mishmash of animation, aerial work and five different languages.

Getting up at 1.15am UK time to go to the airport, we said goodbye to our DAC minder – Ali – who never seemed to get any sleep during the festival and was always available to offer support. My final memory is of him thanking us profusely for coming to the country and bowing in prayer to us as we drove away waving.

At home, I looked up Jeremiah 49. It reads:

34.    This is the word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning Elam, early in the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah:

35.    This is what the LORD Almighty say, “See, I will break the bow of Elam, the mainstay of their might.

36.    I will bring against Elam the four winds from the four quarters of the heavens; I will scatter them to the four winds, and there will not be a nation where Elam’s exiles do not go.

37.    I will shatter Elam before their foes, before those who seek their lives; I will bring disaster upon them, even my fierce anger,” declares the LORD. “I will pursue them with the sword until I have made an end of them.

38.    I will set my throne in Elam and destroy her king and officials,” declares the LORD.

39.    “Yet I will restore the fortunes of Elam in days to come,” declares the LORD.

When I started this blog, just over a year ago, it was in anticipation of a visit to Tehran for the International Fadjr Theatre Festival.

The Fadjr International Theatre Festival

The Fadjr International Theatre Festival

It’s the largest theatre festival in the region and Visiting Arts has sponsored groups of UK theatre professionals to attend over the last seven years. That particular visit was cancelled at the last minute, but fortunately the invitation came around again this year. I always intended to write about the experience and this is my journal from the trip:

Saturday January 24th, 2009

Perhaps to make up for the seasonal reversal of the normally unbearable Iranian summer, the cabin on the British Midland flight into a wintry Tehran from Heathrow is stupefyingly hot. An elderly lady behind me is suffering breathlessness and it is suggested she goes to the back to lie down where it is cooler. Dressed traditionally in a hejab and clutching her shopping bag tightly, she does not want to move. She squeezes her bag tighter and becomes fainter. Poised between fear and uncertainty, she is unable to move. An eternity passes. Farsi is translated into English and English back into Farsi. The air hostess is gentle and encouraging. The tension breaks and the woman moves. Thankfully, she feels better by the end of the flight.

As we arrive at Imam Khameni International Airport, all the women arraign themselves in the hejab as it is compulsory to wear it in Iran and as the sign warns us upon entry it is a local custom that “respected ladies” are requested to observe. The airport is very modern and all baggage is screened on the way into the country, presumably for different kinds of contraband, such as alcohol.

Imam Khomeini International Airport

Imam Khomeini International Airport

At 2.40 am local time (bizarrely, three and a half hours after GMT) we are met by a delegate from the Dramatic Arts Centre (DAC) in Tehran and, after some customary and pointless faffing, we board our bus. The Producers Group (of which I am a part) consists of Ruth (DCMS), Leyla (Northern Stage), Vicky (Dance Base) and Peter (Spilt Moon) and the party is completed by Nelson Fernandez, formerly Director of Cultural Operations at Visiting Arts, and Yvette Vaughan-Jones, the current Executive Director.

Reported to be the old city gate to Tehran

Reported to be the old city gate to Tehran

The ride into Tehran is along a bleak motorway with little sign of life until the end, but the entrance to the capital is enlivened by red and green lighting showcasing the motorway underpasses and some vibrant flashing palm trees in orange and white. The city itself seems a little desolate and predictably deserted, apart from the incongruously named Top Burger near the British Embassy.

Eventually, we are taken to the Hotel Marmar, which is a shame, as the comparatively sumptuous Ferdossi where we were supposed to be staying is “full.” We are promised that it is only temporary and that we will change later.

Stepping out of the bus on arrival, the pollution immediately catches in the throat and I am reminded of the recent article in The Guardian, which reported on the almost complete disappearance of birdlife in Tehran as a consequence of this car-choked city of 12 million.

The Marmar is a bit shabby looking and a disappointment compared to the five restaurant, swimming pool and wi-fi access that the Ferdossi promised. Nelson is visibly crestfallen. Having visited seven or eight times, he knows what he is missing. All the same, we are lucky to have this opportunity and the accommodation is more than adequate.

There is a notional idea of getting up at 10am, but I fail that test and sleep through my alarm until midday. My first fatal mistake is to not realise that I have brought the wrong solution for my contact lenses and that I have soaked them in the punishing hydrogen peroxide cleaner, which scalds my right eye when I pop it in and leaves me looking like a bloodshot pirate. The briefing schedule we receive from Sholeh (Visiting Arts part-Iranian Farsi-speaking project manager and all round fixer) goes by unheard as the tears stream down my face.

Regardless of my agony, we decide to have lunch in the hotel – meat kebabs, rice, delicious salads and a stew featuring the Iranian speciality of dried limes. Suitably replenished, but sorely lacking a decent coffee, we set off to see our first performance of the day at the seven auditorium DAC venue in central Tehran.

Arriving at The City Theatre, there is a crowd gathered around a street performance. The drabness of Tehran and the blacks and greys of the clothing in the crowd is set against the colourful red and white of the all-male street troupe performing some kind of traditional folkloric play to music. All of the performers wear very tall red hats and white tunics while yellow banners unfurl in four directions from one man, who does not seem to be having a very good time, but seems like he is a kind of Zoroastrian sun or fire god.

Off to one side, we are led down a concrete circular staircase, which someone finds worse than a visit to Derby Playhouse, into an open area with a coffee bar and a crush of people queuing for “Quartet Titanic.” As VIP guests of the DAC (which is a bit of an uncomfortable privilege) we are ushered into our seats at the head of the queue. While that would occasion a chip on my shoulder the size of Atlas’s globe back home, it seems it is acceptable at this festival and the mainly young audience are unfazed.

In the semi-darkness, we negotiate steps and corridors and banked seating before finding a seat in a studio similar to many in the UK. Nelson invokes health and safety, as I observe the lack of any fire doors and exit signs. “This is nothing,” he warns me, as the rest of the audience are allowed in to take up the remaining seats, the gangways and all available space across the front of the stage. There is an immediate irony in this tightly controlled society having the sort of lassez faire attitude to safety that would bring out Theatre Managers across the UK in a simultaneous combination of sweat, hives and heart palpitations.

On first impression, “Quartet Titanic” is about as unfortunate a first experience in our trip as if an iceberg had been incidentally involved and the band went down playing out of tune. The idea is that a group of homeless people live in an underground subway, surviving off the waste that gathers there and unable to stop the trains that rush through each day. At a certain point, a magician appears and, after a convoluted series of appearances and disappearances, each denizen of the underground is offered a way out of their predicament through a magic box, if only they can summon sufficient belief and faith. One by one, they escape, leaving the last to a lonely fate and cursed by his inability to believe.

Quartet Titanic

Quartet Titanic

Admittedly, as this play was entirely in Farsi, it was a bit of a struggle to follow and defeated both Nelson and Ruth, who took it as an opportunity to catch up on their sleep. Additionally, the acting style was very naïve and unsophisticated – like really bad children’s theatre with a zealous pursuit of a commedia-like quality that defied any richness and nuance. It seemed to be aiming for a low-fi absurdism that must feel very true to Iranian life and undoubtedly had a coded resonance, but felt very grating and hard-going. Apparently, Iranian audiences are quick to give standing ovations, but this response was noticeably muted.

Unfortunately, it was hard to balance my feeling about the piece against the incredible struggle theatre-makers in this country have in expressing themselves. In this theocratic dictatorship, each piece of work must be submitted in script form for approval to the state and watched at the final stage by the censor who can demand changes to any physical, verbal or interpretative element they see fit. As the state appointed arbiters of theatre in Iran, that power is vested in and executed by the members of the DAC in Tehran – technically, the people who are our hosts.

Indeed, the doorstep brochure for the 27th Fadjr International Festival features some perplexing statements from leading Iranian figures as well as invocations “in the name of God” from the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Messages such as this from President Ahmadinejad:

“The Art of Theatre must interpret (the) human in his (sic) utter excellence (and) integrity with the most elegant definition and eulogy.”

Even the deceased Imam Khomeini has a few thoughts to share:

“Art in the Islamic Mysticism delineates justice, honour, and relinguisment (sic), and figures the embitterment of hungers, (as well as) disgrace by wealth and power.”

There was a short interval before the second performance where there was the opportunity to mingle with the other practitioners supported by Visiting Arts out here – those working with Iranian artists as they attempt to develop their own capacity and find new ways of supporting their work in an unimaginably bleak environment. 

A much more exciting piece of theatre followed. Entitled “Metabolic,” it was directed by Atila Pesyani, who is also well-known in Iran as an actor. A piece of incredibly accomplished performance, the work was an abstract meditation in twenty one tableaux on memory and suffering, which was at its best when creating a feeling of deep unease which did not become explicit. Occasionally images of torture and madness lost their power to shock by becoming too banal or obvious, but, in the main, it was as surprising an event as it could get.

Metabolic directed by Atila Pesayani

Metabolic directed by Atila Pesayani

Performed by an ensemble in hooded gowns, each tableau featured a central character whose inner voices, memories and fears were accessed through the multi-media incorporation of projection, video and sound. The electronic score by Ankido Darsh was the equal of anything I have heard by Western artists and skilfully weaved ambient street sounds, ritualistic singing as well as rhythmic and discordant beats like an Iranian 310 or Murcof. But the images – occasionally overlaid with an elegant and poetic text – seared in the memory.  

That evening a large group of us went to an apartment in North Tehran in a rich, liberal and modernist area. The contradiction and true nature of Iranian society soon began to be brought home to me. In the taxi, we receive a call from our DAC minder, who is permanently on duty at the hotel. Demanding to know where we were going, he emphasized that we were not allowed to go anywhere without telling him exactly the details of our trip, the address and the names of the people we were visiting. Though technically responsible for us as hosts while we are in Iran, any compliance on our parts would bring suspicion on the people who we were visiting, especially that drinking alcohol was involved.

Thinking this was not remotely likely in an alcohol-free Iran, we came into a beautiful apartment covered in some gorgeous contemporary art work and greeted by our welcoming hosts with vodka, red wine and a smiling, fashionably dressed woman in a relatively revealing bodice and without her hejab.

Much of the build up to this trip has been preoccupied with pouring over the long list of do’s and don’t’s provided by the Foreign Office, including the advice that even men are advised to dress conservatively and in dark colours at all times as it is a season of mourning for a revered Imam. I have been surprised at how little this is observed by the local population of Tehran, but the wearing of the hejab in public is an absolute rule that nobody defies.

When all the remaining women immediately remove their headscarves, it is quite a surreal sight as most of them I have only ever seen wearing a hejab and it is as if I have to learn what they look like all over again. Even more surprisingly, our guests turn out not to be a couple. The woman is simply a friend of the man and the party is attended by several of his male friends.

Officially, homosexuality does not exist in Iran. My guide book says it is quite common to see men holding hands and being physically close, but gay men are heavily persecuted and in many cases brutally executed by the government. The prohibition on soft drugs is also equally extreme. We have been told that Iran is contradictory and surprising, but I did not imagine I would be experiencing quite how much on my first full night in the country.

Sunday January 25th

Heeding Ruth’s advice about following the advised itinerary for at least the first two days, Yvette, Ruth, Peter, Leyla, Vicky and I attend a seminar hosted by the Iranian International Theatre Institute and with the world President of the UNESCU-sponsored ITI, Ramendu Majumdar from Bangladesh, in attendance. Unsurprisingly, the meeting is a series of banal homilies on the ability of theatre to achieve greater understanding across cultures and some opaque discussion of how ITI functions in different countries. In passing, ITI in the UK is described as “a one man centre” with politely coded derision of Nevile Shulman – its President.

However, the real story of what was going on was harder to read. Chairing the discussion was Dr. Farindot Zahedi from Tehran University, whose eyes flicked left and right throughout the seminar in a riot of discomfort and whose anxiety was palpable. Billed as a meeting with Iranian artists and for them to get to know more about ITI, there were only one or two artists present, who were deeply confused about what was going on, highly sceptical about what was being discussed and treated dismissively by DAC. However, there was a vast turn-out from the Iranian media, who were treated to the explanation that the thin attendance was because the artists were too busy with the festival, the marketing for the event had been poor and most Iranian drama students were on vacation at this time of year…

It got particularly interesting when the ITI President mentioned Israel, which caused a huge stir in the room as the journalists were then instructed by the DAC not to use the term. When asking quite reasonably what should be used instead, DAC had to ring the Ministry of Culture to receive guidance. In Iran, the land covered by Israel is known as the Palestinian Occupied Territories, or sometimes “the country we cannot name,” as Iran does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. It transpired that the translator was also instructed not to translate the discussion for us.

Eventually, it became clear that the real problem was that the DAC is also the ITI in Iran by default and that the artists had boycotted the seminar in protest at its illegitimacy. The meeting would not have taken place at all if we had not turned up, as it would have left the audience consisting of the two non-Tehran-based artists and scores of the media. Unfortunately, we had dragged ourselves from our beds in order to save the government from a minor humiliation in full view of the media.      

At The House of Arts we met up with the UK team involved in the capacity-building workshops and afterwards had the chance to introduce ourselves to a group of Iranian artists – many of whom manage their own work as well as create it. The session was quite brief, which was quite frustrating. Having exchanged cards, however, it will be interesting to see who gets in touch and how the new Producers Forum in the UK can take relationships with Iranian artists further.

On the one hand, I am nervous that the relationship implies the UK catering to a supposed inadequacy, when the reality on the ground is far more complex than we could imagine or understand. For example, the Finnish President of ITI had spoken in the morning of memberships organising themselves to overturn rules that they were unhappy about. Presumably, she was forgetting that she was speaking to a people living under dictatorship. On the other hand, there is a strong feeling among Iranian artists that they need training and that the West holds all the answers, when it is more likely that their isolation leaves them feeling unconfident and that they possess the solution to their problems themselves.

The "Happiness" or "Magic" Bus

The "Happiness" or "Magic" Bus

As we left the workshop, we were told to look out for the “Magic Bus” – an arts project for young children, particularly street kids, supported by the Mayor of Tehran. The brightly multi-coloured bus duly arrived, blaring music and with excited peels of laughter emanating from the children within in their traditional Iranian dress. A member of the workshop – the project organiser, Forough Qajabeigi – was immediately engulfed in hugs from the children, before being led on a joyous dance around the concourse, by two red suited and black-faced performers talking and singing in a nonsense language. Apparently, Forough is also working with children in prisons, as children are not treated any differently from adults in the Iranian penal system. There are also many, many children who beg on the streets of Tehran. 

Magic Bus performers

Magic Bus performers

Bringing happiness to street kids in Tehran

Bringing happiness to street kids in Tehran

Over at Molavi Hall, there was the usual busy throng waiting to get in to see “Sky of The Snowy Days,” which was billed as “Bonnie and Clyde meet  each other in a restaurant… They start with some pilferage all of a sudden in one of them.” Presented out of competition because of difficulties with the censors, it was a more than usually hot ticket, as evidenced by the people literally banging on the doors to be let in after the performance had started. Performed in traverse and with English surtitles, it was a beautifully written text with an outstanding performance by the actress Negar Abedi. For me, the piece was extraordinary in many ways. This was at once, Bonnie and Clyde and yet not Bonnie and Clyde. It bore little relation to the film of the same name and ended with Clyde shooting himself to death in a hotel shower.

Clearly rooted in a contemporary Iran with an observation of certain compulsory social mores – the hejab, the lack of physical intimacy – it was also an Iran that has never existed. In effect, it was a virtual Tehran of the imagination – one that impossibly contained the urban poetry of swearing, booze, violence and eroticism. Almost fatalistically, the play showed Bonnie drawn to a man that sickened her as if fascinated by and then addicted to the nihilistic existentialism he espoused. The electric danger of the piece was palpable as it was about the rebel outlaw in a land which fundamentally defines itself by the law – law derived from the word of God. 

Hassan Majooni

Hassan Majooni

The production had limited rehearsal and was a bit rough around the edges, but it featured extensive video excerpts on a flat screen television (seemingly ubiquitous in Iran) as a background to the main action. Bonnie was played – a little too self-regardingly for my taste – by Hassan Majooni, a cult Tehranian actor, who made a touching speech of thanks after the performance.

The evening began with a party at the British Embassy, hosted by the current Ambassador Geoffrey Adams and his wife Mary Emma. Beyond the chaos of Tehran and some highly secure defences, the Embassy built in 1876 is a breathtaking building which hosted the 1943 Tehran Conference – the first meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin during World War II.

Mr Adams was a very friendly and convivial host, but, seeing his three young children, I was reminded how difficult and vulnerable his position is. On December 31st, 300 Iranian radicals stormed the Embassy’s other compound in the north of the capital at Gulhak, firebombing the consulate and driving the official, his wife and their one and a half year old baby out of their residence. Across the road from the Embassy, I took photographs of a post box daubed with a slogan saying “Down with England.”

Opposite British Embassy

Opposite British Embassy

Yet nothing could have seemed further from the Ambassador’s mind, as he described to us his pleasure in restoring an enormous painting of a Persian King that was over 400 years old and towered over the dining room where the Allied leaders had once sat together.    

Driving by taxi around Tehran is one of the most risky adventures I have ever encountered and yet it is our regular form of transport. Less than one per cent of the cars would pass an MOT in the UK and the appalling pollution is just one of the unfortunate outcomes. Guide books warn of the very high rate of deaths and accident on the road in Iran and it is easy to see why. Pedestrians take their life in their hands as they try to cross even the narrowest streets, although the roads are mostly clogged with vehicles that can barely move. When they do, cars move at the fastest possible speed and without observing any perceptible rules. If there is an available gap in the traffic, the driver heads for it and, what my driving instructor used to refer to as “lane discipline,” is non-existent. Approaching junctions, red lights and traffic coming from all sides are more or less ignored as drivers negotiate their way. After a while, one starts to relax and admire the almost intuitive way drivers make minute, but crucial adjustments of a matter of inches at speed in order to avoid a disaster. On our way to dinner, our taxi driver narrowly averted a car edging out into the traffic. When the offending driver was given a stern look by our man, there was retaliation as the car was driven into the side of our vehicle. As it was only a little nudge, we carried on to our destination – clearly this is nothing to worry about here.

Food was plentiful in the shops and takeaways abounded, but decent restaurants seemed hard to find in Tehran. One exceptional place was the Khayem restaurant opposite the beautiful Seyed Nasr-edin Mosque.

Seyed Nasr-edin Mosque on Khayem Avenue

Seyed Nasr-edin Mosque on Khayem Avenue

In light of the previous paragraph, it should come as no surprise that the restaurant was originally a part of the mosque until a road was built through the middle of it. Iranian food is incredibly fragrant and delicious, mainly featuring kebabs, rice, flatbread and salads. The Khayem allowed us to do this sat cross-legged in authentic style and to pass the hookah pipe around afterwards.

This morning I spoke to Philip Ralph. It was a few moments after he and the cast of Deep Cut had been presented with a Fringe First following the first week of Deep Cut’s run at The Traverse in Edinburgh. Tomorrow the company will go on to receive a Herald Angel courtesy of The Glasgow Herald. I could not be happier for Phil, but he was quick to tell me that he felt a bit peculiar about receiving the award when, as he put it, “it’s not about us.”

Self-evidently, of course, a verbatim play based on the tragic injustices of Deep Cut has at its heart a delicate and troubling relationship to the real-life circumstances of the families, whose incredible dignity in the most unthinkable of circumstances is remarkable. Deep Cut focusses on the story of Cheryl James and her parents Des and Doreen. Time and again, Doreen James has talked about how private she is and, in an interview in The Guardian today, about how she would have been utterly horrified, if you had suggested some years ago that she would become a character in a play. 

Rhian Morgan and Ciaran McIntyre as Des and Doreen James in Deep Cut

Rhian Morgan and Ciaran McIntyre as Des and Doreen James in Deep Cut

Imagine the circumstances last Wednesday night then, when the Collinson family (parents of James Collinson who was also killed at Deep Cut) joined Des and Doreen for a performance at The Traverse. The cast had already come face to face with their real-life counter-parts at a dress-rehearsal in Cardiff. Presumably Michael Billington would have been appalled, because the five strong audience rose to their feet as one to give their verbatim selves a standing ovation. In Edinburgh, however, Mick Gordon, the play’s director, asked Des James whether he would be willing to speak the final words – his own words – at the end of the play. Des said that he would be honoured.

That night, Des and Doreen sat in the front row and, as it came to the end before a packed house, Ciaran McIntyre and Rhian Morgan – the actors playing Des and Doreen – stayed in the wings. With astonishing dignity and control, Des with Doreen, as always, at his side, walked forward to the centre of the stage and spoke again the following words:

DES:  We have some rules of engagement. Don’t embellish. Don’t exagerrate. Don’t get hysterical. Tell the truth. Stick to it. That’s when they can’t handle you. They can’t manipulate you when they do that. (BEAT) I can’t believe in the basic facts. That four families can lose four kids, four families can unanimously, continually and consistently ask for a public inquiry and the Government will do anything at all – apart from that. Now, if somebody can sit me down and explain that, fine. But I can’t understand it. And it could have been done, it could have been done by now, a long time ago, you know? So, of course, that leads you to question: ‘Why not? What’s being hidden?’ You know, there’s no fairness out there and if people think there is, well, you know, I just hope nothing happens to them. There’s no divine right for justice in this country, unfortunately and I mean that. I’m not just being melodramatic. I really mean that. And that, for me has been a big surprise, you know, I really did think in the beginning, I thought a public inquiry was a formality. How wrong can you be? (BEAT) I never think of myself as a campaigner [but] it was a stark realization for me many months ago that this started out as righting a wrong for Cheryl but now it’s more than that. Now, it is very much about righting a wrong, full stop. The biggest part of me accepts that I’ll never really know what happened to [Cheryl]. I try not to put myself in a corner where I defend whether it was [suicide] or whether it wasn’t cause I do believe that it’s irrelevant. I really don’t care. To me, either way, it doesn’t matter. She’s gone. (BEAT) I’m not looking for people to be on my side cause they think I’ve been treated badly. I want them to be on my side because they believe me and because they believe, as passionately as I do, that we cannot treat each other this way. (BEAT) It stops when it’s over.

In truth, asking this of the family was a huge risk which could have backfired horribly for all sorts of reasons. But that doesn’t take into account the resilience, bravery and character of Des James, who, as Phil described it, gave a masterclass in oratory that any actor would have been humbled by. The audience, who only gradually could have been aware that this was the real person before them, were predictably overwhelmed. Afterwards, Des and Doreen must have again been affected by the strangeness of seeing an horrific moment in their lives played out. However, an astonishing number of the audience – three quarters – went up to them afterwards to kiss, hug them and to tell them to keep going in their fight for justice.

Rhian Blythe as Jonsey in Deep Cut

Rhian Blythe as Jonsey in Deep Cut

Deep Cut was a very important project for Sgript Cymru and I feel very proud that we commissioned it. Nearly every member of the company at one stage or another accompanied Philip on the various trips he made to interview those affected. Very quickly, we were all engaged by a sense of the deep-seated injustice of what happened, but also by the incredible humanity of Des and Doreen James. Indeed, Phil told me early on that working on the play had changed his life and it was clear to everyone, not least the James family, the extraordinary sense of mission he was bringing to the project. In some ways, to be given an award for a play about somebody else’s tragedy could feel weirdly fraudulent and vicarious, but I can’t think of anyone else who could have brought such integrity, honesty and commitment to this enormous task.

On Thursday June 5th, I made my way to the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall for the fifth annual conference of the Clore Leadership Programme and Chris Smith‘s last as Director before he moves on to become Chair of The Environment Agency.

Apart from the announcement of the new group of Fellows, the day’s theme was the issue of “excellence,” which has become something of a live issue since Sir Brian McMaster‘s report for the DCMS was published in January this year. Previously, McMaster had been asked by the then Culture Minister, James Purnell, to explore the following themes: 

  • How the system of public sector support for the arts can encourage excellence, risk-taking and innovation
  • How artistic excellence can encourage wider and deeper engagement with the arts by audiences
  • How to establish a light touch and non-bureaucratic method to judge the quality of the arts in the future

At the conference, McMaster spoke first about his work and talked about a successful process of peer review he had engaged in with six high-profile companies in the Netherlands. The companies were a diverse group of performing arts companies – ballet, dance, opera – that had apparently worked to an agreed matrix of evaluation. According to McMaster, the process had been constructive and a useful learning experience for all involved, but, in his opinion, the “best” company had emerged with the “best” evaluation. As it happens, we were given little insight into the specific reasoning behind this and somewhat like the report, McMaster was frustratingly vague on the practical application of his work, revealing little about the nuts and bolts of the process. However, McMaster did say this had been deliberate in the report and felt that it should be left to others to work out how the thinking can be applied.

Certainly, there were not many answers from Andy Burnham, the new Culture Secretary, who spoke afterwards in a well-intended, but, I felt, disappointingly insubstantial speech. Somewhat typical of Gordon Brown’s government, there seemed to be an inability to articulate a forward-looking vision that could really capture the imagination. On the contrary, there was a slightly backfooted aspect to the speech that mainly revolved around a defence of New Labour’s past use of targets and an acceptance that a different strategy was now needed that called for more autonomy in decision-making. Good to hear that the penny has finally dropped, I suppose, but Burnham did not manage to move beyond that and seemed to beg the question of whether it was acceptable to reverse everything that has happened up until now, as long as it feels right. There was more to be discovered in the group breakout sessions. My session, beautifully faciltated by Erica Whyman in the noisy foyer of QEH, posed the question: “What should a peer review process look like?”

Sometimes, one of the challenges of being based in Wales is the need to be flexibly aware of what is happening in other contexts and apply that learning to one’s own. There is the occasional danger that the dominant discourse is all about cultural policy in England, or more specifically London, and that some of the nuances can pass one by. It was during this session, however, that I really began to understand why it is such an issue at present. It seems clear that people are so exercised by the excellence agenda because it is universally expected to establish the methodology by which funding decisions will be made in the future. Indeed, it feels to me that there has been a conflation of three issues – excellence, peer review and funding – that is simultaneously alarming and energising to those affected by it.

However, in my view, McMaster’s report stops short of directly linking peer review with funding outcomes. It merely reasserts the importance of funders being able to make strategic interventions with “failing” organisations, including the option of removing funding altogether. In other words, it allows for peer review and funding policy to be co-existent in an holistic, but not mutually dependent, scheme of things.

Some people are cynical about what is happening. From my own point of view, it doesn’t feel particularly helpful to link funding decisions and peer review directly. Peer review is a good way to look at performance and develop best practice, so it seems wrong to inhibit that process. Moreover, funding is increasingly influenced by factors outside the parameters of performance and delivery, such as changes in governmental priority and availability of resources; therefore, the process needs to be as robust as possible in order to be enduring. It will inevitably become a corrupt process if it becomes seen as a way to safeguard against cuts or, indeed, a way to impose them. Apparently, in the educational sector, where peer review is standard practice, it is viewed with suspicion as a process whereby fault is looked for until it is found.

That said, there are some who will always find the idea of excellence troubling, particularly those who see it as a means of re-establishing a false and unwelcome hierarchy in the arts and asserting elitism over the small-scale and the grassroots. While something to guard against and avoid, it does now feel like a tired, knee-jerk argument – a smokescreen that belies the fact that the artistic process is full of qualitative judgements made on a moment by moment basis and at the heart of every artistic endeavour. Moreover, it is long past the time that organisations can ignore the need to be efficient and fail to safeguard precious resources at whatever level they operate. In my experience, excellence prevails throughout the entire spectrum of arts activity and, in principle, a dialogue about quality is not necessarily something to be afraid of. The question is about how it is applied and who applies it.

While peer review is on nobody’s lips in Wales at the moment, it may become so in due course, following the speech by The Heritage Minister, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, to The Arts Council of Wales annual conference on Friday, June 13th. That aside for the moment, the current creation of “beacon companies” offers an interesting paralllel to the situation in England and, perhaps, a useful point of contrast. In effect, beacon companies amount to the Welsh version of the excellence agenda. Arising from The Wales Arts Review, the proposal was an attempt to resolve the problematic issue of the definition of a “national” organisation. Somewhere in the idea was a thought that Wales could begin from a level playing field and that even small, underfunded organisations which could demonstrate excellence and best practice could be rewarded with additional funding.

Unfortunately, the implementation of the scheme by ACW has been riddled with difficulties and problems, whereby a jaded arts community appears to be having some of its suspicions about the process confirmed. The fear abounds that ACW already knows which organisations it wants to offer the additional funding to and the application process clearly worked in opposition to the aspirations of smaller companies. For example, an organisation could not bid for funding unless it was a revenue funded company and the amounts one could apply for grew in proportion to the level of revenue funding received. In other words, companies in receipt of £500K could apply for larger sums than companies in receipt of £50K, therefore, an inbuilt hierarchy existed and not a level playing field.

However, the important principle here is that beacon company status is offered as an incentive and a reward for excellence. It is not something that determines the level of core funding, as it will in England. It is an aspect of the kind of erratic, top-down policy making in Wales that peer review is not part of the current agenda and, in some respects, it is all the better for it, despite it being more about accident than foresight. De-linking peer review and funding outcomes, therefore, is something that, for once, arts policy-makers in England could have looked to Wales for. 

The rest of my afternoon on The South Bank was a more relaxed affair, however – less about policy, more about people – and we had the opportunity to spend time together in our different year groups catching up. This is always so useful and one of the best things about the Fellowship programme has been the incredible group of people that I have been privileged to get to know and continue to be a part of.

This was followed by a quick, disorientating spin around The Hayward Gallery exhibition called Psycho Buildings, which featured a boating lake on the roof of the gallery.

It also featured a characteristically haunting installation by Rachel Whiteread of a miniature night scene made from two hundred doll’s houses called Place 2008.  

Suitably psyched out, we returned for drinks, a spectacular view of some real buildings – The London Eye and The Houses of Parliament – and a heartfelt thank you to Chris Smith for his five years at the helm. As with every single one of the other one hundred plus participants on the Clore Programme, words cannot do justice to how he has changed our lives, but he did and he will be a hard act to follow. 

This review was commissioned for publication in Barn magazine:

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch by playwright Gregory Burke recently came to Ebbw Vale, trailing rave reviews and breathless recommendations that it is one of the greatest shows you will ever see. It is certainly a definitive piece of theatre, despite the fact that it is now almost two years since it premiered at the Edinburgh festival.

Having already played in Scotland, Australia and New York, however, Ebbw Vale manages to get it before London and, for that, Welsh audiences have to thank a partnership between the promoters and the Welsh Assembly Government, who found the extra £40,000 required from the Deputy Minister for Regeneration’s budget.  

The Arts Council of Wales has also been proactive in bringing Black Watch to Wales in anticipation of the new national theatre, hoping to set an example of the impact it can make. In that regard, judgements about the performance perhaps ought to sit alongside considerations about the level of its engagement with local people and its implications for the new national theatre.

However, on an artistic level at least, it’s hard to argue against the almost universal acclaim. Growing from Burke’s own verbatim interviews with members of The Black Watch regiment, personal and collective experience unfurls itself impressionistically from the starting point of a writer (played by Michael Nardone) conducting his research.

He does so by meeting seven soldiers in a pub, freshly returned from their tour of duty in Iraq, with the full weight of its chaos and danger bearing down upon them. It is a difficult meeting, fraught with suspicion and hostility, but not without a ribald humour. However, as the play progresses, this device begins to feel delicately intercessional, helping defuse any hint of the vicarious as it begins to uncover the personal and the real.   

In Wales, it is perhaps hard for us to appreciate the emotional attachment to the military. But, for Scottish audiences, there would have been a visceral impact to the loss of a three hundred year old regiment at the same time as its soldiers, drawn mainly from dead-end working class communities in Perthshire, Fife and Angus, were dying in Iraq. Black Watch plays adroitly into this context and shows us the real human cost.

However, to talk about “the play” is only one, and, at that, perhaps the least impressive element of this performance where the physical and visual imagery provides many of the stand-out moments. Director John Tiffany and his collaborator Steven Hoggett have worked together for many years. The relationship precedes the creation of the NTS to their work at Paines Plough, the small-scale new writing company, where Vicky Featherstone was again its Artistic Director. So, in many ways, the impact of Black Watch should be seen as a culmination of their working methods, rather than setting a completely new paradigm.

For all that, there are some deeply arresting images. Memorably, we first encounter the soldiers in their desert combat fatigues, cutting their way through the red baize of a pool table from within, which only moments before had been the focus for their banter in a Glaswegian pub. The signing sequence that accompanies the soldiers’ response to receiving letters from home is heartrending. In another typically bold moment, the suicide bombing is depicted through a literal suspension of the action in time, as three dying soldiers dangle helplessly from wires.

But there is also rigorous precision in the small detail of the ensemble work when a contentious question from the writer is met with a collective setting back in the chair or a small, but simultaneous adjustment in position. Indeed, the ensemble work was of a high order throughout with the all-male cast of ten equally adept at moving from gritty naturalism to high-voltage physicality. In a bravura finale, the production draws on the spectacle and theatricality of the Edinburgh tattoo – also staged in traverse – and which is played out to the inevitably stirring accompaniment of pipes.

Simply designed by Laura Hopkins and strikingly lit by Colin Grenfell, Tiffany has marshalled an impressive production that is strongly supported by his two collaborators on music and movement, respectively, Davey Anderson and Steven Hogget. Ultimately, it is a powerful and distinctive assertion of Scottish theatre at the dawn of the twenty first century.

In truth, the Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre was not the ideal venue for this production with its unhelpful acoustics and red plastic seating. Nevertheless, the production was held to be a good match with the town’s own history of military sacrifice and continuing economic challenges.

However, questions remain about whether the local audience benefitted as much as it could have from the brief flaring of high culture within its midst. There did seem to be quite a few empty seats and I estimated that a good third of the audience were invited guests and interested members of the theatre community travelling from elsewhere.

Consequently, one has to ask, if a hugely praised, world-class piece of theatre comes to Wales and fails to reach its intended audience, what does that imply for the new national company?

As it happens, some of the board members of the new national theatre were in the audience on opening night and must have been looking on with some trepidation. Of course, by comparison with the NTS, the new national theatre will have to face a number of demanding challenges, not least the one caused by the funding disparity. But, more than anything, it will have to contend with a range of expectations caused by the erratic and inconsistent nature of theatre development in Wales.

If Black Watch was intended as some kind of challenge to Welsh theatre, then it is worth thinking about the contribution to its success by Steven Hoggett.

Steven is Artistic Director of the hugely successful Frantic Assembly, a company that was formed in Swansea in the early Nineties and left Wales after four years, because, as Steven once said to me, “it felt like we were banging our heads against a brick wall in order to get any support or funding.” 

It is not that high-quality theatre of real promise and distinction cannot be created here – there is both the talent and the competency to do so. But in order to blossom, it requires nurturing. It also requires patience, clear-headedness and consistent vision – values which are often in short supply.

The National Theatre of Scotland‘s acclaimed production of Black Watch came to Wales on Thursday night and played… Ebbw Vale’s leisure centre… trailing rave reviews and breathless recommendations that it is one of the greatest shows you will ever see. It’s a definitive piece of theatre and I completely agree that it’s something not to be missed.

Black Watch

However, without wanting to sound like a curmudgeon, I came away with some mixed feelings – not about the production itself, which was inspiring, but about the event and the circumstances of its presentation.

Contrary to one opinion, I didn’t think the production played well in the space, despite the herculean efforts the NTS had taken to make the unhelpful acoustics, red plastic chairs and breeze block walls more bearable. Happily, the warm welcome of the centre’s attendants, who seemed genuinely pleased to be greeting people to their venue, just about managed to offset the bleak, Soviet-style queuing on entry and the lack of any bar or refreshments, despite the presence of a large sign above the door indicating “cafeteria” and (with characteristic bilingual utility) “caffeteria.”

However, coming into the auditorium, the audience was greeted with large blocks of the best seating, plastered with “reserved” notices for the large party of VIP’s that were at the reception upstairs and, it seems, heartily enjoying the free drink and food.

Personally, there is something incongruous and unsettling to me about wanting to provide access to great theatre in an area of acknowledged economic and social deprivation, using £40,000 from the government’s regeneration budget in order to make it happen, and then slapping yourself on the back for doing so with such a display of privilege and exclusivity.

With all the politicians, local government officials and arts grandees that were present, at least Neil Murray, the Newport-born Executive Producer of the NTS, had the good grace to sit among the paying punters. As did, I should say, Leighton Andrews AM, the government minister in attendance.

I can’t be sure that the performance was not sold out (indeed, I was given the impression that it had done), but there did seem to be quite a few empty seats, which begs some questions about whether the production had managed to reach its intended audience in Ebbw Vale. I sincerely hope the data will be able to prove that it did, but on the evidence of my own eyes I could not be so sure. 

Given the lack of a strong central media in Wales, it is sometimes difficult for promoters to communicate to audiences. However, I can’t say I noticed much of a marketing campaign for the production. Aside from the invited guests, a good proportion of the audience consisted of the theatre community, many of whom, myself included, had driven up from Cardiff or Swansea. Perhaps some of the VIP’s did not turn up, but, if one were to add together the empty seats, the invited guests and the theatre professionals, I would estimate that it amounted to at least a third of the audience.

The profile of the remainder seemed to be predominantly middle-aged. Perhaps drawn to the military and historical aspect of the show, there was a stronger showing from middle-aged men than might have been expected. I had heard talk of buses being laid on to facilitate people who might find transport an obstacle, including young people, but I only noticed one mini-bus arriving and young people were in a minority in the audience.

Now much of this evidence is anecdotal and empirical, but it is widely acknowledged that ACW has been as proactive as it has in bringing Black Watch to Wales in anticipation of the new national theatre and as an example of the impact it can make. As many were sitting directly opposite me, I couldn’t help but speculate about what was going through the minds of the board members of the new company, as they followed the performance. In some ways, it was easy to be sympathetic towards them, not least, because a landmark piece of Scottish theatre, which has achieved world-wide success, was being laid out before them. At the very least, the artistic challenge must have seemed daunting.

Moreover, I had the sense that some in attendance were a little perplexed by Black Watch’s innovation and its honesty. In my experience, new work from Wales that features strong language and a degree of unfamiliarity is treated by some venue managers with a level of distrust and a non-negotiable certainty that it will not play to their audiences. Indeed, I noticed some yawning and staring at the ceiling from those very people at certain points in Black Watch.

But what I am really trying to get at is that if a hugely praised, world-class piece of theatre comes to Wales and fails to reach its intended audience, what message does that imply for the new national company?

By comparison with the NTS, the new national theatre will have to face a number of demanding challenges. A quick inspection of the back of the Black Watch programme speaks to the heart of one of them. The NTS employs thirty four full or part-time members of staff and a further seven freelance administrative staff on a regular basis. In 2008/09, the NTS will receive £4.3 million in annual revenue from the Scottish government. Whereas I understand that the new national company in Wales will receive £1.3 million in its first year of full operation and intends to employ no more than nine or ten permanent staff.  

However, one of the most telling aspects of the whole evening for me was the outstanding contribution to its success from its Movement Director, Steven Hoggett. There was water-like fluidity, impressive daring and rigorous precision to the movement that Steven had developed with the actors that was absolutely spine-tingling and made for some of the production’s stand-out moments. For example, the signing sequence that accompanied the soldiers’ response to receiving letters from home was heartrendingly beautiful. But it was also to be found in the small detail of the ensemble work when, for example, a contentious question from the writer (played by Michael Nardone) met with a collective setting back in the chair or a small, but simultaneous adjustment in position.

Aside from recognising the work, the reason for emphasising this is that Steven is Artistic Director of the hugely successful Frantic Assembly, a company that was formed in Swansea in the early Nineties and left Wales after four years, because, as Steven once said to me, “it felt like we were banging our heads against a brick wall in order to get any support or funding.” 

If that doesn’t express the inversion of short-term fix over artist development that has been  palpable for so long in Wales, I don’t know what does.

Go and see Black Watch, it’s great.

Max Jones is one of the most exciting graduates to emerge from the Theatre Design course at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which has been transformed under the guidance of Sean Crowley and his team to become one of the very best places to study in the whole of the UK. Max caught my attention with the flair and bravura of his graduate showcase designs back in 2001 and has worked with me on several productions since. With this year’s RWCMD graduates Theatre Design exhibition from June 5th -11th at the college itself and at Soho Theatre from June 26th – 28th, it will be interesting to see who is going to be following in the footsteps of the likes of Hayley Grindle, Rhys Jarman, Sophie Mosberger, Tom Scutt, Colin Richmond and Adam Wiltshire – all of whom, like Max, have been making exciting progress.

Max has established a good relationship with Clwyd Theatr Cymru also, working with both Tim Baker and Phillip Breen.  So it was worth the trip to see how subtly and imaginatively Max had transformed the Emlyn Williams Studio at Clwyd for Phillip Breen’s recent production of Measure For Measure. The seating had been re-configured to a thrust setting and this lent a welcome intimacy to the performance, which was located in a fin-de-siecle Vienna of the late nineteenth century. Unless you knew the space, you might have been hard pressed to realise that Max had created a wholly new arched back wall, housing a beautiful, circular stained glass window, not unlike this…

Its central, dominating position lent underlying symbolism to the exploration of mercy and justice in the play, which I found unexpectedly moving. The subterranean jailhouse, situated directly and hellishly beneath, was also a nice touch. 

Having seen the Complicite production at The RNT some years ago, I must say that I found Phillip Breen’s production had a deeply engaging clarity and coherence, whereas Simon McBurney’s production had been full of self-conscious artifice and distance. While McBurney, casting himself as Duke Vincentio, played the final scene in that production as a press conference into a microphone, Breen’s take on it offered greater rewards. Presaging the miraculous reconciliation of Shakespeare’s later play The Winter’s Tale, it quelled scepticism at its ending through the emotional charge of its playing and the accumulated impact of the storytelling.   

Despite a deeply intelligent performance from Leila Crerar as Isabella, for once the powerful Isabella/Angelo storyline did not overpower the slightly problematic role of the Duke, which I was delighted to see my old friend David Fielder giving full value to. Indeed, there was strong work throughout the company with contributions from CTC regulars Steven Elliott, Brendan Charleson, Louise Collins, Richard Elis and others. The costumes, as one might expect from a company run by Terry Hands, were beautifully detailed and appropriate.

Some days later, Marc Rees and I had a chat and a drink in the late afternoon sun at Chapter. Marc has been invited by Volcano to be a guest director on a series of performances called Unknown Pleasures. Marc has chosen to develop a piece inspired by that great Swansea landmark The Palace Theatre, which is now, sadly, disused and dilapidated.

A Grade II listed building, The Palace is one of the first things you can see as you exit Swansea railway station (on the right hand side) and began its life as a music hall where the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Lily Langtry and Marie Lloyd performed. In the post-war years, it housed a short-lived repertory company that gave a debut to Anthony Hopkins and, later on, it became a bingo hall and then an iconic gay nightclub. Unfortunately, the building has struggled to find a use since it was sold in 2002.

Marc has been researching the history of the Palace and has even had access to a recent feasability study for its use a music venue. With the distinctive wedge-shaped building in danger of falling down, however, Marc is convinced that its most likely destination is to be converted into a block of flats, which I find incredibly sad.

Marc has also been interviewing people who have worked in the building, including a lovely old amateur actor called Kerry Wilcox (now aged 80) that I performed with at the Swansea Little Theatre when I was seventeen, and Keith Millward, who produced Sondheim’s Follies in the building when it was in a slightly better state of repair than it is now. There’s a wonderful symmetry about the idea of performing Follies at the Palace, rather than in a West End theatre, pretending to be crumbling and abandoned. Unfortunately, Marc’s show cannot take place at the Palace itself because it’s too far gone, but can be seen at The Taliesin Arts Centre on May 29th.