Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Mayfesto 2014 - Colonisation and the Spoken Word

There's a joke doing the rounds of the internet as jokes do, but which
originated in America. It's about a man waiting in line in a grocery
store behind a woman, who's speaking on her mobile phone in a foreign
language. Once the woman has finished her call, the man approaches her,
and points out that, as she's in America, she would need to speak

“Excuse me?” says the woman, before the man very slowly, as if talking
to a child, suggests to her that if she wants to speak Mexican, then
she should go back to Mexico. To stress his point, the man points out
that the woman was in America, where they speak English.

“Sir,” says the woman. “I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak
English, go back to England.”

Despite its locale, this joke seems to be the perfect illustration of
the themes behind this year's Mayfesto, the Tron Theatre's annual look
at politically tinged drama, which this year themes its programme
around the all too timely notions of Colonisation and The Spoken Word.
Nowhere is this theme found more readily than in Mayfesto's two
flagship productions, which find Tron artistic director Andy Arnold
directing Shakespeare's The Tempest, while Communicado's Gerry Mulgrew
oversees Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good.

Produced in association with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and
featuring international casts, themes of colonisation are apparent in
both plays.  In The Tempest, Prospero's enslavement of Caliban is to
the fore, while Our Country's Good focuses on prisoners in an
eighteenth century Australian penal colony where inmates create and
perform a play.

Elsewhere in the programme, the Imaginate festival tours Saltbush, an
Australian/Italian co-production which looks at a journey made by two
Aborigine friends. Also featured are Tamasha theatre company, present
My Name Is..., which dramatises the real life plight of the twelve year
old girl who fled Glasgow with her Pakistani father. Heart is a
production by the ZENDEH company, who dramatise a love story set
between Durham and Tehran in 1953. As well as these full productions,
Mayfesto will also feature debate, as well as a series of rehearsed
readings. Many of these will feature the work of Aime Cesaire, the
Caribbean-born author whose own version of The Tempest looked at the
story through the African-American experience of colonialism.

“Mayfesto is a season work that questions and challenges things, both
in terms of artistic work and ideas beyond them,” Arnold points out,
“and what motivated me for Mayfesto this year was that we're building
up to this huge great celebration of the commonwealth through the
Commonwealth Games. With that, it seemed the right moment to question
the whole basis on which the  commonwealth was established in relation
to slavery and so on.

“Coincidentally I'd been talking top the RCS about doing a classic
piece, and that's why I thought of doing The Tempest, but taking a
different slant on it, heightening the colonial elements that are in
it. It has always been a colonial play, but in this production, Caliban
is very much played as someone with great dignity, and who has a
certain moral authority in the piece, and that makes it a very
appropriate piece.”

Arnold has also opted to open and close the play with words by Cesaire,
who, as well as a life's work as a writer, thinker and activist, taught
radical thinker Frantz Fanon, who, like Cesaire, was born on the island
of Martinique.

“Cesaire has become an important part of the festival,” says Arnold.
“When I thought about looking at colonialism in Mayfesto. I knew I
wanted some kind of staging of Cesaire's epic poem, Return To My Native
Land, which I've had on my bedside table, as it were, since my student
days. It's a really powerful, visceral and beautiful poem to stage, so
I knew I wanted that to be part of Mayfesto.

“I wasn't familiar with Cesaire's other work, although I'd heard of A
Season in the Congo from a production at the Young Vic. Then I found
out he'd done his own version of The Tempest, called A Tempete, in
which Caliban is more of a freedom fighter and Prospero's a white slave
trader, and there's a beautiful prologue and epilogue, in which Caliban
has the last word, so I've topped and tailed this production with
Cesaire's words, as well as programming readings of these other pieces
as part of Mayfesto as a homage to this great unsung writer.”

Like Shakespeare and Wertenbaker, Cesaire was an artist whose work had
politics bursting through every line without the issue ever having to
be forced.

“I've always steered away from didactic theatre,” Arnold says, “but
there is nevertheless a need for issue-based theatre. For many years
people shied away from it, but I think it's possible to marry good
artistic writing to something that's inspired by political issues.
Sometimes people have got away with it because it's been about a worthy
cause and has just been speaking to the people who want to hear these
things, but looking back over the decades, the best political play I've
ever seen was Brian Friel's Translations, and that doesn't have a line
of politics in it.”

While The Tempest and Our Country's Good certainly sit alongside
Friel's play in that respect, the rest of the Mayfesto programme is
invested with equal weight.

“Mayfesto's changed,” Arnold admits. “When we started, it was pretty
much all full productions. Now it's become more of a focus for
workshops and debate. It's a great platform for artists to interact, so
there might only be sixty people watching something, but they'll be in
the bar afterwards talking about it. It's interesting, because if you
see a full production, you leave the building straight afterwards,
whereas if you watch a work in progress piece, because it's not
finished, there's this assumption that it's up for discussion, and that
you as an audience member might be able to influence how it develops.
That's happening a lot. Rather than scratch around for a company from
down south, we can put on something from scratch and see how it

Mayfesto 2014 runs at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 6-31.

Mayfesto 2014 – The Highlights

The Tempest / Our Country's Good – May 7-17 – Two co-productions
between the Tron and Royal Conservatoire Scotland find Arnold directing
Shakespeare's classic tale of magic on a far-flung island, while Gerry
Mulgrew looks at Timberlake Wertenbaker's modern classic set in an
Australian penal colony. The two productions lay in the Tron's main
auditorium on alternate nights.

Rehearsed Readings – May 8-31 – Six separate programmes feature work by
Caribbean writer Aime Cesaire, a new look at Peter Arnott's play,
Thomas Muir – The Hidden Spirit Of Our Times, first seen at the Tron in
1986, and new work, including Sara Shaarawi's Day One, which looks at
life as a woman in Cairo.

Art v Politics – Who's Lying and Who's Telling The Truth? - May 23 –
Herald Arts Editor Keith Bruce chairs a discussion on political art and
the art of politics in Scotland, 2014, with panellists including NVA's
Creative Director, Angus Farquhar, Pete Wishart MP, and Nazli
Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh, artist director of ZENDEH, whose production of
Steven Gaythorpe's play, Heart, appears at Mayfesto. appears

My Name Is... - May 29-31 – The Tamasha company present a new play by
Sudha Bhuchar taken from the real life story of a twelve year old girl
who was presumed to have been kidnapped from Glasgow by her Pakistani
father, only for it to emerge that she went of her own accord.

The Herald, May 6th 2014

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