Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts

January 2, 2017

WHERE FROM HERE : 21 YEARS OF THIRD ANGEL

LEEDS BECKETT UNIVERSITY, THURSDAY 17 NOVEMBER

This celebration of the work of the Sheffield based performance company Third Angel took place on Thursday  17 November  at Leeds Beckett University as part of the Leeds Compass Festival 2016. Third Angel is a company which devises theatre and other shows which usually ask  questions about how we create performance, how performance can involve a variety of sources – from audience members, from writers, researchers, film-makers, academics, friends and  family .

The symposium, which was attended by over 70 people, reminded us of the often enigmatic titles of Third Angel’s many shows – “Class of 76″, “Cape Wrath”, “Presumption”, “What I heard About the World”,  and many others, of which we were illuminated  by a series of tributes by younger performance makers and academics from a variety of universities.  Among those participating were Alex Kelly and Rachel Walton, the founders of Third Angel, Oliver Bray, Head of Performing Arts at Leeds Beckett, Hannah Nicklin, Michael Pinchbeck,  Caroline Horton, Andrew Jeffrey, and two PhD students from Leeds.

Above all  we were reminded of how the  links between Third Angel and  Higher Education – particularly at Leeds Beckett  -  have been crucial in influencing the current generation of new performers whose work is not tied to the mainstream textual tradition, and whose work now influences both the way in which we create performance and the ways in which we view and define what we may now mean by ‘performance’.

As one of the editors of the projected “Twenty-First Century Performance Reader” I am only too aware of the ways in which the term has been  challenged,changed , and redeveloped world-wide, where performance artists talking about themselves no longer write manifestos or defining essays, but use the form of the interview, letter, or blog to express their views. Third Angel appears in this compilation precisely because their work has , for 21 years, been expanding the field and encouraging young UK  practitioners  in the creation of new work. In this era of Brexit and Trump it would seem that artists will need all their ingenuity  to navigate the inevitable twists and turns of what may hopefully be cultural policy, and it is in this context that the continuing world of Third Angel is crucial.

September 17, 2015

This year Liverpool Hope has made me a Professorial Fellow – an honour which I have been pleased to accept. Pleased because the field of Performing Arts has become important to this small but interesting organisation, which appears to be punching above its weight in many ways. It research record is high for such a small university, and its investment in creativity – performance, music, dance – shows real committment. There are festivals, exhibitions, conferences, competitions – playwriting, for example – which denote a trust which many universities find unusual. We all know that the creative disciplines attract students, but investment in thinking through doing – acting, directing, dancing, performing – has still not achieved anything like the political recognition that it has in, say, Romania, or Germany, to give two examples. When will we ever appoint a Minister of Culture who knows about the field, as opposed to one to needs a ministry to make a career? Prizes for anyone who can list the last 10 ministers of culture that this country has given us – always remembering that ‘culture’ itself is a bit suspicious as it was originally a German word!

Several years ago John Theocharis and I made a BBC Radio 3 documentary about the redoubtable Barbara, daughter of Bertolt, who has recently died, where we juxtaposed her comments about ‘papa’ with readings from his poems. It probably sank into the BBC radio 3 archive, but I well remember her interview, where she struggled to reconcile her festy self – forbidding productions, trying to persuade the National Theatre not to cast Judy Dench as Mother Courage etc – with her clear adoration of her father. I think she gave us cake in her flat in what was then East Berlin, was on the whole polite, and was  quite pleased that the BBC should think her worth talking to. And so she has gone on, one of the generations of legatees of creative lives – Wagner, Samuel Beckett, Picasso, John Lennon – whose lives themselves  deserve some scrutiny. I even remember , in my university days at Leeds, having to submit designs for a student production of “Mother Courage” to Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife. She refused them and we went on to perform Ernst Toller’s “Draw the Fires”instead!! Of such are inheritors made……

March 17, 2014

INTRODUCTION

“Cities build culture, and culture builds cities. This basic understanding has been vital in the revitalization of an increasing number of cities across Europe in recent years.

The Romanian city of Sibiu (or Hermannstadt in German) is a medium sized city in the Transylvania region. In common with cities elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe it has undergone considerable transformation since the restoration of democracy. Industrial restructuring caused unemployment growth and infrastructure was in need of renovation. In tackling these problems the city adopted a somewhat radical strategy compared to its regional neighbours, by making cultural development a spearhead in the transformation of the city”.

(Richards and Rotariu, MPRA Report, 2011)

It is worth quoting from this report, written after the 2007 experience of Sibiu as joint capital of Culture ( with Luxembourg), with its acknowledgement that cultural development can be a crucial transformer of cities, for this is what has happened in Sibiu, Romania,  over the last 21 years, which in no small measure  is due to the growth, scope and influence of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, its personnel and schedules.

My first contact with this festival was in 1994, when I came to Romania to make a BBC radio 3 programme about theatre in the country since what the above report quaintly refers to as ‘the restoration of democracy”. At that time I found a small but ambitious team made up of Constantin Chiriac, Cristian Radu, and selected colleagues. I remember Mr Chiriac telling us that one of his ambitions was for Sibiu to become a European Capital of Culture, a claim that at that time seemed unrealistic. He also emphasised that he wanted the festival to become ‘a motor for social change’, a phrase to which I shall return.

I came back to Sibiu for the 1995 festival, where I met an old American friend, Professor Kenneth Campbell from Virginia Commonwealth University, who was already busy advising the festival on certain developments. He was, in particular, responsible for the development of the readings of new playtexts, which are still a feature of the festival. At that time  the festival was housed in the Student Culture House, and the shows took place in a few city venues including the Radu Stanca Theatre. Even then there were performances from around 20 different countries, including  Iraq, Japan, Poland, Syria, The Phillipines, Greece, and Poland.

I have decided to concentrate on what I perceive to be the 10 significant issues that have taken place over the last 21 years and which define the festival, drawn from my archive of Sibiu programmes, some personal observations, and my own  memories, which may be a little uncertain, and therefore open to correction. What is clear is that the festival could not have survived this long without the vision and commitment that all these developments have needed from the team involved.

1.MANAGEMENT

One of the keys to the development of this festival has been its management team, the key members of which have been together almost from the start. This is not a festival whose director changes every few years, as it does, for example,  at Edinburgh or Avignon, and the key personnel have been present, many of them since the inception. Any new members of the management team are chosen by the directors and are integrated into the ethos of the festival. It is  also a crucial circumstance that this key team remains in, resides in, and is connected to Sibiu , and does not simply fly in for a few months before the festival, which is often the case with many other European festivals.  This connection with the city and with its prestigious university – the Lucian Blaga University – gives the festival a sense of belonging, and the city an annual sense of anticipation. This sense of the event being permanently rooted in the city has meant that, over the years, its influence has become regional and national, powering the ‘motor for social change’ as we shall see.

The support from the city and the region is also important as Sibiu’s reputation has been built  in no small measure by virtue of its cultural activities, which also include film and jazz festivals. In this context it is interesting that for the last years the mayor of Sibiu has come from its German community, which has often led me to ask whether the historic German respect for culture may have left its imprint in Hermannstadt somehow.

The tightness of and commitment of the management team is therefore the major factor in the continuation of the festival into the twenty-first century.

2. INTERNATIONAL SCOPE

One of the key elements of the festival since its start has been its sense of reaching out to the nations of the world – at the last count in 2013 over 70 countries were represented. There were 20 international networks present and a vast number of international volunteers who helped make the festival work. The festival director spends most of his year searching for performances in different countries which may be relevant to Sibiu.

As the years have gone there has been an incremental increase in the number of nations participating. As the reputation of the festival has grown, so has the interest of nations across the world. Thus, for the 10 days of the festival, an international framework is established, which is  unique in Europe in my experience.

What does this internationalism mean ? Perhaps the most important aspect is that for 10 days Sibiu becomes a potential forum for discussion between nations and an exchange in particular of professional and young professional theatre makers from around the world. Consequently foreign visitors both appreciate the city and spread the word about the festival, thus continually raising the profile, advancing tourism,and eventually foreign and national investment. Over the years the number of hotels and restaurants has doubled, making the city both a cultural and gastronomic centre.

The other aspect of the international emphasis is the scope it gives for joint cross-national arts projects, international cultural dialogue, and world class knowledge transferred across individuals and performances.

3. CONCEPT OF THE FESTIVAL

Whereas in the beginning the title was the “International Festival of Young Professional Theatre” , a deliberate attempt to show the world that something new was happening in Romania. The programme consisted of some ‘big’ shows  which would be juxtaposed with the work of younger theatre makers. in 1995 these included Purcarete’s “Phaedra”, Theatre of the Eighth Day (Poland) ” Wormwood”, and  “Antigone” from Greece . Over the years these divisions have become fragmented as has the world of contemporary performance, so that these categories no longer apply and the festival is simply the Sibiu International Festival of Theatre, which may include productions of the highest standard alongside new work from new generations of theatre makers.  Even divisions such as  “dance”, “theatre”, “street” performance are now defined as simply  “a constellation of practices”,  where the old hierarchies have been broken and where  new  theatre makers make no distinctions.  Thus the visual surprise of the early Romanian performances of directors has been absorbed into the mainstream of many of the non-Romanian visiting shows, which may range from large scale theatre pieces to smaller more intimate work .

The work itself has over the years has  spread out from theatre spaces to local churches and castles making a strategic use of community resources for integrated community projects. So that for several years professionals working with deaf children in the city, for example, were able to show work at the festival, whereas the church on the hill at Cisnadioara has become a venue often for experimental work of different types. In recent years Purcarete’s production of “Faust” has been shown at the Libra Balanta Hall, an ex-factory venue, and music has been performed at the Talia Hall, built on the foundations of Sibiu’s first theatre. Other venues now include clubs and bars in the city, and one performance is given annually on in one of the city’s tramcars.

The festival concept has also been extended in recent years by the ability of the director to attract to the festival some of the great names of theatre modernism, such as Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, Eugenio Barba, Peter Stein, Lev Dodin and others: names whose influence has been Europe-wide but whose work has not been shown very much before in Romania. So that as well as presenting the work of key contemporary eastern Europe theatre makers such as Silviu Purcarete, Andriy Zholdak, Gabor Tompa, and Eimentus Nekrosius the festival audiences can see the work of the generations who have shaped European theatre.

4. EDUCATION

It is axiomatic that festivals in some sense are learning experiences both for performers and for audiences. Meetings, conversations take place which promote the idea of the training of performers and managers. It was therefore logical that the theatre, via its contacts with the university in Sibiu, should develop higher education and post-graduate courses in Theatre Studies and in Cultural Management, from 1996. The festival becomes an annual ‘live’ project for these students and there is now a section devoted to performances from different European theatre academies. Leeds Metropolitan University has a co-operation agreement with Sibiu whereby annually a group of post-graduates come to the festival to experience work which it would be hard to see in the UK. The Sibiu festival has long been part of the post-graduate programme both at Leeds and Hull Universities. It is noteworthy that in 2011 both the Theatre and Cultural Management programmes at Sibiu  were judged first place in Romanian higher education.

There is now a further initiative in that the University of Sibiu has developed a PhD programme whereby students from different countries can  share their learning experiences across one programme, which may involve practical theatre work as well as management practice. This programme already involves the UK, USA, Sorbonne (Paris) and other collaborative institutions and will clearly attract students who have practice as their base, as well as mature students who have a body of ‘published work’ that they can present as the basis of the PhD study.

5. DIALOGUE

Festivals, by their very existence, promote informal dialogue, but Sibiu has developed different ways of promoting dialogues between artists, the press, and academics.

Each morning  during the festival a Press Conference, moderated by a festival friend, allows different artists to share their philosophies, problems, and sucesses, with both members of the press, and other interested audience members. These meetings give a unique opportunity to understand the background to the various artists present at the festival, who may come from any corner of the world.

Another kind of dialogue has taken the form, over the last 5 years, of a series of conversations between myself and a variety of festival artists, which, with the help of Sibiu University, are recorded then published as an archival record of a particular year’s programme. So far there are three published volumes which are available during the festival. They provide a unique record of the state of Sibiu Festival performances in any one year.

A key forum for dialogue is the area next to the Radu Stanca Theatre which, during the festival, becomes a Festival Club, where artists mingle from different countries, and where, notably, students may approach artists whose work they have found interesting. This forum once again is unique in European festivals, and is one of the reason why my students have bee coming to Sibiu for over 10 years.

During the year, away from the festival, there are, of course, constant conversations among the management members and foreign friends about recommended performance seen at other festivals. However the editorial control is firmly with the Festival Director.

6. EMERGING ARTISTS

One of the pre-occupations of the festival has always been with theatre artists who are emerging as important figures in their own country, and the festival can be seen as an incubator of some of the most interesting new work emerging in Europe. In the past few years I have been successful in promoting the work of new artists from the UK, including : Oliver Bray (Until Thursday), Song Chang (Song Theatre), Ellie Harrison, Matt Allen, Jodean Sumner (Trace Theatre),and many others, so that for me Sibiu has always been a place for the new, the experimental, which can yet be shown alongside the more mainstream work, though what the word ‘mainstream’ now means in the context of Sibiu is hard to define…

7. THE PERFORMANCE MARKET

A major innovation since the festival’s beginnings was a Performance Market, where different companies could take a stall and show examples of their work. For many years this worked, but with the development of the internet, access to others’ work has become easier, so that the Performance Market has now taken on a new identity and is now both a showcase and a discussion and debating centre, whereby cultural managers, performers, academics, and others can meet to review work from different countries, often developing into joint projects between different countries, since the funding systems for contemporary performance are now seen as one of the important international topics. The Market is organised and directed by Lavina Alexe, herself a product of the University of Sibiu, and over the past few years has been attracting some of the key European Cultural managers to speak and debate current issues of cultural policy.

8. EUROPEAN CITY OF CULTURE  2007

Bearing in mind all the above developments which have meant an incremental change to each festival as the years have gone by, it is not surprising that the Sibiu International Theatre Festival became one of the major motors which led to Sibiu’s success in becoming a Capital of Culture. It is significant that the co-ordinator and director of the year’s cultural events should have  been Cristian Radu, one of the original minds behind the  festival, and the longest serving member of the management team. As leader of the Cultural Management programme at the university he was able to draw on young management expertise for what was a year’s gruelling programme of events of all cultural sorts but which undoubtedly helped in a large way to define Sibiu as a tourism and cultural visitor centre, from which it is still reaping the benefits. Again the MPRA report, quoted above, gives chapter and verse explaining the success of the Capital of Culture exercise,  both from a participant and community viewpoint. If Sibiu needed to be firmly set on the culture map of Europe, then the Cultural Capital experience cemented it, in terms of cultural product, investment in the city, benefits to tourism, and so on. There is no doubt that Sibiu is now the most important cultural hub in Romania, often viewed somewhat  waspishly from Bucharest.

9. WHERE FROM HERE?

As the festival has grown each year we all ask where it can go now, what further can it do? Although these questions are of interest, we need to be reminded that every year attracts new artists, new visitors, new journalists, new students, new academics. For them Sibiu is ever new and there is something to be said for not tampering with a very successful formula. The important thing is for the directors to be made aware of ways in which contemporary arts practice is developing. It maybe, for example, that the festival should expand its music content to include opera, or make more effort to involve the visual arts in its envelope. These are ideal questions, not all of which can be answered in a country whose cultural politics are  still volatile in spite of what is still only 25 years of ‘democracy’.

It is worth considering the idea of the festival as a ‘motor for social change’. It is clear that the city’s social makeup of students, professionals , and visitors have together effected a change in the way in which Sibiu’s citizens regard themselves.  The residue of the festival is always a set of ideas, of new international contacts, of dialogue, which enable people to develop and bring new perspectives to their work and leisure. Small groups of performers have emerged both from the university and elsewhere and many festival participants return to the city either to work or as visitors.

The other quality which for me and other visitors is what I call the “Romanian Ingredient” , which in festival terms means a unique welcome atmosphere, great hospitality,  and a genuinely international and democratic framework for co-operation, in a country whose beauty is often unknown  by visitors for the first time. The festival thus opens gates to other broader cultural experiences such as the rural villages, pristine fields,  mountain lakes and  peaks, nature , food, and above all the friendliness of the people.

10. CONCLUSION

The following are the  important strands which have  contributed to the success of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival over the last 21 years :

A permanent Festival Director

Key management staff who live and work in Sibiu

The relationship with the city and the region

An openness to internationalism

A view of the festival as a unique educational experience

Archiving the work seen or talked about

Allowing international debate ( the Performance Market)

Promotion of Emerging artists (Young Professional Theatre)

The link with the University of Sibiu

A sense of humour

Noel Witts

Emeritus Professor

Leeds Metropolitan University

UK

March 2014

1. KERALA

Kerala, in south west India, is edged by 360 miles of coastline, known as the Malabar Coast. It has a population of 31.8 million of which 56% are Hindu, 25% Muslim, and 19% Christian.  Fort Cochin is the area’s pre-eminent colonial trading post, with a history of shipping from Rome, China, the Arabian peninsula, Persia, East Africa, Portugal, Holland and Great Britain. It is also home to an extraordinary arts scene , both traditional and modern, and Thrissur, its capital, is a major cultural centre, hence the locale for the annual International Theatre Festival and colloquium. There are regular flights to Cochin from Birmingham via Dubai.

2. ITFOK

The event is now 6 years old and is directed by Professor Deepan Sivaraman, who works in the School of Cultural and Creative Expression at Ambedkar University, Delhi, a new university of only 4 years with a contemporary performance  curriculum at post-graduate level. His ambition for this year’s festival was to expose the transformations in theatre that have taken place to create contemporary performance practice, given that “Indian theatre has shown a little reluctance – induced by a post-colonial hangover of word-centred proscenium- based drama – in accepting this change”. The festival and colloquium tried to rectify what Sivaraman sees as an imbalance, and much of this report seeks to comment on this, while bearing in mind that the visual and performance work at Leeds Metropolitan University and in the UK generally acknowledges that contemporary performance is now a constellation of different practices.

3. FESTIVAL AND COLLOQUIUM VENUE

The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi is a collection of indoor and outdoor theatre spaces which the Kerala Government makes available to a variety of performance groups of all types, running workshops and presenting regular programmes of work. It is a unique resource in India, located in the centre of Thrissur.

4. COLLOQUIUM

The ostensible themes of this year’s colloquium were the ways in which ‘ the lines of force that are set up during a performance that disrupt/connect/ or realign ways of seeing”. Although some of  the Indian and European festival performances brought by Sivaraman certainly demonstrated this, many of the colloquium presentations tended to be concerned with contemporary Indian issues,  with titles such as :  Talking about Gender, Gender Concerns in 21st century India, Proscenium, realism, and spectatorship in Indian theatre. There was little analysis of practice  and its seemed that the concerns mostly  still related to traditional frameworks as exemplified by the writer/actor/director relationship.  Indeed there seemed to be  some reluctance to discuss work which moved away from the traditional word-based drama, precisely the imbalance which the Artistic Director had emphasised in his curatorial note.

5. MY PRESENTATION

Given the above it was interesting to me to see the response to  my presentation on the many ways in which the ‘language’ of European Theatre had shifted over the last decades, foregrounding the work of Pina Bausch, Bobby Baker, The Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, Merce Cunningham, and many others. It was a real surprise to me that while several Indian colloquium participants claimed to have seen some of this work, there was barely any discussion of its significance, and we were quickly brought back to the word-based theatre, where people were evidently more comfortable. I was politely thanked for reminding the colloquium of these shifts, but little more. My interjections on the subject of the changed meaning of “text”, the need for a re-examination of the notion of training performance artists, the questionability of devising ‘foundation’ courses – all current European debates – were barely considered by the colloquium participants  and I  felt to be the European interloper who had somehow infiltrated an Indian world. But it quickly became   clear that while the older generation of teachers appear to hold to the traditional, the younger generation who were present were eager to engage in debate about what they regard as the new performance world which is influenced by technology and social media. There seemed to me to be a definite disjuncture between the artistic director’s views of contemporary theatre and the views expressed by many of the colloquium delegates.

It was especially strange to me that Professor Anurada Kapur, one of the senior figures present, and a convenor of the colloquium,  had, in her paper, talked about the radical work of some Indian women directors in the 1980s, who had ‘sought  to dismantle the conventional hierarchies of theatre-making driven by the word and goal-orientated narratives’. It would seem that these, for many of the colloquium participants, must have been seen as  historical distractions.

The conclusion I draw is that young potential Indian theatre makers of the IT/Social Media generation might have much to learn from a collaboration with the work at Leeds, especially those from Ambedkar University.

6. LAUNCH OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY PERFORMANCE READER

A book launch of the third edition of this, co-edited by myself and Teresa Brayshaw, was held outdoors on the penultimate day of the colloquium. This attracted much interest and many people would have bought copies, but the book is available only as an ebook  or in hardback from Amazon India, which is a hopeful sign. I left copies with the Artistic Director and the Festival venue.

7. FESTIVAL PERFORMANCES

Following Sivaraman’s curatorial intentions, and in apparent opposition to the more conservative tendencies presented by some senior Indian theatre figures, the performances were nearly all packed out – both Indian and foreign shows. For me the most innovative Indian shows were Roysten Abel’s “Kitchen Show’, an extraordinary combination of acting and Kerelan drumming on a huge scale, “Burning Flowers’, an outdoor collage of Indian and Polish (Biuro Podrozy) themes,  “The Winter’s Tale”, performed outdoors by Wide Aisle Productions,   and the very moving performance by the Abhinaya Research Centre, of a verbatim piece concerned with the current spate of rapes in India.

Of the foreign groups presented the most revelatory for the audience was the Slovakian Debris Company’s “Epic’, a combination of Brechtian techniques crossed with Robert Wilson. The formality of this European- based show excited audiences, who were amazed by the execution and discipline displayed. Here was a fine example of changed theatrical language which evidently spoke to Indian audiences. This was closely followed by the Sri Lankan performance of Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle’, played by a large and energetic ensemble in a portable tent.  The final show of the festival , from the National School of Drama Repertory Company, managed to show the whole festival’s dichotomy, being a narrative of family history by Mahesh Elkunchwar , which yet was played out against a split outside setting designed by Sivaraman, which potentially allowed simultaneous  episodes to be experienced. However the conventionality of the direction simply played against the potentiality of the post-modern setting – another of the Indian theatre puzzles which has remained with me as a result of this interesting exposure.

Noel Witts

February 2014

POET, WRITER, POLEMICIST, EDITOR, TEACHER

“Born on a farm in Gower” says the blurb, but we know he was actually born in Gorseinon Hospital – but he definitely grew up on the farm a few hundred yards from here. I remember when he was born . Gloria and Rowland decided that I should become “Uncle Noel” – a heavy responsibility  at the age of 11, which was only relinquished when it became a bit too embarrassing to sustain. . We lived in Sketty, and it was always a treat to come down to Kilvrough for the day to see how they were all getting on. The house was a wonderful old farmhouse with a yard and outhouses, and a marvellous room called the saddle room, which Nigel remembered – full of horse tack and bridles and saddles, and smelling of polish and animals. Nigel, Martyn, and Carey were all great riders, and they must have known every wall and gate and path and field all around here. I remember a few years back Nigel took my daughter Romilly riding at Rhossili, and I was amazed that such a literary personage  could look so at home in the saddle!

In his wonderful book on Gower,  with his friend David Pearl, he lists the names of the farm’s fields – names like Cocklebushes, The Lawn, Six Acres, Stallion Paddock, Deer Park, and the field next to this church, which was Church Park ; and there was Poppins Park which led to his great grandfather’s cottage just down the road from here.

But then, like many Anglo-Welsh families, it was decided that he should go away to school to be educated. The institution of choice was Dean Close School in Cheltenham, to which I and his father Rowland had also been sent. I had quite a good time there, but Nigel hated it and referred to it as “that totalitarian dump”.  Martyn tells a wonderful story about Nigel pinching the battery from the school bus to put in his old Austin, recently acquired for a fiver, and hidden at a friend’s hotel. The acid leaked from the battery and ruined the school uniform.

Then came the work as a reporter in Leamington Spa, from which he learned that skill of asking the right questions, and there were the travelling years,- Europe, North Africa, a circus in the USA,  and of course  India.  There was the time at the University of Excess, as Essex University was known in those days, where he began immersing himself in Wales and the Welsh, before  returning in 1976 to live in a Nissen hut on the farmland with Delyth. They moved to Mumbles in the 80s, where Angharad and Branwen were born and were sent  to a Welsh school. He was trying to get rid of the Anglo.

The rest you all know – the writing, the broadcasting,  the India book “Gwalia in Kasia” , the essays, the editing of the massive Welsh Encyclopaedia – known as the Psycho – and the research for the two master pieces of psychogeography – Real Swansea 1 and Real Swansea 2.

He didn’t’ write much about death, but there is a wonderful passage in a piece he wrote for John Peel’s Home Truths on radio 4 in 2000, in which he says

the following ;

“The ancient Celts believed that no one truly died : you simply shuffled off into the Celtic underworld, and could return from time to time to mingle with the living. And that’s how it seems in our dreams sometimes, when the dead come back and wander round inside our heads, insisting by sheer force of presence, and the persuasiveness of a conman, that surely there’s been some absurd mistake, they never died, how could anyone have imagined such a thing? ……. But with an  after life in  the memories of the living, the dead rarely leave us alone for long, and as far as most of mine are concerned, they’ve got a key to the house and can wander back in whenever they want”

I think Nigel has the key to all our houses.

As we got older our conversation inevitably turned to discussing our ailments and the number of pills we had to take, and equally inevitably how to stop drinking.

Nigel’s response to the medics was ” Teetotalitarian Lament” , which starts

“Pour oh Pour that booze away

Said my conscience when it came to call

And spotted the dozen bottles of hooch

I had laid up in the Hall”

And so on.

Two weeks before he died  I read him an article in “The Independent” by Boyd Tonkin, on climate change and Gower. I was of course apprehensive about what he would think of such an interloper. But he said ” Good, it’s not at all patronising” and, I thought, it is largely due to writers like you that it is getting less possible to be patronising about Wales.

On my next visit to him at Ty Olwen,  when he was really weak , I read him a short story by one of my favourite writers, George Mackay Brown, the Orkney writer who hardly moved much from Kirkwall, and as I  was reading it I realised that Nigel is the equivalent – a writer whose home locale is his major inspiration – the Swansea and Gower chronicler for our times. ( I gather the Real Gower book is on

its way)

On my last  visit to the flat I asked him about his  Maidenhair plant, which is still on the table in the window. He said he should really split it each year but had not done so this year, so there may indeed be people here who have  a bit of Nigel’s plant somewhere.

He may have gone, but in some ways we are lucky ; we have his words, and that is indeed a privilege .

My favourite of all his writings is his poem “Maidenhair” which unites his love of his family, his interest in nature, and his unerring ability to find an image which says so much more than its words. Here we have the old great grandfather, his grand mother, and the plant looking on. This is something that only poetry can do, and the reason why, of all the many things that Nigel could do, I think that writing was the best.

“The maidenhair endures in the Celtic west,

Theirs they kept whole lifetimes

in the same narrow pot.

I’ll give it space, learn its ways; help it

flourish, reproduce, watch me go>”

November 17, 2013

THEATRE AS HISTORY – Slovenia and its dilemmas

NOEL WITTS

Slovenia was described recently  in a UK newspaper as the EU’s ‘skeleton in the closet’, and as I write the Slovenian government has narrowly avoided a financial bailout, and the prime minister has survived a vote of  no confidence. So it might be interesting to ask how the cultural field here represents its country’s progress or lack of it, given that Slovenia’s borders with the West , and Austria in particular, made it a more or less safe EU bet. An excellent place to examine cultural things  recently was at the International Festival of Theatre in Maribor, Slovenia’s second city, and a mixture of mediaeval streets and modern urban development ,with touches of Austro-Hungarian architecture dotted around the city. It also has the empty River Drava, empty since industry declined and the wine started moving by road. In the squares and streets many people are out drinking coffee ,but a glance behind one or two of those ancient street doors finds buildings  in a dire state of decay.

The festival is now in its 48th year, which must make it one of the longest running in Europe. Yet to hold the  festival under these economic conditions must be an act of faith by the dynamic festival director, Alja Predan, who has held the reins since 2009. Her festival is a triumph of  hope and wily economic management, and  this year it turned out to be a demonstration of current thinking by Slovenia’s major theatre makers. The festival schedule consists of a packed programme of performances, debates, panel discussions and seminars (Media and Culture,Theatre Archives, Translating Shakespeare, Meanings in Contemporary Performing Arts), all spread across three theatre spaces within the 19th Century Opera/National Theatre , the Art Gallery and the huge Puppet Theatre. For Predan this festival is much more than entertainment : it is a way of displaying current cultural thinking in a country that for some time was known as the poster-child of the new euro-zone nations but is now experiencing euro-economic problems.

It is interesting to compare Maribor in Slovenia with Sibiu in Romania, which also has a festival, now  20 years old  and  one of the biggest in Europe. Whereas the director there, the redoubtable Constantin Chiriac ,makes his festival both an international showcase and a wide-ranging Romanian  welcome-pack for all nations, Predan’s is very much a Slovenian intellectual and performance showcase, leavened by an annual invitation to specific other nations to show their work – this year Holland.

Bearing all this in mind we may ask how current Slovenian performance reflects a view of the country on the one hand, and of its recent history on the other. How has the communist breakup and the arrival of the market economy affected theatre and theatre makers?  The Yugoslavian breakup, with its attendant crises in relationships and in borders – Croatia , Italy, and the Bay of  Piran coastline, for example – is still in many Slovenian people’s minds. And only a few weeks ago in Belgrade, now Serbia, they buried Tito’s wife with full honours , accompanied by  a full crowd of senior and not so senior ex-military men and woman with their Yugoslavian medals . Communism may be dead in the water, but its shadows still force themselves to the surface,  into performances, as if to remind  audiences that history does not die but exerts a sometimes baleful influence on all art.

An extravagant production from the Maribor Theatre of  “The Master and Margarita” by the Russian dissident Bulgakov ,began with an image of Stalin kissing the author as a response to Bulgakov’s historic letter of complaint, and gave hope for a radical re-interpretation of the piece. But the only concession to politics lay in the Devil’s resemblance to Stalin throughout. This text is a major one  for all  the nations of the former Soviet Union and it was alarming to see it turned into a minor anti-Stalin tract.

Then, of all things in a would-be developed capitalist society, there was a magnificent production of Brecht’s play “The Mother” , first performed in 1932, starring Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel in the title role. The Slovenian production starred  Natasa Barbara Gracner , and  was directed by Sebastian Horvat from the National Theatre in Ljubljana. This is the text which shows the conversion and education of a peasant woman in the principles of the Revolution. Gracner’s performance became the still centre of this interpretation, which lost revolutionary fervour in favour of a cool examination of the way in which maternal feeling can be translated into political activism.  We were hardly  being re-indoctrinated but rather were asked to cast a critical eye on the piece, which was directed as a cool experiment. And then it occurred to me that  perhaps the Maribor protests that had brought the current mayor to power were seen as a necessary corrective to whatever ‘democracy’ pertains in Slovenia. When I asked, in the panel discussion, what need Slovenia had of Brecht, there was a clear indication that some of that old world could still have relevance, particularly in a city with nearly 20% unemployment, and a country being accused by its citizens of wide-spread corruption.

This was by no means all.  Oliver Frljic’s production,  entitled  “25.671″ was a volatile confrontational piece by 10 performers dealing with the ‘ shame’  of Slovenia’s ‘erased’ people  – some 25.000 citizens from other countries of the former Yugoslavia, who were removed in 1989 from the Slovenian population registry,  and thus denied all benefits. In order to see this production on the main stage of the opera house we had to surrender items of identity, while on stage the facts, figures, and emotional traumas of the erased persons were played out. Much audience debate at the end  and an appearance by a real family of the dispossessed. Here was the raw conscience of Slovenia, and as one of the actors ‘confessed’ to me afterwards, communism was perhaps not all that bad after all!

So far it seemed that Slovenian theatre was finding it  hard to escape history, even if it wanted to, but the ultimate flight from all logic found itself a  set of images in a brilliant production by Jernej Lorenci of the National Theatre in Ljubljana, of “The Crazy Locomotive”  written in 1923 by the Polish artist/writer Witkiewicz, born in 1885 and who committed suicide in 1939 when he heard that the Red Army was crossing the border into Poland.  Coming from a country where none of Witkiewicz’ work has come within sniffing distance of our national theatres, this was nothing short of a revelation. That the texts were dadaist and challenging  we all knew, but that they could be made into a semi-logical surreal theatre experience of the highest quality was a shock. The cast clearly believed in the piece and tasks like playing the piano non-stop for half and hour by two performers while the minimalist story was played out behind them on a small stage were simply seen as the only way to deal with the author’s instructions. There was at the same time obviously an escape from current life and a relief in the stage life of such meaninglessness.

Alja Predan had decided this year to invite performances from Holland, and we were treated to Ivo Van Hove’s famous production of Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine”, performed by Halina Reijn of the Amsterdam Toneelgroep. Looking at this after the Slovenian work one wondered about the Dutch group’s relation to history. Is it, after all, seeking to create existential parallels between a text of 1928 and the dislocations of modern urban life in a very advanced society? Predan writes in an article for “Maska” that there is a degradation of culture in Holland from 2010, so does this mean that we can interpret the  isolation of Cocteau’s woman as a response to today’s dysfunctional  societies?

If so, it was absorbing to see Oskaras Korsunovas’  historic piece “Miranda”, which shows Prospero locked in a cage of 1960s emptiness, in conversation with his mentally incapacitated Miranda about exile and dispossession. Korsunovas , a major Lithuanian theatre maker, is giving us  an image of an empty communist society, where the imagination is all that is left  to us, and where the books are all but irrelevant even to a dissident intellectual.  History seen from a disillusioned Lithuanian artist with little hope for the current world.

Dispossession also seemed to be the theme of  “Three Elizabethan Tragedies’”, a multi- texted and  multi- imaged 90- minute show with no subtitles or synopsis  , based on Croatian writer  Stojsavljevic’s  post-modern plays, and marshalled together by Dragan Zivadinov, one of the founders  of the  Neue Slowenische Kunst in 1985. Since then he has embarked on a series of ‘post-gravitational theatrical abstracts’  and other experimental stage works,  though in this piece  it seemed as if Zivadinov was  telling us that the comparative  ‘freedom’ of the  80s was preferable to the nonsense of the current situation in Slovenia. Moreover  it confirmed for me that there must be  a whole generation of artists now feeling disenfranchised across the countries of the former Eastern Europe.

It is axiomatic  that all important theatre relates to particular times ,places, and even spaces. In Wajda’s film of Kantor’s “Dead Class” , for example, we can see the underground playing space, the gallery walls, the audience stumbling in,  a representation of people perhaps  escaping the communist world upstairs to be regaled with Kantor’s mashing of dissident texts and sounds. In Bausch’s “Cafe Muller” we see the frustrations of a divided Germany in the 1970s and the imagined past of Bausch crashing together against the ethereal music of Purcell. So in Slovenia we see a festival pointing a mirror at society and its problems, if not  its traumas, and claiming its place as a major debating chamber for its country. Festivals can be reconciliatory as well as celebratory – the Edinburgh Festival was created to heal the cultural wounds of World War 2 – so it may not be too much to see Maribor’s festival as a small contribution to the  debate about the future of Slovenia, a country not much bigger than Wales, and now in a hurry    to  lose its status as the  skeleton in the EU cupboard.

Noel Witts

November 2013

September 4, 2013

“Demarco’s Travels”  is an ambulant performance devised for this year’s Edinburgh fringe at the Summerhall venue, where a small part of Richard Demarco’s archive is housed. The archive, built from over 50 years promoting , curating, and exhibiting work from around the work at various Demarco sites in Edinburgh, provides a unique picture of European visual and performing arts since 1947, when the Edinburgh Festival began. The archive consists of pictures, sculptures, drawings, posters, programmes, letters, and above all photographs of all the exhibitions, performances, summer schools, expeditions that have formed Demarco’s life’s work. The idea for the Summerhall performance came from Teresa Brayshaw, who suggested the ambulant idea, where the audience is led from room to room of the archive, confronted from time to time by performance moments by Jodean Sumner and Louise Hill, with Demarco’s own words read by Noel Witts. As the tour proceeds one is confronted by a moving collection of events and writings by key figures who passed through Edinburgh or who helped promote Demarco’s ideas. Writings and performance material from the following formed the basis of the show : George Mackay Brown, Hugh McDiarmid, Paul Neagu, Gertrude Stein, Shakespeare, Tadeusz Kantor, The Road to Meikle Seggie, Buckminster Fuller, Sophocles,Joseph Beuys, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Louise Hill, Jodean Sumner. An eclectic list but one which represents the collection, so that the event  became a poetic and performative reflection on the life of this extraordinary man. The show might indeed have taken a pile of other artists, which was clear from the audience it attracted – theatre people, visual artists, archivists from the United States, friends of Demarco. It is clear that we , that is the Leeds-based PALM ensemble – have an adaptable format which can be applied to any archive or even museum. And what about all Mum and Dad’s ‘stuff’ in the loft? An archive in the making?…… Since writing this Demarco has been awarded the European Union Citizen’s Prize 2013, about which he has spoken thus : ”The great culture that binds us together as Europeans is also the culture of the world. There is no Polish art, or Scottish art, or English art, or Italian art. There is only art.” He recalled the origins of the Edinburgh Festival, which had aspired “to use the language of art to define a re-awakening, a period of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

August 18, 2013

WOMEN IN THE ARTS IN THE  BEL EPOQUE

EDITED BY PAUL FRYER

(MCFARLAND 2012)

Noel Witts

Often so-called ‘academic’ publishers produce unexpected gems. Such is  “Women in the Arts in the Bel Epoque” edited by Paul Fryer – a somewhat clumsy title for a book which has revelations on every page. It seems to be a collection of papers by sundry academics listed  and  Fryer doesn’t mention the provenance or  the reasons for the selection  in his introduction.  But  the  totality gives a view of many unsung , or only moderately sung, women who made significant contributions not only to their field, but to the cause of women’s influence on culture – popular and otherwise – in the period from late nineteenth to early twentieth century.

This unique collection suggests that several key figures – Ida Rubinstein, Lily Langtrey and Augusta Gregory, to pick three at random,  could now been seen as icons of their age. Fryer’s selection of women in the commercial world (Caldwell, Donnelly and Young, Vesta Victoria,  Langtry again) , as well as those of a more up market persuasion (Ida Rubinstein, Loie Fuller, Augusta Gregory) seems to suggest that this  world,  characterised as that of ‘women’,  is in fact a world which has not penetrated the total history of performance in the early 20th Century. Why is this? Why is Ida Rubinstein all but forgotten, Augusta Gregory forgotten – she was sidelined at the 2004 celebration of the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin – and many of the others  only a shadow in the public’s perception – Langtry, Bernhardt, Armande de Polignac?  Paul Fryer’s introductory question “But where were the women ?” encapsulates the lack of interest which his contributors have so magnificently now reversed.

It is clear from the extensive bibliographies  that in many cases the research into these figures meant going back into articles and publications well out of print. There are contemporary biographies of only the famous few – Bernhardt, Rubinstein, Fuller – so that perforce  much of the material is taken up with simply giving us the facts, in some cases the scenarios – Loie Fuller’s Fire Dance, the plays of Augusta Gregory, the scores of Armande de Polignac.

We discover the work of Pauline Sherwood Townsend, a Southern teacher in America, who pioneered a whole method of teaching vocal expression in Nashville “where she taught thousands of young women to present themselves vocally and physically with self-confidence and power”, and this in the deep south in the 1870s. We are, in this context,  introduced to the Boston School of Expression under the direction of the redoubtable Samuel Silas Curry with his insistence  that ” All expression is in a way shedding light”.  Then there is the equally ambitious American Anna Cora Mowatt, who aimed to be both actress and dramatist in the world of the 1850s and in London at that.

Townsend’s field may seem limited but  is fascinating in its context, but another theme to emerge from this book is the collaborative nature of many of these women’s achievements, whether it be with the writers who provided material for the music halls, or the composers such as Sigmund Romberg or Victor Herbert ( who worked with Caldwell, Donnelly ,and  Young) who wrote the best-selling musicals ; or the more famous European writers and artists such as Paul Claudel,Mallarme, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gide, Leon Bakst, Diaghilev,  who were influences on Ida Rubenstein and Loie Fuller. And let us not  forget the inventors of Pears Soap, who made the name of Langtry, or the song-writers George and Thomas Lebrunn and Joseph Tabrar,  (Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow -wow) who wrote for for Vesta Victoria.

One of the most interesting essays concerns Nina Simonovich-Efimova, who pioneered puppetry in Russia, and who worked through the Revolutionary period in the hope of creating an art ‘which must serve a beneficial purpose’. Thus the Efimovs used puppet theatre to ‘bring joy’ to audiences of peasants and children, and sustenance  to people during the cold Civil War years. ” I felt that theatre was just what people in the stormy Revolutionary period very much needed, what they watched with big, greedy eyes. Theatre then was like bread.”

One of the saddest cases detailed here is the French composer Armande de Polignac, who is now almost forgotten, in spite  of the  many songs and piano works she composed.  She was a conductor  – the first woman to conduct the Paris Colonne Orchestra , which performed many of her works,  and also wrote much for Le Mercure  Musical, one of France’s major journals. But she seems to have suffered by comparison with Cecile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, and later Nadia Boulanger, so that her work is hardly heard today. Indeed a theme that emerges from these studies is the male- dominated cultural world, ranging from commercial tours and bookings, to salons and theatres,  in which these women had to operate , with its ability to make or break reputations, or more likely, to ignore them. This may be also sadly true of the current academic world which this volume seeks to rectify.

There is , however, one anomaly, and that is the strange inclusion in this volume of Kathe Kollwitz, the German visual artist who spanned the years of this book and more. Why no more visual artists and why Kollwitz, who can by no means be claimed to be forgotten or undervalued? Maybe she could, after all,  be a trailer for the next volume, which could excavate a range of women painters and scupltors, whose work now hangs in European and American provincial galleries.

Finally, a few unknown facts gleaned from this fascinating volume : 1. In later life Sarah Bernhardt was carried round the stage in a sedan chair. 2. Langtry had a town in Texas named after her. 3. Ida Rubinstein died in obscurity in the south of France. 4. Loie Fuller’s ‘Fire Dance‘ was danced to The Ride of the Valkyries, by Wagner. 5. Nina Simonovich-Efimova gave a shadow performance of  The Bat at Stanislavsky’s home in 1916. 6. Vesta Victoria was born at 8 Ebenezer Place, Leeds( which has, of course, forgotten her).

Enough then, perhaps, to encourage readers to brave the title and the extensive references and bibliographies, and to cut to the unknown revelations and achievements documented in this modestly pioneering book.

Noel Witts, August 2013

July 10, 2013

BUXTON FESTIVAL, 2013

This is this the first Buxton festival under the direction of Stephen Barlow and, as always, it provided, even in its first two days, many surprises. The town , and its hotels and restaurants, fill with opera buffs from all over the country, so that it  is not at all surprising to be told by a complete stranger, that on a vista to Berlin last week he saw a production of Mozart’s “Lucio Silla”, set in a brothel!

No such extravagances in the first performance , of Saint-Saens’ one acter, “La Princesse Jaune”, which was merely set in a Paris garret, and tells the tale of Kornelis, who is infatuated  by a painting of a Japanese girl, and who takes opium to relieve his pain! Beautifully sung and played by Ryan MacPherson and Anne Sophie Dupreis, and conducted by Stephen Barlow, this was a curiosity of which the joy was Saint-Saens’ obvious interest in non-Western sounds, conjuring an exotic palette from the Northern Chamber Orchestra.    The second one act piece was Gounod’s “La Colombe”, a story of  poverty-stricken Horace, who seems to live on the floor below Kornelis, thanks to the ingenious designs of Lez Brotherston. Horace has a pet dove which is the envy of Countess Sylvia, who insists on coming to dinner, only to be fed the dove by the penniless Horace. Only it turns out not to be the dove but a parrot which has escaped. The music is sub-Rossini crossed with Gilbert and Sullivan and is none the worse for that, once again finely performed by Gillian Keith as Sylvia, Emma Carrington as the servant Mazet, Ryan MacPherson as Horace, and Jonathan Best as Maitre Jean. The direction by Francis Matthews, is efficient and the playing is up to comic scratch, even if the music outstays its welcome a little bit.

The second Buxton Festival offering is Mozart’s early (composed when 18/19) “La Finta Giardinera”, not often performed due, one assumes,  to the complexity of the plot, which turns on changed identities and characters, dispersal and reunion, in fact some of the the themes followed up in “The Marriage of Figaro”. But these held no problems for Harry Fehr (director), Yannis Thavoris (designer) and Nicholas Kraemer (conductor). Fehr took the piece by it throat, cut portions and updated the whole thing to a prospective marriage and reception tent  in what might have been a Buxton back garden. The ensembles, which are part of the joy of this piece, sparkled away as did the many individual arias, and the cast had clearly got under the skin of this piece, which sped along under the expert reins of Kraemer. One had the impression of  the young composer trying things out and deliberately posing problems for the staging, which were  triumphantly solved at Buxton. One hopes that this production will tour as it’s too good to lose.  The other operatic productions in the festival are from the likes of Grange Park Opera, Mahogany Opera, and Music Theatre Wales, but on this showing Buxton Festival Opera can hold its own with any. Of course nothing would work without the extraordinary intimate splendour of Matcham’s Buxton Opera House, around which much in this festival revolves.

Then there is the Buxton Fringe, a well established free- for- all, based on the Edinburgh concept, where you take pot luck as to what you go for. I made a big mistake in going to the underground venue of the Old Hall Hotel for a misconceived piece of improvised theatre, which happily was made up for by some Dowland, played on early music instruments by Partita at Buxton Methodist Church, and an a cappella group from Soweto singing on the bandstand in the park.

But the finale to my visit was the Festival Mass, held at St John’s Church, with  the Buxton Choral Society singing Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D, to be broadcast later by BBC Radio 4. If anything served to prove writer Peter Conrad’s case, expressed in a talk the morning before, that music reaches the soul in a way that words cannot, then Mozart versus the pious platitudes of the assembled clergy was far and away the winner.

Festivals by their very nature create surprises and unexpected dialogues and the Buxton conversations this year were as good as ever -  one place where people can speak to each other and where languages can mix, and where the power of culture can prevail over the mistakes and mis-judgements of our current world.

2017

January

2015

September

    This year Liverpool Hope has made me a Professorial Fellow - an honour which I have been pleased to accept.
    Several years ago John Theocharis and I made a BBC Radio 3 documentary about the redoubtable Barbara,

2014

March

2013

November

September

    "Demarco's Travels"  is an ambulant performance devised for this year's Edinburgh fringe at the Summerhall

August

July

    BUXTON FESTIVAL, 2013 This is this the first Buxton festival under the direction of Stephen Barlow
    SIBIU INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL, 7-16 June,  2013 The Sibiu

2012

May

2011

December

    The response to Vaclav Havel's death outside the Czech and Slovak republics has been a strange mixture

November

October

    Just back from seeing the run of Andriy Zholdak's 'Mefisto', being shown at the State Theatre in Uppsala,
    Sally-Anne Kelly, an MA student from Central St.Martins, London, has just finished digitalising most
    Sad to hear of Dragan's death - one of the most interesting and combative theatre intellectuals I have
    Just back from a validating visit to Lasalle College of Arts in Singapore, an extraordinary glass building
    Heard last week of the death of Linda, one of he founders of the Performing Arts degree course at Leicester

July

April

    Just been present at a Kantor show at Rose Bruford College, London, where third year students were directed

March

    welcome to my website.please let me know what you think of it

2010

October