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This site does two things. It’s a blog where I post my occasional articles and other writings. It’s also a kind of online portfolio for my work as a visual artist and designer.

If you want to know more about the theatre company I run, the charity I helped found or the band I play in, please follow the links. Otherwise, please stay for a while and have a  look around.

You can use the tags to find your way around the blog-posts and the menu to navigate the portfolio.

 

On the Loss of Citizenship

This is probably my last night here as a citizen. My family’s been coming here since my aunt worked in Italy in the 70s. It’s a modest, friendly ex-mining village in a beautiful corner of the Alps: lovely for walking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. It has a downhill slope too, which is OK but not great. And good mountain-biking, if you like that kind of thing. It’s unpretentious. It’s not expensive, as these things go. Some crazy Brits come to risk their lives climbing frozen waterfalls but most the people who come here are Italian. It’s very white and I’d guess a fair few residents voted for the fascists of La Lega. There’s some poverty. People are generally kind, and go out their way to be helpful. There are things that drive me crazy and many things I love, the same as in the UK.

We have long-standing friends here. We always stay in the same apartment. My aunt knows most the village. I haven’t been coming here as long as her but when I go to the shops I meet people I know. My aunt comes here twice a year, and after she retired she spent 11 months here. She sometimes gives free English lessons. And when she’s been ill, or had a problem with the car, or had any other kind of trouble, there’s never been any shortage of help. We’re not locals, but we feel at home here. And of course we share citizenship. You see more regional than national flags here, but you also see plenty of EU ones.

Citizenship, as a concept, is by no means the most important aspect of Brexit. The dark money, the lies, the corruption of democracy, the callous disregard for peace in Ireland, the ripping away of rights from non-British EU citizens living in the UK, the appalling lack of planning and foresight, the cynical stirring up of race-hate, the attacks on our rights and protections, the effective suspension of functional government… all these are much worse. The fact that we are creating a divided, dysfunctional country and picking fights with former allies, instead of uniting to face global ecological catastrophe… that is much worse. But tonight I’m going to allow myself to reflect at a personal level, and tell you that I already grieve for my loss of citizenship.

Look at history and you’ll see that people have gone to war for less. But we’re to have it torn away on the back of one undemocratic, uninformed vote. So what is it, this citizenship that I’m soon to lose?

We Brits are European, geographically and culturally, whether we want to be or not. Some of us may be Bangladeshi-European, or Kenyan-European, or Canadian-European, but if you live in Europe you are part of what defines Europe. That’s what the new wave of European identitarians, like Salvini here in Italy, do and do not understand: they know that it’s the people that define the place, and that a mix of races is slowly and wonderfully redefining Europe as a multicultural continent. They know that all too well, and they fear it. But what they don’t understand is that their last chance for a white Europe was nearly a century ago. And they lost. All they can bring now is division and chaos, along with (intentionally or not) golden opportunities for disaster capitalists and free-market ideologues.

As for the UK, leaving the EU will not change our Europeaness: leaving is simply an act of self-deception. Likewise, the EU’s faults are only reflections of our own European faults. The EU may be too protective against non-European migrants, but that’s because our culture is. The EU may be too wedded to neoliberalism, but that’s because our culture is. In fact, if you look at the Brexit agenda, post-EU Britain is set to become even more racist, and even more tooth-and-nail capitalist than it is now. We’re not going to change those things by walking away; we might be able to change them through solidarity and co-operation.

I’m so sick of all the criticisms made in bad faith: that the EU is less democratic than our own calcified democracy, that the EU is more corrupt than our own stinking system, that the EU is more arrogant than our own pompous political elite. We’re blaming this amazing, flawed, messy optimistic experiment in partnership and peace for our own shortcomings when we could be using it as a first step towards more democracy, more international solidarity and co-operation, and a more equal society. It’s all so stupid. We, the people, have nothing to gain by leaving and so much to lose.

And tonight I specifically mourn for the loss of citizenship because the next time I’m here, short of a miracle, I’ll be a foreigner. I know my loss is nothing compared to what non-British EU citizens living in the UK have to deal with, or those devastated by job losses as firms flee the UK, but still I feel a strong sense of injustice. What have I and others like me, who have a simple, honest sense of belonging in Europe, done to have so many rights, freedoms and protections taken away like this?

Actually, I think I know the answer. The elites who stand to gain from escaping EU regulation (which is what, in truth, Brexit was always about, until it was hijacked by its own nationalist propaganda) not only whipped up xenophobia to help their cause, but also fostered a kind of trumped-up class antagonism, underpinned by Gove’s infamous dismissal of expertise. The heart of this resentment is the demonisation of the ‘cosmopolitan elite’, a phrase that, by the way, echoes the language of antisemitism.

I’m clearly one of those monsters. Oxbridge-educated, middle class and Guardian-reading, I even – gasp – bothered to read as much as I could of what those terrible fear-mongering experts wrote about Brexit. I’m one of the bogeymen that Farage literally incited people to hate. But my mum’s family were all migrants and my dad grew up in poverty. They gave me a middle-class upbringing and I managed to go from a comprehensive school to Oxford. Are these not positive achievements? I’m not asking for sympathy; at least not for me personally. Brexit will create some added hassle for my work and travel but others will suffer far more. I am also fully, indeed painfully, aware of my privilege. My point is that we are not the bad guys in this story. We’re all doing the same really: using our wits to improve our lives and make the most of opportunities that come along, while trying not to harm anyone else, and maybe make things a little better for other people. Except that in the fantasy land created by the propagandists of Brexit, we are the bad guys, and I thoroughly deserve any future impediments to my shockingly cosmopolitan, elitist lifestyle.

Well, if that’s what you think, listen up. My family escaped poverty in England on the one hand and pogroms in Eastern Europe on the other: now we have a decent life. That’s progress. An alliance of European countries, after so many centuries of war and injustice, not only symbolizes that progress but helps guarantee it. Beyond that, the EU is as good or as bad as we make it. But that progress is part of my inheritance, and yours if you’re any kind of European. It’s certainly part of my sense of self. So that’s why I am here, at the kitchen table with my tea, watching the lights of the village across the meadow, and simply being a citizen here while I can.

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[Corrected for typos 10/02/19]

Designing Deafinitely Theatre’s 4.48 Psychosis

We’ve been getting some very enthusiastic responses from audience members for our production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, and some great reviews, so I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts on my design process.

The play is hard to read on the page: hard in two senses of the word. It’s gruelling emotionally but also abstracted, opaque, fractured and ambiguous. It’s constructed from fragments of naturalistic dialogue, inner monologue and poetry, all shored up into a kind of barrier against obvious interpretation. The author’s own distressing experiences are rendered into a set of cyphers that hide her personal truths from the people watching, reading or making a performance of the play. The temptation, therefore, is to try to find the key to unlock the code and expose her original meanings, but this seems to me to be a pointless – and impossible – quest. Instead, each production should create its own key, and decode these fragments into a new set of meanings that resonate for the artists involved. That’s very much what happened here, with director Paula Garfield’s emphasis on two overlapping crises of mental health – one amongst the deaf population and one amongst men – and the communication failures and lack of comprehension that exacerbate them. Continue reading “Designing Deafinitely Theatre’s 4.48 Psychosis”

Let’s Talk About Participation

I’ve missed shows I really wanted to see because the threat of audience participation made me so anxious. And yet, at Daedalus and elsewhere, I make participatory theatre. Is this hypocrisy?

My view of participation is that it shouldn’t be about persuading or pressuring people to do things. It should be even less about picking on people, forcing participation on them. It’s about creating an environment in which people can find their own degree of involvement as equals. This might be because you advertise the piece as participatory so they know what they’re letting themselves in for, such as Shunt, Metis or Punchdrunk. But I want to talk about performances where people come to see a show but we, the artists, want them to have not the experience of a well-made performance but also a deeper kind of engagement. Continue reading “Let’s Talk About Participation”

What is Green Criticism?

The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we’d only been educated in the philosophical contexts of the writers we studied; not in the context in which we ourselves were operating. Since then, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities at least, but always as a practitioner. Academically cutting edge I am not. But I do want to understand how the work I and my colleagues do in the arts fits with the urgent need, in the face of imminent climate breakdown, to view society as part of an ecological system. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ is neither theoretical nor rhetorical. Green thought has provided us with a sophisticated analysis of society and its relationship to planet. How can we apply it to artistic practice?

Around the time I did my English degree, there were some books emerging that used ecology as way to approach literature: Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology springs to mind, and Kim Taplin’s Tongues in Trees; I probably should re-read them. The aim of these books seemed to be to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that approach is about ecology, not employing it as a critical tool. I wrote an extended essay in my third year. It was about depictions of landscape in literature and painting at the time of the first generation Romantics. I was interested in the sublime and the beautiful, not out of any kind of swooning romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. Briefly, as I still haven’t got to the real point I want to make, I’d noticed how some writers saw nature as a force that transformed the tiny figures traversing its landscapes while some saw it as something that framed or provided a kind of extension to, or illustration of, heroic anthropocentrism. I was somewhat out on a limb, frankly. It probably wasn’t my best work. And it was also mainly ‘about’ the natural world. Yet it made me realise that there’s a deeper analysis which can – and probably should – be be applied to any kind of discourse.

So what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology could be a useful way to look at culture?  Continue reading “What is Green Criticism?”

Moving studio… a few meters

For a while now, my studio-mate, Simon Daw, and I have been eyeing up the studio the other side of the partition in our shared space at Bow Arts. For one thing it doesn’t have a a fire route from neighbouring studios running through it. For another, it has real windows that you can see through, rather than glass bricks.

Anyway, the occupants recently moved downstairs to a ground floor space, and we managed to get in quick. We had to move everything in a hurry, as both of us were going to be out the country at the end of the month when the space officially changed hands. It took well over a day just move everything. Then, after our respective travels, we had to sort through it all. It was a daunting task. Two stage designers, whose work spans visual art, with quite a significant tech competent, are capable of collecting a very significant amount of stuff over the years. Continue reading “Moving studio… a few meters”

Watching Big Brother: Northern Ballet’s 1984 on stage and screen.

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Having seen Northern Ballet’s 1984 both on TV and on stage at Sadler’s Wells, I was intrigued by what kind of relationship the filmed version had to the live production. I discussed this with the choreographer, Jonathan Watkins, and the designer, Simon Daw. Jonathan is a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, and has a long-term working relationship with Simon, including collaborating on As One for the Royal Ballet. As Jonathon’s working in New York, we talked by email and voice message. This is an edited version of that conversation.

PB:      There have been many different attempts to reimagine 1984, both for stage and screen. What were the main ideas that defined your interpretation? Continue reading “Watching Big Brother: Northern Ballet’s 1984 on stage and screen.”

A Long Wait for Radical History

My personal projects always seem to take ages to get off the ground. I suppose this is because all the work that leads up to getting funding has to happen in the gaps between everything else, not least designing shows for other people. Which I love doing and I get paid for. I’m not complaining. Still, getting a project underway takes a while and this one is taking even longer.

I had the idea for a project about English radical history around eight years ago, I think. At any rate, it was while I was directing A Place at the Table. Our stage manager at the time, Peter Barnett, was another fan of folk music. I remember discussing the exciting new idea with him, so I can roughly date it. This was also roughly around the same time as the Black Smock Band emerged from a series of gay folk nights in Vauxhall. A lot has happened since, with the far right seemingly in the ascendent, but even then it felt as though the narrative of dissent and radicalism in English history needed a bit of rescuing, from all that nonsense about how the Empire wasn’t so bad really and migrants are ruining our way of life. (Quite how you can hold both beliefs at once I don’t know. Anyway.) A major part of what we do as a band is explore the links between then and now, often updating traditional songs to explore their resonances to our contemporary social or political situation. Oh and making them less bloody heteronormative. It made sense to bring these two things – the band and the idea of a performance around English radical history – together. Continue reading “A Long Wait for Radical History”