Alison Jones talks to a Birmingham theatre group performing through the barricades.
Reviews are part of a theatre company’s life. Sometimes welcomed, occasionally feared, but a useful gauge of how their hard work is being received.
For Big Brum Theatre in Education Company the words written by a group of students after they had seen a production of A Window by Edward Bond, were more affecting than an enthusiastic response from professional critics.
After spending a day watching the play and working with the cast, pupils at Galil High School in Nazareth put together a poster in praise of their experience.
A comment by Tsaniem Khateb “it opened lots of doors in my mind, it makes me think in another way, in a deeper way, it opened my eyes deep inside” are typical of how the play and their contact with Big Brum has touched them.
“We create work that is complex and challenging,” says artistic director Chris Cooper. “There is no message in it. The children don’t have to get something. There is not an issue to be resolved. It is what the children find within themselves that resonates.”
The reason Big Brum was performing in Palestine earlier this month is a credit to the reputation that the company, based at Pegasus Primary School in Castle Vale, enjoys both in this country and abroad. The company tours throughout the West Midlands to schools and colleges, working with pupils from the age of three up to 17.
“The type of work we do at Theatre in Education and the way we work with children is a quite unique British model,” says Dan Brown, the general manager.
“We had a link to an organisation called the Qattan Foundation, a cultural foundation based in Palestine. One of their directors studied in Birmingham about ten years ago and took a PhD at Birmingham City University. He was still in contact with professors and academics and through that he came to know of us and our work.
“It was a long term goal of his to get us out to Palestine as demonstration of this British model. There was nothing like that out there. Another thing was it was a play by Edward Bond and he really wanted to get a Bond play out there. He thought it could be of enormous benefit to the children.”
A Window had been written especially for Big Brum by its patron. The controversial playwright works mainly abroad, his difficult and uncompromising reputation having estranged him from the majority of this country’s major theatre companies – the exception being Big Brum.
This new piece, which Big Brum staged at The Rep last October, is a three-part play about a dysfunctional family that sees a mother-to-be struggling with pregnancy and an abusive partner. She hangs herself when her son is a teenager after he is injured going out to buy her drugs. Finally the boy confronts the father seeking bloody retribution.
“The play is a triptych,” explains Chris. “It is a classic Greek drama though set in a contemporary situation. It is very Oedipal in the final panel when the son sets out to blind the father.
“That had a very specific resonance in Palestinian society because of the whole question of familial relations and intergenerational conflicts.
“Palestine is still a rural culture that was propelled into this technologically-governed conflict.
“Traditionally the father is a very authoritative figure and the whole question of obeying the father is a very powerful one for young Palestinians today.”
Originally the plan was to tour the play to a number of schools presenting it to 14-17 year olds in Palestine.
However, permit restrictions forced the company to stay at the first school they performed in and have pupils from other cites were brought to them – coming from Nazareth, Jerusalem and the refugee camp at Nablus.
The play was translated into Arabic and sur titles were run above the performances while translators assisted during the workshops.
“The children from Ramallah were at the friends school, which is a Quaker school, so their English was remarkable,” says Chris. “With the other kids it varied. The young people from Nablus found it most challenging.”
In spite of the language barrier, it was the children from the refugee camps, established after the 1948 Arab Israeli war, who found most to identify with in the material.
“I think it was because they felt it expressed something critical about their lives. Their interpretation of the play was particular to their experience of being displaced. Rather than a barrier I think it was actually a portal for them to reflect their experiences through. It became a really valuable tool for them.”
In spite of the dispute between the Isrealis and Palestinians over issues of mutual recognition, borders, security, land and water rights and control of Jerusalem being one of the world’s most enduring conflicts, the company was pleasantly surprised at how safe they felt when staying in Palestine.
Dan says: “I don’t think there is anywhere where we have been made to feel more welcome. The women in our group said how much safer they felt walking round Ramallah than they did in Birmingham.”
There was still a sense of wariness, however, particularly at checkpoints.
“There are deep undercurrents,” says Chris. “The conflicts are part of the fabric of society. There haven’t been any incursion in Ramallah since 2003 but even in somewhere as settled as there it could explode. Because it is so difficult to travel people are being divided.”
Big Brum hope this visit will be the start of an ongoing relationship with Palestine and there has been talk of possibly twinning Ramallah and Birmingham
“We have made contact with the Palestinian Community Association and they are keen to build links,” says Chris.
“There is an incredible artistic culture in Palestine – from music to hip hop to dance to poetry and visual art. To them culture is as significant as coffee which to an Arab is part of the vitamins of life. It is part of who they are and where they come from.”
Big Brum has a history of working abroad and have taken the Theatre in Education model to Hungary, Vietnam, Jordan, France and Norway. This week they travel to Greece to present Suitcase, a half day programme aimed at five to seven year olds, which they will perform in schools in Athens. After that the same programme will be run in Birmingham schools.
“I was there in 2008 and the city centre was on fire. There was rioting after police had shot a teenage boy,” said Chris.
“But underpinning that was the dissatisfaction of Greek society where they had been paying Euro prices while getting paid Greek wages.
“We don’t really know what we will walk into. We might walk into another national strike.
“I just hope we don’t walk into tear gas like I did last time.”