By Simon Gleave, Associate Artist and Trainer
The train is pulling out of Siena, a walled city in Tuscany, leaving behind a few sweaty, smokey, coffee- stained delegates to take the AB project and the stories it tells to the next phase.
A spontaneous invitation to a weekend retreat was received down the phone last week; a retreat examining an event on Utoya island, a socialist summer camp in Norway, where in 2011 Anders Breivik murdered 69 (mainly) young people posing as a policeman in a fastidious massacre with the hope of bringing about the collapse of Western socialism. The preface of the book ‘One of Us’ by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad dragged tears into my throat on the train home from the bookshop, the beginning of a transformative week in which hope, oppression, violence, culture and resistance have been at the centre of a brief burst of creative work with the Ensemble and our hosts, Topi Dalmata.
Italians. Fucking beautiful Italians.
I arrived at Santa Maria della Scala to tour the crypts beneath the museum, where David is directing an immersive piece called The Hysterics. The cool, quiet darkness, exposed red brick, statuettes of saints, the arches, tight winding alleys, a cross section of hundreds of human bones and a smell of centuries become the foundations for a smoke filled, red and white lit, sub-woofered apocalyptic orgy of Greed, Love and Death in the lower depths of one of Italy’s largest museums.
The next morning - after a night of wine, wassail and fleshlights in the woods - we facilitators and David discussed resistance. What is it, and how and where is it needed today? We were staying in Casa Giubileo after all, an old country house where 21 partisans resisting Nazis and Fascists during World War Two were executed, now a museum and camp of remembrance for resistance, opposition to fascism and encouraging socially progressive commemoration. At the end of the dialogue, a direction: we were to go into the woods, find a tree our age and spend the next hour trying to uproot it. To exhaust ourselves with its uprooting. The next hour I spent in a psychopathic, tunnel-visioned mania, tearing at the roots of a sapling (I don’t really know how to count the age of a tree) with rocks, fingers and feet, swinging from the trunk, grunting, sweating, cursing. When I returned from my failure an hour later, I had the look of a killer on my face. We all did. We were exhausted, having passed through so many gamuts of ourselves in that futile, violent, painful little time. But, without exception, the trees had resisted us.
When the 17 and 18 year olds arrived, we explored the themes and images of the project through the story of Utoya, the story of Casa Giubileo, our questions about time and resistance. We found the fireplace where the Partisans had hidden, only to be discovered when their shoes were seen by the Nazis, poking out. We looked at the child’s bicycle underneath the fireplace. The pile of rocks beside the bicycle. Two frames. We walked around the building. I asked the four of them to sing me the Italian National Anthem. When they translated it I heard the themes of socialism, of sacrifice and unity: the same themes the young people of Norway gather to celebrate each summer on Utoya. The same values that continue to drive solidarity and resistance in defiance of and through bloodshed, bulletholes and bombs.
We returned to the least interesting place of the building: the toilets. I am fascinated by toilets. Their privacy, their essentiality, their inappropriateness. As an adolescent I used to hide in the toilets of my school to avoid certain lessons or gym classes. When I found a girlfriend, the toilets found a new purpose. So much maturing takes place in a toilet. The teenagers blushed, but recognised it all. I asked them to sing the national anthem again, this time all huddled together inside one of the cubicles, imagining that they were hiding from Anders Breivik; that they were singing it for each other, that this song was everything they had to defend the encroaching violence. As they sang closed inside the cubicle, I rattled the lock of the door until I opened it. The song and the silence after it was chilling. They then ran around the courtyard as if searching for a loved one in the midst of a shooting before walking at a glacial pace from one end of the courtyard to the other, where they placed their hands against the wall and sank into it. I don’t know why such slow moving young people became so moving; David said they were embodying the march of time; the kids said their hearts were in their throats and they could feel, hear and see every detail as they traversed the courtyard. When they touched the wall, it was like they were being lined up like the Partisans before a firing squad. Finally, they stood in a family portrait inside a frame before slowly, ritualistically filling the hole of the fireplace where the Partisans had hidden with the stones piled beneath.
That night, after a tour of the Casa and its history by Piero (our Napolitan host) and a brief theory of timelessness, we ate and drank like fools. Fucking. Beautiful. Italian. Food. And. Wine. At irregular intervals the teenagers would break into song, scenes and improvisation - Romeo, Juliet, Cyrano, Mama Ubu, Abba - while we sprawled across three tables furtively discussing art, shit, politics, sex. 18 year old Flavio and I talked for half an hour: “I will die to be an actor.” Smart, young, handsome, boldly impassioned. Probably like a good few of those on Utoya.
The following morning a marathon improvisation of the young ones (and a few facilitators) between the four walls of the courtyard. Right Wall: Yes - Left Wall: No - Front Wall: World - Back Wall: Home. An hour spent confronting these basic pillars in ourselves - acceptance, rejection, home and away - left the kids with tears down their faces, dishevelled, exhausted, weighted with more than they knew what to deal with. But intuitively they embraced all of it.
The magic of this project is that young people are dealt with adult improvisations, confronted with overwhelming themes and are thereby empowered by the maturity, responsibility and experience that comes with it.
The following conversations, as a larger group and then with the smaller groups of the day before, revealed many of the reasons this project matters. Camilla, Benjamin, Tomazzo and Greta responded carefully and thoughtfully to the previous day’s work; they considered timelessness, memory, socialism; we considered the act of hiding and the concealment of history and the dead, the purpose of theatre in materialising hidden and forgotten acts. The purpose of theatre in teaching us an experience of history and self, rather than just telling us.
Listening to these young people has been a hair-raising experience. I prefer art to political engagement, image to demonstration, lyric to anthem; but here in the heart of Partisan Tuscany, I discovered my inner Marxist, someone who realises that each other is all we have in the face of a real, institutional violence extending from a willed misinterpretation of human nature, of personal purpose and the future of Western (if not, global) society. In Britain, we may not have to face a single mass-murder of the genre or order of Breivik’s, but in the Brexit and cultural conservatism that deports and restricts the immigration of thousands we have the kinds of policies that Breivik himself would approve wholeheartedly of. The return of fascism in Italy, of neo-Nazism in Germany and of far-right isolationists in Britain would signal the beginnings of the revolution that Breivik saw himself to be triggering in 2011.
But in the face of that are Camilla, Tomazzo, Greta, Benjamin and the rest of the kids at Casa Giubileo; there is the room of sweaty, smokey, caffeinated delegates sitting in the University of Foreigners as I write trying to understand what this project means and how to move it forward; there is Gavin, Aimee and I who desperately want something more vital, creative and resistant than our mundane day jobs in London; and there is David, who is trying to tear a hole in the lazy fabric of contemporary youth arts culture.
We are all, ultimately, moved by the need to tell this story. Let’s hope Creative Europe is too.