thu 19/09/2019

First Person: Matthew Xia on why his production of 'Amsterdam' feels especially pertinent and vital now | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Matthew Xia on why his production of 'Amsterdam' feels especially pertinent and vital now

First Person: Matthew Xia on why his production of 'Amsterdam' feels especially pertinent and vital now

The director sets the scene for his debut production at the helm of Actors Touring Company

The cast in rehearsal for 'Amsterdam' Helen Murray

I’m currently opening Amsterdam, my first production for Actors Touring Company since being appointed Artistic Director last year, at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond and then in Plymouth early in 2020. And what better time to premiere a play for the Europe of the present, triggered by the Europe of the past. The themes it tackles are once again becoming increasingly urgent, so I very much see this as a statement of intent. 

I was born in East London in the 1980s but have never felt particularly English, though perhaps twice in my adult life I have felt British. Somehow I’ve always had this sense of being an outsider   the only brown kid on the white side of the family, the only brown kid on the black side of the family. Then I learnt about Empire, and the transatlantic slave-trade, and the atrocities in Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas at the hands of the Europeans (including the British) and any sense of a national historic pride was eliminated. It's no wonder that I am therefore drawn to a play that deals with the legacy of place, what it is to be an outsider, and specifically, the current hostility across Europe towards people perceived to be "other" and from "elsewhere" (Matthew Xia pictured below).

Matthew Xia, director of 'Amsterdam'I love to walk around surrounded by the physical and architectural reminders of the cities I’ve lived in, but this can be painful: the Royal Exchange in radical Manchester (and its significant connection to the cotton trade); in Liverpool by Sefton Park, the Everyman or the docks (Liverpool ships transported half of the three million Africans carried across the Atlantic by the British); and at my lovely new office at the Actors Touring Company above the ICA (caged in by Empire).

As Britain cuts itself off from the world and hurtles towards an inward-looking isolationism, it’s imperative to keep the voices of the marginalised alive. We are facing a significant threat to freedom of movement, immigration and citizens’ rights. Now is the time to drown out the intolerance and amplify the voices of those from far and wide. For Actors Touring Company this certainly includes international and cross-cultural writers within Europe and the UK, as well as those beyond. Let’s examine how groups and nations interact, exist with and effect one another in our hyperconnected world.

As an artistic leader I’m keen that we are not only presenting work that explores these themes, but also creating spaces which actively empower the underrepresented, throughout the cast, the creative team, and the stage management. It is a vital responsibility of theatre to promote truly cosmopolitan voices – from global cultures and those within our own nation – enabling audiences to connect with a universal humanity.

That humanity courses through Maya Arad Yusur’s play, Amsterdam, which presents the perspective of a foreign national in Europe – an Israeli violinist, living in a Dutch city. The ghosts of the past are ever-present in this play, walking the streets with our protagonist, forcing her to examine her identity and fuelling her paranoia. Of course, because Maya is writing about someone who is Jewish and female, European and Israeli whilst also examining Amsterdam, and because I can insist on the ethos of the organisation, we have also ensured that voices connected to these characteristics and cultures, which all feel very present in the play, have had major input in the rehearsal room. For me this ensures authenticity and sensitivity in the handling of the work.

Amsterdam presents a story centred around 24 hours in the life of a 9-month pregnant Jewish woman, living in a trendy canal-side apartment in the city centre. This protagonist, whose name we never learn, finds an unpaid gas bill from 1944 on her doorstep. A group of (rather excellent, in this case) performers create a narrative on this day that the gas bill is in her bag like a ticking bomb, reminding her of the history that floats around Amsterdam "like the train of a bridal gown". Over time, Amsterdam works on her, breaking her down and awakening sentiments of foreignness and alienation - forcing her to confront, or possibly construct a narrative of the past. In form, the play explores a notion of constructed narratives: stories and storytelling as a way of making sense of ourselves, our personal pasts and the bigger backcloth of history.

Amsterdam is a bold and powerful example of an international voice, the sort we are at risk of losing when we pull the drawbridge up.

The ghosts of the past are ever-present in this play, walking the streets with our protagonist, forcing her to examine her identity and fuelling her paranoia

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