Posted: 10 January 2024

Theatre and Decolonisation

GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Our Assistant Producer, Harris Albar, discusses and advocates for theatre as a decolonisation tool. Originally written for ISTA’s SCENE magazine.

Colonisation has lasting effects on factors like ‘language, education, religion, artistic sensibilities, and increasingly, pop culture’ (Gilbert and Tompkins,1996, p.2) and ‘post colonialism’ cannot just encapsulate the period after independence. Rather, post colonialism is a result of a ‘movement [which] engages with, resists, and seeks to dismantle the effects of colonialism’ (Lawson, 1992), decolonisation. Where does theatre sit? As a Singaporean theatre maker, I think about how my work – that I create in the UK – feeds this movement. At Tamasha, where I’m an assistant producer, we are constantly thinking about theatre’s role in decolonisation. Drawing from recent works of power duo Tanika Gupta and Pooja Ghai – The Empress and Great Expectations – and the Processes of Decolonisation by Poka Laenui, this article suggests how theatre might be a tool of decolonisation.

We must first understand how colonisation occurs. Poka Laenui refers to Professor Virgilio Enriques’ process of colonisation that they suggest starts with denial and withdrawal, where colonial people ‘look upon the indigenous as people without culture, no moral values, nothing of any social value …’. Then comes destruction/eradication, where ‘physical representations of the symbols of indigenous cultures’ and cultural presence of these communities are physically erased. Following that is denigration, where colonial structures are enforced to prevent practising indigenous culture by reducing its value. It’s here that I believe the arts starts being utilised as a colonisation tool – particularly in how eurocentric works are centred and seen as exemplary and indigenous art not. For culture that refuses to be erased, Enriques suggests that the process continues with tokenism and eventually exploitation, where remaining culture is given token regard and exploited into the colonial society. Again I argue that the arts plays a role here which is evident through the many forms of cultural appropriation we see. Understanding this, we can analyse the process of decolonisation, which in itself is an arduous journey.

Laenui suggests that decolonisation begins with rediscovery and recovery, where colonised people are driven to uncover erased cultures, histories, identities. Works like The Empress and Great Expectations, both set in Colonial India, sit within this – acting as information sources for eradicated histories/cultures. While there is an element of fiction, the relationship between coloniser and the colonised, particularly the mistreatment of colonised bodies – are true. The mistreatment of workers on British trading ships (The Empress) and Lord Curzon’s divide and rule policies (Great Expectations) are examples of moments in these plays that highlight shrouded histories. A Great Expectations review highlights the impact of this:

‘Although my own knowledge of the Bengal partition of 1905 is admittedly not very expansive, I was still able to understand the central themes of the play. And what I didn’t initially understand made me want to research and understand more. I am sure this will be the same response from other audience members …’

It is a very positive thing indeed because the impetus to rediscover is key to moving towards other phases of decolonisation.

The second phase is mourning—sitting with the grief that comes from unearthing atrocious pasts to move towards healing. Both productions naturally created space for mourning. For me personally, this was especially present in two scenes from the productions: A scene where Rani (a young Indian nursemaid) is impregnated and thrown out by her abusive employer (The Empress) and a scene where Pipli (originally Pip) expresses shame of his background (Great Expectations). I watched in sorrow, reflecting both the past and current mistreatment of colonised bodies. For a moment we are made to sit with these uncomfortable realities. In mourning, Laenui suggests we begin thinking of action.

This is what Laenui describes as dreaming, where a ‘full panorama of possibilities are expressed and considered’. Laenui argues that this is the most important phase; I agree and argue that theatre lands itself most within this phase. Both productions, coupled with intricate set designs by Rosa Maggiora, present a dream on stage. While confronted with darkness, we are simultaneously presented visions of joy and solidarity. I think of the relationship between the colonised and coloniser in both productions: Polly and Rani (The Empress); Pipli and Herbert Pocket (Great Expectations). Both were great friendships with the Indian and English characters raising each other up. This to me, is a dream of how we can collaborate, utilising our individual privileges towards a decolonised future. As a global majority theatre maker, these productions are what I dream of making. Gupta, Ghai, Maggiora and the creative teams put on main stages traditional dance, music, design, language etc., expanding the British canon and proving again that such work is exemplary.

Following this is commitment and action— colonised people coming to a consensus of a direction to head in and ways to move forward. This, as Laenui points out, is more complex in practice. By no means do I suggest that theatre is the ultimate solution to this and I am acutely aware of the privileges needed to engage with theatre. However, for those able to access it, I believe it takes us to these phases. Watching such productions encourages us to talk to one another so that – even if just for a moment – we are collectively thinking about colonisation and perhaps how to decolonise. Gupta and Ghai’s works actively decolonise practice, with both being advocates for and leaders in global modes of storytelling. Gupta’s works have become part of the contemporary canon and Ghai’s work as a cultural leader paves the way for global majority artists to create culturally engaged work, which is often eradicated.

Laenui emphasises and I stress, that while clear sequences of decolonisation are suggested the reality is complex. We’re at different phases, some ready for action and some rediscovering. While I’ve described how theatre contributes to decolonisation we must remember that what audiences resonate with differs. I’m sure some readers will have disagreeing experiences of the shows. I end with reminding that this is a mere suggestion of a framework we can use to explore works – and yet it is because of that possibility, I advocate for theatre as a decolonisation tool.