Back to Back artistic director Bruce Gladwin found the brilliance of the ordinary in Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the battle between striking British miners and the police. By Kate Holden.
Bruce Gladwin has been artistic director of Back to Back – a groundbreaking ensemble of disabled and neurodiverse performers – since 1999. He’s an artist, writer and performance-maker as well as winner of the 2015 Australia Council for the Arts’ Inaugural Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre. After decades of acclaimed stage productions such as Food Court (2008), Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011), The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes (2019) and a television drama, Oddlands (2017), Back to Back’s latest production is the feature film Shadow (2021). This week, the Geelong-based Back to Back was awarded the International Ibsen Award, which honours an individual, institution or organisation that has brought new artistic dimensions to theatre.
Gladwin chose to speak about The Battle of Orgreave, a 2001 work of film, photography and archival items by British artist Jeremy Deller, who invited original participants of a landmark conflict between striking Yorkshire miners and police in 1984 to join re-enactment societies in re-creating the event.
So, tell me about this piece.
I had the opportunity to go to the Tate Modern in about 2005. I remember looking at Andy Warhols and Joseph Beuyses and wandering into this room that was not spectacular at all. It had a collection of items like notebooks and schedules and some costumes. There was a video of documentation about The Battle of Orgreave. I started watching it and as I entered into it, I was struck by the brilliance of the concept and really taken with the idea of it as a piece of community theatre.
It exists now in these ephemeral documentations of costume and notebooks and a film, a documentary film. What sits at the centre of it is this idea of capturing what was a real event in a community that still has a living memory of it and allowing that event to – in a way – happen again, and for everyone to be involved in it. The miners who came and involved themselves in the re-enactment societies, some of them chose to play policemen, and some of the policemen involved in the original incident chose to play miners. The use of re-enactment societies as the methodology for the playing of the theatre – these are people who’ve played the English Civil War, or a Roman battle – I just love the idea that they were dressing up in 1980s clothes and throwing plastic rocks at police. It also elevates the sense of the political: this moment in Thatcher’s Britain when the unions were broken. I love how it elevates it to this idea of “war”: a war between two distinct entities, which in this case is the police force and the miners, but it could have been the Athenians and the Spartans.
It’s a synecdoche for a wider conflict, like a one-act play.
And the documentary is great, it captures the process. The footage of the actual performance is incredibly real, but what the documentary focuses on is the rehearsal, which is a beautiful illustration of theatre, in that theatre is very temporal and has this limited lifetime; the artwork is sat in that moment. But it’s also a very slow-moving illusion, so we get these great moments of the miners surging and striking the police shields – you go, “This looks so authentic!” But then they cut to the rehearsals, talking about the logistics of it, the miners coming together, working with the re-enactment societies, rehearsing, working out the health and safety issues, the rules of engagement. Watching this as a piece of theatre would have been quite slow and fragmented. You’d be watching people dropping in and out of character. What Jeremy did was create a space for all of that. There isn’t a designated audience for it that we see, but the performers in the re-enactment groups, the miners who play themselves or play the police, the police playing miners: they’re spectators within it as well. They get to see themselves in it, and they’re both spectators and spectacle.
Improvisation and workshopping are hallmarks of Back to Back. Was Deller the “director” do you think, or something more like an “artistic director” or facilitator of a company, as you are?
I’m really struck by his deconstruction of authority within the piece. He brings in a re-enactment society and other experts, historians, to be reference points. But when you see him in the midst of rehearsals, documenting it himself and following it around, he basically throws his hands up in the air and just says, “It’s got a life of its own, I’m just following it like everyone else.” So he’s kind of an audience member in his own work. I love that. I quite like work where there’s an element of chaos. Back to Back made a work called Small Metal Objects in 2005, which was made for Flinders Street Station: the audience sits in a tribune with headphones on and the actors are radio-mic’d and are playing a story about a drug deal that goes wrong in a public space, in the midst of the concourse. No two shows are ever the same: some shows we’d have a trainload of racegoers who’ve just got off from Caulfield, walking through the performance in taffeta, holding their high heels, really drunk. The show is so robust it can tolerate that, and in a way it made the show so much better, that it was so open to that sense of randomness and participation and spontaneity. I think Deller just jumped off the cliff really, and my admiration is for his total abandonment to setting this up, getting other people to essentially direct it, and the artwork is the placing of the idea within the community, and people embracing it. I’m sure he worked really hard to make it happen, but I’m drawn to his capacity to let go of control.
I wonder how interesting that documentary would be if the re-enactment didn’t take place, if it was just those former police or miners talking about the incident. It’s the fact that we learn, as we watch the documentary, that this is happening again. They have the opportunity to return to it. It’s in the archive of recent memory. That gives it such life.
The curation and making of this re-enactment dignifies the recent; we too are important enough to be in history. And it takes place in a domestic world: a small village, blokes in denim jackets, a grassy slope. It’s not a grand battlefield. A bit like your station concourse.
I liked the deconstruction of the miners’ union leadership talking about the processes – “this happened and then this happened” – which then became like a script, and then the re-creation of it becomes like a kind of ritual of re-creation. Which is very theatrical. It’s like bringing the different elements together: you can’t just throw them together; you have to build it. I liked seeing the process in the documentary of how you co-ordinate a performance of over 800 people.
Even my experience of first coming across the work is very theatrical in itself: there I am, thinking it’s one thing and then, it’s almost like I’m dismissing it, “It’s not as good as the last gallery space, what is this?” – and then I just have this transformational experience, a revelation, and with it comes this kind of catharsis, I see its brilliance. Because it’s so ordinary and domestic, and it’s spectacular.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Bruce Gladwin".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial