Satyagraha, first performed in 1980, is the second in Philip Glass’ trilogy of operas celebrating men who changed the world. It loosely follows the story of Ghandi’s struggle for India’s liberation from the British Empire, while putting a mirror to the Western World and dragging the viewer through two hours of agonising arpeggios and bullet time protest. So, why have the Improbable theatre company and the English National Opera decided to bring it to London’s Coliseum in 2010?
First, we need to understand what the year 2010 means. The world is scraping its way out of a recession, the British Army are occupying a country they have no right to be in and global politics are in a constant state of very nearly almost changing dramatically. Like most years, I suppose, but especially in 2010. It’s the perfect time for a tale of liberation from materialism, belief in change and internal criticism.
The production is unbelievably Brechtian. A chair can’t possibly just be a chair. A chair is a weapon, a chair is armour, a chair is a signifier of wealth and privilege, because in a society where the poor actually have nothing, even the simplest of furniture screams of social status, dahling!
The set is transient, amorphous and captivating. Great images are realised using two key materials; corrugated metal and newspaper pages. In the first act, a huge war is fought between a massive papier-mâché Queen Victoria in formal attire using a parasol to stab a huge Indian soldier. Newspaper pages, symbolic of Castell’s Age of Information, become key to every image that the show creates, with no creation having any permanence. Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. We’re faced with the throwaway nature of the western world while cannonising an icon of the east.
Satyagraha, Sanskrit for “non-violent resistance”, is a celebration of great men. Not only is it a tribute to Ghandi, but each act is observed on a spiritual level by another great mind that, in the nauseatingly genius mind of Philip Glass, represent other incarnations of non-violent resistance. It is interesting that in this production the final figure of Martin Luther King Jr is depicted by way of an enslaved black man being stripped of his rags by his peers, who then clothe him in a suit and elevate him onto a towering podium. To a modern audience, it seems impossible not to see elements of Barack Hussain Obama’s heroic ascent to presidency last year and remember the optimism that came with it - albeit only to be faced with a prolonged period of very nearly almost having achieved change.
Most sinisterly, the canonising of Ghandi requires the viewer to demonise the English. The thousands, who took their seats in that opera house over the nine performances, sat and watched as the British brutalised a peaceful protest of ghandi’s supporters and murdered the man himself all in the name of the Empire. This would be fine if it were a case of, “look how barbaric we were back when we invaded India for no reason”, but it isn’t, is it? The 2010 production of Satyagraha prompts the viewer to question our occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan and the innocent people whose lives have been devastated as a consequence.
Not only is Satyagraha among Philip Glass’ greatest works, it is an incredibly necessary piece of art for a contemporary audience. Rather than being tucked away in an opera house with a fifty quid entrance fee, it should be made compulsory.
(Images Courtesy of ENO and Catherine Ashmore)