for December, 2017
Appropriately enough, I was at Brussels airport, returning home to London, when it really sank in. Holding my EU passport, I sped through the automatic barriers. At another counter, there was a long queue. That’ll be me, I thought, when the Brexit process is finally finished and they take away my EU citizenship.
In last year’s referendum, my 78-year-old mum voted to leave the EU. I’d hate you to jump to conclusions, I love her dearly, but she’s read the Daily Express every day for the last fifty years. Despite living on the thunderous Heathrow flight-path, her various phobias mean she won’t get on a plane, or a boat. She’s never been abroad in her life. ‘There’s plenty to see in England, thank you very much,’ she’d say – though we did once cross the bridge into Wales for a rainy holiday in Swansea. Every day I pestered my parents to take me to the Crazy Golf Course, only to be heartily disappointed by quite how dull, and perfectly rational, an experience it proved to be.
I work in theatre, directing plays and operas. I’m freelance: I go where the work is. Perhaps it’s an extended teenage rebellion against my mother’s circumscribed world-view, but I’ve travelled widely with my work. I’ve directed operas in the USA, China, Italy, Oman, and worked with young actors with companies like the National Youth Theatre in Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and all over Europe.
I didn’t get to go to America until I was 41. I sat at the back of a jumbo jet wearing my best, rather uncomfortable suit, because, in my transatlantic innocence, I’d read that if you were smartly-dressed you might get upgraded. No such invitation was forthcoming, but my discomfort was tempered by excitement – I kept pinching myself to check I wasn’t dreaming. My mentor Jonathan Miller had recommended me to a world-famous conductor called Lorin Maazel and I was going to New York to meet him. At Lincoln Center we auditioned talented young American singers for my new production of a Benjamin Britten chamber opera. The performances took place as part of Maestro Maazel’s young artists’ programme, on his beautiful country estate in Rappahannock County, Virginia. A dream come true. Plenty more exciting work was to follow in America and beyond.
Next spring I’m directing a new production of an opera called Written on Skin, by the newly-knighted Sir George Benjamin, at Opera Philadelphia. Getting a visa to work in America is a right Republican pain-in-the-backstage-area. The special visa I require is only granted to so-called ‘Aliens of Extraordinary Ability’, which sounds as if I belong in some Extra-Terrestrial Freakshow. For each visa application, you must assemble a dossier of material to justify why you should be entering America and taking a job from one of their own artists. Extensive fees are paid. You arrive at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square and queue for most of a Kafkaesque day, outside the building and then within it, before the short interview where your fate is decided.
When I needed a visa to direct Barber of Seville at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing, it was a process with even more form-filling, standing-in-line and red-tape. The same for Saudi Arabia and Oman.
But, when I directed Carmen at the beautiful Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari, Italy, things were different. Since I’m an EU citizen, I pretty much arrived at the airport and started rehearsals.
European freedom of movement is a two-way street. My parents’ generation seem to think it’s all one way – flooding this Sceptered Isle – and the time’s come to lower some mythical portcullis. They’re bemused to have lost their beloved Britain of the 1950s, when they started their life together, when a gentleman still doffed his hat and relinquished his seat to a lady in a railway carriage.
My wife is a freelance opera singer. Thanks to the happy accident of her mother’s place of birth, she stands a chance of obtaining an Irish passport, so she can retain her EU citizenship and continue to sing in any European country. I don’t have any such family history to call on, so I imagine we face a future where we’ll be in separate queues when crossing national borders. ‘This may take a while, darling. See you at the hotel… I hope.’
And, for the rest of my career, once my EU citizenship is taken away, directing shows in Europe is going to be much more difficult. I can’t help thinking it’ll be better for theatres if they don’t hire me, and give the job to a Real European. And how long will the visa queues be at the French, Italian or German Embassies? Merde, merda and Scheiß…