The Scotsman Sessions #80: Annie George

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, award-winning writer, theatre-maker and occasional film-maker Annie George performs a fragment of her one-woman show Home Is Not The Place, which tells the remarkable story of the short life and lost work of her grandfather Kerala poet PM John, shortly before India gained its independence

Annie George’s show Home Is Not The Place has been a long time in the making. A version of it first appeared in the Just Festival at St John’s Church in 2014; and its roots run much further back, not only into Annie George’s 1960s childhood in India and the UK, but beyond that, to the seismic political and cultural events that shaped her family’s history, in the decades before her birth.

When this version of the show opened at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in February of this year, though, it was increasingly clear that this was a story that had found its moment, in terms of its depth of understanding of the experience of Empire, and its profound impact on individual lives. Home Is Not The Place is a simple solo show; Annie George appears alone on a stage furnished with one stepladder, one screen, one old tall desk of the kind from which schoolteachers once dominated classrooms across the British Empire, and a few vivid domestic props - shawls, lamps, a framed picture.

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Using these simple means - and with the help of haunting music and sound by Niroshini Thambar, and film edited by Lorna Simpson and Jacqueline Matisse - George tells a story with huge resonances, about her search for memories of her grandfather, Paduthottu Mathen John, a Keralan poet, writer and schoolteacher who died in 1945 aged only 40, two years before India achieved the independence which he had passionately supported. PM John also believed profoundly in the need for cultural freedom, diversity and self-respect for all people, and was a campaigner for the future of the Keralan language, Malayalam, often treated with contempt by the British.

In this powerful short film version of the show, titled Fragments Of Home, Annie George therefore speaks in the voice of her grandfather, and also in her own voice, celebrating the belief in the right of individuals and cultures to tell their own stories, and to have them heard, that has passed down the generations into her own work; and links his story to her own experience as a child of immigration, sent alone to Britain as the age of 4, in 1969, to join her parents who had emigrated two years earlier, only to encounter the bewildering combination of longed-for opportunity and virulent racism experienced by so many postwar immigrants to Britain.

Today, Annie George lives in Edinburgh, where she has three children, and now a grandchild. She is an award-winning writer, theatre-maker and occasional film-maker, and was awarded the Scottish Book Trust’s Ignite Fellowship in 2019. Her most recent show, Twa, a collaboration with visual artist Flore Gardner, opened at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018, and is scheduled to appear at the next Women Playwrights’ International in Montreal, Canada, now planned for 2022.

In this fragment of Home Is Not The Place, though, Annie George revisits a show that could hardly be more timely in its exploration of the history of Empire, or more personal, in its profound insight into the story of her own family. In the end, both she and her long-dead grandfather emerge as passionate advocates for storytelling, and for its power to build human connection and sympathy even in times of profound division; and in creating this show, and this short film based on it, Annie George not only makes that case, but embodies it through her own presence and performance, on stage and on screen.

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