Tuesday 17 July 2012

A Nora of extraordinary hidden reserves

A Doll's House, Young Vic, London

It’s Christmas time. As the stage revolves, we’re shown a montage of festive preparation scenes. Nora Helmer dashes about her house, marvelling at her gifts and stashing them away. This is a woman who clearly loves to shop. This is a woman who instinctively keeps secrets. This is a woman who likes to play with fire, munching gleefully on chocolates as her husband – who has banned such extravagances – sits hunched in small dark room next door. 

At first, Hattie Morahan’s Nora resembles a kid let loose in a playground. When her old friend, Kristine (a no nonsense Susannah Wise) turns up, Nora sits by her knee, like a young lass with her mother. The two scamper off to Nora’s bedroom and loll about on the bed, gossiping like teenagers. You can read the whole of A Doll’s House in Morahan’s eyes and, at these early stages, they sparkle with mischief. Morahan’s Nora is the heroine of her own drama and, as she confesses her huge debt problems to her oldest friend, she seems exhilarated by the ghastly drama of it all.

Yet even at her most naive, Morahan’s Nora is gutsy and determined too. When Kristine accuses her of behaving recklessly, Nora proudly stands her ground: ‘People shouldn’t underestimate me, Kristine. You shouldn’t underestimate me.’ Later, when Doctor Rank confesses to Nora that she is dying, she shoulders this burden alone. When he delivers his checked visiting card – a sign his death is imminent – there are few,  loaded moments in which only Nora knows the truth. Morahan’s Nora does not crumble with this knowledge. In fact, she seems positively emboldened by it.

Indeed, this is a Nora who grows stronger as her dilemma deepens; a Nora of extraordinary hidden reserves and hidden selves. Morahan’s voice has the most exceptional range and we’re treated to a virtuoso display, as her voice dips and soars at will. One gets the impression that these voices are just the beginning and that there are hundreds more Noras hiding behind that china-white face, waiting to be deployed when the moment is right.

Perhaps inevitably, the remaining characters seem muted. Morahan’s performance tumbles right out of her – every giggle thickens up her role – and yet all the other actors hold back. Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Ibsen’s script is economical but it is not cold and it is not static – if handled correctly. The confrontation between Kristine and Krogstad (Nick Fletcher) feels stiff and Steve Touissant’s Doctor Ranks is so coiled up that his character, even when at his most vulnerable, struggles to wriggle free.

Nora’s husband, Torvald Helmer (Dominic Rowan) is excruciatingly self righteous and patronising but he is too far removed from everyone else. The scenes between Torvald and Nora, particularly near the end, never fizz as they should. It feels like Nora is talking to a model of her husband rather than a living, breathing chap. 

But it’s still a brilliant conclusion. When Nora eventually turns against her husband, it’s as if all Morahan’s carefully placed character clues are finally strewn about the stage. All those clever little glimpses into Nora’s soul, laid down by both Morahan and her director Carrie Cracknell, suddenly shine with incredible force. As Nora determinedly packs her bags we remember all those times we’ve seen her hunched up in tiny corridors, a prisoner in her home. We remember her peering through the window at her children, as if looking in on someone else’s life. In the wrong hands, this final rebellion can feel quite jarring. With Morahan, it makes absolute perfect sense. 


Till 4 August 2012


Theatre

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Monday 9 July 2012

Pained but resilient

Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History, Riverside Studios, London

LIFT


The title says it all, really: there’s a little bit of ‘Macbeth’ in here and a whole lot about Tunisian politics. Specifically, this Tunisian-French LIFT production (presented by Artistes Producteurs Associés in collaboration with the RSC – boy do they get around) is about Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the recently exiled and imprisoned president of Tunisia, and his wife Leila Trabelsi. Documentary extracts, speeches from professors and abstract visuals help to establish the bloody history of this regime, initiated by President Bourguiba and only heightened by his predecessor, Ben Ali. It’s highly informative and thoughtful – but god damn is it hard work.

As was the case with dreamthinkspeak’s, The Rest is Silence, it’s assumed the audience will know their Shakespeare. Those who don’t will be completely baffled. Familiar scenes and phrases from Macbeth bubble up in odd places but they’re often hard to spot. You’ll need to read the surtitles pretty carefully and try not to be bothered by them constantly dropping out of synch with the show. It’s a bit like a really elaborate treasure hunt, in which the gems are very hard to find and invariably soaked in blood. 

There are plenty of sign posts along the way, supposedly there to tease out the parallels – but all the signs point in different directions. In attempting to say an awful lot, Lofti Achour’s production risks saying very little indeed. The production opens on a woman with a bag on her head, screaming like a banshee. One assumes, then, that this show will focus on the repression of women in the Arab World, channelling those ideas through Shakespeare’s tragedy. One assumes wrong.

This angle is pretty quickly dropped. The focus shifts again. In an odd twist on the porter scene, we see a henchman chat, glibly, to an imprisoned man, streaked in blood. Perhaps this production will focus on the parallels between Shakespeare’s bloody rulers and Ben Ali’s vicious regime? A walk on role from a professor temporarily confirms this, when he muses: ‘Muslims became convinced the sword was the only way to solve their differences.’

But then the production veers off again, now focusing on the strange power that Bourguiba still holds over his predecessor, Ben Ali. This has promise – after all, the idea of regal ghosts haunting their successors has a rich, Shakespearean twang to it. There’s a wonderfully weird scene, in which a larger than life model of Bourguiba taunts Ben Ali, mocking his achievements. But this idea is sustained only for a few minutes before the show scampers off again, eagerly in pursuit of other ideas.

The most effective scenes are the seemingly slight ones – the simple scenes that, almost incidentally, throb with immediate meaning. There are a number of wrenching songs that say far more about Tunisia and its trapped citizens than the rest of the show put together. The style of singing – the same singing you hear calling people to prayer at mosques – pulses with revealing contradictions. That searing wailing sounds pained but resilient, too.  It’s a little bit ugly but there’s also a raw beauty and power to the music, which screams out on behalf of all those citizens who have neither the strength or means to make themselves heard.


Run over


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Saturday 7 July 2012

CW editorial note - 7 July 2012

Human life and death

Human life and death

This month on CW, Sam Burt reviews an exhibition of tomb treasures of Han China at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, while Kimon Daltas reviews artist Sarah Strang’s symphonic installation at Union Chapel in London. In theatre, Matt Trueman reviews a selection of shows from LIFT 2012. And ahead of the Institute of Ideas’ residential Academy on 21-23 July, Richard Swan takes issue with Harold Bloom’s influential Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human in an in-depth essay on Hamlet as literature.

7 July 2012


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A less jaded age

The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Part of the Festival of the World and the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, ‘The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China’ is a fascinating collection of over 350 artefacts from the tombs of Han-era (c. 210 BC - 189 AD) emperors, kings and royal officials. According to the Museum’s website it ‘explores these kings’ quest for immortality and the struggle for imperial legitimacy in ancient China’s Han Dynasty, which established the basis for unified rule of China up to the present day’.

Why did the Emperors of the Qin and Han dynasties obsessively pursue immortality? It would be a relatively simple question if there existed at the time some uniform body of authoritative ideas on such matters. But the centuries that mark China’s transition from a loose confederacy of feudal kingdoms into an empire were marked by tempestuous struggles over the appropriate operating principles for a historically unprecedented political entity.

The ancient Chinese saw man ‘as being made of a body joining two souls together. Whereas the hun soul came from the sky and returned to it, the po soul derived from the earth and fell back into it’ (1). John Keay has written of the First Emperor that, ‘A ruler’s first responsibility was to his lineage - past, present and to come. In honouring his ancestors he anticipated his becoming one of them and so demonstrated the legitimacy of his succession and that of his heirs’ (2). In other words, it was believed that one’s safe passage into the spiritual realm was facilitated by assistance from ancestral spirits, which was secured by observing the ancestral rites: ‘Ancestors were cherished not just as loved ones but as progenitors deserving of the Confucian respect due to all parents, and as intermediaries in any dealings with the spirit world’ (3). This chain of cosmic interdependency reflected the social hierarchy on earth, so the tombs of emperors and their officials were grandiose in order that their status would be duly acknowledged in the spiritual realm; if they were not, then the ranks of masses beneath them would have faced uncertainty after death, and would have wasted their lives observing official rituals.

This helps to explain the epic scale on which these imperial mausoleums were executed. They were microcosms of the material world vacated by their occupants, as demonstrated by the extraordinary range of everyday objects on display - from decorated door-knockers to jade board-game pieces, an early ginger-grater, a skin exfoliator and a minimalist stone lavatory. They were all excavated from tombs that mirrored, in form and function, the original palaces. One imperial mausoleum yet to be excavated is described in the official histories as a microcosm of the emperor’s vast domains, with rivers and lakes of mercury and a jewel-studded ceiling depicting the night sky. The undeniable centrepieces of the exhibit are two magnificent Han-period ‘jade suits’: tight-fitting suits of armour made of over two thousand small jade platelets stitched together with thread of gold, silver or silk. Jade was thought to have preservative properties, so these suits were designed to protect their royal wearers in the spirit world.

The Qin First Emperor (Shi Huangdi) was so obsessed with death after three attempts on his life that he made death a taboo subject at court, its mere mention punishable by death. As the first of his kind, his power and authority always seemed insecure and lacking in roots, so he turned to the doctrines of Legalism to provide an ideological framework. For a long time scholars had associated Legalism with draconian punishments and authoritarian laws, but archaeological finds in the 1970s have given us a more balanced picture. The justice system embodied pessimism about human nature but Legalism was nothing if not pragmatic. Everything was valued insofar as it strengthened the central state.

He grounded his claim to rule - and the Legalist measures necessary to buttress it - in the Daoist theory of the ‘Five Phases’. This holds that history is a recurring cycle of elemental phases - earth, wood, metal, fire and water - in which each overpowers the other in turn. Significantly, this theory is a fatalistic counterpoint to the Confucian idea of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, which posits that a ruler’s legitimacy derives not from the mechanical rotation of elements but from the agency of intervening spirits signalling disapproval through natural disasters.

So there was a milieu of competing ideologies in China at the turn of the first millennium. The First Emperor’s response to the creeping influence of feudal ideas amongst his advisers was to issue an edict ordering the burning of all books which were neither for practical instruction nor politically correct. He came to believe that all the great achievements of his reign - the river-management projects, roads and defensive barriers effected through mass mobilisation - might be destroyed in the political instability that the ‘Five Phases’ theory predicted would follow his death, as the ‘rule of water’ was dammed by earth. Thus the First Emperor lavished vast expenditure on procuring life-prolonging elixirs from various sorcerers and miracle-men, and dispatched two unsuccessful expeditions by sea in the hope of finding the Islands of Paradise which were thought to be inhabited by immortals.

The only way to cheat history would be to cheat nature, or at least conceal it from the masses. Thus he sealed off his palaces with closed walls and corridors, and made his whereabouts a sworn secret: ‘Removing himself from public sight was supposed a step towards transcending the passage of time’ (4). If he could not physically cheat death, he at least wanted to trick his people into thinking he had. When he expired, possibly after a self-administered toxic potion of cinnabar, the news was suppressed, ironically, by scheming eunuchs who wanted time to plan their course of action first; they continued delivering meals to his carriage and positioned a wagon of fish nearby to mask the stench.

The First Emperor’s quest for immortality had been in vain, but the ideas which shaped and were shaped in turn by that imperative had some undeniably beneficial effects at a crucial stage in the history of Chinese civilisation. The sense of urgency and ambition that sprung from a curious blend of Daoism and Legalism can be seen as a dialectical reaction against cautious and conservative tendencies in Confucianism (which specified responsibilities according to social position and tended to naturalise the social hierarchy). The Han dynasty that succeeded the Qin gradually built the model imperial state that would last for almost two thousand years on a foundational synthesis of Confucianism with elements of statist ‘realism’.

Besides the search for immortality, another key theme of the exhibition is factional politics in the Han dynasty and in particular the power-struggle between the Han imperial family in the northern ‘cradle’ of Chinese history, with its capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) and the Kingdom of Nanyue (‘Southern Yue’), with its capital at Panyu. What distinguished Nanyue from the other kingdoms - which were rendered increasingly dependent on Han patronage - was that it owed nothing of its authority to Han Gaozu and harboured its own imperial ambitions (one of the jade suits on display in the Fitzwilliam belonged to the King of Nanyue). The critical moment came when King Wu of Nanyue declared himself an emperor; it would be nearly a hundred years before Han Wudi finally brought Nanyue to heel and converted his own dominion into a powerful empire. In the process, Han Wudi also became preoccupied with the allure of immortality. He retrospectively claimed to rule by the ‘earth’ that had overcome the Qin’s ‘water’, and revised the calendar to synchronise the dynasty with the Five Phases. As a consequence of this, he advanced a strange synthesis of Daoism, Legalism and Confucianism which, though lacking in intellectual coherence, struck a successful and durable balance of compromise and coercion.

While emperors may have used ideology to rationalise their essentially selfish desire to cheat death, that is only part of the story. Equally important is: why they chose to choose particular ideologies for this purpose; how ideas were adapted in order to win support from rival claimants to supremacy; and how those adaptations ultimately eroded the original ideological rationale for prioritising the immortality of the emperor (at least in theory, the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ made the earthly claims of emperors more fragile).

Although it is not the stated mission of this exhibition to tackle such questions, and although the individual displays are contextualised, the experience would be a more rewarding one if it gave a more vivid impression of how the spirit world was imagined in ancient China, and the significant ways in which philosophical canons, as well as thrones, were loci of conflict. Nevertheless, it is a rare opportunity to glimpse the rich and beguiling world that provided a backdrop to the ubiquitous terracotta soldiers. It should not be missed.


Till 11 November 2012

1) China: A History, Arthur Cotterell, Pimlico (1990), p97
2) China: A History, John Keay, Harper Press (2008), p88
3) Ibid, p123
4) Ibid, p103


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Sounds of belonging and loneliness

Dixon Clark Court Symphony, by Sarah Strang with Nathaniel Robin Mann and Daniel Merrill, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, Union Chapel, London

The day of the performance of the Dixon Clark Court Symphony (DCC), I tried to encourage my handful of Twitter followers to go along too. I discovered it was quite difficult to describe the project in 140 characters, not least because I only had a vague idea myself, despite the benefit of press releases and flyers. In the end I went for ‘Live, site-specific sound installation’, which is so woolly as to be nearly meaningless. But the novelty is what appealed to me: going into a performance without a clear idea of what the parameters are is rare indeed. The piece is built out of over 165 sounds collected by artist Sarah Strang from the Dixon Clark Court tower block and the nearby Union Chapel. The assembled soundscape has then been threaded through with music by composers Nathaniel Robin Mann and Daniel Merrill, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Islington’s Union Chapel was built by non-conformist Victorian architect James Cubitt, who resented the segregation imposed by traditional chapel design, and whose manifesto was grounded on the need to produce ‘a grand and beautiful church in which everyone could see and hear the service’ – which makes it pretty handy as a performance space, too. For the DCC Symphony, the recorded element was played through four speakers surrounding the central seating area, while musicians from the LCO were dotted around the church, mainly in the galleries (though I’m told there was also a bass drum hidden somewhere in the roof!). I think praise should be heaped on the LCO for being so flexible and unfazed – it was fascinating, for instance, to watch how conducting duties were passed around as the particular section of music demanded.

The work itself, the programme informs us, ‘seeks to articulate in sound how individuals or communities may respond to, or articulate, loneliness and belonging’. The one thing I found problematic about the piece was that it was a fairly bleak portrait of the place these individuals and communities were supposed to belong. That may be a reflection of the truth, of course, though I very much hope not. If I were a resident, I think I would have hoped for something a little more life affirming.

The experience was enveloping and immersive, very much assisted by the chapel’s booming acoustic, which the musicians played into with glee (memorably, the machine-gun clatter of two snare drums grew into a deafening roar). It was interesting from the perspective of someone who is used to writing about performances in which music is the thing, to find it being used perhaps a bit more functionally, as a mood or colour to illuminate a point the artist wanted to make. My overall impression of the piece, in fact, was of a manner of psychogeographic documentary with soundtrack. The images are left to the imagination, and I wondered if residents of the DCC towers found the piece much more personal than that.

Although I’m sure the live element added to the viscerality of my experience, I am looking forward to seeing how the exhibition version works too.

Dixon Clark Court Symphony by Sarah Strang Photography© Daniela Sbrisny


Dual-site Exhibition

Friday 13 July to Sunday 12 August 2012
Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, London, N12 XD
Friday 3pm to 6 pm
Saturday and Sunday 12 pm to 6 pm

Management Office, Dixon Clark Court, Canonbury Road, London N1 2UR 
Monday to Friday 9am to 12pm

Debate: Is there space for a subjective response to community?
7.30pm, Monday 17 September 7.30 pm
Union Chapel, Upper Halls, Compton Terrace, London, N12 XD
Doors and Bar open 7pm

Further information
www.unionchapel.org.uk
www.sarahstrang.com


Visual ArtsMusic

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Hamlet as literature

Shakespeare: the invention of the human, by Harold Bloom (Riverhead Books, 1998)

This article is a personal response to Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: the invention of the human. I found the book profoundly annoying, partly because it is not what it purports to be, partly because its central thesis is nonsensical, and finally because he fails to offer a coherent interpretation of Hamlet. Given that this play, or rather its title character, is at the heart of Bloom’s thesis, this is disappointing. I make no apology for the personal style of this article, including some of the more frivolous asides, because it reflects what I wish to say. The underlying argument is, however, completely serious. This article is divided into an introductory, a critique (of pure reason), and an approach to Hamlet.

Introductory

Note that Bloom’s central arguments are set out in the opening sections, ‘To the reader’, pp.xvii-xx, and ‘Shakespeare’s universalism’, pp.1-17. It might be said that it is unnecessary to read the rest of the book to understand his thesis; or indeed at all. His basic premise ‘is balderdash, of a sort which is so fundamentally wrong-headed as to be hard to argue.’(1)

My objections to Harold Bloom are threefold: his argument is (a) self-contradictory, (b) muddled, and (c) mystical. This last objection is the most severe. Bloom seeks to perpetrate a massive fraud on his readership. Shakespeare: the invention of the human looks as if it belongs to the realm of literary criticism, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. It is a personal statement of belief, a kind of spiritual manifesto. That might justify a 5000-word opinion piece, but should hardly have been allowed to extend to 700 pages. Presumably, like JK Rowling in the third and subsequent Harry Potter books, Harold Bloom was so eminent that he was beyond the reach or influence of an editor. I shall deal with my objections in reverse order, in order to lead logically into my second section.

(c) mysticism. ‘The more one reads … Shakespeare, the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe’ (p.xvii). This is a bizarre statement to make at the beginning of a work by a reputed literary critic. The critic’s task is to analyse rationally; awe must be set aside. He continues: ‘High Romantic Bardolatry … is merely the most normative of the faiths that worship him’ (p.3) and ‘If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare’ (p.3). This is alarming, mystical, and fatal to his argument. We can’t analyse Shakespeare if we’re merely meant to worship him. It leads Bloom to make nonsensical statements like: ‘Something in and about Hamlet strikes us as demanding (and providing) evidence from some sphere beyond the scope of our senses’ (p.385). The invocation of divine status leads Bloom to claim that Shakespeare’s intellect is greater than that any other writer, including ‘the principal philosophers, the religious sages, and the psychologists from Montaigne through Nietzsche to Freud’ (p.2). I offer the suggestion that Bloom may be over-stating his case here. Worse, in the process of assigning Shakespeare divinity, Bloom decouples him from his rightful place in the history of literature and art.

(b) muddle. Bloom’s mystical tendencies lead him towards grandiloquent statements to which it is difficult to attach any clear meaning, a cardinal sin for a critic. Examples abound, so I cite only a couple. On p.xix he says that ‘the enigma of Hamlet is emblematic of the greater enigma of Shakespeare himself: a vision that is everything and nothing, … an art so infinite that it contains us’ (italics his). This sounds good, but what can it possibly mean? Whether applied to Shakespeare or Hamlet (the distinction should be absolute, but Bloom conflates the two), can either be said to have a vision that is ‘everything’? And if it is ‘nothing’, how should we regard them? And did Shakespeare (or Hamlet??) really possess an art ‘so infinite’? This is mysticism incarnate. Or take this example: ‘We are convinced of Hamlet’s superior reality because Shakespeare has made Hamlet free …’ (p.7). What can be meant by the ‘reality’ of Hamlet, let alone the ‘superior reality’? Bloom does not explain. We are expected to accede to the assertion through bardolatry. Bloom ends his introduction with another rhetorical flourish about Shakespeare’s plays which must have appealed to him, but from which it is impossible to derive lucid meaning: ‘They read us definitively’ (p.xx).

(a) self-contradiction. This is the simplest error, but is pernicious because it allows Bloom to embark on a journey the basis for which he has disproved. At its heart is Bloom’s statement on p.xviii: ‘No world author rivals Shakespeare in the apparent creation of personality, and I employ “apparently” here with some reluctance.’ I shall ignore the initial claim that Shakespeare has no rivals. In this sentence, Bloom accepts that the creation of literary ‘personality’ is an illusion, an artifice. However, from here on he ignores his own rider, and assumes that Shakespeare creates true personalities, or rather people. Only in such a way could he write on the next page: ‘Hamlet, Freud’s mentor’ (p.xix), or worse: ‘we never are quite certain whether Shakespeare or Hamlet composes more of Shakespeare and Hamlet’s play’ (p.386). I shall deal with the distinction between ‘personality’ and ‘character’ in the next section. Suffice it here to demonstrate the contradictions that arise from Bloom’s imprecise handling of his own terms. In his opening sentence he has asserted that ‘literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging’ (p.xvii), but on p.xix he compares Hamlet to the ‘literary characters’ of Yahweh, Jesus and Allah, saying that ‘Hamlet is the only secular rival to his greatest precursors in personality. Like them, he seems not to be just a literary or dramatic character.’ Through such confusions and imprecision in the use of the words ‘personality’ and ‘character’ Bloom enables himself to move to his central, and entirely unproven, thesis, that ‘Falstaff and Hamlet are the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it’ (p.4). Leaving aside the glissando which now permits Bloom to talk about ‘personalities (in our sense)’, when at best he means personalities in his. sense only, it is time to unpick the issues about literary character and attempt to create a lucid understanding of issues that Bloom has muddied.

A critique, of pure reason

In order to create some clear water, I shall distinguish between the terms ‘personality’ and ‘character’, because as we have seen Bloom’s failure to do so leads to confusion.

Personality – ‘the integrated organization of all the psychological, intellectual, emotional, and physical characteristics, especially as they are presented to other people.’ (2)

Character: a figure in literature who is ‘interpreted by the reader as being endowed with moral, dispositional, and emotional qualities that are expressed in what they say – the dialogue – and what they do – the action.’(3)

In the senses given here, ‘personality’ applies to real people, and ‘character’ to literature. The latter is a representation of the former. Hence the invaluable word ‘mimesis’: ‘imitation or representation in art’ (4). While Bloom theoretically accepts that what Shakespeare creates are ‘characters’ in the definition given here, ie. imitations or representations, he in fact treats them as if they were true ‘personalities’ in the sense given here. On page 6 he asks: ‘Why do his personages seem so real to us, and how could he contrive that illusion so persuasively?’, in accordance with the proper understanding of mimesis, but after that he simply accepts the illusion and treats Shakespeare’s characters as ‘men and women’ (p.16). This leads him to the absurdity of : ‘we are not here to make moral judgments concerning Falstaff’ (p.15). This seems to be mistaken on two counts. Firstly there is an underlying implication that Falstaff is ‘real’; secondly, it is precisely the task of the reader (and critic) to make moral judgments about characters in literature.

All art is mimetic. It acts through shaping, through selection, through metaphor and image, in order to represent aspects of the real world that the artist wishes to bring to the audience’s attention. We look to art to explain what it means to be human, and to give us the opportunity to explore the range of human experience vicariously. We do not go to art for a mere copy of the world – in Rosamond Tuve’s wonderful phrase, ‘one of the damned thing is ample’. The nearest we get is ‘reality TV’, in which the most noticeable missing ingredient is reality: Big Brother, Escape to the Country, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, and so on. Television is deceptive because they look like real people in there. But they aren’t. Even the real people aren’t. Look again at those interminable Facebook posts of drunken partygoers with cameras held at arm’s length. They’re selective, they shape reality in order to present a desired image.

The imitation of reality ≠ reality. Reality is unshaped, messy, unlimited. Art is shaped, defined, bounded. From the beginning of history we have imposed shape on reality – story-telling is a primeval urge, as is the visual representation of the world around us. We make our lives into stories. Hence the obsession with biographies and autobiographies, from saints’ lives to the ghastly ghost-writings of unknown celebrities (sic), all of which are highly selective with ‘the truth’.

Real people are unshaped, messy, unlimited. Literary characters are shaped, defined, bounded. Consider any list of major characters throughout history: Abraham, Achilles, Gawain, Don Quixote, Faust, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Kurtz, Yossarian (or your own selection). They’re all representations, aspects of character or ideas that the authors want to focus on. They’re not complete personalities, they’re not real people. They cannot step outside the pages of their works and maintain an independent existence, they cannot act of their own volition; the idea doesn’t make sense (5). They are ultimately 2-dimensional, not 3-dimensional, in the same way that every figure in every painting is 2-dimensional. We may peer at Van Gogh’s self-portrait and feel we understand something about the man, but what we are looking at is a representation through a medium, in this case oil paint. Every artist ever works in this way – Dido Powell, Mervyn Peake, Picasso, Leonardo, the Master of Rohan, Apelles. The situation is no different if we do go 3-dimensional and look at sculptors – Hepworth, Rodin, Michelangelo, Praxiteles.

This all used to be obvious. In the Middle Ages the representational nature of art was clear. Significance or ‘meaning’ was conveyed through clearly understood symbolism. Consider the following Romanesque image (6):

This carefully formal composition is unmistakable. The Virgin and Christ are identified by their haloes (Christ’s additionally contains his Cross); the mother gestures towards her son, whose hand is raised in blessing. Both figures face the reader; the gold background thrusts the predominantly blue and red central image forward and also emphasises their royalty. Mary is dressed in blue because that is the colour most traditionally associated with her (7). There are suggestions of naturalistic features – the architectural setting, the throne and footstool, the robes – but these are stylised so that they do not detract from the symbolic meaning.

In later Gothic art, greater realism was used, but the significance remained clear (8):

In this image there is evidently a more realistic approach to the depiction. Mary sits on a chair rather than a throne, Jesus is held more naturalistically balancing on her knee. The figures are posed at an angle, not looking out at the reader, and the folds of the robes are carefully drawn and shaded, with gold paint suggesting the effect of sunlight striking from behind them. At the same, time, there is no doubt about the subject. Mary and Jesus, both dressed in blue, retain their haloes, and Mary has a crown. Both are in the same shade of blue and even seem to merge into each other, emphasising their unity. The gold sunlight is strongly suggestive of God standing behind them. The spiritual significance of the scene remains undiminished.

With the ending of the Middle Ages, concern for realistic detail became dominant, and the clarity of meaning was lost (9):

Here the devotion to realistic detail tends to overwhelm the spiritual significance completely. The frankly ugly infant regards the viewer sulkily, the carefully arranged hair and the folds of his chubby legs meticulously depicted. The artist has obviously taken considerable pleasure in his rendition of the Madonna’s hands, and in the detail of her costume. Behind them fruit and landscape are presented with great attention to naturalistic qualities. Most tellingly of all, the haloes of the Mother and Child are rendered almost as if they were headdresses rather than sacred symbols. It is easy to lose sight of the significance of the image; a tipping point has been reached where realism obscures symbolism. In terms of metaphor, the ‘vehicle’ or container for the meaning has assumed greater importance than the ‘tenor’ or meaning that is being conveyed (10).

After the Middle Ages art went through a bit of a lean period for the next few hundred years (11), but by the end of the nineteenth century the representational nature of art had become manifestly clear again (12):

This is almost Romanesque in style, and there is no danger of mistaking the medium for the message. We are encouraged to understand an aspect of humanity, not believe that we are looking at a real human being. Yes, we are invited to consider the interior, psychological state of the figure, but every aspect of the image serves to externalise the interior state, comparable to the psychomachia mentioned below: the flaming sky, the heaving water, the indifferent figures diminished from the protagonist by the strong perspective of the bridge. The protagonist’s own condition is depicted through stylisation of the open mouth and the placing of the hands.

The same can be perceived in literature. Freud did not invent psychology, and nor (despite Bloom’s phrase) did Hamlet or Shakespeare. For a thousand years before Shakespeare, Western literature had developed an allegorical mode for the representation of reality which allowed spiritual meanings to be clearly conveyed and understood, whether in interpretation of the Bible (13) or in the creation of original works. Most relevant to us is the tradition of the psychomachia (‘mind war’), deriving principally from the eponymous work by Prudentius (c.400AD), where elements of the internal struggle of the mind were externalised as warring characters. In the Middle Ages this was developed in dramas like The Castle of Perseverance, whose central character is Humanus Genus, and most famously in Everyman.

I shall later be suggesting that Hamlet can be seen as an everyman figure in this tradition. There is no doubt that what is being represented is the internal or psychological struggle that takes place within each of us, but also complete clarity because the characters of the drama are correlated plainly to single aspects of experience. In a poem like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century), the procedure is more complex. Sir Gawain is simultaneously a fallible human being, and the idealisation of a Christian knight. It is the tension between the two that gives the poem both its dramatic power and its moral significance. Sir Gawain represents a number of human qualities, including courage, faith and duty, but his experiences are mediated through an often wonderfully realistic depiction of the world in which he moves. For anyone wanting ‘true’ internalisation of ‘personality’, I recommend Jonah in the Gawain-poet’s marvellous poem Patience, which manages to combine a faithful rendition of the events of the Book of Jonah from the Old Testament with an uproarious portrayal of a whining and complaining man who continually seeks to evade his responsibilities.

Again, the twentieth century has rediscovered the advantages of clear separation of vehicle and tenor. This is particularly noticeable in the theatrical technique of alienation, in Brecht and most strikingly in Pirandello. The latter’s Enrico Quarto is his masterpiece, but for our purposes the seminal work is Sei Personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six characters in search of an author), where the interrelationship of author and created characters is specifically examined.

Equally, a novel like Catch-22, for example abounds with symbolic figures. Amongst them we might single out Colonel Cathcart, whose interior state is instantly recognisable to any of us: ‘He believed all the news he heard and had faith in none. He was on the alert constantly for every signal, shrewdly sensitive to relationships and situations that did not exist. He was someone in the know who was always striving pathetically to find out what was going on’ (p.241). In fact, even the apparent psychological relaism of 19th century novels can be demonstrated to be purely representational; Raskolnoikov’s responses to his situation, for example, vary widely depending on the author’s intentions at any given moment. By contrast, Bloom falls into the trap of assuming that characters have lives outside the works in which they appear. Assertions like: ‘Clearly Falstaff had once looked truly into the essence of things, long before we ever meet him’ (p.394) put him dangerously in the camp of writers like Mary Cowden Clarke and her notorious work, The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines.

The purpose of this section has been two-fold. Firstly, it is to assert that all art is representational, and that to talk of Hamlet and Falstaff as if they were real is nonsense; secondly, it is to suggest that Harold Bloom tends to approach his subject with a distorted perspective, looking only backwards from a modern sensibility and our ‘cult of personality’. His references are to Freud, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Dickens; tellingly, the only medieval authors he mentions at all are Dante and Chaucer. He ignores the two thousand-year traditions to which Shakespeare was heir and within which he operated. Because he seeks to elevate Shakespeare above all other literary artists (14), indeed all other men, he deprives him of any context. It is only in this way that he can derive his absurd proposition that ‘all of us were, to a shocking degree, pragmatically reinvented by Shakespeare’ (p.17).

Before finishing this section I want to mention some books that help to place Bloom’s own work in perspective. A text of which he would doubtless have approved is EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, best known for his description (in Chapter 3) of what he called ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters in literature. Against this should be placed Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (as formidably hard to read as Forster is easy), which argues the case that all literary characters are ultimately types. Most of all, however, I would cite Erich Auerbach’s seminal work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a masterpiece that surveys the sweep of Western literature from Homer to Proust. Tellingly, he emphasises the psychological aspects and complex personalities in the Old Testament: ‘the Jewish writers are able to express the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them’ (p.13). These are features that Bloom would have us believe are the invention of Shakespeare.

Although there is much in Auerbach’s analysis of Shakespeare and Hamlet (Chapter 13) of which Bloom would approve, the difference is that Auerbach’s discussion is conducted in the context of Shakespeare’s place in the historical development of literature, and makes no egregious claims.

An Approach to Hamlet

Harold Bloom, in his section on Hamlet (pp. 383-431) commits two grave errors for a literary critic. The first, already noted, is his mysticism. The second is his reliance on speculation, that Shakespeare was the author of an earlier version of Hamlet. The text of that play is not extant, but Bloom believes he knows what it must have looked like, so he then builds an argument based on complete surmise. The combination of the two errors results in inexcusable flights of fancy such as: ‘Self-revision is Hamlet’s mode; was it imposed on him by Shakespeare’s highly self-conscious confrontation with his own botched beginning as a tragic dramatist?’ (p.408). I shall not deconstruct the whole business here, but suffice it to say that anyone who can soberly write the following is not the most measured and reliable guide to Shakespeare: ‘Hamlet is also Shakespeare’s death, his dead son and his dead father’ (p.406).

It is a relief to turn from such fanciful pronouncements to examine the text itself. There are three main issues with the character Hamlet: why is there so much dispute about him, was he mad, and most famously, why does he delay?

It is interesting that Bloom does not even discuss the issue of Hamlet’s possible madness, except in one aside where he refers to his ‘insane moments’ (p.420). Presumably this is because a mad Hamlet couldn’t possibly fulfil the role Bloom requires of him. It is quite clear that Hamlet’s behaviour borders on the deranged at moments, and he is under almost intolerable stress throughout the play. I would argue strongly, however, that he is never mad. The justification for this view is that the play contains a very clear depiction of real madness in the character of Ophelia. Her speech is defined by the fact that although what she says is often pertinent and poignant, she herself has no grasp of what she is saying: ‘There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.’ (IV/v/181-3) (15). She is not in active command of her language. Hamlet, by contrast, is always in control of his language, even when he is emotionally disturbed:

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! (III/iv/91-4)

Even here where he is hardly in control of himself, his language is graphic and precise, drawing on the imagery of corruption that he has used throughout the play. Similarly, when he is almost ‘beside himself’ with rage against Claudius, his choice of adjectives is deliberate and exact:

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! (II/ii/577)

At this extremity his language still echoes the pun contained in his first ever speech:

A little more than kin, and less than kind. (I/ii/65)

Having disposed of the issue of Hamlet’s possible insanity, let us turn to the problem of his delay. It is feasible to construct a legitimate argument that he does not in fact delay, that he acts only as he is able to do at any given moment and that he could not have killed Claudius any earlier (except in the prayer scene, of which more later). However, Hamlet accuses himself of delay, so I shall work with the assumption that he does.

The answer, I think, lies in his situation, which needs to be clearly understood. At the start of the play Hamlet is melancholic and in deep mourning, and there are good reasons for this. His beloved father has died, his loathed uncle has assumed the throne, and worst of all his mother has betrayed him and sided with his uncle. Claudius’ coronation means that the court is also arrayed against him, especially in the person of Polonius, the key adviser. What happens in the play is that every single character turns against him, until he is utterly isolated. The worst betrayal of course is that of Ophelia; like his mother, the woman he loves sides with his opponents.

How deeply he feels these personal betrayals is clearly instanced by the passage when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Elsinore (II/ii). For thirty seconds he is overjoyed – here are two friends, outsiders like Horatio, people whom he can think are unaffected by the corruption of the Danish court. He engages in bawdy banter with them like any student, but his mind is already working. He realises that their arrival is not an accident, and within fifty lines he is already asking them directly: ‘Were you not sent for?’ (II/ii/274). His joy turns to bitter contempt as they confirm his belief that the whole world has been corrupted. ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ says Marcellus (I/iv/90), but he understates the case. Everything is rotten in the state of Denmark; Claudius’ poison has infected everything and everybody within its walls. The betrayals of Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, Laertes, Osric, all simply confirm what Hamlet stated right back at the start:

‘tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. (where ‘merely’ = ‘completely’) (I/ii/135-7)

It’s Hamlet contra mundum (16) and no surprise that he cannot act. Literally every single person is against him. The only exception is Horatio, who is nobody. He’s an outsider; he has no position, influence or even existence in the Danish set-up. He exists only as Hamlet’s confidant (as in Racine). Hamlet can be honest with him because he is the only uncorrupted figure in the world, and he’s uncorrupted only because he’s not in the world. So Hamlet is like the rest of us, having to create his own destiny single-handed. He has no support, no back-up.

Added to this is the problem that Hamlet is by nature melancholic. This is a traditional literary type, leading us from the specific ‘humour’ of the Middle Ages, through Hamlet himself to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and on and on until he emerges in the late twentieth century in the Moody Blues’ ‘Melancholy Man’ (17), and most strikingly in Marvin, the paranoid android in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (18). This melancholia manifests itself in his world-weariness, questioning the value not only of action but even of existence:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of the world! (I/ii/133-4)

The combination of this attitude, the evidence of total corruption in the world around him, and betrayal by everyone he trusts, is lethal. Many people would sink under the weight of any one of these, and it would not be surprising to see Hamlet reduced to immobility. It’s a miracle he ever acts at all. Yet he does. He never loses sight of his need to revenge himself against Claudius, and his requirement that the revenge should be of an appropriate kind. He is able to resist killing Claudius in the prayer scene (III/iii) because, as he says:

… am I then revenged
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for the passage?(19) (III/iii/84-6)

He is aided by the salutary distancing that takes place when he is shipped to England, which fortuitously frees him from the snares of the court (apart from the trivial threat of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern which he disposes of off-handedly). He returns in Act V with clear sight and clear attitudes, ready to accept his future:

If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. (V/ii/216-8)

Although there are trials still ahead of him and he has to deal with Laertes, his last betrayer, there is no doubt about the final outcome. Hamlet’s death is the necessary price for the cleansing of Denmark, but he leaves the world a cleaner place for those who follow him.
So why is the character of Hamlet such a problem, and why does he provoke such diverse interpretations? Because he’s like the rest of us. He is, as has often been pointed out, the rest of us. He is Everyman, he’s humanus genus, he’s our representative in an appalling predicament. He’s a prince rather than a hay-trusser because of the conventions of Elizabethan theatre, but that’s about it. The reason there are so many Hamlets is because we each view Hamlet in the way that fits our needs. Far from being an individual ‘personality’ in his own right, he is a protean literary character who speaks for all of us, because he addresses the central concerns of all our lives in language that we cannot hope to emulate.


Above all, he confronts the central human problem of mortality. The classic visual image of Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull, a very medieval memento mori, is entirely appropriate. We are all going to die, and we all have to come to terms with the fact. Hamlet assists us because his language gives us words that we can use, whether we view mankind as ‘noble in reason, … infinite in faculties’ (II/ii/ 304) or as a ‘quintessence of dust’ (II/ii/308). Both are true; through Hamlet, Shakespeare allows us to map out our own understanding of humanity. Hamlet’s death is a tragedy, but it is also an inevitability. Let be.

Coda

It is a pity Harold Bloom allowed himself to be carried away by his own mystic yearnings and a thesis that does not stand up to the weight he asks it to bear. It distorts his (and our) understanding, and means that he actually fails to offer a cogent reading of Hamlet. This is doubly a pity, because when he does engage in literary criticism he has much of value to say, for example about Antony and Cleopatra where he has some illuminating comments.


References and further reading

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach
A magisterial, measured and balanced survey of Western literature from Homer and the Old Testament onwards. Always illuminating, because for each writer there is close analysis of a passage from their work. Chapter 1 (Homer and the Old Testament) and Chapter 13 (Shakespeare) are particularly relevant.
The Elizabethan World Picture, by E.M.W.Tillyard
Essential reading to understand the world-view that Shakespeare possessed and which was almost entirely a medieval and biblical creation; vital for appreciating many of the commonplace beliefs that underlie the plays, and a useful corrective to the idea that the Shakespearean period was radically new.
Hamlet: The Prince or The Poem? by C. S. Lewis
Lewis is always lucid and cogent.
The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive, by Ernest Jones
A fascinating approach to Hamlet, originally published in 1910. Often derided. but the central section is worth a look.
The Living World of Shakespeare: A Playgoer’s Guide, by John Wain
A useful counterbalance to Bloom because it approaches Shakespeare entirely from the perspective of the theatregoer, rather than as a literary text to be read.
Some Shakespearean Themes and An Approach to ‘Hamlet’, by LC Knights
Knights references both Greek tragedy and Boethius in his thoughtful approach. Knights is also the critic who mischievously put the question ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ to a conference in 1932.
Aspects of the Novel, by EM Forster
Famous for its distinction between ‘flat’ and round’ characters.
Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye
Formidably difficult; but formidable.

Recommended listening
The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The original radio series is the best. I’m not sure what Harold Bloom would make of the fact that Marvin has been endowed by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation with one of its GPPs – ‘Genuine People Personalities’.
A Question of Balance, by The Moody Blues
This album, which features ‘Melancholy Man’, is arguably one of their best.

Notes
1) The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway, p.63.
2) The Chambers Dictionary, 2003
3) A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H.Abrams
4) The Chambers Dictionary, 2003
5) Yet this is precisely what Bloom asserts with Hamlet.
6) MS Royal 2 A XXII c.1200
7) This tradition may partly be because Mary was known as the Queen of Heaven, for whom blue would have been appropriate. Also, the blue pigment used in manuscripts was made from lapis lazuli, and was more expensive than the gold leaf in the background; hence a suitable royal colour.
8) Jean Fouquet c.1420
9) Carlo Crivelli 1480
10) cf I.A.Richards, The Principles of Literary Criticism
11) I realise that this opinion runs counter to prevailing orthodoxy, but it’s not original. It echoes a distinction made by Ruskin between medieval and ‘modern’ art in Modern Painters (1904); he identifies the same loss of symbolic clarity in art after 1400.
12) Skrik, Edvard Munch, 1893 version
13) The four-fold allegorical interpretation of the Bible is too large a topic to discuss here, but highly instructive.
14) The traditional European trinity is Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe (or in Joyce’s charming version, Daunty, Gouty, Shopkeeper).
15)  Line references are to the Arden edition.
16) The comparison is to Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, whose Horatio is Charles Ryder.
17)  ‘I’m a very lonely man, doing what I can.’ Hamlet redux.
18) Marvin is Hamlet’s literary descendant, just as witty but more terse. He might have made Hamlet’s speeches more pithily - for example, Hamlet to his mother (I/ii): ‘I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed’, and the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy: ‘Life. Don’t talk to me about life.’
19) I can see no reason to doubt Hamlet’s sincerity here. The play takes place, whatever Bloom may say, within a Christian context, and the audience would have understood the difference between dying sinfully, which is what Hamlet intends for Claudius, and dying in a state of grace. This adds, of course, to the audience’s appreciation of the irony that Claudius is in fact unable to pray, and Hamlet could have killed him at this moment and been successfully revenged.


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Thursday 5 July 2012

A coruscating heartache and a downcast joy

Before Your Very Eyes, Unicorn Theatre, London

LIFT


Here is a bald statement of fact. You only get one life. It is brief and it is unlikely to turn out as you planned or hoped or imagined. Here is another. Any artist who addresses this is onto a winner..

Before Your Very Eyes is just such a dead cert. What’s more, that certainty is furthered cemented by the presence of nine children – cutesy, button-nosed Belgian children, at that – aged between 8 and 14. In fact, Gob Squad and CAMPO (formerly Victoria) get double definite points, as their kids seem both wise beyond their years and old before their time.

The title, by the way, is playful. It admits its own blatancy, that its basic provocation is staring you straight in the face, but also acknowledges – with a cool irony – that the show is a minor-miracle, a marvel to behold. It almost needs a drum-roll. Over 90 minutes, these nine children and their little button-noses will run the gamut of human existence, zipping through the aging process at warp speed and hurtling towards the grave. You see the formula? Cute young kids + life’s brief candle = coolly distant existential humour + inevitable lump in throat.

Essentially, we’re talking about a live-art equivalent of Hollywood films like Jack, Big or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. These are anti-Never Never Land tales, plots that play havoc with the life-cycle. They tell stories of lives like scratched CDs that skip, fast-forward or rewind to rob the protagonist of the best years of their lives. And like them, you watch Before Your Very Eyes through damp eyes, smiling a faint smile and sighing a light sigh. It doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know – and, to judge from its title, it has no such aspirations. Rather it looks you square in the eye and reminds you of something all too easily forgotten: that life ought not be wasted and that it’s never too late to change.

Those children are in a box made of one-way mirrors, a creche of sorts, that half-fools you into thinking that you’re watching them in their natural habitat, uncorrupted by the gaze of an audience. The rolling start, signified by the lights dimming and the microphones on the inside starting up but no change in the behaviour of the performers, seeks to stress the point and compound the illusion. The idea is so successfully planted, in fact, that it feels odd to even call them performers.

Actually, there’s a knowingness to the whole thing, a slick slipperiness that already knows the exact effect it wants and pursues it pretty ruthlessly. There is a definite manipulation at play; not of the children, but of us. Doe-eyes are deployed with devastating efficiency. All that said, frustratingly, it’s so bloody tried and tested that you can’t resist. Essentially, we’re all suckers for this kind of thing. I don’t know; blame the selfish gene or something. What’s more, being completely fair to Gob Squad, it’s tidily, sharply and roundedly done. You might resent its manipulation, you might try and resist, but you’ll still fall for it hook, line and sinker.

So what actually happens? The kids start out as kids, pottering around in the box-room, watching cartoons and playing rounds of the Belgian version of pat-a-cake. (Incidentally, it’s a really canny piece of curation on LIFT’s part to play this next to Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, for these kids are also representing kids and, just like Back to Back’s work, it begs questions their authorial ownership and level of understanding.) A recorded voice – Big Brother as benign schoolmistress – addresses them in questions and instructions. ‘Have you been practising?’ it asks the smallest girl, who’s hula-hooping respectably. A video of her younger self appears on the television and on a large projection screen outside the box. She hulas abysmally. ‘This is when we first met,’ intones the voice.

As, one by one, the children of today come face to face with themselves of yesteryear, you realise that they are already different people. They have somewhat disowned those antecedents with a small smile, both patronising and embarrassed, at their onetime naivety. ‘Just look at him,’ says one, a Euro-Bieberish boy called Spencer, ‘He’s trying to be so cute…This isn’t me.’

Then, the ‘aging’ starts in earnest with new teenage outfits (a grungy uniform), playful gothic make-up and, hanging from every set of lips, a cigarette. Just when you think they won’t light them, a jet of smoke darts out of each one. (They’re stage props, but the moment stands.) It’s neatly provocative: a full-on, prohibition-smashing free-rein.

Once again they consult with their younger selves on screen – not so dismissive this time, but removed and kindly in their superiority. Questions – ‘Is it fun to wear a bra?’ – get answers that have the tone of a pat on the head. ‘Puberty? I am puberty,’ says one. ‘What can you do at 19?’ asks the voice. The usual answers – new freedoms, badges of adulthood: vote, smoke, drink sort of thing – come back.

And so on into middle-age, where identities are expressed through ‘sensible’ clothes and drawn-on facial hair. The voice orders an improvisation; a drinks party with home-made sushi (marshmallows). There are conversations about old wines and new gadgets; everyone is a bit bored, playing at maturity and acting as they think they should, repressing impulse. At 44, there’s a tiredness about possibilities: they can get divorced, pretend not to be drunk, say ‘in my youth.’ Many have a glimmer of the child’s perspective: ‘I can use a calculator for an easy sum.’ ‘I can make my children wear hats when I’m cold.’

Ok, so you know that most of this has been fed to them. It must have been. No child can see through their parents quite this much, right? These are, essentially, children playing at being adults. It’s a game of dressing up, of mummies and daddies. First and foremost, it thoroughly skewers our own insecurities; that feeling we all share – which presumably never goes away – that deep down we’re ill-equipped and unprepared; that life is nothing but one deep end after another.

Gob Squad make adulthood look absurd. It’s more pronounced in this middle-age section, possibly because teenagers are too easy a target, where adults proper take themselves seriously enough to be a legitimate target.

That absurdity, however, is laced with sadness. It seems a waste. ‘Are you doing the job you dreamed of as a child?’ the voiceover asks. (At least I think it does, though that might have crept in from 100% London.) Even in this childish fantasy version, there is enough familiarity and truthfulness to make it seem a waste of time. This forms a canny concoction: one-part ‘change thy ways before its too late’, another of inevitability and ‘it’s already too late’.

The voiceover creeps in: ‘What was a mysterious and exciting future is now starting to fade. You realise you’re not special. As the world forgets you, as you learn there is no one watching and there never was, you that the only part of you that remains is someone else.’ This is the heart of the matter, the real thrust of the sentimentality: Before Your Very Eyes tells us the truth that we all try so hard to suppress; that slays us emotionally each time we hear it. That the world will carry on without us. We will carry on without our loved ones and they without us. That, as Danny Foster Wallace’s fish discover, this is water.

This, Gob Squad suggest, is the elixir and by 77 – with wrinkles drawn on and grey wigs pulled over tiny heads; with life having drifted into the third conditional, ‘can’ having become ‘could have,’ – there is a newfound freedom. There’s a regenerated sense of play, and death, that favourite childhood game, is approached with relish. The nine run on the spot, up and down in time, until, one by one, they drop out for their moment in the limelight, their final flourish. Death, finally, remains a joke. It is long-drawn-out suffocation or a fit of brain spasms or poisoned apples that choke us to our knees. And ultimately, you realise that there’s no knowing that until it happens and, when it does, there’s no longer any need to know.

This, really is the strength of Before Your Very Eyes. It’s a coruscating heartache and a downcast joy that, in spite of all its existential angst, refreshes your lust for life. Even if it is a bit sentimental.


Run over


Theatre

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Monday 25 June 2012

Half-in and half-out of a dramatic situation

66 Minutes in Damascus, Shoreditch Town Hall, London

LIFT


As you follow your guide towards the tour bus that is due to cart the group around Damascus for a day of activities, you know what’s coming. At some point, round some corner or down some steps, you will be jumped by the Syrian secret police and arrested. You tread gingerly – a faint braced uncertainty in each step – but gamely, even excitedly.

Yet still, when it happens, in a blur of Arabic and English at high volume, it sends your adrenaline shooting up. You stand facing the wall as ordered – palms flat against it, arms outstretched – and you spin around when told. You passively allow these men to place a hood over your head. One by one, you’re walked into a vehicle, which darts off, driving not as London drivers do, but with the bunny-hopping jerks, splutters of speed and heaving brakes of elsewhere and urgency.

What does it mean for theatre to simulate an arrest at the hands of the Syrian secret police in a similar way that paintballing might simulate a warzone? At one level, this is how Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus works. It’s an adrenaline rush an RPG that’s closer to reality – or what you image a particular reality to be like – than a first person computer game. In these terms, it’s problematic.

Looked at unquestioningly, 66 Minutes in Damascus offers an audience safe environment to experience something that would, were it to happen us in real life, be life-threatening and traumatic. Something you definitely wouldn’t want to undergo. That experience is – both inevitably and knowingly – a pale imitation of its real-world counterpart. There’s certainly a game being played between performers and audience, but the production exists first and foremost not to thrill or entertain, as theatrical fairground ride. Like the Medal of Honor game set in Afghanistan, it runs the real risk of cheapening and disrespecting those involved. Nevertheless, its intentions are, I believe good: it exists primarily to instil empathy for those undergoing the experience for real, to raise awareness and understanding of that reality in visceral terms.

When your hood is eventually removed, you are lined up in a makeshift office underground. An army official sits behind a desk eating a tomato, another trace of this exotic elsewhere. He asks our names and what we’re doing in Syria; what we know about Syria. He corrects our answers with the Assad government line, stressing the country’s free health services and education. Little wonder that 97% of the population voted for him at the last election, he says, blithely. Why are we here? One of us must be the reporter that’s been sending missives back to London. He and his men will find out and, from here, we’re marched around, ordered against more walls, threatened and locked in rooms with various other prisoners.

Given the thrill factor, I couldn’t help but remember BADAC’s 2008 Edinburgh Fringe offering The Factory (also known as The Show That Broke Immersive Theatre). For the benefit of those lucky enough to have avoided this seminal travesty, it was essentially a holocaust-themed walkthrough that attempted to evoke the experiences of concentration camp internees for its audience. Cast as the incarcerated, we were barked at, ordered to ‘fucking move’, and shepherded into a small room that stood in for a gas chamber. Basically, it was unutterably naïve, but that didn’t prevent it from also being unforgivably offensive.

Bourjeily’s piece looks equivalent – a crass mock-up of a moment in peril for those unlikely to have experienced anything like it in reality – but it’s not quite. For starters, unlike the unreachable trauma of the holocaust, the events being simulated in 66 Minutes are ongoing. The Factory was really an exercise in indulgent sentimentality. Bourjeily’s piece can at least justify itself as a sort of awareness-raising activism. It can conceivably have an effect beyond dead-end self-flagellation. It’s not like anyone was on the fence about the holocaust.

Beyond that, however, the dramaturgy in 66 Minutes is actually far more complex than mere simulation. It’s self-aware; knowing even. It relies on feeling like an RPG or multisensory first-person camera shot. Indeed, its very success hinges on its own fakeness. It functions half-in and half-out of its dramatic situation, so that it can treat us as captives and theatregoers, as characters and ourselves, simultaneously. ‘What are the Syrian people to you?’ the army official demands of us, ‘A night at the theatre?’ Well, yes. There is an implicit criticism of our even playing the game, of the thrill the show induces.

That blurring of our role allows Bourjeily his best hand. He manages to equate the rules of the guard-prisoner relationship with those of performer-audience. So just as the prisoner is expected to comply with the guard, the audience member is expected to do as the performers require. At the same time, Bourjeily leaves us enough room to feel like we are pushing against the edges of the piece and, in the process, rebelling against our guards.

First, in the office, his cast let us laugh at the contrivance of the event. Rather than immediately shouting down any such transgressions and therefore increasing resistance, as BADAC’s piece did, the guard patiently asks what’s funny and waits for us to take it – and him (event and character) – seriously. Later, when we are left unattended, ordered to remain with our hands against the wall, we start to tentatively explore our new surroundings, be they corridor or cell. Nonetheless, every time we think we hear a guard’s approach, we spring back into line, rank and file and absolutely compliant. There’s an uncertainty about what might happen and an unwillingness to find out. Finally, we are in some way broken: hooded and led back into the real world, we are left standing against a wall. It takes a while before we realise that we are free once more.

Bourjeily’s comfort with – even reliance on – this duality actually makes his production far more robust. We stop laughing at its contrivances and accept its improbabilities, such as the prisoner who claims to be the first protestor in Syria, having spent twenty years imprisoned in the dark. Moreover, it allows Bourjeily the right to include more theatrical modes of presentation, monologues designed to pass on socio-political information in character. Yet, there is also an astonishing authenticity here: when audience members ask questions in Arabic, actors reply in kind and happily improvise answers, while veering gently back to the meat of their particular scene. It’s remarkably flexible as theatrical event.

What the form can’t do, of course, is arm you with the necessary stats, figures and case-studies to offer a cogent evaluation of the situation in Syria. Instead it confronts. What it does rather well is confront you with your own assumptions and received opinions. It forces you to be honest with yourself about it and to consider Syria at both micro and macro levels, zoomed in to its streets and against a wider global context. Perhaps the visceral experience – even watered down thus – is harder to shake off than the stats of verbatim theatre and the sentiment of staged stories, in which case, it might just push you into action when the simulation stops.


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Another level or another place

The Coming Storm, Battersea Arts Centre, London

LIFT


The Coming Storm starts on solid ground, with the sort of list that Forced Entertainment can keep up for the best part of a year. Terri O’Connor churns through all the various things – from beginnings, middles and endings to twists and turns and tribes in conflict – needed for a good story.

Of course, this being Forced Entertainment, they then proceed to break those rules. It’s an old technique of theirs: set the bar, take a run up and hurtle into it, breaking the bar in the process. What makes The Coming Storm quite so clever is that it goes a level further. We know with Forced Entertainment that we ought to keep an eye on the story of the show itself, the path of that breakdown. The Coming Storm refuses even to break with a satisfactory dramaturgy. Even the story of the show itself is a meandering and confused narrative, that staggers step by step like a concussed drunkard until eventually it just finds a place to stop.

That takes a while to emerge and for quite a while I rather hated The Coming Storm. It looked like a classic case of their characteristic chaos and sabotage masquerading as failure. It all felt rather contrived and not a little tired. By the end, I rather fell in love with it. In fact, I’d argue that, though it’s a slow-burner, it’s destined to become one of their more seminal pieces, precisely because it attacks the neatness of their previous attacks on theatrical convention.

After that first prescriptive list, they immediately set about telling stories that don’t conform. Absurdly implausible stories about IT specialists, Somali pirates and dragon battles. Banal stories about the standard working days of branch librarians. Hackneyed stories, distracted tangential stories, stories that qualify every detail, stories that can’t get going and so on. As each narrative breaks down, another performer grabs the microphone with a sarky or half-hearted ‘Thanks’ and starts another of their own.

And, of course, we all get it. Many of the audience studied Forced Entertainment at university. We know about And on the Thousandth Night and Void Story. We understand the company’s mistrust of narrative and linearity. We get the humour and we laugh a little too loudly and knowingly. So far, so Forced Entz. (Hell, we even call them by a loving nickname. We’re all friends here.)

As these stories – the who, what, where, why of which is pretty much arbitrary – other performers draw the attention away. They start to set things up and put on bits of costume: the usual shoddy wigs and crumpled masks. Someone starts to play a drumbeat. It looks like a standard case of the company’s one-upmanship, of undermining what ought to be central and so ‘breaking’ the theatrical event.

Actually, though, it leaves the conventions just intact enough to survive, so that various elements – words, music, costume, actions – start to chime with one another and entwine. Stories attach themselves to things onstage. They gain atmosphere from the music. Characters seem to be embodied. Our mind makes connections and assume significance, reading the one in terms of other. Labels start to stick, so that a bare-chested man in a Freddie Kruger mask could be the killer, a woman shimmying in a gold dress a seaside showgirl and so one.

Yet, as the story switches those same beats and ‘characters’ stick around. One story’s killer now seems another’s love-interest. A sentimental piano score is underpinning a chase sequence.

There’s no denying the skill and delicacy with which all this is achieved: a tiny turn of the head can ‘accidentally’ attract a label, a certain arrangement of two bickering performers makes them suddenly lovers and so on. In fact, the effect has parallels with the techniques in Gatz, where labels can attach themselves to a seemingly inappropriate signifier due to some shared quality.

Stories, sights and sound slip out of sync, like a one-armed bandit coming up lemon, bell, pistols and still paying out. Robin Arthur, by now dressed in a black flame-edged shirt and a boyish blonde wig, having assumed this character named Killer, keeps stopping the speaker mid-flow, asking to be included in the story somehow.

Where Void Story broke its story’s back by pumping it so full of plot that it bloated and burst, The Coming Storm overloads itself with signification until the bronco bucks. It looks to attack the ways we tell stories; their reliance on familiar tropes and singularity, whereby villains are one thing and lovers another; but also the coerciveness of narrative neatness, momentum and satisfaction, the way the story starts to dictate its own terms.

Every now and then Cathy pops up and asks the speaker, so that we might better visualise the story, which Hollywood actor might play each role. At one point Richard Lowdon’s critically-ill mother, who looks like (and therefore somehow is) a pirate, is also Elizabeth Taylor and Brad Pitt his friend, so they end up at Brad Pitt’s house. Stories distort themselves into lies, you realise, and ultimately confuse where they’re supposed to carry ideas. In fact, you might even ask why stories exist and why we don’t merely express those ideas directly.

Nevertheless – and this is where I really started to buy into it – The Coming Storm doesn’t merely shatter something else, namely story, it starts to unravel on its own terms. This isn’t simply a neat hatchet job that arrives uninvited, breaks conventions and leaves them for dead. It starts that way, but begins to confuse itself, meandering from bit to bit and scene to scene in a drunken zigzag. It makes you lose your bearings. You know where you started. That was definite, but now Cathy’s exhausting her knowledge of Russian and Richard’s dressed as an old man and there’s a full-blown band and a crocodile gnawing on Richard’s leg and Robin’s just wondering around the stage as if trying to find a place to fit in.

We’re used to finding the story of the show itself in Forced Entertainment’s work; the narrative of the theatrical event as it breaks down. Brilliantly, here even that story bamboozles itself; any ordinary sense of dramaturgy, whereby elements recur and illuminate one another, slips away and the whole frustrates our sense of story precisely by not conforming to those rules laid out at the start. It’s like theatre with Slowly Progressive Dementia.

The Coming Storm is dizzying, but only retrospectively so. Each sequence emerges quite cohesively from its antecedent, but the overall just meanders. It’s rather like a word puzzle where you start with one word and, by changing one letter at a time, end up at another.

STORY
STORK
STARK
STARE
SCARE
SCALE
SHALE
SHARE
SHANE
SHANK
THANK…

…and so on.

Of course, in spite of this, your mind still clutches for meaning and, in trying to impose something like narrative, you start chucking out the square pegs and ignoring any irritating exceptions. For me, the central recurring motif was about age and aging and death – a thought that I’d carried into the auditorium myself. It began to look like the company were struggling with their own process, that they were too old for this shit and too bogged down by their own history, as seen in the constant reflexivity of The Coming Storm’s references (Bloody Mess, Void Story, And on the Thousandth Night, 12am Awake and Looking Down, Who Will Sing a Song etc etc). As the real world starts to bleed in there’s a morose, defeated quality, a sense that the socio-political situation of 27 years ago has returned with a vengeance. There’s also a concern with legacy, with their own story as a company and the singularity of that definition.

All this is in its wending on beyond breakdown to exasperation. ‘That was inevitable,’ snaps Cathy as a wig is smacked on her head. Robin’s still wondering around, trying to find a way in. Elton and Brad and Nicole have set the agenda, while those who have sought to tell the truth are resigned: ‘This doesn’t matter,’ someone says, before the trump off the stage, leaving two women playing the piano with ‘a kind of optimistic melancholy’.

Of course, the show ultimately disproves that jadedness. Just when you think you’ve got Forced Entertainment pinned, however, they take it to another level or another place.


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Tuesday 19 June 2012

‘Horrible, horrible!’

The Rest is Silence, Riverside Studios(ish), London

A buzzing, somewhat bemused audience is coaxed inside a black warehouse, lit only by dim strip lights. Massive, dull mirrors flank every wall, boxing us in and creating endless rows of reflections. Some spectators try to mingle but this is an environment designed for lonely, quiet souls. As we shuffle nervously about, those looming mirrors lend an air of interrogation. It feels like we’re being watched. It feels like we’re in trouble.

This uneasy spell is eventually broken by a video clip, projected against a line of mirrors. We watch a sombre chap stroll through an orchard and recognise him as Claudius (providing, of course, you know Hamlet. If you don’t, I’m not convinced this is the show for you). This projection of a prowling Claudius bounces off the cage of mirrors, his ‘foul murder’ played out over and over again. It’s a simple but fiercely suggestive opening to dreamthinkspeak’s The Rest is Silence, which immediately blows away the cobwebs that so often cling to adaptations of the play. It sure as hell beats the normal stumbling around in the dark, which often makes for such a dismally predictable opening. 

In fact, Tristan Sharps’ inventive and rigorous set is one of the most thematically useful designs I’ve ever encountered. The enclosed environment creates a cloyingly claustrophobic atmosphere, the surrounding mirrors induce a tingling paranoia and the dancing reflections suggest a world of endlessly spiralling consequence, beyond everyone’s control – particularly poor old Hamlet’s.

And yet… For all the innovations here and some gorgeous, enveloping visuals this is essentially a cerebral experience; a show that gets you thinking but never really wriggles right into your heart. Still, there are some very smart touches, which make Shakespeare’s language fizz in exciting new ways.

Many of the play’s more famous speeches are handled in a surprising and illuminating fashion.‘To be or not to be’ is split amongst the entire cast: Gertrude weeps as she scans her son’s diary, Claudius reads the speech as if it’s an amateur essay and Polonius ponders Hamlet’s words, alone in his study. With each character sectioned off in a glass booth, we’re left to roam and rediscover this speech at our own pace, lingering at the interpretations that hit us hardest. The lighting is also used to clever effect. The ghost’s speech is whispered, tremblingly, in absolute darkness. Never have those words – ‘Horrible, horrible!’ - frightened quite so much.

The brain dances happily, playing with countless new interpretations but the heart stays fairly still. Hamlet might sit, spotlit and sad, for much of the show but his clawing grief and frustrations never quite reach us. Ophelia’s madness – always rushed but here played out at an insane pace – simply doesn’t make sense and the complex relationship between Hamlet and his mother never really materialises.

Even the penetrative designs starts to lose its gloss. Initially fascinating and always lively, this gloomy prison begins to feel a touch safe, even conventional. It might be strange and new but this is ultimately quite a rigid space, hemmed in by its own rules and invisible walls. One longs for the actors, trapped inside their private booths of misery, to smash through the glass and grab us by the throat.


Till 23 June 2012


Theatre

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Wednesday 6 June 2012

CW editorial note - 6 June 2012

Not the same old stories

Not the same old stories

This week in London theatre, Matt Trueman reviews Yukio Ninagawa’s Cymbeline at the Barbican, Polly Findlay’s Antigone at the National Theatre and Peter Brook’s The Suit at the Young Vic, while in opera, Timandra Harkness reviews Detlev Glanert’s Caligula at the ENO, following Sarah Boyes’ review of The Flying Dutchman last month.

6 June


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Just the story

The Suit, Young Vic, London

Is Brookian an adjective? You know, in line with Brechtian or Stanislavskian? Perhaps it’s better to say Brookist or Brookite. Brookish? Whatever the word, for better and worse, The Suit is perfectly, absolutely, unconditionally it.

A revised and translated version of Le Costume, seen at the Young Vic in 2001, it aims for simplicity in everything it does. These days Peter Brook’s theatre is a sort of ur-theatre, a deliberate return to a more primitive form. It strips out the conventions and shorthand that have accumulated in search of genuine communication between these performers and this audience.

Instead, Brook and his co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne build a stage language from scratch, reliant on play and recognition. There is no ego here. Whatever works best is used. Other directors would reject ‘Summertime’ as cliché. Brook accepts it as powerful and clear.

It’s instructive to compare Brook to Sebastian Nübling, because both want the same thing: to make each moment as effective as possible. However, they set about that task in opposite ways. Where Nübling adds, Brook takes away. One is composite, the other triple-filtered to remove any trace of impurity. The Suit wants nothing more (and nothing less) than to tell you a story as best it can.

That story – fable is probably more precise – is one by South African writer Can Themba and in it, a husband discovers his wife’s adultery and subsequently forces her to treat her lover’s abandoned suit as a human being. It is a story, we’re told, that couldn’t happen in a community that didn’t live ‘under the iron first of oppression’. Here, that’s is the black community just west of Johannesberg, who are increasingly squished into a cramped township.

Brook doesn’t stress the point – there is never a flagged moment to say ‘this is key’ – but Philemon consistently finds others in his place. Bursting for the toilet, he finds it occupied. Waiting for the bus, two pass without stopping – either full or on account of his colour – and when the third finally stops, it’s rammed. Trains home are so full that, each payday, men return home having lost their earnings to pickpockets. Then, of course, there is the other man in his bed.

It is out of this enforced routine of sardines that Philemon’s act of punishment springs. It is an echo of the social order, whereby one can demand obedience from another. It is learned behaviour, though it springs from nature.

William Nadylam’s Philemon recognises this fully. He addresses us when delivering his sentence and, though chiefly serving to maintain distance between actor and character, he seems unable to look his wife in the eye. As if he knows the cruelty of his action – and yet, each time, he cannot stop himself. His face becomes a neutral mask that suggests both shame and relish at once.

Brook even manages to make the punishment seem, at times, noble, even merciful. When Philemon forces Matilda for a stroll with the suit on her arm, the humiliation she feels is real, but it is also imagined, since no-one else is any the wiser. It is a private shame between them and yet – and this is perhaps the crux – Philemon cannot remain entirely detached forever. He must, inevitably, overstep his mark. No man or woman has the right nor the constitution, it seems, to stand in judgement over any other.

This is all well and good, but the Young Vic is not the right context for it. Without wanting to sound snobbish, though inevitably immediately doing so, the fable lacks the sophistication that this particular audience (I generalise, of course) craves. Yet Brook aims to provide, as best as possible, just the story. He aims to do away with the game of hide and seek, of coding and decoding that characterises most theatre. He wants to tell us straight so that we won’t miss the point.

We, in turn, end up admiring that technique – the how rather than the what – and it precisely the transparency and the purity of The Suit that proves distracting. Brook has, in effect, made the simple storytelling show par excellence and we end up marvelling at the excellent simplicity of the telling rather than the story itself.


Till 16 June 2012


Theatre

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An amalgamation of dictators and democrats

Antigone, National Theatre (Olivier), London

Antigone endures because it is both direct and malleable. Its cycle of action – decree, defiance, retaliation, comeuppance – is simple enough to gain specificity without dilution or contortion. Sophocles’ play will resonate somehow, somewhere forever.

Antigone’s burial of her brother, which has been expressly forbidden, can stand for any and every act of principled defiance. Creon’s unwavering decree that she be punished is every instance of affronted retaliation, of leadership elevated above the people it represents.

Polly Findlay’s production manages all this, but the closer you look the more problematic it seems. From a distance, you get a gutsy political thriller with punch enough to grip and nous enough to avoid lazy extremes of good and bad, right and wrong. Christopher Eccleston’s Creon is an elected official whose self-righteous conviction has obliterated his sense of public duty. Three times, he is presented with the opportunity to make a U-turn and three times he dismisses advice. On one occasion, he’s seems to unchange his mind simply because someone questions him. Meanwhile, Jodie Whitacker’s Antigone is driven by her own interests, rather than the urge to publically protest and martyr herself to a cause.

Findlay sets out to present a modern political machine. She sets the action in Creon’s staff offices (impressively designed by Soutra Gilmour). Her chorus is of military advisors, pollsters and spin doctors, with the aim of always preserving the infallibility of the dear leader. Indeed, Findlay gives us the first chorus as a press release dictated. However that spin has spread to Creon’s head and he believes his own hype. It is telling that his son Haemon precedes his criticisms with cautious flattery: ‘It is not for me to say you are wrong.’

This Antigone comes via The West Wing. It is full of political intrigue and tactical power-play. There’s certainly urgency and momentum, despite three flatly directed acts that are suddenly enlivened by Jamie Ballard’s chilling and guttural Tiresias, his face melted into a minefield of welts and pustules, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Messenger. The constant sense of bustle, of people with jobs to do, ferrying papers, chewing pens and chain smoking, ups the ante with a sense of unseen implications.

Nevertheless, beneath this archetypal political machine, is actually a collage effect. Eccleston’s Creon is a composite creation, first seen with huddled round a television screen with his security team, just like Obama, and later speechifying in the smooth stutter of Tony Blair. Indeed, the actor often seems more concerned with mimicry than emotional truth and thought processes. At the same time, his soldiers, staff and son all quiver before him, wary of his unchecked whims and unilateral decisions. Eccleston handles the part like Mr Potato Head, assembling attributes into a pick’n’mix whole. This Creon is an amalgamation of dictators and democrats.

Of course, there’s political oomph in that – and it’s the likes of Obama and Blair who come off worse than the Assads and Mubaraks – but these moments are broadly tokenistic. They don’t really add up to concrete critique and Findlay still wants to talk in general terms. Any bristle of recognition is an end in itself: neat, but signifying far less than the swirl of accompanying connotations. Findlay risks confusing her critique.

Above all else, Findlay is interested in entertaining with a cracking political thriller. She is, however, so in thrall to the televisual that she ends up referencing references, rather than the world itself. She works with dramatic tropes – Antigone and Ismene plotting while pinned to a concrete wall or interrogated while cuffed back to back – rather than seeking a genuine human truth. Perhaps that’s a good solution to Greek tragedy’s heightened style. Perhaps its an indictment of the media’s total pervasiveness.

Either way, Findlay always seems to be referencing a reference and, onstage, the dramatic world she creates tips into a distraction. The retro seventies aesthetic of cardigans and analogue adds nothing beyond an instagram shabby chic. It avoids the problem of modern technology, but it also makes the innate gender tensions – ruling men, subordinate women etc – seem a thing of the past.

If none of these loose threads snag, Findlay’s production looks impressive – punchy, clear, accessible and, above all, thrilling. But it just can’t stand up to scrutiny and its lack of specificity is fatal.


Till 21 July 2012


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Clearly, he is mad

Caligula, ENO, Coliseum, London

Music by Detlev Glanert, libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel after the play by Albert Camus


‘Our lives are pointless, so our deaths are pointless,’ sings Caligula, as his terrified subjects dine with him, turning a blind eye to the rapes and murders he commits in their presence. And Peter Coleman-Wright’s Caligula is a terrifying force, mad, amoral and apparently unstoppable.

It starts in silence, with a hand around the lush velvet curtains of the Coliseum. A dishevelled Caligula emerges to stare at us. Behind the curtains, a bank of seats faces us, orange plastic stadium seating, empty. Then the work begins with Caligula’s anguished shout, tortured strings and a high, screaming wind section over kettledrums like a racing heart. And the heartbeat is a theme that runs through the piece, forcing us to stay inside the madman’s view of the world, sharing his crisis of the meaninglessness of everything – after the death of his sister Drusilla, who haunts the stage as a veiled, naked figure.

Some dictators appear onstage as charismatic figures, drawing us along till we are horrified at our own capacity to consent to their domination. This one is different. True, those around him are paralysed by inaction, at one point echoing Waiting For Godot – ‘What are we waiting for? ... We’ll wait for ever.’ ‘Indeed we will’. But we’re not invited inside their minds or souls.

Caligula keeps asking his slave Helicon (the magnificent countertenor Christopher Ainslie) to bring him the Moon. He looks at himself in a round mirror that grows bigger throughout the opera till he can hold it above his head and look back at the entire audience, as if hanging above the world, looking down. He is utterly disengaged from reality, at one point staging a performance playing Venus like a grotesque pantomime dame.

Clearly, he is mad. And clearly, as body bags pile up and terrified citizens pay homage, a lethal dictator. But it is his deranged view of the world that we’re invited inside. He keeps telling himself to be logical, as if the only logical outcome of life’s lack of meaning is meaningless death, inflicted on a whim. But the music belies this madman’s world where nothing matters. The heartbeat, sometimes more like marching boots or the feet of a running crowd, is a visceral common rhythm. Jagged brass and lyrical strings take us into both the madman’s anguish and the horror he’s inflicting around him. Full of passion, warmth and humanity, it asserts our capacity to feel and to care what happens.

Yes, the passive Romans who never act against their dictator are culpable. But Caligula’s murderous madness is also a horrible warning of what a world without meaning looks like.


Till June 14 June 2012


MusicOpera

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Fathers and sons

Cymbeline, Barbican, London

Most of Shakespeare’s plots fall effortlessly into place. His loose ends tie themselves together almost of their accord. Lovers waltz into one another’s arms. Just deserts are dished out. In Cymbeline, however, you feel the playwright begin to sweat. He has to wrestle the plot into shape. Each time he pins one flailing narrative strand down, another gets away from him. He cycles through his trusty dramaturgical armoury, chucking in all the usual tricks in the hope that one will unlock the whole. Long-lost children? No. Cross-gender disguise? No. Sleeping potion? Love token? Headless corpse? No, no, no.

Yes, it’s a bit of a pastoral-comical-historical-tragical mish-mash, but Cymbeline’s real problem is that it meanders fairly arbitrarily towards a mawkish conclusion. Yukio Ninagawa can’t solve that, but he has found a thematic link that runs throughout. He reveals Cymbeline as a study of parent-child relationships.

He marks Rome, where Posthumous retreats in exile, with a vast statue of Romulus and Remus, suckling at the she-wolf that raised them. The two orphans are paralleled by Cymbeline’s own lost sons, Avriragus and Guiderius, raised wild in Miltford Haven by the banished Belarius.

Cymbeline rules as a tyrant, it seems, because of that loss. Kohtaloh Yoshida enters draped in wolf skins and thrashing his sword left and right; he’s a dervish of a monarch. Even when he stops still, his courtiers stand braced in self-defence, waiting for the next outburst.

Before long, though, Cymbeline has lost his two other children: Imogen, because she has run off in the hope of joining Posthumous, and Cloten, a doltish wolf-cub in white, in pursuit. His identity as a father affects that of the king and his personal grief impacts upon the whole nation. As the Brits and Romans clash swords in battle, the sounds of a crying child and an air raid siren blend; each of these men is someone’s son, many are fathers themselves.

Ninagawa locates the Royal family’s reunion under a single pine, changing the text’s cedar to echo the single tree left standing after last year’s tsunami. It puts a real gloss on the final chink of optimism. In March, a year on, there were still more than 3,000 missing persons in Japan. As the clouds clear, the very absurd improbability of Cymbeline’s plot serves to increase the hopefulness of the final reunion.

Nevertheless, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters are myth’s building blocks and to foreground these archetypal relationships, Ninagawa is forced to simplify. In Tsukasa Nakagoshi’s design, the production drifts towards the fur coats and forged metal of Game of Thrones. That’s only furthered by the twist of superhumanity Ninagawa owes to Manga. Hiroshi Abe’s Posthumous looks nearly 7ft tall and, in battle, strides despite three arrows through his chest. For all that the might of Rome, armed like medieval crusaders, looks like a pointedly unstoppable invading force, the shift to fantasy overwhelms both the political and personal in the play. As such, the play only comes together in its latter stages and, though it hits an exquisite final note, Ninagawa’s production struggles in the build-up.


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One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

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Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
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pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences


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London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
TATE ONLINE
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
Eyestorm
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
WRITING FROM LIVE ART
A Live Art UK initiative

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Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
TATE ONLINE
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
Eyestorm
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
WRITING FROM LIVE ART
A Live Art UK initiative

Art Monthly, taking art apart since 1976

Artangel
pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical

Contemporary Writers
New writers, new works, databased by the British Council

Pen Pusher
London-based free literary magazine

Story
Celebrate the short story!

Orange Prize
Only the fairer sex need apply

Man Booker Prize
Literary Prize of the Finest Quality

Granta
The up and coming speak

The Bookseller
Infused with news from the world of books

International Pen
Writers around the world campaign for freedom of expression

Serpent’s Tail
Independent publisher for experimental voices

Random House
Fiction from the biggest publisher around

Edinburgh Book Festival
Books books and discussing books galore

Jewish Book Week
Celebrating, discussing and critiquing Jewish Lit


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Contemporary Writers
New writers, new works, databased by the British Council

Pen Pusher
London-based free literary magazine

Story
Celebrate the short story!

Orange Prize
Only the fairer sex need apply

Man Booker Prize
Literary Prize of the Finest Quality

Granta
The up and coming speak

The Bookseller
Infused with news from the world of books

International Pen
Writers around the world campaign for freedom of expression

Serpent’s Tail
Independent publisher for experimental voices

Random House
Fiction from the biggest publisher around

Edinburgh Book Festival
Books books and discussing books galore

Jewish Book Week
Celebrating, discussing and critiquing Jewish Lit


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Music scholar Cara Bleiman takes a look at the political potential of music past and present in an essay, striking chords

Sarah Boyes asks What Does Music Mean? in a Battle in Print

Frank Furedi looks at the role of truth in music over recent years

Gramaphone Magazine
Established, incisive classical music magazine

BBC Music
Listen by genre and read all about it!

British Music Information Centre
All about 20th and 21st century music

Classic,net
Heady internet resource for exploring all things classical

Royal College of Music
Events, research, hire a musician

tradmusic.com
Scottish, Irish and World music resource

Music Manifesto
New Labour dumbing down music education

Busk Action
Small group with BIG aims to deregulate busking

Royal Albert Hall
Classical music and shows

English National Opera
Britain’s only full time repertory opera company!

Royal Opera House
Music, ballet, theatre and a very big building

No Music Day
Imagine a day with no music…


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
TATE ONLINE
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
Eyestorm
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
WRITING FROM LIVE ART
A Live Art UK initiative

Art Monthly, taking art apart since 1976

Artangel
pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
TATE ONLINE
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
Eyestorm
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
WRITING FROM LIVE ART
A Live Art UK initiative

Art Monthly, taking art apart since 1976

Artangel
pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
TATE ONLINE
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
Eyestorm
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
WRITING FROM LIVE ART
A Live Art UK initiative

Art Monthly, taking art apart since 1976

Artangel
pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Music scholar Cara Bleiman takes a look at the political potential of music past and present in an essay, striking chords

Sarah Boyes asks What Does Music Mean? in a Battle in Print

Frank Furedi looks at the role of truth in music over recent years

Gramaphone Magazine
Established, incisive classical music magazine

BBC Music
Listen by genre and read all about it!

British Music Information Centre
All about 20th and 21st century music

Classic,net
Heady internet resource for exploring all things classical

Royal College of Music
Events, research, hire a musician

tradmusic.com
Scottish, Irish and World music resource

Music Manifesto
New Labour dumbing down music education

Busk Action
Small group with BIG aims to deregulate busking

Royal Albert Hall
Classical music and shows

English National Opera
Britain’s only full time repertory opera company!

Royal Opera House
Music, ballet, theatre and a very big building

No Music Day
Imagine a day with no music…


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

BBC News
Economist.com
CNN
Guardian ‘comment is free’
Telegraph blogs
Times Online blogs
bookforum.com
Arts & Letters Daily



Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
TATE ONLINE
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
Eyestorm
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
WRITING FROM LIVE ART
A Live Art UK initiative

Art Monthly, taking art apart since 1976

Artangel
pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Music scholar Cara Bleiman takes a look at the political potential of music past and present in an essay, striking chords

Sarah Boyes asks What Does Music Mean? in a Battle in Print

Frank Furedi looks at the role of truth in music over recent years

Gramaphone Magazine
Established, incisive classical music magazine

BBC Music
Listen by genre and read all about it!

British Music Information Centre
All about 20th and 21st century music

Classic,net
Heady internet resource for exploring all things classical

Royal College of Music
Events, research, hire a musician

tradmusic.com
Scottish, Irish and World music resource

Music Manifesto
New Labour dumbing down music education

Busk Action
Small group with BIG aims to deregulate busking

Royal Albert Hall
Classical music and shows

English National Opera
Britain’s only full time repertory opera company!

Royal Opera House
Music, ballet, theatre and a very big building

No Music Day
Imagine a day with no music…


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
TATE ONLINE
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
Eyestorm
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
WRITING FROM LIVE ART
A Live Art UK initiative

Art Monthly, taking art apart since 1976

Artangel
pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Contemporary Writers
New writers, new works, databased by the British Council

Pen Pusher
London-based free literary magazine

Story
Celebrate the short story!

Orange Prize
Only the fairer sex need apply

Man Booker Prize
Literary Prize of the Finest Quality

Granta
The up and coming speak

The Bookseller
Infused with news from the world of books

International Pen
Writers around the world campaign for freedom of expression

Serpent’s Tail
Independent publisher for experimental voices

Random House
Fiction from the biggest publisher around

Edinburgh Book Festival
Books books and discussing books galore

Jewish Book Week
Celebrating, discussing and critiquing Jewish Lit


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

BBC News
Economist.com
CNN
Guardian ‘comment is free’
Telegraph blogs
Times Online blogs
bookforum.com
Arts & Letters Daily



Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Battle of Ideas

Institute of Contemporary Arts

Intelligence Squared

Gresham College

LSE Public Lectures

Fabian Society Events

Exhibitions and Talks at the British Library



Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for this year’s Battle of Ideas festival.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
IMDB - does exactly what it says on the tin

BFI
British Film Institute’s Finest

BFI’s Sight and Sound
World cinema eating its heart out

They shoot pictures, don’t they?
Dedicated to the art of directing

Barbican Film
Some of the most innovative films in town

ICA Film
Independent, political and art-house gorge-fest

National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Music scholar Cara Bleiman takes a look at the political potential of music past and present in an essay, striking chords

Sarah Boyes asks What Does Music Mean? in a Battle in Print

Frank Furedi looks at the role of truth in music over recent years

Gramaphone Magazine
Established, incisive classical music magazine

BBC Music
Listen by genre and read all about it!

British Music Information Centre
All about 20th and 21st century music

Classic,net
Heady internet resource for exploring all things classical

Royal College of Music
Events, research, hire a musician

tradmusic.com
Scottish, Irish and World music resource

Music Manifesto
New Labour dumbing down music education

Busk Action
Small group with BIG aims to deregulate busking

Royal Albert Hall
Classical music and shows

English National Opera
Britain’s only full time repertory opera company!

Royal Opera House
Music, ballet, theatre and a very big building

No Music Day
Imagine a day with no music…


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Music scholar Cara Bleiman takes a look at the political potential of music past and present in an essay, striking chords

Sarah Boyes asks What Does Music Mean? in a Battle in Print

Frank Furedi looks at the role of truth in music over recent years

Gramaphone Magazine
Established, incisive classical music magazine

BBC Music
Listen by genre and read all about it!

British Music Information Centre
All about 20th and 21st century music

Classic,net
Heady internet resource for exploring all things classical

Royal College of Music
Events, research, hire a musician

tradmusic.com
Scottish, Irish and World music resource

Music Manifesto
New Labour dumbing down music education

Busk Action
Small group with BIG aims to deregulate busking

Royal Albert Hall
Classical music and shows

English National Opera
Britain’s only full time repertory opera company!

Royal Opera House
Music, ballet, theatre and a very big building

No Music Day
Imagine a day with no music…


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The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
IMDB - does exactly what it says on the tin

BFI
British Film Institute’s Finest

BFI’s Sight and Sound
World cinema eating its heart out

They shoot pictures, don’t they?
Dedicated to the art of directing

Barbican Film
Some of the most innovative films in town

ICA Film
Independent, political and art-house gorge-fest

National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

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BBC News
Economist.com
CNN
Guardian ‘comment is free’
Telegraph blogs
Times Online blogs
bookforum.com
Arts & Letters Daily



Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.