A poetic vision of human nature and our existential struggle to forge the middle ground between body and soul. After writing his (in)famous A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams gave birth to Summer and Smoke in 1948, and The London Magazine had the pleasure of attending the latest adaptation by director Rebecca Frecknall held at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Summer and Smoke begins as an unruly exploration on human appetites, specifically focusing on sexual appetites and how suppressed desires can formulate into nervous dispositions.
Patsy Ferran did a superb job of embodying William’s Alma Winemiller – a frantic, naive and anxious being plagued by constant panic attacks and a permanently jittery disposition. Unable to understand her primal desires, she is simultaneously traumatised and aroused by even the slightest sexual inclination from her male peers. We come to find that her overly sensitive attitude is rather jarring, wanting her to act out on the primal desires that she fails to acknowledge rather than restricting herself in her need for piety and self-preservation. Though she possesses a humorous undertone, Alma is at large a devastating mirror for women carrying the burden of shame imposed by a rather soulless patriarchal world.
Where Alma centres around the soul, William’s John Buchanan represents bodily desires. John is the personification of vibrant male energy turned wild in a stagnant and entrapping society. Matthew Needham‘s performance was powerful enough that the audience actually suffers as we witness John lead a path of selfishness, leaving only devastation and destruction in his wake. He, the archetypal southern man, is completely opposite to the prim and proper archetypal southern woman who is innocent, delicate, devotional and self-sacrificial. Male culture loud and exciting against the sheepishness of domestication. Always judging one another, and yet, the irony is that both are acting out of fear, though it is a fear for completely different things.
“… We operate under the misguided belief that the soul is bodiless, and the body is soulless..”
The two juxtaposing psychologies establish the uneasy link between the body and the soul at the heart of all human experience. We operate under the misguided belief that the soul is bodiless, and the body is soulless. Spirit and flesh against each other. Rather, the two require a co-existence which we do not allow for. Christianity demanding humility and purity where male tradition demands competitiveness and aggressiveness, the two are never given the space to intertwine.
Summer and Smoke’s second act is centred around metamorphosis, as self-destructive tendencies reach a devastating climax.
The emotional presence of Patsy Ferran playing Alma was pretty outstanding as she shifts from nervous, frantic, and jittery into a deeply melancholic sadness. Loneliness and rejection are at the heart of her metamorphosis, with no stable personality possible in such a hostile and confining environment. We knew that change was going to come as John presented the audience with the idea that alma possesses a trapped doppelgänger at the beginning of the play – the second half is thus our witnessing of the doppelgänger gradually coming into consciousness. Alma becomes defiant against authority, and as cold emotionally, spiritually and verbally as winter, her suppressed desires becoming explicit as she recognizes her own divided nature.
“Tell them I’ve changed, and you’re waiting to see in what way” she exclaims.
Much to our dismay, even though Alma moves past propriety and sets a path towards sensual pleasures, John moves towards tradition and away from bodily pleasures. A fatal passing of two ships at night, it seems fated that John and Alma’s two worlds will never collide.
Frecknall’s dimly-lit and atmospheric pays homage to Williams original intention for a more sentimental than realistic world. Frecknall was experimental with her use of prop, occupying the stage with five beautifully rustic grand pianos that provided the acoustic soundtrack. Though we did not witness the extravagant skies and colour harmonies that Williams stressed for, we experienced a new and innovative touch on a classic that highly paid off. The actors valiantly embodied their roles and offered acute representations of Williams symbolic characters – perhaps the only jarring characterisation was the portrayal of the Mexican characters which felt a little outdated in their drunken misogyny, though Frecknall was staying faithful to Williams whose characterisation is a reflection of his times. Nevertheless, Anjanna Vasan provided a beautifully tantalizing portrayal of they young seductress Rosa Gonzales, a familiar face seen in TV series Black Mirror. The passion of our playwright Tennessee Williams was apparent in the very fibres of this recent adaptation.
A heart-breaking play, with a powerful symbolic message on human experience; do not miss Rebecca Frecknall’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams highly-acclaimed Summer and Smoke, running until January 19th.
Words by Briony Willis.
Tennessee Williams Summer and Smoke, Directed by Rebecca Frecknall
Duke of York’s Theatre, Saturday 10th November 2018 – Saturday 19th January 2019
Death and Other Holidays, Marci Vogel, Melville House, November 2018
Award-winning writer, poet and translator Marci Vogel is the author of the poetry collection At the Border of Wilshire and Nobody, and this, her debut work of fiction,won the inaugural Miami Book Fair / de Groot Prize for fiction.
Death and Other Holidays follows a year in the life of April, a young woman attempting to find love in LA while coming to terms with the death of her beloved stepfather.
Set shortly before the millennium, the novella begins with the premise that April will take a photo every day to avoid ‘her memory being erased.’ So each short chapter is a snapshot of a thought, an idea or an event with titles like: Snap, Hydroponic or the intriguing Diagram of Dogs, and often works like a joke with the conventional ‘set up’ then ‘punchline’. It is a gently humorous book tinged with melancholy. Members of April’s large Jewish family are detailed in their idiosyncrasies: Aunt Arlene has one room in her house devoted to ships, Uncle Joe lives alone on a golf course with three king-size beds and four TV sets; cousin Esther can hear the plastic valves in her heart working ‘click-click, click-click’ at night time, and her grandmother won’t leave the kitchen at Passover until her grandson is paid to paint her nails.
When we meet April there’s already been a lot of sadness in her life – she’s loved and lost two fathers: her own father when she was sixteen, and her stepfather Wilson has just died from cancer. Although her best friend, Libby is there to support her, it’s Wilson’s laconic voice with his words of wisdom that she really misses. Over the course of story, April tries out new relationships, but it’s not until halfway through, as she develops her photos in Darkroom, that we see her falling in love: ‘it’s a mystery how I could have been right there and have missed so much … sitting over the pool cross-legged atop the diving board, Hugo’s cousin, Victor, in a halo of sparklers.’ The relationship between Victor and April is one of the many understated pleasures of the book: drying his dog, Victor’s hands are ‘gentle and sure, the way he handled wood, the way he touched me.’
Novelist and short story writer Aimee Bender describes how Vogel builds ‘with lightness and clear eyes a vibrant world of family, love, and loss. Skilful and charming … all made by a voice that trembles between boldness and vulnerability.’ My own experience is that, chapter by chapter this is true, and making Death and Other Holidays a brief but entertaining read.
Exposure, Olivia Sudjic, Pensinsula Press, 2018, pp. 127, £6
Exposure, the new book by Olivia Sudjic, elegantly dissects the multi-layered web of anxieties particular to the age in which we currently live.
Exposure is the third of four impressive pocket essay books by the Peninsula Press, who launched earlier this with the publication David Wojnarowicz’s short fiction collection The Waterfront Journals. My first introduction to the books of the Peninsula Press was Will Harris’ Mixed-Race Superman, which I really loved, and thought was a great addition to the revival of the long-form-essay-as-book form spearheaded among others by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.
But back to the book at hand. Exposure begins by looking at the concept of Saturn’s Return, which, coinciding with your birth, is the astrological period that the planet Saturn takes to orbit the Sun — 29.5 years. Saturn’s Return, writes Sudjic, is a time of immense self-scrutiny and anxiety, and coincides with the cultural anxiety of turning 30.
Sudjic’s own Saturn’s Return occurs in the aftermath of the release of her first novel, the much-acclaimed Sympathy. During this time, Sudjic was staying in an artist’s residency where she became unable to write due to anxiety.
Sudjic goes on to explore the different facets of the anxiety that she was experiencing with zeitgeist-capturing eloquence. She writes about the anxieties of ‘imposter syndrome’, the anxieties caused by the social media age, and about the judgement of female writers from the critical press.
All of these aspects are written about with a fascinting and insightful honesty that anyone who has suffered from anxiety will surely be able to relate to, but it is Sudjic’s writing about this last aspect—the judgement of female writers—that added a different dimension to Exposure which made it feel vital to the moment (if it didn’t already).
Sudjic explores how when men write in the first person, they are considered to be writing fiction of universal truths, whereas when women write in the first person they are accused of self-indulgence. During the time that she describes, Sudjic carries around the work of writers such as Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson and Roxanne Gay as ‘talismans’ which she describes almost as a source of personal protection. She writes of how Roxanne Gay is dismissed as a diarist while the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is not, and of the deeply personal attacks suffered by the writer Rachel Cusk after the publication of her 2012 book Aftermath, which was heavy on emotional revelations. She also writes about the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose decision to keep her identity secret has led to accusations that she is, in fact, a man.
This is a view that I once heard from a male customer while working as a bookseller. When I asked him why he thought that, he said that despite being largely about female characters, the writing of the much acclaimed Neapolitan Novels ‘spoke too closely to a universal human condition’ to have been written by a woman. Beyond the intellectual vacuity at the heart of the statement, it was the casual nature with which it was said that left me bewildered.
When (white, cis-gendered) men write, even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, like the erroneous beige of flesh-coloured tights, their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women, about women, are not. That’s Women’s Fiction.
Olivia Sudjic, Exposure, p. 103
Sudjic then runs with this idea of women being dismissed or not believed by society—or at least, not as readily as men—and goes on to link it back in to a naunced analysis of the post-truth age. The skill with which Sudjic is able to bring together in a coherent and infinitely readable form such a complex series of arguments, critical analysis and personal anecdotes is truly impressive.
Exposure therefore is not just a book about anxiety. Exposure is a book about anxiety, yes, but it is also about contemporary society, about the way in which we define ourselves through the media which we create, and about the way in which women—not just women writers or artists—are pushed to the peripheries by the micro-aggressions of a patriarchy that still lingers insidiously in many aspects of society, often while pretending not to be there at all. For those interested in such things, Exposure is essential reading.
Sally Rooney’s long-awaited second novel “Normal People” burst onto the scene last month, and has been making waves in the literary world since its publication. While her acclaimed debut “Conversations With Friends” showed an experimental young writer with exciting promise, “Normal People”, written little under a year afterwards, seems to have pushed the bar higher for her future work, awaited with relish and anticipation.
Her latest novel, like her first, focuses on the lives of students in contemporary Dublin, an Ireland in which Catholicism no longer has lost supreme jurisdiction. “Conversations With Friends” hovers between multiple perspectives, whereas this novel spotlights two protagonists and their turbulent relationship from the end of school throughout university and beyond. Connell and Marianne are gifted young academics with bright futures, but with personal complications. Low self-esteem and a propensity for self-destruction ties them together, and these afflictions cause us to question the sustainability of the relationship. Yet simultaneously, on a personal and emotional level, we find ourselves rooting for them to make it last.
Marianne and Connell desperately want to be regarded as “normal people”. At school, Connell is universally liked, he is the centre-forward of the school football team, and, though quiet and reserved, he holds a respect and status at complete odds with his counterpart Marianne, who is comparatively reclusive and even reviled: “a lot of people really hate her.” Despite their social polarity, the pair are engaged in a secret sexual relationship, which must remain confidential for Connell to retain his perceived popular social status. Rooney explores these complexities in astonishingly vivid detail and extraordinary articulation. The extent of Marianne’s self-worth is frightening: ‘In a way she feels sorry for him now, because he has to live with the fact that he had sex with her, of his own free choice, and he liked it. That says more about him, the supposedly ordinary and healthy person, than it does about her.’
The depictions of university are likewise evocative and amusingly familiar. Connell is perceptive enough to see through the semblances of sophistication in his fellow students, but while his wit is still sharp, his social standing has fallen dramatically, while Marianne’s seems to have been elevated. Rooney’s examination of the term “normal” takes on significance here. Much like Marianne in her school-days, different because of her moneyed family, Connell struggles at university for the same reasons: he is different because he is poor and has a single parent background, in contrast to his privileged peers. Paradoxically, despite her wealth and fortune, Marianne’s upbringing seems to have more suffering than Connell’s, with suggestions of abuse at the hands of the male figures in her life and a strange maternal dislike. Conversely, Connell, although from a notoriously delinquent family and born from a teenage pregnancy with an absent father, is raised by the well-adjusted and “normal” mother Lorraine. Rooney seems to suggest that “normal” is an undefinable entity with endless configurations. In her search for a definition of normality, Marianne comes to envy her friend’s lesbian relationship for its normal-ness, focusing on their ease in expressing love. From the start, we view Marianne and Connell’s relationship as imbalanced and unhealthy, the apparent antithesis of normal, but Rooney skilfully invites us to challenge our own definitions of “normal people” as the narrative progresses. When darker aspects of their personalities come to the forefront of the novel, their self-destructive tendencies are exposed in often uncomfortable detail. While the roots of Marianne’s troubled past and its scars are largely left to the imagination, the damaged girl remaining is heartbreakingly vivid. Connell has intense issues of his own, and is agonisingly convincing in his “maleness”, and in his inability to find an output for his feelings. As time goes on, his vulnerabilities take longer to unravel, but the depths of their characters are extensive and layered.
This is facilitated by Rooney’s masterful narrative technique. She is at once immersed in the world of Marianne and Connell, but simultaneously distant enough to forensically observe her creations. Her skill in conveying tension through conversation is reminiscent of Austen, and often what is unsaid speaks louder than the dialogue itself. The wit and humour employed is timed perfectly, for emotional relief and poignancy. Clever too, is the construction of Rooney’s narrative. We are thrown through time at various lengths – from 6 months to 5 minutes – and the result is suspenseful, capturing the unstable nature of their relationship. Above all, her writing is accessible and fluid enough to be appreciated by many different audiences – no surprise then, that a BBC series adaptation is on the way.
Rooney, at just 27, with two highly regarded novels under her belt, the latter making the Booker longlist, clearly has an optimistic future ahead. I am less sure of the auspices of her protagonists’ relationship. However, the conclusion Rooney reaches is not about their future, it is how they have arrived at a comfortable and mutual definition of “normal”: accepting themselves as they are, as opposed to how they think others see them.
Normal People, Sally Rooney, Faber and Faber, 2018, 266pp, £14.99 (hardback)
The centrifugal drive behind much of the work featured in the Barbican’s Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is enunciated by Rodin in the first gallery: ‘I express in a loud voice what all artists think. Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant.’ By exhibiting the work of artistic couples, including letters, books, music, and visual art, the show aims to demonstrate how desire affects artistic practice, and how artistic practice affects desire; we see how each inflames, distorts, inspires and destroys the other.
The show begins with two couples, sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, and composers Gustav and Alma Mahler. Both relationships took place at the end of the 19th century and retained patriarchal inflections which subsequent artist-couples strove to shed. Rodin encouraged Claudel’s work and collaborated with her on some fine clay miniatures of lovers entwined like tree roots. But the bust of her featured here, with the joins of the cast visible, hints at the cracks beneath the surface; in 1905 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined by her brother to an asylum for the last 30 years of her life, despite doctors trying to convince her family that she was well enough to leave.
The case of Alma Mahler is probably the only instance in the show of one half of a couple trying to inhibit the work of the other; Gustav felt his wife ought to support him to an extent that would leave no time for her own compositions. However, after consulting with Freud he relented and we have the results here; beautiful and haunting next to the bombastic scores of her husband, Alma’s work is a highlight of what this exhibition does so well: show us the unknown work of the other half.
The majority of the exhibition is dedicated to avant-garde artists of the early 20th century: couples like Salvador Dalí and Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch. It is in this period when notions of desire began to open up alongside artistic visions: we have ménages-à-trois or more, polygamy, gay and lesbian relationships, swapping, transsexualism, and interracial affairs running in parallel with Surrealism, Rayonism, Orphism, and the birth of photography as an art form. The exhibition’s strongest and weakest points are to be found as we progress through this period. Its exploration of large networks allows us to make new connections between disparate artists; I came to Romaine Brooks’ portraits of Luisa Casati and Natalie Clifford Barney in the context of a cross-Channel network of lesbian artists including Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein. What drew me to Brooks’ paintings were the backgrounds, indistinct but hinting at underlying structure. We see the features of an English coastline and a Paris street blurred by mist, a technique which aligns these prosaic settings with (in the portrait of Casati) an abstract Erebus in which the subject appears as sorceress or Fury.
However, as we expand beyond the well-trodden paths of modernist Paris, London and Vienna, the show loses its focus. That’s not to say there isn’t wonderful work here: the photography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French is beautifully composed, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s respective textiles and paintings echo one another with ecstatic vibrancy. But as couple after couple is introduced with only enough space to show a few works, the exhibition fails to give a wide enough representation of their respective oeuvres or only includes minor work, and I left feeling overwhelmed with small portions. I understand and encourage the desire to go beyond the familiar, but when introducing lesser known artists like Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt it would have been advantageous to allow their work more time and space. The sheer scope and ambition of the exhibition can make individual pairings feel rushed.
That said, though several couples failed to make an impression, there is such a range of work in different mediums and different styles here from so many artists that whatever their background, visitors are bound to be pleasantly surprised by at least one new discovery. I came away with amazement at Delaunay’s textiles, handmade with colourful repeating patterns which pop and fizz like champagne and fireworks, and with an appreciation for Eileen Grey and Jean Badovici’s efforts to create a fluid, interactive architecture against Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’. And despite Claude Cajun’s letter to Marcel Moore in which he said ‘I am the work of your life’, the show thankfully resists biographical interpretations of the art. We get the necessary information of who knew whom, for how long and where, but no generalisations such as that art and passion cannot coexist before one destroys the other. In fact on one wall a timeline of each relationship demonstrates the surprising longevity of many of the couples: Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti together from 1918 until 1944, Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko from 1914 to 1956, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov from 1907 to 1962. All three groups remained couples until the death of one of their members.
Modern Couples is a significant show, an extensive survey of modernism that embodies an original viewpoint which genuinely sheds new light on the period, and will hopefully lead to further such explorations. Though somewhat overambitious in its attempt to include so many artists, it nevertheless offers abundant surprises and delights.
Words by Mathis Clément
Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde will be at the Barbican Centre until 27th January 2019. More information here.
This year has truly brought to the fiction scene some of the most stunning and powerful female characters. From the extreme – such as My Absolute Darling’s Turtle Alveston – to the proudly millennial – such as Sally Rooney’s characters – there is now an abundance of female leads holding up a mirror to today’s society, reflecting many, often as of yet unarticulated observations and feelings.
In her debut novel, Caroline O’Donoghue has decided to tackle some of the most relevant issues concerning young women of the twenty-first century: gender imbalance at the workplace, career versus personal life, growing degrees of separation from friends and family, and grappling with adulthood in an era that demands that girls become women at an increasingly young age.
Jane Peters is a 26-year-old young woman living in London. She has worked for an advertising agency for around two years – largely unnoticed – and has been in a happy relationship with her boyfriend, Max. We meet her when all this is about to change. After embarking on a romantic relationship with her married, much older and more senior colleague, Clem, everything Jane knew begins to crumble. As her career advances, Jane cannot help but wonder whether this is solely due to her involvement with Clem – and as the relationship inevitably deteriorates, some darker secrets begin to surface. Jane will be tried both physically and mentally before she can emerge on the other side.
Promising Young Women starts out very promising indeed. The initial plot direction – that of a young woman having to balance her love life and her career, especially when the two are confined to the same space – is common enough for readers to be able to understand and sympathise. It has all the ingredients to become a solidly romantic story. O’Donoghue also gives Jane’s friendly relationships stage time: her best friend, Darla feels spiteful and jealous as Jane advances up the career ladder, and her co-worker, Becky, is desperately trying to make a friend out of Jane as her childhood friends all drift towards husbands and babies. It is really in this first half of the book that the ’promising’ angle is explored, and where O’Donoghue succeeds in creating a realistic world for many London-living women of age 25 and up.
In addition to her working life, Jane also runs an online agony aunt blog, where she anonymously dishes out life advice to those willing to listen. This is where she really thrives, although as is often the case, she is unable to take her own advice. There is context to this throughout the book: growing up with an absent father, Jane becomes the pillar of moral and emotional support for her mother until she later remarries. O’Donoghue does not let the absent father issues become a cliché, however, and her sharp language veers towards the satirical when Jane decides to unload her past onto Clem in what is deemed (at the time) a romantic moment. The entire book is written in an engaging and often satirical voice, which only occasionally suffers from over-explaining or repetition.
As the book proceeds to explore further Jane’s workplace affair, things become quite muddled, and take a turn for the dramatic. Introducing magical realism and thriller-esque elements, the novel veers towards a mix of genres where no single thread can really emerge as dominating. The original realist viewpoint is lost to what feels more like commercial women’s fiction. Characterisation suffers greatly – apart from Jane, none of the characters are truly explored, leaving them feeling somewhat shallow and one-dimensional. Jane often does not read like a 26-year-old. Clem is pictured as a villain; Becky, the loyal supporter, and Deb, an older co-worker as the mentor figure. There is no real spectrum between black and white characters.
How Do You Like Me Now by Holly Bourne, published earlier this year, is comparable to O’Donoghue’s novel in that it also actively aims to tackle early adulthood; but while Promising Young Women regularly skips between genres in the second, more fast-paced half of the novel (bringing the book to a thriller conclusion and abandoning its original, realistic tone), Bourne sticks to painting a convincing picture. Saying this however, it would of course be detrimental to expect the same thing of two contemporary writers, both fine writers who each demand different expectations, and are both enjoyable in their own way.
The author clearly has an original and engaging style, and the book is helped endlessly by the wit and humour in her writing. While at times Promising Young Women can feel like a writer finding their voice, this is part of the experimental energy of reading a debut author. From what we can see from this particular debut, O’Donoghue’s literary horizons are looking very promising indeed.
Promising Young Women, Caroline O’Donoghue, Little Brown Book Group, 2018, 352pp, £16.99 (hardback)
The online world often seems clean and seamless; it doesn’t have any scars to reveal its traumas or accidents. Bodies, on the other hand, appear to be different, yet not all our injuries can be seen. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is constantly rewoven throughout our lives. It’s in this sense that there is no such thing as healing. In advanced cases of scurvy, the lack of vitamin C prevents the body from producing collagen and these old wounds will magically and painfully reappear. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds, fissures or faults waiting to open after a tectonic shift. Joanna Walsh’s ‘Break.up’ is the scurvy of the digital age, revealing the Internet’s invisible atlas of wounds and the way we are constantly rewoven by it.
‘Break.up’ can be summarised — despite the phrase’s brevity and common usage — by taking a close look at its title. The insertion of a full stop between the two words starts a sentence that never really begins and doesn’t properly end. It fails to even delineate a breakup, because the full stop divides the phrase into two separate actions undermining its usual usage and rendering the connection between the two words ambiguous. They are left hovering around an anchoring point to which they can never be truly tethered. The two words are cleaved by this small dot, in the way that cleave can mean both to take apart and put back together again.
‘Break.up’, with its full stop, is never used in the novel; it becomes an illusive unseen point that the narrative spirals around but never meets. We join a woman on a peripatetic journey through Europe as she attempts to put space between herself and an unrequited love. In the same vein as the title ‘Break.up’, a sentence that never began, the protagonist breaks up from a relationship that never really started. This figure she attempts to lap on her journey, a nameless man, is the full stop she perambulates around — an ending without a start — who is never fully formed. She does this all while ruminating on life, and in particular, love, in the 21st century. Although this is not her only interest, she spins the city into a delirium of different essayistic topics and aphorisms in the manner of a gritty and less nostalgic W. G. Sebald or Patrick Keiller. But like love, and like the construction of the novel, these essays are severed of their conclusions, constantly in a process of ruin and completion, mirroring the protagonist’s mind set. Disparate fragments of images, quotes and narrative are montaged together, allowing their essences to appear concretely as you read and join the connections. Despite their absence in words, summations do materialise; the book is similar to a ruined building where we are left to imagine the parts that will make it whole again.
In some respects the breakup of her non-relationship is a red herring. The real rupture is that she realises the similarity between being in love and being online, and the delirium of trying to separate and assimilate the two. ‘Love’s not analogue, it’s digital’, as she soliloquies early on. It is this experience that cleaves the protagonist — the Internet fragments people, puts them back together at the same time, and is often left with, discordantly, more pieces than at the beginning.
It’s commonly thought that analogue technology is more human than digital. The way the voices degrade on a vinyl record is considered similar to the way a person grows old, or our memory of them fades. The digital, however, contains scurvy-like faults that we cannot perceive, and this, for Walsh, is an infinitely more human expression of emotion. The stylus on a vinyl follows a set route in its grooves, but love does not play out along a linear path — it has more in common with a CD that reads and writes data in a nonlinear way.
The digital has no borders, no beginning and no end; it reworks the personas of those that use it, and those that present themselves upon it; it averages out and merges personas into repetitions of similarity; you can never be complete online, the connections are always being reformed; being online is fluid and shape shifting. All of which is like being in love, meaning Walsh’s protagonist can never escape from the source of her heartbreak. Though she may move geographically, she remains static in the inertia of Wi-Fi’s cradle, always hunting out an Internet connection. She can travel to escape, but her journey is a Mobius strip and she’s trapped within its cycles and echoes.
This theme of moving but not moving perpetually reoccurs. The feeling of being ‘still and still moving’, as T. S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets, alludes to the axel in the middle of a carriage wheel (another full stop) that appears not to move, yet vibrates imperceptibly in a multiplicity of directions. It’s a type of travel and movement that chimes with contemporary experience of the world. She ruminates on this being like ‘an airport state of mind’; an airport being a buffer zone between places. She doesn’t, however, seem to realise that this has bled out into the rest of her travels, and she is in the static junk spaces of the internet, unable to out-run the source of her heartbreak. Wherever she connects, she is transposed to the same painful place.
We encounter the example of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, who was in a similar state to the central character albeit trapped in a less immaterial prison cell. Speer, like the book’s narrator, walked a great distance — eventually ending in America — by taking the correct amount of steps around his cell and prison yard, imaging the rest and never once leaving the confines of his enclosure. The narrator is a reflected and inverted form of this; she is outside, free, but travels without moving from the same place.
The book is littered with examples of being still and still moving. Some pages include pictures of the narrator’s travel destinations. They could be anywhere, however; non-places captured by avoiding the history of the street and leaving only a ubiquitous sky, which sweeps the places clean of their identifying characteristics. The theme throughout the images is one of cables, abstracted structures, meshes, grids and gradients of pixelated dust, all hinting towards the hidden paraphernalia and facilitators of digital environments.
Other descriptions of the places she stalks are often minimal, and buildings veiled in tarpaulin are one of many uncanny repetitions. They signal a separation from the material world, a redaction of the environment, while also showing an environment constantly under construction, similar again to being online or being in love.
For all its existential seriousness, ‘Break.up’ does exhibit some humour. This usually comes in the form of clever word play that first read as textual glitches, something gone wrong: ‘How long have I been travelling? Only a few weeks. Feels like thousands. That’s exchange rates for you.’ Before the montage of illusions quickly gathers into something surreal, funny and profound.
Throughout the novel, Joanna’s Walsh’s protagonist has been waiting, waiting for a glimmer of light to travel along a fibre optic cable and make its way to her computer in the form of email from the object of her desire. In the final pages this immaterial and unseen process is made physical as she waits in train station for him to arrive along another line, on a train. To make the immateriality of the digital a physical construct in the material world appears to be the crux of Walsh’s interest. She wants to trace its edge — its deceitful architecture — so we can have some control over it again. Transplanting it into a disjunction with the material world reveals its weirdness, its wounds and the ways it can damage.
In a time when we are anxious about borders, due to the fact that we know subconsciously we are losing ground to borderless technologies, this is of paramount importance. In the end, however, she cannot trace the border of the digital. She is its ruined and liminal edge: the broken full stop between two deconstructed fragments.
Break.up by Joanna Walsh is published by Profile Books Ltd.
‘We are no longer quite here and not yet there at all’, writes Anna Freud in 1938. Nazi troops have arrived in her home town of Vienna, and she is soon to leave the city, along with her father, Sigmund Freud. Despite her father’s ill health, Anna will flee to London with her family, where they will live in exile during the war: ‘no longer quite here’, their home has become estranged under occupation, ‘and not yet there at all’, since their escape remains uncertain.
For New Zealand poet Alice Miller, living in Vienna eighty years on, Anna’s words echo throughout the city to form the epigraph to her second collection. Published by Pavilion Poetry, Nowhere Nearer begins in ‘Freud’s town’ and moves through a series of cities, often returning to Vienna, as it pulls between feelings of displacement and belonging, at things that are ‘no longer quite here and not yet there at all.’
Haunted by apparitions of the past, Miller has written a curious and searching book that elegantly balances themes of love, loss and remembrance. This slim volume of poetry is incredibly ambitious in scope, claiming to tackle the circularity of thought, the company of the dead and ‘the futures we never let happen.’ In her debut The Limits,Miller took to exploring the edges of the natural world. Her new book attempts to reach beyond those limits.
Prior to winning the Katherine Mansfield prize for fiction in 2009, Miller received the Louis Johnson Writer’s Bursary for her poetry manuscript Farflungness, prone to. Often prone to farflungness herself, Miller’s poetry travels across borders and between countries. In Nowhere Nearer she takes us to ‘an art academy in America,’ along the canals of Amsterdam, before finally settling in Berlin. She has even spent time living in Antarctica – a place so vast and indescribable, she told Radio New Zealand, that the ‘constant silence [of it] . . . becomes like a sound.’
As with many of the locations in the collection – train stations, observatories, graveyards – Miller’s poems are in-between places that regularly look elsewhere, to distant times and locales, for those ‘likewise or elsewise universes’ that uncannily reflect our own. ‘Like Anna’s father, Sigmund, it is Miller’s who ‘in 1947 . . . is always traveling’ to escape ‘with his father from their bombed-out London / life to a pinprick on the map called / Norfolk Island.’ Both families sought refuge abroad, before eventually calling another nation home.
Perhaps, as one poem worries, ‘false similes’ like these are merely a way of ‘fooling foreignness into feeling familiar.’ (As Miller remembers it, Norfolk Island is always a point of departure, ‘always the year I leave.’). And yet, Nowhere Nearer is a triumph in grappling with foreign quantities. Her poems are ‘simile soft’ and ‘anachronistic’ – they look beyond borders, striving to articulate those undiscovered countries barely visible to the eye. What is ‘home’ for those who have left it behind? Where do we go once ‘the gradual unravel of a brain’ has run its course?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions. To either, we might say, as Miller does of the previous century, that our understanding comes ‘nowhere near.’ It is difficult, for example, to comprehend what happens to us after death. More difficult still is the task of writing about such possibilities. We often think of death as a farflung place, similar to Miller’s Antarctica – a kind of ‘nowhere’ or no man’s land – best defined by what it lacks. For many, its geography consists of ‘constant silence’ and may be heard ‘like a sound’ by those who have lived close by.
If nowhere is a place we can get closer to (and the blurb suggests it is), we might imagine something along these lines. However, the landscape Miller presents us with is altogether more urbane when compared to the silent wasteland of Antarctica. With its talk of unreal cities, winters and fogged up windowpanes, Nowhere Nearer instead recalls the half-deserted streets of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Moreover, the collection feels bare and tensed at times, almost post-war in temperament.
Off the Ringstrasse, in Leopoldstadt by the station, or down in the crypt of Diocletian’s Palace, Miller creates a memory theatre of locations, reminding us that ‘violence / can be gentle’ and that hope lies in uncertainty. A narrative slowly reveals itself with each poem, at once defiant and wryly candid about our future. There are poems on ‘How to Remember’ and ‘How to Forget’ – they ask, ‘Are you there,’ like the man in ‘Observatory’ who speaks ‘into his phone’ and receives no answer. In the silence that follows, you can almost hear the dial tone: ‘A magnificent storm is coming.’
Miller is sensitive enough to leave room for silence in her poetry. She offers us a ‘language of gaps’ and begins her collection by telling us that ‘what I am failing to say’ may be the thing that matters most. In ‘Boy’ children glue feathers to their arms, not long after hearing of the death of Icarus, hoping that one day they too might test their wings. In ‘Out of this World’ a woman kicks a nearby fence, then attempts ‘to catch a train out of the world’ by jumping onto the tracks. The poem ends with the narrator beginning to do the same.
What Miller fails to say is often deafening. Her troubling euphemism ‘to catch a train out of the world’ brazenly swaps suicide for the stars, though neither poem goes so far as to articulate the tragedies they tease. As each poem stumbles into the next, the reader is left to grapple with the last: ‘Observatory’ follows ‘Out of this World’ (to continue the interstellar metaphor), which also directs our gaze heavenwards. The silence that follows the man’s question (‘Are you there’) coyly prompts us to wonder who ‘you’ might be, and whether ‘heavenwards’ is an appropriate term. By this point, ‘Clouds pull in more clouds’ and whatever lies beyond them is obscured.
Writing about unknown quantities, Miller’s poetry can be evasive. Euphemism, for example, is itself a failure to say something, an escape into metaphor – and there are none so many as those about death, whether it’s pushing up daisies or meeting our makers. Where a neat metaphysical poem such as ‘The Lever’ successfully pulls off some tricky twists and turns, rather like a modern-day John Donne, ‘Europe’ gropes for a secure handle on the subject: ‘Today,’ Miller writes (italics gesturing intently at something generally felt), ‘we’ll push past . . . / beyond our shifting grain of skin and eyes’ to a place where we ‘cannot take our ruins.’
Reading a poem like ‘Europe’ – with its great beyonds and ‘unsolved’ selves – it is hard to feel as though we have come any closer to asking the right sort of questions about where we go when we die. For the most part, Miller prevents her poems from escaping into metaphor (‘When metaphors eat the real’ is one of her euphemisms for death), rather she acknowledges that this comes with the territory. If cliché is where poetry goes to die, Miller manages to breathe new life into ‘exhausted words’ and phrases that have become shorthand for topics we would rather be euphemistic about.
Putting pressure on words such as ‘love’ and ‘death’ to surprising effect (often interchangeably), Miller finds humour and vitality alongside moments of consolation. ‘No one’s here for much,’ Miller shrugs, ‘except / perhaps these high windows boasting sky.’ The line balances throw-away candour with an elegant, even wistful image. One of Miller’s favourites, windows often double as mirrors, and are mentioned eight times throughout the collection, although there are many instances in which the speaker is reflected figuratively in the landscape.
Much of Miller’s poetry is about sewing together moments of similarity and difference. The thought of ‘high windows’ is probably borrowed from Larkin’s poem ‘High Windows’ in which he looks past the windowpane to ‘the deep blue air’ beyond it, ‘that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’ Leading us to the title of the collection, Nowhere Nearer might have ended up neither here nor there, chasing after shadows, which are nothing, and are nowhere, and are endless.
Instead, Miller melds memories of real locations with historical fact to produce standout poems – most notably ‘Eva Braun in Linz’ – that test our sympathies and connect us with the past. ‘Are we sorry they set her up with him?’ asks Miller. Probably not. However, the very existence of Eva Braun, as the lover to whom many consider the poster boy of evil, should give us pause for thought.
Perhaps a good definition of memory, to mend Anna’s phrase a little, is the ability to imagine things that are ‘no longer quite here, and yet not there at all.’ As either Freud would tell us, history, like psychoanalysis, is as much about ‘the futures we never let happen’ as the ones that did. Similarly, Miller’s best poetry lies in the collision of personal and national histories, between her own private hopes and fears and what we know to be publicly recorded.
Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
Lee Bul does not make art that is designed to comfort you.
Her latest collection at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank is a culmination of thirty years work. To step through each room is to follow Bul’s journey as she has explored the pursuit of perfection—and its potential pitfalls—through the last forty years.
Crashing is designed to transport the public into ‘another place, another time’ and succeeds in this instantly. As you step into the first room of the Hayward, soft light is cast from within the corner. Civias Solis II projects reflected and fragmented patterns of light across the pale gallery walls. You are submerged into a dreamlike state wherein Bul has peeled back the shallow surface of our world and revealed what lies beneath, and what could be yet to come.
In this surreal echo of our world, you are immediately brought face to face with Bul’s reflection of the self.
Amorphous shapes hang from the ceiling and sit directly in front of the entrance doors. At first, they are barely recognisable as people, but then you see the arms, and legs, trying to drag themselves free from inside the pieces, which are from the aptly named series: Monster. Despite the grotesque shaping, these soft sculptures are tantric, and their fleshy palette suggests—as Bul intended—that there is a ‘vulnerability’ to being human.
If Monster is Bul’s representation of the natural self, Cyborgs (1998) reflects how people try to build an image of themselves. Reminiscent of ancient Greco-Roman statues and yet also of anime from the early nineties, feminine forms are suspended from the ceiling. Though they are all headless, they watch you and stand guard in their cartoonish, extra-terrestrial armour.
One of Bul’s inspirations is sci-fi, and in this is evident in this room and throughout the exhibition. In the late 20th century and especially after the Cold War, bright utopian ideas of the future captivated the world, which was desperate to forget the horrific past. Despite these glimmering, chrome covered dreams, Bul was sceptical of these notions of the future, and creates art which reflects that.
Though some of Bul’s paintings, sketches and videos of her performance art are displayed on the walls and available to listen and watch, it is through the medium of sculpture that I think Bul creates the biggest impact. Despite the different mediums and subjects, each work is still identifiable as hers. To walk into room three of the Hayward is the greeted by two geode-like structures—they are separate pieces, but both are heavily influenced by the politics of South Korea, during the late 20th century when Bul was growing up.
Black beads spill across the floor, before pooling in a highly reflective puddle. They appear to be flowing out of a block of ‘ice’, which gives the piece it’s quite literal title: Thaw (Takaki Masao). There is a photograph buried beneath the ice from which the beads seep out: it is a portrait of Park Chung-Hee, the former president of South Korea, who was supported by the US but created a very repressive regime. He was eventually assassinated in 1979, and the oozing black from this crystalline sculpture is evocative of blood.
The other piece which welcomes you to room three is Bunker (M. Bahktin). A cave like structure that is interactive. When inside, visitors to the gallery put on headphones and are encouraged to make a noise—clapping, tapping your foot, clicking— through the headphones we hear the noises we make distorted and amplified. If you were to shut your eyes, it could be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you were in a vast space.
When you are in inside Bunker Bul warps the world around you, and subsequently momentarily alters how we see ourselves. When standing within the bunker, I was very conscious of the noise my clapping and clicking would make, disturbing the other guests. In this sense, the sculpture is aptly named—Mikhail Bahtkin was a literary critic and philosopher who claimed that our identity is directly correlated by our relationship with the world around us.
The exhibition continues upstairs, and as you reach the final two rooms there is a slight change in atmosphere. Downstairs, there are at least five to seven exhibits filling every space. Upstairs, the rooms are sparse.
Stepping into room four, I was immediately anxious— Bul is known for incorporating the gallery space into her exhibitions, and this is one such example. The entire floor was foiled with silver, and while I was stood in the gallery, I felt the strange sensation that I wasn’t supposed to be there.
The gallery attendant smiled at me, and yet, I felt like I was doing something naughty.
At any moment, I was expecting someone to catch me. To tell me to leave.
It is interesting then, that the title of the focal sculpture in the penultimate room is Willing to be Vulnerable.
For this piece, Bul has created a large foil zeppelin. The argent exterior and exposed seams are recognisable as being from Bul’s retro sci-fi field of inspiration. Zeppelins were once a symbol of great scientific progress and were the first ships to be used for commercial flight. The title, Willing to be Vulnerable, references the Hindenburg disaster, where thirty-six people died when an airship caught fire whilst trying to land in New Jersey.
Willing to be Vulnerable is perhaps the piece which most clearly conveys Lee Bul’s exploration of the dangers of perfection.
Following the foil-covered floor, you are lead towards Via Negativa II. It is through the names of her pieces that you see the influence of philosophy behind her work. The largely introspective pieces—which literally forces the viewer to reflect on themselves and the gallery around them—draws its name from the theory that it is impossible to describe God in finite terminology; the human mind is too limited to say what God is, we can only truly describe what he isn’t.
This is the climax of the exhibition.
After exploring the ideas of utopia, one of Bul’s final piece forces the viewer to look back upon themselves. A mirror labyrinth which is unsettling to walk through—after all, it constantly feels as though someone is watching you. There is no certainty as you follow the path, as Bul angles the mirrors to feel claustrophobic and bounce their own reflections from each other to give the impression of pathways where there are none.
But when you finally make your way through the maze, a room lies in wait within the centre. The seemingly endless rows of lightbulbs feel as though are a giant standing in between the golden stars of an infinite space—and a comforting warmth radiates through the enclosed space. Unlike the rest of the installations, this is a piece which instils hope.
Lee Bul’s artwork is a reaction to the world around her—especially that of life within South Korea and the experiences she’s faced a woman. As a formal end to the Korean civil war is in sight, and women’s rights are thrown into the spotlight, I am eager to see what Bul creates next.
Lee Bul: Crashing is running at the Hayward Gallery is running 30th May – 19th August 2018.
The coats stand out in the exhilarating performance piece Fatherland now on at the Lyric, Hammersmith after its premiere in the Manchester International Festival in 2017. The armour of manhood in the 21st century. Men in black, beige and tan coats. Leather jackets. Tracksuit tops. Parkas. Faceless firemen in what might as well be hazmat suits in a nightmare of X- Files proportions. Marching, swaying, writhing, climbing, dropping from the sky. Using ladders and doorways to fly. Gathered in a workers’ or maybe hobos’ circle around the glow of a bonfire and marching through the streets like a massed football army but with flags that appear to be made of delicate silk. The sole flash of colour is the red of a Man U top standing out for its brightness in the gloom as much as for its ancient sponsor’s logo.
And only men’s voices are heard – from baleful to operatic. At one stage the 13 men on stage are joined by massed voices from the aisles and circle. The men (like the audience thankfully) are diverse in ethnicities and accents. Fatherland finds myriad stunning ways to express verbatim testimony collected from small-town England and echoed through songs and chants against Karl Hyde’s brooding soundtrack which booms or whispers. Telling stories of harrowing sadness about fathers lost or never known. These are the stories of “real” men where real means from Kidderminster, Stockport and Bewdley and emphatically still there. Men who haven’t left to join the metropolitan elites which the creators Hyde, Scott Graham and Simon Stephens aren’t afraid to allow themselves to be mockingly identified with. And the men in Fatherland don’t want to leave their home towns: one character is sure that the place you grew up in makes you who you are.
The question reverberating through the show is “what is the earliest memory of your father?” In his memoir And When Did you Last See Your Father? Blake Morrison describes unflinchingly the black, white and greys of his relationship with his dad, the contradictions of the respected professional and family man who nonetheless seems addicted to small petty triumphs and finding ways to cheat the system. And not only his father’s status as a figurehead is ambiguous: looking back through the family tree he finds a “heritage of neglect” and the example of “the Absent Father, who had his story too, grief and nervous breakdown”. In the media to be a contemporary father is almost automatically flawed – notable usually for being both needed and not there – and the paternal relationships of the men in Fatherland portray all those complexities and then some.
Fatherland is not just about fathers – it’s very much about being a son too and the pain of one not being able to connect with the other. Women and girls are mentioned of course – what is stark and powerful is the love of fathers for the daughters they protect or raise single-handedly. But the stage is a space for men’s stories and movement, the raggedy bravado of their cockiness a front for aching tales of not being loved. As one character says: we all hurt.
My favourite depictions: Graham (Neil McCaul), whose affable Dad Zero unpacks his childhood scars; Mel’s (Michael Begley) hymn of a climb into horror which defies any attempt to pigeonhole his chirpy Black County persona; Daniel (David Judge), brittle, fragile and still standing through his own battles with mental health; and the scarcely buried violence of Alan (Joseph Alessi) whose stare, stance or even slight pause convey years of “being a bit handy”.
But Fatherland isn’t just a journey through the bad bits of being a man – it finds ways to lift you into admiration and eventually joy including with a stunning flash mob chorus on the night I attended in the bar post-show. I smiled a lot not least because of the gratingly incongruous but perfectly fitting reference to the children’s movie Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the tongue-tied and repressed father in that story who needs a machine to make his love audible.
The poet John Hegley explores his relationship with his father in several pieces in the collection The Sound of Paint Drying. One poem October ’71 describes how Hegley Senior presented his son with his old artist’s brushes. Hegley Junior asks his dad why he gave up painting and finds the answer is: He gave up for me to go on. Fatherland’s stunning visions will leave men asking themselves what legacy they will be remembered for. Go see it.
Fatherland is at the Lyric Hammersmith until June 23rd, 2018
The Multiverse ( or theermvsuitle as it says on the cover) is the first poetry collection by Andrew Wynn Owen, a fellow of All Souls College. It is published by Caranet and praised by the poets of likes of Simon Armitage. Each poem exuberates life as Owen crafts each and every word with the authority of a laureate. If there is another universe where he has not written this book, then it is a darker place indeed.
Owen’s collection is expansive and varied with sixty poems exploring themes such as science, philosophy and human nature. He tests our perceptions on reality, and ourselves too, both elegantly and rhythmically. His piece Mirrors and Windows is just one example of a piece which does this in Multiverse:
‘A window, though Shows more than any mirror. Pervasive happening opens space And lets free landscape flow.’
Multiverse is more than just a collection of writing. Like a song or a dance, his poetry resonates and inspires the inner creative. His words seem to take on a form and start to waltz with the reader – dipping and twirling them to each step of the iambic pentameter.
This is a book to savour as, with most great poetry, you cannot rush over the lines. If you do, you will miss out on the chemistry. There will be some phrases that, when you read them, will give you a sensation of a first skin – that pulse of electricity. For me, it was a line in The Door:
‘I’d never loved the room. It is the door That I adore.’
Owens zips between various styles throughout his book from pieces resembling Shakespearean sonnets such as The Scientist (using an abab structure and rhyming couplets) to Stonehenge which feels almost like an epic. Yet even with their historic roots, his poems feel fresh and contemporary. Where Shakespeare would focus on love and marriage, Owens explores scientific discovery and alternate realities. Like epics, Owens also sings of legends and folklore, but in relation to modern society, ‘beyond the power plants, main roads’ and ‘churning cars.’
Owen has the skill to take something and subvert it, scrutinise it under his creative eye and turn it into something else. Take April Shower for example. In this piece, he simply writes about rain. It may not be much to us British but Owen changes this and turns it into something fantastical, stunning:
‘But now let fall In plosive drops, Startling the land and pulling out the stops. Torrential fuel. A shapeless rush Of see-through resin beads.’
Yet, although breathtaking, some of his poetry is not the most accessible. It darts around like a hummingbird you so desperately want to get a glimpse of. You can chase it around, and try to predict its moves, but you will tire yourself out. Or, at least, modern audiences and those who don’t like poetry will. But to enjoy poetry, as these people fail to realise, you have to get lost in it. Explore the words. Reread lines. Question what you are reading and soak it all in.
Of course, if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing and I doubt there’s much I can say to convince you. But, keep in mind, there is a universe out there where you are reading Multiverse and loving it.
Introducing Contributor’s Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the writers for The London Magazine June/July 2018 issue. Read their writing in our latest issue, available now.
Timely reappraisal of the painter and gardener who ran a private art school in Suffolk and taught Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling, among many others. He’s clearly a forerunner of the School of London, and his beautiful flower paintings look as fresh and beguiling today as when they were painted 80 or 90 years ago.
A meditative, poetic journey through the streets of New Jersey via a bus driver and William Carlos Williams – I loved this film for its quiet quirkiness and its tentative stepping-into the centre of things.
I was really taken by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, in which the author interviews Soviet women -captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors – who fought in the second world war. It is a pitiless read, yet unputdownable and very illuminating.
In the age of #MeToo this book is more relevant than ever. With a sharp wit and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, Moran makes feminist ideology accessible and relatable and makes every female reader cry with laughter. It’s the book I needed whilst growing up!
A book that haunts me with its beauty and daring, its contrived secrecy and its surgically open-hearted confession, Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette, surely stands on the stocks as possibly the greatest novel written in English. She plays with our sensibilities just as she plays with her own beating heart, and what a dreadful, courageous ending.
My second recommendation is The Royal Wedding. People drawn to the intellectual are not supposed to enjoy spectacles like the royal wedding, but the theatre created was both intimate and spectacular. The drama was centred on Harry and Megan but the cast was huge and odd and the charged narrative changed with every minute, and one had glimpses of all sorts of relationships and unexpected contacts. Reading faces and movements was fascinating. And Bishop Michael delighted with bubbling enthusiasm for the occasion, for the two central characters, and for the great source of love, God himself, also present. ‘How important is love?’ he asked. ‘Two people fall in love, and we all turn up.’
Harriet Harvey Wood’s biography is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the monarchy and the period – and legacy – of Alfred the Great. The author writes with erudition and engagement. A thoroughly rewarding read.
I am looking forward to this debut volume out in July. It includes ‘Fielder’, an uncannily evocative poem, which captures the profound significance found in what might have been a small, unremarkable moment.
Rodney Ackland’s play ‘Absolute Hell’ (at the National Theatre until 16 June) is like spying on a drunken party through a club door. The first hour is intoxicating, in a salacious sort of way, but then it all starts to feel a bit maudlin and you just want them to drink up so you can go home.
The play takes place in ‘La Vie en Rose’, a seedy Soho drinking den (modelled on the Colony rooms) full of confused, desperate characters seeking sex and oblivion. It is set in the summer of 1945, in a war weary London that is under the shadow of Auschwitz and on the brink of a Labour Government. Although the clientele are determined to hide from the outside world, the gold veneer of the club begins to peel away, revealing the dull undercoat of post war life.
When it was first produced in 1952, as the ‘Pink Room’, the homosexuality was played down but the sordid, decadent world it depicted was still too much for the respectable theatre audiences of the time. It soon ended Ackland’s career. It was only until 1988 when it was re-discovered, first at the Orange Tree in Richmond, and then again at the National with Judi Dench who also starred in the 1991 BBC film of the play.
It runs on for over 3 hours and, although it has a cast of nearly thirty members, there are only 2 real characters – Christine, the lonely, emotionally fragile club owner (a charismatic and sensual Kate Fleetwood) and Hugh a gay, failing-writer (brilliantly played by Charles Edwards) who is constantly on the cadge. Esh Alladi is excellent in the minor role of camp dogsbody Cyril Clatworthy. Sinead Matthews wrings out some emotion as hedonist Elizabeth. The rest of the ensemble (black GIs, gay critics, film producers, tormented artists, black marketers and a prostitute name Fifi who endlessly circles the streets of nearby Piccadilly) only serve to emphasise the real subject of the play – the desperate desire to escape a bombed out London through the neck of a bottle.
There are moments of real humour in the play (some of it dated) and the action is skilfully choreographed however, the last two scenes of the play are rushed, unsatisfactory and could be cut. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins does his best to make the play relevant but, the truth is, nothing much happens and watching others getting drunk is rather boring. By the end the jokes have turned stale and the characters’ search for sex has gone flaccid. The club literally starts to fall apart around them, the party is over and the hangover has already started to set in.
The final word of the play is hell.
Absolute Hell is running until 16th June at the National Theatre/ Lyttelton theatre.
The Inheritance stands at almost seven hours long: Matthew Lopez’s two-part, self-aware epic on the legacy of gay men past-and present. Treating everything from the devastation of a post-AIDs generation and the LGBT reaction to the Trump-era, The Inheritance paints a vivid image what it means to be homosexual and living in modern day New York.
Openly narrated, a cast of beautiful men collaboratively recount a tapestry of stories, circling around the pair who sit at the epicentre of the performance – Toby and Eric. The Inheritance is a testament to the power of storytelling; the men squabble over details, however ultimately their paths are set for them – inherited from and dictated by the events that have passed before them. It is at times both heart-wrenching and hilarious, with themes as universal as love, or as specific as Trump, being handled in a way that is quite simply innovative.
Lopez is unafraid of pausing the plot to make way for intense debate on LGBT culture, privilege and poverty; he deftly avoids lecturing the audience, and instead weaves fair, impassioned and considered points into the dialogue between characters. The audience (speaking particularly as a white, straight woman) does not feel isolated but rather included in these debates, forbidden from a feeling of disinterest and implicated in the grappling of these issues.
The cast sit around a deceptively bare, table-like stage which rises and falls throughout. Devoid of all but a few props, it is the intricate dialogue and narration that paints the settings, transporting the audience better than any elaborate set might. Lopez’s writing is undeniably beautiful and uninhibited, coming alive against such a simple backdrop.
The actor’s handling of the text is also exceptional, with many a stand-out performance. Kyle Soller brings alive a potential ‘safe’ character with his conveyance of Eric’s inherent decency, which contrasts perfectly with the tragedy of Toby’s complete self-absorption and route to destruction, portrayed by Andrew Burnap. A few actors handle multiple characters, however it is Samuel H Levine flipping between the confidence of Adam and the uncertain self-consciousness of Leo, even during the same scene, which is spell-binding. Similarly, Paul Hilton’s portrayal of both Walter and Morgan Forster is stellar. Walter’s quiet humanity paired with the representation of Morgan as a caring but measured British man in a tweed jacket truly epitomises just how far the LGBT community has come in recent years. This is a cast dominated by men, and whilst Vanessa Redgrave’s appearance in the latter parts of the play is moving, it is incomparable to the ambitious speeches and constant presence of the other cast members.
A play of this length is certainly an undertaking, and this features as the gag of many a joke throughout. I had a little more processing time than most, seeing the two parts with a week in between. Whilst the end of part one is not left on a cliff-hanger as such, I was still desperate to see the second even a week later. The soap-opera like nature of the multiple storylines left me wanting for more, even having seen part two.
The Inheritance is fundamentally significant and utterly enjoyable; the perfect combination of comedy and genuine issues tied together perfectly with a stunning script. Whilst this marathon of a play may feel like a commitment, it is one you will not regret.
Katy Brand’s Three Women at the Trafalgar Studios offers a representation of the title across respective and somewhat stereotypical generations.
Suzanne, a crystal-loving 40-year old played by Debbie Chazen, is facing trauma stemming from her childhood, which surfaces throughout the evening. Chazen perfectly executes a bitter rivalry between her and mother Eleanor, played by Anita Dobson, and reveals just the right amount of emotional upheaval from her loss of love.
Maisie Richardson-Sellers adds an interesting and sometimes offbeat character to the mix. Laurie is portrayed as the peace-keeper whose beliefs surrounding post-genderism dictate a large amount of her lines. Richardson-Sellers performance feels forced at times, possibly due to the constant stream of information that her character is instructed to feed to her peers. Although sporadically comical, it is just that, and appeared as though she was reading from a chapter of a non-fiction, Millenial analysis.
But it’s Dobson who takes centre stage, not only providing the much-needed comic relief with her witty one-liners and blasé view of her family’s approach to life, but also with her emotional collapse towards the end of the show. This display of impassioned contrition proved Dobson’s worthiness of her extensive acting career and left me satisfied at the believability of the show.
Brand has written a confounding piece which appears to be mostly based on a societal view of generations today. Although it faces some difficulties in plot and characterisation, it is worth seeing for Dobson’s performance alone.
The London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury, 7pm. Wine glasses clatter as they are placed on the floor, animated conversation fills the air, friends are greeted, coats shrugged off. Michael Schmidt, the founder and managing director of Carcanet, steps before the audience to introduce the four poets who will be reading tonight as part of the launch of New Poetries VII, an anthology that brings together what Michael, in the Introduction to the book, calls ‘a chine, a prickle, a surfeit, a blessing – a group – of new poets’. He is delighted to be in the London Review Bookshop, one of his ‘favourite’ bookshops in the city, and to be introducing the seventh New Poetries, a series that is also one of his ‘favourites’. Many Carcanet poets, he notes, began their writing careers in the anthology, and have gone on to ‘star on our list’, including Sinéad Morrissey, Kei Miller, and Vahni Capildeo. These poets, Michael affirms, ‘help me forward’.
The poets performing tonight – Mary Jean Chan, Helen Charman, Lisa Kelly, and Toby Litt – read in the order that they appear in the book. Michael introduces Mary Jean first, recounting how he was struck by three sonnets that the poet sent in to PN Review. Alluding to Mary Jean’s Hong Kong background, and mentioning his own Mexican American origins, he notes that Carcanet is ‘very much an Anglophone, rather than an English, operation’, and that it is ‘wonderful to find poets from outside of England’. Mary Jean begins by reading the sonnets, describing them as ‘a slightly subversive take on the classical Confucius text’ about how you should honour your parents. Her voice is silky, clear, as she speaks. Next, she reads a bilingual poem. ‘I thought it would be interesting to try to rhyme my mother tongue with English – I speak Cantonese at home’, she explains. ‘speaking in tongues’ is a striking poem, weaving together repetitions of ‘mother says’ and ‘poet says’, as well as the two languages:
mother says: separation of voice poet says: behave, moonbeam mother says: the way you ask the moon to behave is transgressive, not Chinese poet says: my voice is a splinter
‘It’s wonderful to hear poems read that one’s read to oneself several times, and the way the poet inflects them’, Michael observes, after Mary Jean’s reading. Helen Charman is the next poet to read, and Michael notes that when he first read her poems, he ‘couldn’t put them down’. Helen launches straight into a reading of ‘Horse whispering’, rocking slightly with the rhythm of the poem as she reads, hovering over the words she wishes to emphasise. Her head is tilted up to the microphone, and she smiles occasionally at the audience. ‘Agony in the Garden’ is a poem that requires some context, Helen says, and she reads from her explanation at the front of her section of the anthology. The poem centres on John Ruskin and a statement he made in 1854, during the annulment proceedings of his marriage to Effie Gray: ‘It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.’ Part of the latter phrase appears in the poem, which Helen reads playfully, with full attention from the audience. ‘Tampon Panic Attack’ is my favourite poem of the ones she performs. Flicking through teenage magazines, Helen notes, tongue-in-cheek, left her with ‘a crippling fear of tampons’, which the poem transforms:
. . . Waking up in bloodied underwear once felt like shame but now is gorgeous, a victory: red sheets are like flirting.
‘One thing you’ll have noticed is how humorous the poems are’, says Michael, at the close of Helen’s reading. He then introduces Toby Litt, noting that it was Toby’s sequence Life Cycle that really ‘got to’ him. Michael is also pleased to welcome ‘a novelist who’s come over, as it were’, referencing the ten novels that Toby has published. Toby himself, taking the stage, questions, ‘Come over, or come out?’, explaining that he started as a poet, but initially wasn’t sure if his poetry would be published. He begins his reading with ‘Politics / 9.11.16, p.m.’, written on the eve of Trump’s election. ‘I tried to be hyper eloquent, but I also tried to be extremely angry and political’, Toby says of the poem. His voice is level as he reads, and he stands comfortably, feet in a relaxed ballet-esque position. The poems in Life Cycle ‘had a long pre-history before they hit the page’, and were written for two friends who had lost a baby. ‘Not just milk’ features a build-up of repetitions that sound very different in the air to their appearance on the page, where the words seem to tiptoe across the white space:
There used to be a woman in this body not just milk
There used to be a woman in this body not just milk and carrying
There used to be a woman in this body not just milk and carrying and saying hush
Toby finishes with ‘an even tireder lullaby’ entitled ‘Hushaby Twinkle’, before Michael introduces Lisa Kelly. Like Mary Jean, Lisa ‘seems to exist between languages’, Michael notes, noting that she once described herself as ‘half-Danish, half-Deaf’. He is drawn to the gaps in her poems, ‘where language has been missed’, and was ‘astonished’ to find himself reading her poems aloud. Lisa begins her reading with ‘Anonymous’, a poem based on a 1993 New Yorker cartoon featuring two dogs at a computer screen, and recites the poem with gusto. The line ‘Once bitten, twice bitcoin’ provokes laughter from the audience, and another poem, on Ikea furniture, is equally witty. ‘A Map Towards Fluency’ is the stand-out poem of the reading, however, and Lisa puts down her book to perform the poem, which requires signing some of the letters of the alphabet using British Sign Language:
I map a——————————————————————to my left thumb Alex maps a————————————————————to his right thumb e——————————————————————————to my left forefinger poor Alex, the teacher can’t map sinistral——————to dextral
The reading ends with thanks to the London Review Bookshop, a clinking of wine glasses, and the steady rise of conversation in the air.
Visiting a gallery in London during the February half term is a rookie error. In a bid to occupy restless children, and driven inside by the drizzle, the families of London descend on its cultural delights. Most are free, accessible by tube, and educational; those who dare to enter will be faced with overexcited kids shouting over distressed parents, flailing toddlers on a bid to escape, and those on the cusp of adolescence, cursing their bad luck for having to admit any affiliation with their parents outside of the house. You might expect the entrance fee for the Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition to turn people away. And yet the promise of an exhibition taking a retrospective gander through the life’s works of a cultural icon is enough to draw in the motley crew of the city’s half-termers. Even more surprisingly, they are all captivated. Amongst the trodden toes, banged elbows and pervasive stink of damp raincoats, there is a sense of awe shared by the multiplicitous generations and nationalities flooding the galleries.
The exhibition traces almost sixty years of Hockney’s work in loosely chronological thematic sections. His signature images of 1960’s Los Angeles appear, characterised by swimming pools and homoeroticism as well as rawer line drawings and sketches, experiments of form and medium, and Hockney’s modern forays into the world of technology. Chris Stephens’s careful curation makes this more than a walk through history, arranging the large, twelve-room collection with invention and flair. Each room has its own flavour, keeping even the Hockney aficionados on their toes. The first room – ‘Play within a Play’ – throws us into metatheatre, the art mimicking our examination of it, so that are forced to examine ourselves in the process. In the title painting, Hockney’s friend John Kasmin presses his self against a glass sheet, hands pushing desperately against the barrier between art and spectator. It is a concept that recurs throughout Hockney’s lifetime; ‘Blue Stools’ does not just stage paintings within a painting, but a whole gallery within a gallery. The gallery-goers are a collage of digital photographs superimposed on a painted background, the figures repeating themselves nonchalantly in a dream space that eerily mirrors the room in which the painting hangs.
Inevitably, such an expansive view of one man’s life’s works is full of variety, offering dark, scrawling pieces etched in graffiti and cryptic messages in stark dichotomy to the angular patterns and vibrant colours of his observational paintings. The exhibition excels, however, in giving us a glimpse into the artist’s way of seeing. The second half focuses on experiences of space and place, the same hyperreality of deep pigments and bold lines lent to both Hollywood Hills and Yorkshire countryside alike. The paintings brim over with effervescent joy, vignettes of still life and landscapes alike transformed into loud effusions of rich, warm colour.
A room is dedicated to The Four Seasons, where nine cameras pan down a rural Yorkshire lane. Standing in the middle of the room, you can turn to face any wall and feel the essence of one of the four seasons. The effect is completely enchanting, as testified by the collective awed intake of air when groups enter the room. The collage of nine slightly different perspectives lends the videos something beyond three dimensions; the flitting views give a sense of complete immersion. It’s disconcerting and jarring, but upliftingly beautiful. Hockney’s sense that a singular point of view is not enough to really see is stressed by his photography, layering collaged Polaroid in a patchwork that diffracts our line of sight, producing an image with less clarity and more complexity. Hockney saw traditional photography as ‘looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops.’ His forays into photography and video, like his sumptuous landscapes, allow us to see the extraordinary lurking within each ordinary scene. It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of Hockney’s genius.
By Charanpreet Khaira
Until 29 May 2017
£7.95 – £26.00
Freud is dangerous territory for poets. He did more than just make his mark on the literature of the twentieth century: he cross-hatched it. Psychoanalysis might have been discredited as a way of understanding the mind, but it still permeates the world of words. Freud’s hold on literature is so extensive that even the phrase describing the author’s fear of repeating what has come before them – ‘the anxiety of influence’ – invokes the Oedipus complex. Freud is so last century, because the last century is saturated with him. Few poets today dare to get near him, unless he’s packaged in allusion and irony. Not so, Emily Berry. Freud’s words – ‘the loss of a mother must be something very strange…’ – form the epigraph of her anthology so that his influence bleeds into each and every of the poems that make up ‘Stranger, Baby.’
She charges at Freud head-on in an affront that sidesteps the risk of cliché, instead abounding in individuality. Freud’s words slip into 35 poems that meditate on grief, lack, and despair – a meditation that, as we hear again and again, can never be answered. ‘Stranger/ Baby’ is unlike other anthologies: it does not attempt to universalise or synthesise loss, but obsessively recapitulates it, runs at it from different directions, all the while knowing that it cannot be tamed. If the collection does not ask questions – or, at least, does not expect answers – it simply screams instead. The poems are beset with the background of a female voice – a voice that we end up suspecting to be autobiographical – that ‘screams and screams without any self-control.’ In the play-poem ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, the screaming becomes the stage directions that form a perennial white noise behind the entire anthology.
Berry’s images are stark and polarised, the forces of fire and water competing throughout the collection. The speaker repeatedly fashions her image as water, the sea, or the curl of a wave, as is made explicit in ‘Tidal Wave Speaks’. The motif breathes life into the oft-repeated poetic exploration of the ineffability of emotions. In Berry’s poetry, it is clear that words fail to heal – the collection attempts to use self-expression as a kind of ‘talking cure’, but the speaker is left realising that this as impossible as an attempt to take hold of the ocean. Time and again, she makes a statement, only to remake and restate: ‘That is what I did./ Laid it all out like tidal wave./ Thought you could in fact/ lay out a tidal wave.’ What emerges is her sense that the process of confronting and turning into poetry her feelings is the experience of coming face to face with an unconstrained force of innumerable power.
Berry’s attempt to turn negative energy into positive through poetry is stated with the grim humour of the title, ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.’ The speaker mocks her own attempt to ‘lay it all out’ through poetry – to observe her own grief by putting it into words – by presenting a gauche image in parallel, of photographing herself in the cemetery. Predictably, she finds that the attempt rids her action of authenticity – ‘I pose and yet I cannot pose’ – just as an articulation of grief fails to capture its true face: ‘I wrote this down, regretted it.’ An angry undertone emerges, equating healing with self-effacement; ‘Once’ presents ‘embracing’ grief as welcoming ‘my own/ diminishment’. A desire to be healed emanates from the collection, but it is paired with the realisation that such healing relies on eroding the self. Therapy is spoken about bitterly as a faceless attempt to polish one’s feelings.
Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness. What is left is sometimes seen as hollow – the line ‘This is the rain, the October rain’ is unpicked instantaneously by its speaker with ‘I wrote that when it was still October/ It must have been raining.’ There are points where Berry herself shies away from the immediacy and starkness of her topic, asking ‘Can you distort my voice when I say this?’ – ‘So people don’t know it’s me.’ At times the realisation that poetry is not big enough to contain the sea of the speaker’s grief is bleak; at others, the resulting chaos is shown to be what invests the poems with such power. As the Tidal Wave itself says ‘Tidal Wave don’t sing… Tidal Wave crash.’
Indeed, this is powerful poetry. But it is also clever, modern, and playful. Berry refuses to withhold any of her poetic artillery; she experiments with form boldly, an experiment that might fail in the hands of a weaker writer. The poems modulate between different rhythms and styles, delighting in the elasticity of poetry. Some mischievously challenge the criticism of ‘prose-like’ poetry, others are laconic in their staccato lines; one converts the speaker’s conflicting feelings into dichotomous voices in a play. Sometimes, as in ‘Song’, Berry looks to other poets for answers. Here she responds to Luna Miguel, referring to Miguel’s tattoo of a mermaid representing her mother to inhabit tentatively her own mother’s psyche, paradoxically giving herself up to death and believing that it will save her. ‘Aura’ is a poem that revels in its own form, a visible chasm between the speaker and her mother that is bridged, movingly, in one line.
The destructive power of absence is quick, fierce, and brutal in these poems. Sitting in her mother’s cemetery, the speaker asks questions of her mother, breaking her own rule that only the ‘idealistic’ expect answers of their questions. She is forced to answer herself, and that lack becomes palpable when ‘Your silence reaches out from inside me and meets itself on the outside.’ The blank space left by the speaker’s mother creeps inside of her, linking the visible, external lack of a mother with the resulting emptiness inside in a destructive circle that ironically mimics the closed circle of mother and child. Berry’s second anthology, ‘Stranger, baby’ generates a high voltage; its energy feels dangerous for both writer and reader, and no one who reads it will deny the sparks that fly off it.
Cherry Jones returns to the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany. This London revival of American theatre’s classic memory play may be the timely antidote we need.
Like a softening dust, olive-ashen light floats among fading Victorian-style lampshades, a writing desk, a frumpy crimson settee, the trove of animal statuettes centre-front. Looming in the background is a fire escape that ramrods to the rafters, its stage level serving as the entrance to this ‘hive-like’ tenement apartment in 1930s St Louis. John Tiffany’s revival of The Glass Menagerie begins with the expected direct address: a mature Tom (played by Michael Esper), now in control of his life and career, looks back at his past, piece by piece. ‘The play is memory,’ Tom says. Actually, it is a ghost story in which Tiffany uses sound, the swapping of hysteria for more lightness, and a touch of choreography to give shape to the ghostliness of Tennessee Williams’ ‘picture of my own heart,’ his first chapter of author-family autobiographies. The production, which premiered in New York in 2013, and then featured in last year’s Edinburgh Festival, is aided by composer Nico Muhly’s twinkling but minimalist backdrop that avoids any whiff of frothy whimsy.
Of tenacious mother hens in English letters, we find ourselves warming to Cherry Jones’ role as Amanda—more bustling Mrs Weasley than hustling Mrs Bennett—likely coming as a shock to viewers who grew up with the éminence grise of Katharine Hepburn’s embodiment, which roiled on daytime television. Jones’ exultation on stage suggests that she is the only actress capable of a Southern accent who didn’t originally aspire to play Blanche, Williams’ withering Southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire. Jones lays an opulent Dixie brogue on thick. Her Amanda is a hardy prevailer, a nostalgist whose free-flowing dips into the past are not escape mechanisms strictly, but sustenance to carry her through the years of pain and social degradation created by bad choices made in first youth. In many ways, she does the dirty on Williams, stubbornly maintaining grace and love over the toxic interference that is necessary for us to want to run away from her, like Tom.
Kate O’Flynn once again harnesses her distinctive nasal squeak in order to intone Laura’s constant refrain: placating her mother’s stultifying concerns. ‘Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus’s mother in the museum,’ comes straight from O’Flynn’s nose, the last syllable of each phrase expanding like scales ringing on a xylophone and accentuating her character’s perpetual nervousness. While she is the play’s faint but central pulse who necessarily does not act, but is acted upon, O’Flynn’s Laura inherits some of the steely glint in her mother’s iron sunshine. The resignation that she unfurls after the Gentleman Caller, Jim (played with puppy-like exuberance by Brian J. Smith) kisses her, and then admits that he is already affianced, is a saddening jolt—like a cold shower of rain on a sunny day. ‘You—won’t—call again?’ she matter-of-factly states more than questions, letting the bomb hang in the air and then dropping it. Esper is better as a son than as narrator, especially when he is performing a kind of elevated honesty that mocks itself: ‘Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminal’s hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin!’ Teasing his mother’s near-farcical enquiries into his twilight outings is all boyish shtick and put-on, a comic relief that increases our fondness for both characters but overshadows the story’s essential tension. In this way, Tom’s final abandonment seems less believable.
The choreographed gestures could come off as a gimmicky trick—Laura first emerges through a slit in the back of the sofa, for example, and, at the end, she dives back through. While Tiffany’s direction has been criticised for its departures from text-driven concerns, these moments are exquisite flourishes of reverie, especially the fleeting celestial duets between mother and daughter. If the production has a fault, it lies within Jones’ obvious pleasure in the role, left unchecked—if not emboldened—by the perceptible encouragement of the audience’s luxuriating smiles. The first act belongs entirely to her.
Today, much of the world expects awakening daily to the setting of the sun on a progressive era of American history, the country’s political reality steeped so heavily in its own neo-Victorian brand of backward-looking inspiration. Those hankering for warmer prelapsarian times will find temporary release in the luminescence that revives Williams’s first hit, which premiered in 1944—the middle of another period of deeply scarred American optimism. During the production’s two and a half hours, in a rare instance of cosmic collusion, a cell phone didn’t go off once.
“What do you know of the Moomins: the books, the television series, or maybe you just recognize the characters?”
That was one of the first questions asked at the Adventures in Moominland tour, an immersive exhibition currently on at the Southbank Centre; the span of all the different mediums mentioned perfectly encompassing the much loved Moomin’s longevity across generations and cultures. Originating as a series of picture books written and illustrated by Finnish author, Tove Jansson, the Moomin stories follow Moomintroll, a white-as-cloud hippopotamus-like creature, as he lives out his adventures with his family and friends in Moominvalley. Translated in over forty-four languages, readers both young and old have adored these characters for decades, ever since they were first published in 1945 as Jansson’s refuge from the cruel reality of the Second World War.
Part of a larger series called “Nordic Matters” at the Southbank Centre, the Moomin exhibition brings together a collection of Tove Jansson’s sketches, stories and memorabilia from her own life in a completely vitalizing setting. Low ceilings in most of the rooms create an almost child-like playworld, where anyone above the age of ten will likely have to crouch down, not least in order to see the wonderfully petite original drawings rarely showcased to the public before. For the duration of your time in Moominland, all that constitutes being an adult diminishes, starting with the most obvious of characteristics that make you a ‘grown-up’ (as the word suggests), stretching to the playful pantomimes that the escort will engage you in.
In fact, the entire physical set-up of the exhibit is a manifestation of all the different elements that are so central to the animated world. Chilled temperatures mirror the lands of Finland that inspired the author. Dimmed lighting in the space dedicated to the Groke encapsulates Jansson’s period of depression that the character reflected. Adventures in Moominland, rather than being a static tour from room to room, becomes a completely visceral experience, because these are not just drawings on a page, and this is not just a legacy behind glass casing. Tove Jansson drew from a bank of memories, people, feelings and encounters, posing the question: why should the artistry of the Moominworld – with its rich characters and riveting tales – somehow be segregated from its creator, as if it were something inorganic? The exhibition sets itself up to do just the opposite from the very start, beginning with the origin of Moomintroll, who was contrived from a scary tale told to Tove Jansson by her uncle to keep her from raiding the kitchen at night.
Rather than take us chronologically, the exposition continuously intertwines Moomintroll and Jansson’s life and times, both narratively and physically. One area might be Snufkin’s tent recreated, while in the next, the author’s studio in Stockholm. Though each room within the exhibit is immaculate in its ability to transport you to another world, the crux of Adventures in Moominland resides in the astounding attention to detail. Not counting the atmospheric lighting and sound that bring the space to life, so much of what makes this tour exciting for the young and old alike are the novelties that surprise. It’s enthralling to discover Easter eggs, like Kant and Schopenhauer’s manifestos, sprinkled about Moomin’s home – a call-out to Tove Jansson’s intellectual preoccupation with many of these great thinkers, often tackling them in references found within the comic strips. It is precisely in this kind of minutiae that so much of one’s nuanced (and newfound) appreciation for her work arises. The wonders of growing up lay in the fact that the world around us, though no longer simple, is even more fascinating in its complexity.
And Tove Jansson had a way of conveying that. Her narratives often focus on topics of love, tolerance, freedom and existence, hidden behind the guise of a children’s book. But a particularly overarching idea throughout was the author’s compulsion with always finding solace and beauty in the minute. That no matter how bad times may seem (and Jansson was, in fact, writing in the worst of times), there’s always good to be found. One of the stories, for example, shows Moomintroll horribly cross with Moominpappa after not understanding why he does and thinks the things he does. You later find out this was very much Jansson grappling with her own father’s Nazi sympathies, a sentiment common in almost half the Finns at the time, given that Hitler had been viewed as a liberating alternative to the oppressive Russians the country had had strained relations with for decades. In the end, Moomintroll can’t help but still love Moominpappa. Nor could the Finnish penwoman hold her affection for her parent at bay. To love is complex, rooted in the littlest of things, and whether by accident or by design, the exhibit is very much in line with that. And that’s important. Because in an all too familiar scenario we see echoes of today, whereby a population of people can be divided at the seams over a common issue, stories like those of the Moomins are not just a delightful and leisurely pastime for us to engage in, but a very dire reminder of our shared humanity. “One can’t be too dangerous, if they like to eat pancakes. Especially with jam on it,” Moomintroll tells us.
Madeleine L’Engle once said that if a book is too difficult for grownups, write it for children. But Moomintroll and Adventures in Moominland isn’t just for kids, or just for adults – it’s for anyone with a beating heart and a love to share. Paradoxically, a love that, like the devil, is found in the details.
As its title suggests, Rebecca Watts’s new collection seeks to reinvent nature poetry for the 21st Century: a tradition most closely associated with figures like Wordsworth (who re-appears within these pages) as well as an earlier era, and a vastly different ecosystem, of English poetry. While the landscape certainly figures prominently in this volume both as muse and method – even the shortest poems, like ‘Aldeburgh Beach’, are structured in shape and sound to approximate waves on the coast – there is far more here that warrants our recognition as one of the significant debuts of the year.
It’s rare to come across a first collection by a young poet that returns so eclectically to the past, taking as inspiration such historical footnotes as Samuel Johnson’s notorious debt to his milkman (‘Milk’), William Gilpin’s ruminations on the ‘picaresque’ (‘On the Proposed Bridge Over Ditton Meadow’), or the ‘German Tinder Box, c.1800’ which sat on the Wordsworths’ mantelpiece in Dove Cottage. It also ranges geographically from Antarctica’s vast stretches to the warm lawn of Jesus College via the Polar Museum in Cambridge, a city Watts presently calls home. These meticulously researched places and details are not excavated for their own sake; in so many of her poems, Watts thrives on relating the particular to the personal. Musing on a wall map of the British Isles, for example, she notes how:
is arbitrary and without consequence,
except this morning – when, waking too early,
I see that we are both from yellow places
and that while mine spreads out hazily
like an egg frying in a pan
yours is strung up on tenterhooks,
policed by a high-voltage fence…
Watts’s atlas is creased by experience, self-consciously subjective, and thus deeply inviting.
Other poems, reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (Picador, 1999) or Helen Mort’s more recent No Maps Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus, 2016), subtly – and convincingly – re-centre fusty ‘great man’-centred versions of history from a woman’s perspective. In ‘Emmeline’s Ascent’, the ‘unsupported / territory’ of a penny-farthing’s precarious, commanding height becomes a powerful image of Pankhurst’s campaign, while in ‘Dove Cottage’ it is Wordsworth’s wife, Mary Hutchinson, whose ‘pen scratches the paper’, not his. In a similar vein, poems like ‘Flesh and Bone’ (which gives voice to ‘two freaks displayed in the Hunterian museum’), or ‘Emperor Penguin’ (which speaks for the stuffed specimen in The Polar Museum), force us to reconsider the discriminatory and often cruel reasons behind the ways we remember history – and do so stylishly and successfully.
Perhaps as a result of their ambition, and the deliberate simplicity of Watts’s diction, some of her more adventurous poems come across as unintentionally reductionist on first reading. ‘It is not the force of nature / that holds the country in perpetual winter’, she writes at the start of ‘Letter from China’; later in the same poem, couplets like ‘Ask the elderly / they know what life costs […] they saw themselves wading / into old age’ do little work and create the sense that she is unwilling to engage her subject (an entire nation) beyond these broad brushstrokes. On closer inspection, however, the nuances reveal themselves; Watts’s generalizations can be read as an ironically rough assessment of China’s one-child policy: ‘now we live in a lopsided sum…’ In another piece, ‘Ickworth’, Watts turns a self-conscious gaze on her – and our – inability to condense the scale and breadth of what happens into words. The eponymous house is written off as ‘panoramic, / neat, historical, / unpeopled’, not the true province of those who try to ‘manage’ its grounds but of the bee quietly ‘applying and re-/applying its perfect body / to the mauve universe’. Nature and history play against each other in Watts’s counterpoint.
Such tensions prove most fruitful in the striking longer pieces of this collection (Watts’s poems rarely cross a page). If the briefer inclusions come across as quick, though expert, sketches, it is the sustained explorations of ‘natural history’ and its contradictions that best flesh out the many dimensions of Watts’s chosen idiom. Two personal favourites are worth mentioning. It’s hard to describe ‘Pigeons’ as a love poem, a historical poem, or a nature poem, yet it’s all of these and more: the poet’s voice ties several recollections together against the backdrop of Darwin’s legacy, and her brilliant conclusion (‘But things were different back then. / You have no need of a theory of everything.’) works on all of the poem’s levels. Another genre-defying number is ‘Confession’, which leaps between forms and voices, ostensibly charting the poet’s relationship with spiders (‘To my guardian over the shower I sing / scales and renderings of English folk ballads.’) but really placing a hesitant finger on what it means to be ‘so very self-consciously / human’.
The Met Office Advises Caution is, without doubt, a deft take on nature poetry, but we would be remiss to read it simply as that. Watts has not only begun reworking the tradition for the present era, but has also started to fill it with a life and range that helps us make new sense of the past – by paying attention to what is ‘moving in / plain sight, though we / hadn’t noticed before’.
By Theophilus Kwek
The Met Office Advises Caution, Rebecca Watts,Carcanet, 2016, £9.99
Picasso Sculpture opened to great acclaim last September at New York’s Museum of Modern Art before moving to the Musée National Picasso-Paris and is now to be seen at BOZAR in Brussels. The exhibition as it appears in Europe is not, however, a straight transfer of the MOMA show but concentrated on Picasso’s use of multiples, series and variations in his artistic work. Use of reproductive methods can be confusing but this is not in any way an exhibition of reproductions of diminishing interest or authenticity. It demonstrated how Picasso used reproductive processes to bring out different resonances and paths from a single design.
Reviewed across Europe the British press commented little on it. Despite his major influence on twentieth century art comprehensive exhibitions of Picasso’s sculpture have been few. Even during his lifetime while pieces were exhibited, it was infinitely less so than were his paintings. There were also fewer publications dealing with his sculpture. Some spread the word, like André Breton’s Picasso dans son element in the 1933 inaugural issue of Minotaure. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s book, The Sculptures of Picasso, finally published in 1949, was the first significant study of Picasso’s sculpture. Both these publications were aided by Brassaï’s haptic photographs that with dramatic camera angles and lighting emphasised the sculpture’s tangible qualities. It was not until the huge 1966 Homage à Pablo Picasso exhibition, in celebration of Picasso’s eighty fifth birthday, that he let much of the work he had kept hidden behind his studio doors be exhibited for the first time and the public at large were duly awed by its fecundity and invention. Since then major exhibitions of Picasso’s sculptures have occurred only once in a generation and his sculptures remain little known. As Picasso kept most of it himself, both the plasters and bronze casts, comprehensive exhibitions of it cannot be drawn solely from the four museums in France and Spain devoted to his work. Much of the work still remains with his heirs, the Picasso family, and they have made generous loans to the exhibition, adding to the exhibitions significance.
Picasso underwent a very thorough classical training as a painter but had no training at all as a sculptor. His approach to his sculpture was notably non-traditional and full of improvisation and the Musée Picasso’s exhibition starts with just such a piece of improvisation. Two not quite identical pieces face each other, two versions of La femme enceinte, from 1950. One is made in plaster incorporating ceramic pots forming the woman’s breasts and swelling belly; the other is a cast in bronze. It must be noted that throughout his life for Picasso it was his plaster sculptures that where the originals. They were not intermediary stages on the way to becoming bronzes. Thus these would be two separate works for Picasso. The change in La femme enceinte’s materials also changes their resonance. The plaster and hollow ceramic version conveys ideas of fragility and the concept of woman as vessel privately carrying the child within; cast in more robust bronze the vessel qualities and fragility are lost, but tradition, enduring, stable and timelessness is evoked linking it to monumental public sculpture.
Sculpture was an integral part of Picasso’s practice throughout his life, although it remained a sporadic activity done in distinct periods with years often passing between these periods. Each burst of activity brought a different approach and themes he addressed in one medium are found across his whole oeuvre.
Having opened with the 1950 La femme enceinte, the exhibition then follows a chronological path and the viewer is confronted with multiple pieces, many of them the same. They are casts from clay sculptures Picasso sold the art dealer, Ambrose Vollard, in September 1910 that Vollard, not Picasso, cast in bronze for commercial and traditional aesthetic purposes. While it is not clear how many casts Vollard had made exhibited here are three bronzes of Picasso’s 1905 Le Fou, two of the 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) and four bronzes and two plasters of Picasso’s 1909 cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande). The earlier 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) with its rough unfinished hair and an unevenly modelled face, one eye left just sketched in, looks back to Rodin’s obsession with the non finito, while Picasso’s 1909 Head of a Woman (Fernande) look forwards to cubism, the past and the future. Seeing so many multiples draws the eye to compare forms, finishes and patinations, of which I wish there had been more discussion.
A ‘Primitivist’ room devoted to wooden sculptures, carved with rudimentary tools from 1906 to 1908 shows Picasso edging towards cubism in an exploration of Iberian and early Romanesque Catalan sculpture and African tribal masks with totemic faceted qualities. His exploration of the multiple truly begins with his Verre d’absinthe from 1914, a piece the dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had cast in bronze. Rarely seen together as here all six casts of the Verre are displayed in the same case allowing direct comparison, in New York they were separated in separate cases. While the casts are similar in form and all topped with a real absinthe spoon and bronze lump of sugar. Picasso painted each cast differently with spots, solid colours and sand for texture varying them. His ability to play ambiguously with forms is seen in the jaunty angle of the absinthe spoon on the glass’s rim that recalls a flâneur’s straw boater, or the slouch of a drinker of absinthe? The same room contains tiny, hand sized, cubist bas reliefs that show the theme of opacity and transparency explored in the Verre that relate to Picasso and Braque’s cubist obsession with the piercing of solid form.
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Picasso again dealing with pieced or transparent forms creating a series of small maquettes in response to a rare commission for a monument to mark the grave of his friend, the poet and critic, Guilliame Apollinaire, who had died in 1918. Using rods and wires he created three-dimensional drawings in space, sculptures made from nothingness that echo the void his friend’s death had left and refer to Apollinaire’s The poète assassin in which Picasso’s alter ego, the Bird of Benin, had made a ‘profound statue made out of nothing, like poetry and glory’.
Not possessing the quality of mass usually associated with fine art sculpture, but made from a void by construction and forging techniques linked them to the minor genre of the decorative arts not to traditional, commemorative sculpture. They were just too radicle. The committee turned each maquette down and none would leave the artist’s possession. Yet Picasso’s engagement with the them continued and later in his life he commissioned enlargements of these maquettes from Joseph Marius Triola, through whom he made bent metal sculpture in the 1960s.
When working in metal Picasso was always heavily reliant on the technical expertise of others and for the Apollinaire maquettes he was aided by the Catalan metalsmith, Julio González. This period of sculptural activity, late 1920s and early 1930s, saw Picasso involved more personally in the making of many of his metal sculpture and the work on Apollinaire’s monument culminated, for Picasso at least, with his full sized La femme au jardin created out of scraps of iron found in González’s workshop. Picasso got González to copy this iron sculpture in welded and forged bronze and both pieces are in the current exhibition. They stand confronting each other with their philodendron branches and windblown hair on the museum’s first floor landing, one painted white, one patinated black. The collaboration with González resulted in the creation of other pieces, the Tête de femme and Tête d’homme among them. Like La femme au jardin they were made from workshop scraps, but Tête de femme incorporates a domestic object, a colander that forms the back of the woman’s head.
Undeterred by the failure of the Apollinaire commission Picasso continued working on sculpture during the 1930s at his country house, Boisgeloup, there he produced a series of tall narrow angular wooden figures, carved in fir that recall the stockier pieces he carved in 1906 leading up to cubism. None withstanding his untraditional approach to the making of his sculpture Picasso now had examples of these pieces cast in bronze thus treating them in a traditional way. They are among the first Picasso himself, rather than a dealer, had cast in bronze. He would use bronze to unify and evoke tradition in the most untraditional of materials.
There follows a series of plaster biomorphic human forms. Similar contorted figures appear in his paintings done the same year. They culminate in the great plaster heads of his mistress Marie-Thérèse in which he gradually distorted her physiognomy into surreal creations that express unconscious desires, yet classical art emerges in a series of plaster bas reliefs of Marie-Thérèse that recall classical Roman coins and more playful ancient Gallo-roman coins, popular with the surrealists at the time.
Earlier we had seen Picasso use found objects, the absinthe spoon and colander, now working in plaster allowed him to ‘borrow’ textures, taking casts from corrugated cardboard, cloth or leaves, amalgamating them into mythic sprites like La femme au feuillage, of 1934, in her classical chiton. All of these processes were transgressive but they would be translated into bronze as Picasso had a large number of his 1930s plaster sculptures cast in bronze during World War II. Ostensibly this was done for their security, plaster being delicate and likely to break, by that time using the traditional bronze casting process could be termed a subversive act.
His work with objet trouvé continued both during and after the war and employed with great skill and humour simultaneously having them cast into bronze. This time, as Picasso himself would say, it was to give ‘the most diverse objects such unity that it’s sometimes difficult to identify the constituent parts.’ Yet that double vision is the key to their magic. One sees the old basket, the outsized shoe and the corrugated card in his 1950 Petite Fille sautant à la corde, but they also read as the girl’s body, feet and hair. La guenon et son petit of 1951 famously incorporates his son Claude’s toy cars to form the ape’s head, a ceramic pot for the belly and a car spring for the tail; some say the sculpture is of the artist himself holding his baby son, Claude, or there is the 1958 Tête made from a wooden box, nails, buttons for eyes and plaster. This latter piece again incorporates a void; the inside of the box with which he evokes the volume of the head itself. The box’s thin walls look forwards to Picasso’s bent metal sculptures. All of these pieces are displayed next to their bronze casts, tradition and innovation, sameness and difference side by side.
Picasso’s bent metal sculpture begun in two-dimensions in paper then enlarged into sheet metal with the help of Tobias Jellinek in the 1950s, Lionel Prejger and Triola in the 1960s, the work again approaches the issues of mass and solidity by using media associated with their opposites. Their subtle folds cast shadows indicating the volume and weight of traditional sculptural qualities. Often asking his collaborators to make two or more examples of the same pieces, he would take come further painting them colourfully, like Femme au chapeau of 1961-1963 that sits beside an unpainted version, form and colour beside each other. This colourful work chimes with to his painting, his ceramics and painted wooden sculptures in turn linking them to medieval polychromy. Other pieces were enlarged to monumental size in Bétogravure concrete by Carl Nesjar fulfilling a long time interest of Picasso’s that of monumental sculpture, yet as always approaching traditional attribute of fine art sculpture in transgressive ways.
The exhibition carried the sculpture’s inventiveness lightly. Themes were explored in different ways over years. Their playfulness made it is easy to overlook or dismiss their subversive message. Still tradition was always there, Daphne still run from Apollo in his La femme au jardin. This was an exhibition that does what exhibitions should do: make you look and think.
Over her three-decade long career, Icelandic artist Björk has always blurred limits; genre limits between experimental and pop music, verbal limits between language and scat singing, formal limits between music and visual art.
‘Björk Digital’ is an embodiment of this blurring, for the exhibition is an unclassifiable show that is in equal parts tech demo, cutting-edge visual album and performance art. The exhibition is built on tracks from her latest record Vulnicura (One Little Indian, 2015), a self-professed ‘complete heartbreak album’ after the artist’s separation from her long-time partner. The first five of the six rooms that comprise the exhibition are different types of virtual reality presentations, each set to one of the tracks from Vulnicura.
First there is ‘Black Lake’, set in a dark room with projections on opposite walls and surround sound. Björk stumbles around a volcanic landscape as blue lava bleeds from the rocks around her. Her powerful interpretive dancing has her beating her chest until she dies and is reborn in lush green hills. The changing quality of sound is fascinating, and has viewers walking around the space trying to hear every note of the haunting track.
In the next three rooms viewers sit on stools with virtual reality headsets on, moving from the gorgeously sad beach of ‘Stonemilker’ to the nightmarish ‘Mouth Mantra’, filmed from the inside of Björk’s mouth as she sings the most terrifying track from Vulnicura. While the ideas are perfect, unfortunately they are ahead of the technology; the images are low-resolution and the immersion is broken by visible pixels.
This is not a problem in the penultimate room, that is also the most technically demanding. ‘Notget VR’, instead of using wireless headsets with smartphones in them, wired headsets hang from the ceiling, and viewers are invited to walk around the space. An initially life-size glowing outline of the artist grows and grows, endlessly pacing forwards as she spits out her words to angry strings. Not cowering away from her goddess-like apparition is difficult; the immersion is total.
While Vulnicura is a narrative album, the songs are here presented out of order. This has a jarring effect; while ‘Stonemilker’ is a heartbreaking attempt at keeping a failing relationship together, it comes after ‘Black Lake’, a song from the pits of post-breakup hell that has a clear turning point towards positivity in its closing minutes. The presentations must be thus interpreted as separate pieces, which means that some of the album’s momentum is lost.
Another problematic element is the placement of the rooms themselves. Paradoxically, what is supposed to be the most immersive form currently available consistently breaks the immersion that the artist works so hard to achieve. Aside from the unavoidable awkwardness of having to place heavy equipment on your head, and having to endure an explanation on how to adjust the focus and volume for each piece, the rooms are also separated by corridors and are on different floors, which causes drastic changes in lighting levels. This layout seems to be a result of the exhibition being spread out over Somerset House’s New Wing, and it would certainly benefit from a smaller, more contained space.
After the virtual reality rooms, visitors are led to the ‘Cinema Room’, in which over twenty of Björk’s music videos play on a large screen, with crystal-clear sound quality. While the videos are consistently thought-provoking and well presented, they highlight again the technical limitations in some of the virtual reality rooms.
What this room does reveal is that virtual reality seems to be the technology that Björk has been waiting for. Her videos have always placed emphasis on movement and immersion. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993) directed by Stephane Sednaoui, for example, has Björk performing on the bed of a truck driving through the streets of Manhattan. It is difficult to think of a scene more suited to being filmed in virtual reality.
While Björk is the focal point of each piece (no other person features in any of the virtual reality videos, and very few others in the cinema room screenings) it is important to remember that ‘Björk Digital’ is a quintessentially collaborative project. From the directors of the videos, to the talented session musicians and multiple producers of Vulnicura, to the virtual reality boffins who make Björk’s wonderfully bonkers ideas possible, these are people working on art that is not technically perfect, but original and necessary.
‘I wish to synchronise our feelings’ sings Björk on ‘Stonemilker’. This goal becomes easy when the artist is standing in front of you, life-size, staring into your eyes, bearing out her soul just inches from your face. Briefly, you can forget the heavy contraption strapped to your head, and that the image has visible pixels. ‘Björk Digital’ uses virtual reality well, and does more than enough to be moving and establish a true connection between artist and viewer, despite its technical limitations. It is yet another success led by an artist who is always looking forward.
If you put on a production of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, how much does anyone care that the action is ostensibly set in the streets around them? My guess is that we understand when a setting is a stand in for ‘far far away’, and are happy to displace it in our heads to another similarly foreign location for the duration of the show. This question is at the front of the mind when watching Rufus Norris’s new National Theatre production of TheThreepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Victorian London-set fable. This is no more a play about London than The Barber of Seville is about Seville, but putting it on the National stage means you can’t avoid certain reflections on the city itself.
For Brecht himself in 1928, Victorian London was the very image of the bourgeois capitalist city, and thus a good place to set a myth about its myriad failings. To their credit Norris and translator Simon Stephens have chosen to lean into the grounding the locality provides, so that references to Rotherhithe and Canning Town don’t come across as the meanderings of a slightly lost German working off a dated guidebook.
Part of the effectiveness of the London-setting comes in the earthiness of Stephens’s script. The slightly distant quality of Brecht’s words when translated over-literally is replaced with filth, and fury, and a kind of almost Falstaffian ribaldry suiting the East End down to the gutter. Stephens is a playwright who, when it’s called for, can put contemporary spoken English to full obscene effect, and he relishes it here: we are left in no doubt which part of Macheath’s anatomy is doing his thinking for him. Nor are we left in any doubt as to what kind of comradeship he and the chief of police enjoyed in their army days (the production follows the current trend of removing the ‘sub’ from any homoerotic subtext in the original play; while this can be a little on the nose, it is probably worth it as long as men kissing is still even a slightly surprising sight on the stage).
In many ways, however, this is a relatively purist Brecht production: Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary set is constructed in front our eyes, managing to appear both elaborate and eye-wateringly precarious at the same time as counterweights fly across the stage and large pieces of moving scaffolding come within an inch of seemingly decapitating cast members. This is theatre not so much with its heart on its sleeve as with all its other internal organs worn for all to see. Indeed, the slapstick element, with cops running after robbers in physical sequences that play like the demented dark mirror of Benny Hill, is one of the production’s great trump cards. If the language is good at giving us the scummy undercurrent of London life, then the pictures on stage give us its equivalent: Hogarth by way of Keaton.
Fun as it is to see Brecht performed in a way we might imagine the Berliner Ensemble might have wanted it, all unpretentious bare bones and moving parts, I am not sure if the politics of the show come through clearly enough. For one thing, Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, while every bit as shark-like as his entrance number suggests, is never quite seductive enough either in antiheroic charm or in singing voice to really sell us on the corruption of aspirational capitalism. And while Rosalie Craig’s Polly is by far the standout performance, her extraordinary renditions of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and the ‘Barbara Song’ give such terrifying, vengeful bite to the gender politics of the piece that the class politics fades into the background. As with much Brecht performed today, when no longer agitprop the messages can become diffuse, and even contradictory.
Looking for contemporary resonance in the show might be a fools’ errand, but with a kind of left-wing politics with which Brecht might have been at least passingly familiar in the ascendant it is a fun game to play. Yet the exhilarating tensions of the Weimar Germany it derives from – when the world seemed in flux and the only question seemed which flavour of street politics, left or right, would triumph – are far removed from the comfortable academic lives of the left’s champions today. My chief thought watching the procession of pimps and whores and cut-throats was not only that Momentum members had never met them, but wouldn’t want to. The moral portrait Brecht paints is one of humans running around London driven by animal instincts, rats in the capitalist rat race. ‘It was for the tax advantages!’ pleads Mack to a jilted lover to explain away his sudden marriage to another woman, sounding like someone taken in by a David Cameron-era Tory party soundbite.
But if this Victorian society is hardly a Big Society, it is not a society ripe for a Corbyn revolution either. The ‘Ballad of the Easy Life’ with which Kinnear serenades us upon our return from the interval mocks ascetics and intellectuals of the bearded Islington sort. He just wants his comfortable life, and will happily walk over such people to get there. Brecht of course is parodying the cut-throats of the free market, but it is significant that Macheath is an aspirational lower-middle-class businessman. At the very least Brecht would have wanted any decent revolutionary party to understand them before changing the system. But in Norris’s production politics at street level is a carnivalesque tangle of gender struggle and disability rights, the false loyalty of a twenty-foot St George’s flag and the sudden treachery of a sex worker. There are too many people out for their own gain for the grand common purpose of a Corbyn-Labour London.
The desired class-consciousness of Brecht’s street-level theatre is not going to be the straightforward outcome on the audience of the National Theatre, I think. But this is still an excellent and timely production, and one that, given the hero’s falling foul of the offshore accounts he has attempted to keep his money safe in, should remind us to keep track of just where money is going and who stands to benefit in this (still) most capitalist of capitals.
By Fred Maynard
The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann, in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens, The National Theatre, playing until 1 October.
For more information and tickets visit The National Theatre website here.