Culture Reviews

Chekhov’s plays are long. They usually involve a family who are suffering at the hands of political circumstances. Things generally don’t go well. This new play based on Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ at the National Theatre has been re-imagined by talented poet Inua Ellams. The action has been transposed to the Biafran Civil War 1967-1970. It is a clever re-telling of a family trying to find happiness in the crucible of conflict. The colonising interests of the UK and France are implicated for their financial involvement. There are unpalatable historical consequences to acknowledge. It also has unpleasant resonances of current global issues around power, in territories rich in fossil fuels. All this plays out through a classic Chekhovian plot of drawing room family dynamics. Three sisters are displaced from their preferred home in Lagos. They grapple with relationships on the cusp between arranged marriages and modern influences. Each character has different motivations, and responds to trauma differently. At a familial level it’s about hope and its subsequent loss. At a global level it’s a valuable history lesson about the entanglements that burden populations as long term consequences of colonial powers playing ‘divide and rule’. The cast give us fine portrayals of different responses to life under siege, bearing the unbearable weight of hunger, violence and sorrow.

‘The Red Hand Files’ is the blog of singer/song-writer Nick Cave. A series of questions are asked by members of the public and he replies in letter form accompanied by an image. It is a Maverick, entertaining and profound collection of musings. His answers are sometimes deep, often funny and always candid. They are brilliant nuggets of prose irrespective of your interest in the music of ‘the Bad Seeds’. I happen to love the pulsing beat and ‘Hammer House’ organ of ‘The Red Right Hand’ (theme tune of Peeky Blinders). The question he asks which underpins this compulsive call and response of blog writing is “Are you there?” The questions are themselves funny, sad, meaningful and ultimately reflect the questioner, spanning sex, death and music. From #42 “With song writing we enter the imagination, that wildest of erogenous zones, where intense obsessive yearning can be like a roaring in the heart and loins both”. He reveals not only his wit, but his Christian framework and dedication to transcendental meditation, which support him in his own profound enquiry around grief. #44 “For most of my life I have felt a strange gravitational pull toward an undisclosed traumatic event, that could only be described as a dreadful yearning, and I found it eventually in my son’s death – something that both destroyed me and ultimately defined me.” I particularly love #6 “…if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love, and like love, grief is non-negotiable.” I found myself spontaneously tapping out a question and hitting send before I could censor myself. I await his reply.

“What makes you shape and reshape yourselves so brightly from so much pain and suffering?” asks Charlotte Salomon in her own words, in her extraordinary exhibition ‘Life? or Theatre?’ at the Jewish Museum. This is part of the collection that was found after the artist’s death in Auschwitz. Painted over two years in hiding in France 1940-1942, it was kept safe by a friend and re-discovered after her death. The artist challenged herself “to create her world anew out of the depths.” Conceived as a therapeutic autoethnographical work, she invites us into her personal and family drama. It also reflects the history of a German-Jewish girl, in Berlin during the 1930’s; running up to the racial violence known as ‘Kristallnacht’ – the night of broken glass in 1938. (Autoethnography connects the originator’s work to the wider political and social context.) Charlotte Salomon’s story leaps from the pages of loosely painted images. Using only the 3 primary colours plus white, she mixes them to create sombre depictions of her family life with elegant red, blue or yellow outlines and later more urgent, bolder pictures. They were conceived alongside writing and relate to pieces of music. Inspired by her former music teacher and lover, she explores ancestral grief through the creative process. ‘Life? Or Theatre?’ is her therapeutic reclamation of the tragic set of personal circumstances that happen to her, simultaneously with the persecution of Jewish people. This exhibition shows over 200 small paintings, which begin with detailed frames telling the troubled history. As she delves deeper into the process, the images become more dynamic and the gouache streaks onto the pages, reflecting her own complex internal landscape. “I became my mother my grandmother in fact I was all the characters who appear in my play. I learned to travel all their paths and became all of them.” Like story boards, and pre-figuring graphic novels, she takes us step by step, back to childhood and her mother’s suicide and the events that follow. A final shocking revelation comes in the letter written at the end of the process. She finds a way to move through trauma and re-connect with living, “One can be resurrected – in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died.”

Two of my favourite people whisked me away, draped me in fluff and sequins (“because it’s panto” to quote Arkem), and took me on an adventure to see ‘Queer Stories’. The Embers Collective rekindle the art of story-telling. Lonan Jenkins our compare invites us in with ‘Permission’, a poem by Alabaster dePlume. This is a call to arms to “give yourself permission to do your awesome shit.” Doing something new and being yourself creatively is what the Embers Collective are all about. Together they create an easy, inclusive atmosphere to welcome all, where difference is valued. ‘Queer Stories’ is a cabaret style performance featuring Anya Pearson and Josh Middleton bringing music in and between the lines of the stories by Charlie Wood, Robert Holtom, James Boswell, India Jaggon-Barrett, Dominique Bull and Arkem Mark Walton. “What kind of character do you want to be in this story?” asks dePlume, talking to this particular moment in history. Delving into and beneath their own lives to bring something new, each performer has their own unique perspective on queerness. Adding archetype and mythology they produce stories that charm, move and delight. Every performer has their own distinctive flavour. Thank you Rosie and Julie for engineering for me to see their awesome shit. It was magic.

‘Tell Me Who I Am’ is a fascinating documentary film made about an extraordinary set of circumstances. Alex and Marcus are twins, now in their 50’s. We see them beautifully illuminated in the studio as they tell their stories. “I don’t know who I am”, begins Alex. Like psychologists observing through a two-way mirror, we are invited into their worlds, their twin perspectives. Despite being identical twins, their experiences are not mirrored. We learn more about their responses through their body language – as they each return to glasses of water, sit forward or back on their chairs, and spread fingers across their faces when overcome with dismay. “The major thing about being a twin; you’re never alone,” says Marcus. The narrative is driven by compelling interviews, but flushed out with haunting images and atmospheric details through reconstruction.“ Alex lost his memory by accident, and I lost my memory voluntarily,” says Marcus. We observe as they open Pandora’s box and out pour secrets, truths, guilt, grief and shame. The whole tale spins on an axis of “blinding trust.” We become voyeurs in the deconstruction of an internalised history. As memory, relationships, family dynamics and identity disintegrate, what remains?  It asks whether our memory and history forms the bones of who we are? The connection between the brothers is under scrutiny. Through them this is a compelling examination of responses to trauma, and the expression of emotion.

We first saw ‘War Horse’ at the National Theatre in preview in 2007. I cried then at the flyer, (the image seen here on the programme). I honked my way through the show. I saw it again in 2013 and for the third time tonight. The piece has tightened up since I first saw it, but it still made me weep. This run at The Troubadour in Wembley ends on the 23rd of November. Michael Morpurgo’s original book, an ‘anthem for peace’ as he puts it, is anchored in research to tell a simple ‘boy meets horse’ tale. Through this personal story, he opens a window onto the carnage, confusion and hardship in active service during the First World War. Nick Stafford adapted the book as the bones of the production, which was then fleshed out by the Handspring Puppet Company to create illusions of twitching muscular horses, and even a tank. ‘War Horse’ is a grand spectacle using theatre’s best visual sleight of hand – puppets, lighting, smoke effects, animation (of Rae Smith’s loose drawings) and human choreography to move the audience. Using the horse as the vehicle, the show paints an allegory of loss of innocence. The music, which ranges from its folk opening song, ‘Only remembered for what you have done’, through pastoral to bombastic amplifies the emotional surges. The Armistice was signed 100 years and a day ago. This feels a fitting grief ritual to acknowledge the loyalty of our animal kin during the horrific trauma of war. At the end of the show my white poppy came unexpectedly to light.

One diagram might chart the spectrum of creative work between Fuller (see previous post) and the print-makers of North Korea. Fuller describes life as an artist as “a curse, a compulsive problem”. He paces, researches and explores his subject working over long periods in isolation to create extraordinary ‘maps of the mind’, which synthesize the aesthetics, culture and geography of places. At the other end of the spectrum are the print makers from the DPRK who work as part of a team, follow rules that cover subject, style and load references within each image. Art production is structured within a studio system. The highest level of attainment in this system is ‘People’s Artist’. Nicholas Bonner is a lively cultural ambassador, both informative and entertaining. He conveys the philosophy behind these idealized images. As Kim Jong-un states, “Revolutionary art awakens people to the truth of struggle & life & inculcates in them rich emotion & verve”. Bonner explains some of the meaning behind the dynamic, vibrant, yet often visually lyrical wood and lino cuts. He also shares some of his experience of the humanity of the people in the DPRK and the everyday life that these prints portray.

When my father died in 1988, I inherited his copy of ‘The Joy of Gay Sex’ by Dr Charles Silverstein and Edmund White. The ‘Rainbow Dads’ podcasts is a sensitive series of conversations that would have spoken directly to his situation, but he was of the pre-internet generation who had to find their own way. “It was just a deep feeling which I had inside of me which became really really powerful” Ahnet explains. He is one of the 5 gay or bisexual dads who talk frankly in this series of revealing podcasts about the “secret places” where queer sexuality often resides. Nicholas McInerny – our enthusiastic and genial host encourages each of them as they describe how they found “the courage to step out of family and social networks to reclaim my identity” in the process of coming out. We hear about their internalised messages of guilt and shame, in a context of different social, cultural and faith backgrounds. Importantly they also acknowledge the hurt caused. They each grapple with the complexities of marriage, their unconscious drives and parenthood. I warmed to these men as they confessed to many, “Oh shit! Moments” in the interplay between self, partner, children and community in order to know as David puts it, “that you are ok, that your life is valid.” Ultimately these are stories about being human, finding healing and learning to love. Their words resonate deeply with me and my own late coming out, but also shed light on my father’s internal conflicts that led to his own declaration of those words, “I’m gay.”

I stand outside on the street looking into the Hart Club, which is full of the colourful, bold portraits painted by Paul Wright. He portrays his favourite characters from the comedy programmes and soaps he loves. “The work was cheeky and interesting,” says Stephen Wright (no relation) about Paul’s work. They began a creative working relationship, laughter being a key ingredient. “It was a two way experience,” reports Stephen, “Paul helped me to loosen up”. This exhibition has come into being through a collaboration between the Hart Club (who champion neuro diversity in the arts), Submit to Love Studios (part of Headway, a charity working with people who have experienced brain injury), Stephen Wright (working as artist in residence), and Paul Wright (artist with brain injury). Helen who works alongside the artists describes Headway Hackney as having “a Yes! Attitude”. She invites us to think outside our current mindset. “What would it mean for your life if you were very dramatically changed, with loss of self, loss of identity?” I had spent the afternoon with someone struggling to come to terms with exactly that – a sudden change in the entire landscape of their life. “Art practice is a way of living with uncertainty…and turning that into something magical,” says Ben of Headway Hackney. Their inclusive mission with service users is to foster “meaning, the opportunity to be valued, food and love, to have a place in the world; in short, trying to be human.”

Jamie Wheal’s brilliant and erudite proposition is that in the post modern, industrialised west we are suffering a “collapse of meaning”. He identifies a necessary collective ‘griefgasm’ (Bilal’s term), to belch out our trauma. “Our ability to be of service is in direct proportion to our ability to digest our grief”. He articulates a very convincing synthesis of how to bring about change for the many not the few – “it needs to be all of us, or none of us”. He presents a diagram of the components of collective transformation. The crux is awakening through both ecstatic practice, through cathartic experience, yet connected and grounded in community. His shiny appearance, “super sexy, gee wizz” language is designed to get the attention of the well groomed smart casual movers and shakers in the audience. “How to blow your mind with household substances – respiration, embodiment, music, sexuality and substances…stacked together to bio-hack consciousness” is the programme. I share his passion to ignite courage, witness his eyes brim, and am already on board with most of what he espouses. He brings together strands to inspire “don’t curse the darkness, light a fire”(Watkinson). I would also love to hear his words weaving in circle with others – with women and people of colour. Here he stands with Yoms and June prefiguring my wish.
Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex and Death in a World That’s Lost Its Mind. Talk by Jamie Wheel.