Culture Reviews

My spine is tingling as I watch ten performers solemnly walk along the path towards me, in Kensal Green Cemetery. They move at funeral pace, each holding a grief object, in a ritual procession of remembrance. I am here to support an intention to hold death in my awareness along with these non-professional dancers who, all over 60 are themselves turning towards mortality.

Along with singing and making music together, dance is one of our oldest and most universal human activities. In this time, this mode of expression is often side-lined as a pastime of the young or drunk. My winding and sensuous dances keep my ageing body moving, but also allow my soul to connect with others. One of the advantages of age for me, is a letting go of inhibitions – to be less self-conscious about my image in others’ eyes. We bumped into a friend on the way to the cemetery by chance, who told us that dancing in community was what sustained their parents (now late 70’s).

Rose Rouse – a passionate dancer and advocate for the ‘Advantages of Age’ was the instigator of ‘Dance Me to Death’. She met Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada of Fubunation – young dancers who are exploring black masculinity in their choreography, encouraging diverse collaborations and audiences. Rose was excited by Rhys and Waddah’s work. But, in order to make this intergenerational project happen said, “I had to persuade them to do this project with me.” They said “Yes”, and the project emerged as a collaboration – devising, dancing and exploring their experiences around death and grief. The outcome is a performance, photographs, and documentary film in the making.

The cemetery is a beautiful backdrop of caryatids, columns, and tombs surrounded by trees, and just enough wildness. Reminiscent of the angels that reach out to one another from the top of one mausoleum, the dancers stretch and connect. As the dancers claim the grand steps of one chapel they move,  dancing with the edges between life and death. Cello and percussion accompany their coming together in group pieces and duets that are tender with moments of surprising energy.

Informed by mortality, and the uncertainty of Covid rules and weather, this nod to death felt like an achievement against the odds, and a celebration of life.

Sam Butler and David Harradine of ‘Fevered Sleep’ have devised and produced ‘This Grief Thing’.

This Grief Thing is a project that encourages people to think, talk and learn about grief.”

Their billboard caught my eye last week as I walked along Dalston Lane. They have curated a number of talks on grief themes, as well as other projects that stir people to engage with the theme.

Tony and I visited their market stall in Brick Lane where Julie, Sam and David folded T shirts and sweltered in the heat like all the other market traders. Poised for spontaneous interactions, the presence of the stall caught the eye of people walking past. As people browsed hoodies and T shirts, conversations were encouraged with the curious. I remembered my days on the Narrow Way initiating random conversations with strangers in the Hackney is Friendly project.

The market stall is full of merchandise designed to open conversations with ordinary people to normalise talking about loss. Brilliant and simple, their slogans champion a way to engage with someone who may feel ill-equipped to mourn, or to respond to someone who is grieving.

“Don’t panic if I cry,” printed on a red T-shirt particularly appealed to me. We left with “Let me be sad” badges, and some other swag. I shall wear them, ready to see what communication it provokes, hoping to spread their mission of everyday encounters that unlock the taboo around the subject of grief.

Despite his fresh-faced boyish looks, Sam Lee’s album, ‘Old Wow’ digs deep into oral folk music traditions with the wisdom of an old soul. I am a funk music fan. Folk is out of my comfort zone, but I am lured in by the meanings of words that ache with melancholy, and the bass lines that creep along in tracks like ‘Lay This Body Down’.

He offers a brilliant synthesis of old and new. He uses or re-imagines folk songs learned from singers of disappearing oral traditions. He arranges modern fusions to bring these songs to new ears – using an eclectic mix, which includes double bass, piano, percussion, guitar and violin. The arrangements come alive, full of sorrow and the beauty of nature.

‘Soul Cake’ begins with three verses of ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’ – a folk song, which goes back centuries, weaving astrological and Christian symbolism inextricably together. I sat as a small child next to my mother on the piano stool, enjoying the oral yoga of singing its ‘jibberish’. Now, the poetic lines hang between my ears. Lee has re-written this as a foray into mortality. Symbols from the original build into a counting song that describes the circle of life. Lee winds folk poetry with the harmonies of grief. ‘Old Wow’ reminds me of the magic of Scott Walker’s haunting lyrics, served with an inducement to love life.

Watching him perform at the Medicine Festival was stirring. He orchestrated the crowd to sing a powerful nine-part lament. I was moved as we sang a Requiem for nine recently extinct species: the Pyrenean Brown Bear, Passenger Pigeon, Eurasian Wolf, Rita’s Island Lizard, Large Blue Butterfly, Bermuda Night Heron, Eskimo Curlew, Silver Trout, and Charles Island Tortoise. In his own words, Sam Lee aims to create: “a timeless bridge, music that can be looking both backward and forwards, and a soulful accompaniment to an urgent need to fall back in love with nature if we are to know how to protect it”.

‘Honeyland’ is an extraordinary portrait of  Hatidze Muratova, a woman keeping wild bees using traditional methods. The story which unfolds, came about as the film-makers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomire Stefanov, were filming in Northern Macedonia, and met the bee keeper. Unusually, the film was Oscar nominated for both ‘best documentary’ and ‘best international feature’. It is visually stunning. Gold light pours like honey through the film, as we step into the bee keeper’s domain.

Much like the narrative of the film, it is long, slow and painful. The old ways meet the contradictory demands of modern poverty, played out through the interactions between Muratova, and the family who move in next door.

At the Medicine Festival, I made a bee line to hear some of the barefoot hive philosophy of Chris Park. He is a very unassuming Dad, beekeeper, Druid, and storyteller. He spoke of ancient lore from a time when Britain was known as ‘The Honey Isle’. As he spoke, he invited us to roll words around our mouths with him, to hear the etymology of bee keeping. It was as though we were sipping linguistic mead or metheglin (mead brewed with herbs or spices). He spoke of the three medicines in Druid philosophy – water, honey and labour. Like the finest pollen taken from bee legs, unadulterated, he is the bees knees.


Like a crime scene, the victims of accident or predator sometimes lie in my path. I imagine each feather marked with an exhibit number, a chalk line around the body. The path that meets the road is closed off one day this week, with real police tape. “There has been a shooting,” word passes between dog walkers. Accident or not, a tragedy will probably be playing out in two households, as a consequence.

On this theme, there are a couple of gems available to hear on BBC Radio 4, which unfold some of the consequences for everyone involved after a crime has been committed. ‘This Thing of Darkness’ is a 8 part drama, written by Anita Vettesse and Eileen Horne. It follows a forensic psychiatrist’s conversations with an accused man, and members of his family, in an attempt to unravel what happened. Told from the psychiatrist’s point of view, it reveals her thought processes as she listens for glimmers of truth among the facts. It also includes characters inside a therapy group process within a prison. It allows us to see the nuanced and complex causes of what happened, and the feelings of everyone touched by the incident.

‘The Punch’ is a 5 part documentary series following the impact after one young man was convicted of manslaughter, for killing another with a single punch. We hear about the impact of the death both on the person convicted, and the family of the victim. It gives an inspiring insight into the process of restorative justice. The outcome of the meetings between the convicted, and the parents of the victim is remarkable, but does not diminish the morass of difficult feelings on both sides.

‘Norton Grim and Me 2019’ is a short, animated film about Tony Gammidge’s experience of being sent to boarding school. The film portrays strong emotional content with visceral images. It is also beautiful. Stark shadow puppets, plasticine figures, haunting photographs and quirky drawings weave together to illuminate his dark tale. He is one of the people who adds their perspective in ‘Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears’ by Suzanne Zeedyk. Tony Gammidge invites us to find our own stories, to use creative expression as a way into healing. He brings his own grief, and trauma as raw materials to be transmuted. Inspired by Thomas Ogden’s work, Tony says, “To make art works from these events is not just about making sense of something, though this is important but also compensating for the loss, making something worthwhile and beautiful that in part makes up for it.” By watching the film, we bear witness to both his grief and its processing. “The film that charts his journey is not, then, just a re-telling of his childhood. It is a re-making of that childhood.”  With Tony’s encouragement I am fashioning my own characters to animate, out of wire armature and plasticine.
‘Norton Grim and Me’ by Tony Gammidge.

We gathered, the damp and determined, in an upstairs room at the Roebuck in SE1 on a rainy Wednesday night. It was not so long ago, in a different era. We went to hear Emma Purshouse and Steve Pottinger. Also known as two out of three ‘Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists’. Love and loss are currency for the grist of poets. They notice the small changes and gestures that show love like Pottinger’s ‘Impulse’, or Purshouse’s love letter, ‘Wolverhampton – a Winning City’. They both speak passionately about change. Be heartened by Pottinger’s letter to Café Nero. Emma Purshouse brings her irreverent eyes to the back waters and cul-de-sacs of town. She stands to read, as though recently uncrumpled from the sofa. She is astute, wrapped in humility plus woolly hat. I want to hug her. Her wit is sharp enough to hide in the spaces between words. Her voice lingers, leaving a sigh after her dead-pan face has left the room. If you need cheering up, or fancy a trip to the everyday life of the Black Country, there’s stuff to read, watch, and some silliness on-line.

Before the theatres went ‘dark’, I was lucky enough to spend seven hours immersed in Robert Lepage’s visionary epic, ‘The Seven Streams of the River Ota’ at the National Theatre. This is a revised production of the work, created by Ex Machina – Lepage’s multidisciplinary company. Robert Lepage is an extraordinary magician, with a creative team who bring together performing with recorded arts to make extraordinary theatre. Seven scenarios take place within the piece, from 1945-1995. There are elements of overlapping narrative. “Hiroshima, city of pain,” is where the arc begins and ends. One after another clever and beautiful image takes us through the different scenarios. The action depicts Hiroshima post nuclear explosion, close proximity of relations in an American boarding house, life in Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czech, a farce in Osaka, (shown both from the inside and outside), diplomatic life in Osaka, an assisted suicide as a result of HIV Aids in Amsterdam, and Hiroshima again. Sometimes the narrative is more obscure, but ultimately the whole piece is devised to show Hiroshima as a symbol of rebirth. Within the play there is also an exploration of theatre itself, and its ability to transform details of history into a felt understanding. With his usual inventive flair, physical performances blend with lighting, video and sound to summon atmosphere and emotions. These draw me in to each character’s different history of trauma and grief. Looking back to a day when there were only 163 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, the few empty seats appearing in sold out shows offered bargain theatre-going opportunities. My elbow touched a stranger. Recalling breath-taking tableaux summoned up with light, silhouette, colour, mirrors, dance, humour, story, sound and silence, conjures up illusions within what now seems an illusory time. A garden of stones creates a walkway to be kicked up with butoh, or walked on through the opening sequence. Percussion adds to the crunch. One and sometimes two drummers keep the show moving. I notice the cymbal “Made in Wuhan China”. It reverberates, calling our attention to find meaning in a sea of grief.

Ex Machina, the company of Robert Lepage

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.