Book Review: The Arts Dividend

imagesI think a lot about the value of the arts. I’m interested in most art forms, from literature (well, obviously; I’m a lecturer in Eng Lit) to ballet, music to theatre. I’m aware, then, of the benefits of cultural life: of the pleasure it gives me to go to an exhibition, say, or to learn to play a piece of music – and not just a transitory pleasure, but – because it makes me think – one which stays with me for a long time. I try to find ways to get more people interested in the arts for this reason – it will make them happy – and, especially for children, because early exposure to culture encourages creativity and helps learning, among other things. I am, therefore, not really the target audience for this book, because it confirms what I already know, but the anecdotes and examples made it worthwhile for me. Darren Henley is Chief Executive of Arts Council England, and as such is well-placed to write about both how the arts are funded, and why they are important, and he does this efficiently.

Henley is clear from the start that the arts are not ‘subsidised’, they are ‘invested in’, because money used (appropriately) to support culture is repaid many times over in the multitude of benefits the arts provide. The book (rather like the Arts Council website) is something of a manifesto, with the aim of convincing people that culture deserves investment; it’s very clearly laid out – actually too clearly for me, with the seven bmag‘dividends’ each given a chapter, each chapter beginning with a summary, and with large orange quotations appearing throughout. This is – as no doubt it’s meant to be – a gift for journalists looking for a good quote (or those who want to talk like they’ve read it without actually having done so) but it’s quite annoying if you’re reading the whole book when you read a passage and then read the same thing in orange. Still, that aside, it’s structured in a way that Henley’s argument is unmistakable, and effective. The ‘arts dividends’ covered are ‘creativity’, ‘learning’ ‘feel-good’, ‘innovation’, ‘place-shaping’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘reputation’, and each of these in discussed in some detail, with examples of best practice given. Henley has clearly travelled a great deal across England and cites theatres, libraries, concert halls and more from Penzance to York,  and the mini case studies he provides are worth reading both because of the inspiring nature of the diverse, community-focused art projects going on, and – more prosaically – because if you are someone who has to write funding bids, or works in the arts and culture sector in any way, this book provides some invaluable models of projects.

The chapters provide evidence (everything is well-referenced to research and reports) that instrumentsthe arts inspire creativity, promote diversity, help children learn and develop, make us happy and keep us healthy, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, regenerating places whether urban or rural and fostering a sense of community, and even make money. Graduates from arts degrees might not be making as much money as those with dentistry skills, but they are able to set the world on fire. (A recent league table indicated that dentistry graduates earned the highest salary, while creative writing earned the least. However, the writer has a better chance of being remembered in a hundred years time, in my view). Culture isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of an elite, the wealthy or highly educated, or those with arts degrees or interests. Poetry, painting, music, theatre: they all can be enjoyed by and a benefit to everyone. Henley describes a ‘cultural education’, and this isn’t just applicable to school children; there are

four elements of cultural education. The first is knowledge-based, and teaches children about the best of what has been created (for example, great literature, art, architecture, film, music and drama). … The second part of cultural education centres on the development of critical and analytical skills, which can also be applied across other subjects. The third element is skills-based, and enables children to participate in and create new culture for themselves … And the fourth centres on the development of an individual’s personal creativity…

If you haven’t thought about why your children should learn a musical instrument, or whether government funding ought to go to galleries, or whether you should bother going to the theatre, read this. Equally, if you know all that and are putting together funding bids, it’s useful for you, too. Also, it’s timely and encouraging. In a period of austerity, the arts often thrive despite a lack of funding, and it’s at these times that we need them most. Recently I heard Julian Lloyd-Webber give a lecture in which he voiced his concerns over the future of music education (I immediately booked tickets for a children’s concert!), and lots of people (including me) are distressed about the end of Art History A-level. Education plays a huge part in cultural participation and enjoyment, and it is important that investment in the arts continues on a large scale in order to prevent cultural pursuits becoming the preserve of the wealthy alone.

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An Evening with M R James

Old HauntsI do like M. R. James’s stories. They are terrifying, though often perpetually obscure, and delight in the macabre and the terrifying. James (1862-1936) was an academic, a medievalist and bibliophile who spent much of his life at Cambridge, and most of that in libraries. There is an aura of the obscure, arcane dustiness around him and his work, though he was also a man with a wicked sense of humour and an interest in the mysterious, the supernatural and the downright terrifying. Many of his stories feature a protagonist not unlike himself: a professor, librarian or antiquarian of some sort, who investigated a little too much, was perhaps a bit too curious, and suffered the terrible consequences of this. There is something terribly English about James’s writing.

He liked to gather his friends to tell them his ghost stories, especially in the winter MRJames1900months when the nights were long. Yesterday evening I went to the Birmingham Midland Institute (my second home at the moment) to a performance of Old Haunts, by Don’t Go Into the Cellar Victorian Theatre Company. In the Members’ Room, dimly lit, ‘Monty James’ sat in a large leather armchair and told us some stories, with just a few props, and some special effects. His manner was perfect – it’s the sort of thing that could easily become horribly twee, but he had just the right mix of menace and jocularity as he told us ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’, along with other tales and chatty digressions. The script also included some of James’s own thoughts on the writing of Gothic stories, which I’ve used in teaching James:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.

Whistle_and_I'll_come_to_you_illustrationThere is certainly nothing ‘mild and drab’ about James’s stories or the performance. There were plenty of shocks – being suddenly plunged into darkness, hearing terrible screams, flashes of light and so on – it reminded me of the spectacle of Victorian shows, from spiritualism to conjurers, who enjoyed the effects on their audience much as ‘James’ did in Old Haunts. There were plenty of people visibly jumping with shock last night, but it’s not just about thrills: James’s stories make us draw closer to the light for fear of the dark, a primal sense that we need both the horror and the warmth to feel fully alive. There is something joyous in that, which the character of James clearly revels in, and which Gothic literature always indulges to the utmost. Victorian performance, like Victorian literature, particularly sensation literature, asks us to be fully involved emotionally and intellectually, because this full participation makes us vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to its effects. Don’t Go Into the Cellar seem to know this and play on it, and it works brilliantly, especially in such an intimate atmosphere as a small, crowded, dimly-lit Victorian room.

Othello – RSC Live Broadcast

Othello-2015-12-541x361Last night I went to the cinema to watch the live broadcast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Othello. I think these live broadcasts are wonderful: though it’s not the same as being in the theatre, you do get some of the feeling of excitement whilst waiting for the play to start, and it’s more accessible and cheaper than going to the theatre, too. I’d heard on Radio 4 about some of the ground-breaking things that this production does, and it didn’t disappoint. The acting is superb, convincing and emotionally sustained throughout; Hugh Quarshie and Joanna Vanderham as Othello and Desdemona are genuinely heartbreaking.

There are a number of ways in which this play is a very contemporary Othello, directed by Iqbal Khan; firstly, the thing for which it has been making headlines is that not only Othello, but also Iago, is played by a black actor, which makes it seem that Iago is not motivated by racism, as is so often assumed. This approach doesn’t do away with the race aspect of the play; the language is suffused with notions of ‘light’ and ‘dark’, and the relationship of Othello and Desdemona is unchanged, but it does make us look at the relationship between Othello and Iago in a very different way. Similarly, gender is also played around with here: the Duke is female (a great touch), commanding military men and women, and Desdemona is by no means a meek, obedient wife: chaste, yes, but not a doormat – this is certainly a production which plays up the Othello-2015-16-541x361strength of women (emphasised by really remarkable, unusual and often beautiful modern costumes).

I like Shakespeare in modern settings. If we think that Shakespeare’s work is timeless (which I do) then it seems wilful and pointless to be a “purist” and insist on it being played in doublet and hose when it offers such a wonderful range of opportunities to do something different. Here, the military context is played up: after all, Othello is a general, a military man, and as the interval discussions in the live broadcast suggest, the reason that Othello trusts Iago’s assertions about his wife is because of their background as men who have fought together and trusted each other with their lives. It goes further than that in this production, though: there are scenes reminiscent of Abu Ghraib, of prisonOthello-2015-10-541x361ers being tortured and of casual violence. Though we also see the camaraderie of the military, the high spirits when the fighting is over, we also see how everyone – even Desdemona and Emilia – has become blasé about the prevailing air of violence, and that, I think, makes us think differently
about the characters. This violent backdrop makes the murder of Desdemona less surprising, I think, though no less shocking.

The production brings out the contrast between light and dark which the play develops and returns to repeatedly. Not only in the obvious (skin colour) but in clothing, in lighting and staging, this contrast is emphasised. The dialogue does this too, of course, and ultimately brings out the idea that it is not dark or light in skin colour that matters, but the dark and light in human behaviour, in the mind, in human actions, that matters. This culminates in Othello’s tragic speech before the death of Desdemona:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.Othello-2015-18-541x361
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.

That ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’ was tear-jerking in this performance; Othello’s tragic flaw and the result of it, of loss, death, and darkness, is both cathartic and heart-breaking. Yet the play also moves between light and dark by contrasting moments of humour and scenes of joy with the darkness of the heart, and in that lies its greatest strength. Lucian Msamati as Iago embodies both light and dark; he is not only wicked, but also funny – and remains convincing in both throughout, which is no small feat.

Pantomime magic

IMG_1621The pantomime is considered a great British tradition, a concept I find both fascinating and slightly mystifying. This year we took my small son to the pantomime for the first time, and in my first visit to the pantomime for about thirty years I was struck by how little has really changed. Going to the pantomime was a much-anticipated Christmas treat for me as a child: I wholeheartedly believed in the magic of the pantomime, found the jokes hilarious, the mock-pathos moving, the action thrilling, and I desperately wanted to be the fairy godmother (usually played by one of the senior girls from the ballet school). Subsequent weeks would be spent re-enacting parts of the pantomime, with focus on the ballet.

The pantomime we went to was in the same place (The Elgiva in Chesham, if you’re interested) as the pantomimes I attended in the early 1980s, which made me think even more about how things have changed over time. The pantomime tradition demands that the basic story be that of a fairytale (Jack and the Beanstalk, in this case), but which must include a hero, a princess, a fairy godmother, Widow Twanky (a man dressed up as a woman), a villain who must be boo-ed, and a set pattern of events, beginning with trials to be overcome and ending with a marriage. Along the way, the audience can sing, express loudly their delight or disapproval, and leave their usual, restrained selves at the door (this goes for adults more than children, of course). The set is always full of glitter and sparkle, the brighter the better – any ideas of restraint or taste must necessarily be replaced with a fearless drive towards a complete cheerfulness overload.IMG_1620

A new book on The Golden Age of Pantomime by Jeffrey Richards, which I’ve read several reviews of recently, explores why pantomime was so important in the nineteenth century, and one aspect of the Victorian pantomime is the way in which it constructed childhood as something innocent and ethereal, though later in the century combined with music-halls acts which attracted the crowds over Christmas. This combination is perhaps why the modern pantomime has a patchwork effect, in which songs, romantic interludes, jokes and audience participation all combine with both pathos and slapstick to create something unlike anything else you might see in the theatre. It won’t surprise you to hear that Charles Dickens was fond of a pantomime, though perhaps it is more surprising that John Ruskin also did.

In some ways, I found myself thinking how different this pantomime was from those I remembered – the music is WarnePantomine1890louder and more contemporary, the special effects more special, and the dancing more modern. Yet of course these are minor, surface differences: though the performance was well-rehearsed and performed, there was still a sense of very British amateurishness about it which is necessary in pantomime, I think. And though I was conscious of the innuendo in some of the terrible jokes, that’s because I’m older, not because panto has changed. Pantomime is by its very nature both timeless and of its time: different every year, only put on for a fleeting festive season, it reflects the trends and concerns of its time (for example, references to Strictly, Frozen and austerity abound) – but the way in which it makes contemporary references don’t really change, and the sort of awful, punning jokes which raise a groan are both rooted in contemporary ideas and in much older concepts. Making us laugh is a complex business, but one which in many ways doesn’t seem to have changed much over time. I’m no expert (though the V&A pages on the history of pantomime are very helpful) but it seems to me that at this festive time of year, a panto, full of cringe-making jokes, loud music with the occasional off-note, and clunky plots, is just what we need to raise the Christmas spirit.

 

Frankenstein: A monster of a different kind?

images (1)For a while now I’ve been annoying people by saying that Frankenstein isn’t Gothic. Now I’ve seen the National Theatre’s version (on film) of FrankensteinI still don’t think it’s Gothic. More of that later, though – because it was an amazing production which plays with the text and the ideas behind it in some really thought-provoking ways. The NTLive screenings are a great way to broaden access to plays, and it’s an interesting concept anyway: although it’s filmed, you never forget that what you are watching is a theatrical production, so it doesn’t look like a film (and as a result I found it difficult not to applaud at the end!) Directed by Danny Boyle, it has elements early on which are distinctly reminiscent of the Olympic opening ceremony (which was the year after Frankenstein) and the set is innovative, turning the stage into the different settings required by the action using apparatus which appears from the floor.

It seems to me there are two, linked, concepts which make the play an unusual and interesting adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book. Firstly, the Creature and Dr Frankenstein are played by two actors who switched roles night after night (we saw it with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein; I can see why people went back to see the roles reversed). Secondly, as a result of this switch, the links between the two, creator and created, are much stronger than in any other adaptation I’ve seen, and thus perhaps closer to Shelley’s novel. This also means that audience sympathy is with the Creature from the start.

The play simplifies the plot, doing away with some of the minor characters including the explorer Walton who tells the tale in the novel, and imagesopens with the Creature’s ‘birth’. This is a master-stroke which sets the tone for the whole production: the opening scene sees the Creature emerge from a womb-like space and struggle to make coherent movements, uttering guttural noises and eventually delighting in his successful attempt to stand upright. As a result of watching what is essentially an adult toddler developing, and with his subsequent attempts to learn language, until he can converse and even recite Paradise Lost, it’s impossible not to see his potential and to be rooting for him despite his hideous appearance. His delight in the stars, in rain, in food, language, poetry and movement are irresistible and utterly believable. Yet Frankenstein is, above all, a critique of humanity and the civilised world, and since his status as outsider is so clearly marked by his appearance, he is reviled, beaten and shunned wherever he goes. The greatest pain, however, is his Creator’s rejection of him, an agony manifest throughout the play though most moving at the end, when he lays bare his soul to Frankenstein. This much is evident in Shelley’s writing, but not in most adaptations of the book.

article-0-0D53A708000005DC-36_472x486As Creator, then, Frankenstein is cold, inhumane and blind to the inner beauty of what he has created. Failing to see that the Creature might be good, he only fears it and wishes to destroy it. It’s clear throughout that the real ‘monster’ is the scientist who fails to understand the beauty of human life, confessing that he doesn’t know what love is while his creature has learned that as well as the brutality of the world. As a result of the dual roles the actors play, there are moments when the movements and expressions of the two mirror each other, strengthening the concept of the bond between the two. Both are outsiders, and they are also mutually dependent, which is made most clear in the bleak conclusion of the play. I could make a few criticisms – some slightly stilted dialogue (by far the best scenes are monologues, or dialogue between Frankenstein and his Creature), and some slightly odd casting for Frankenstein’s father, but really these things don’t matter in the sweeping movement of the play.

I said that I don’t think that Frankenstein is Gothic (though I am having an ongimages (2)oing argument with a student about this!) This is because it manifests so little of the traditional tropes of Gothic: it isn’t set in the past; it doesn’t have a central place as a focus for the action; it isn’t concerned with the family or heritage in the way in which Gothic normally is. However, what it does – and what this production brings out particularly well – is focus on the creation of the individual, the idea of the ‘self’ as ‘other’ – that is, it looks at how we are shaped by society, and how not conforming to society’s rules creates outsiders who are disenfranchised, and often become violent as a result. This idea of creation and selfhood is something we see in psychological Gothic, though nowhere so clearly and effectively as in Frankenstein. Shelley’s tale has taken on mythic proportions, as a seemingly endlessly adaptable metaphor relevant for all time; this play emphasises the disenfranchised outsider, with Elizabeth’s speech to the Creature focusing on her desire to support those who do not fit in perhaps over-emphasising the play’s values. The book is as much science fiction as it is Gothic, but whatever genre it is, its concern with society, science, and the myths of our own creation make it enduring.

King Charles III: Future History

When (if) you tKing Charles IIIhink about the accession to the throne of the Prince of Wales, what do you imagine? A very different monarchy to that of his mother, I expect,  and one about which public opinion will differ, but unlike playwright Mike Bartlett, it’s unlikely you’d picture Charles challenging the constitutional roles of state and monarch before he’d even been crowned. It’s a somewhat implausible idea, but that really doesn’t matter; King Charles III uses a semi-Shakespearean plot to explore the role of monarchy and Parliament in the UK, as well as politics, the press, and our attitudes towards our current royal family. There’s also a good helping of identity crisis, and all this is done through the medium of a history play which is definitely ‘after Shakespeare’.

The play opens with a beautiful requiem for Elizabeth II, followed by the appearance of the heir, Charles (Tim Piggott-Smith), and his wife Camilla. It quickly becomes apparent that Charles has mixed feelings about inheriting the throne at this late stage in his life, and his principled uncertainty is contrasted with the likeable, media-friendly William and Kate, and the scampish Harry. In fact, all the royal family are portrayed as relatable, sympathetic characters placed in often untenable situations where they want to do their best for their country but are bound by law, public opinion, the press, and their own backgrounds.

Charles is quickly introduced to the world of politics when he is asked by the Labour Prime Minister to sign a new law restricting the freedom ofimages the press. Though he accepts that the press will rarely justify any faith placed in them, he sees it as a matter of principle that the government should not be able to decide what is and is not acceptable for publication, and refuses to sign. What ensues is a battle of wills, and law, between Charles and the politicians. These latter (from the two main political parties) are shown as weasel-like, with flexible principles and full of double-speak, while Charles himself becomes a King Lear figure, confused, miserable, attempting to do the best he can but beset with doubts and surrounded by enemies.

In fact, the play is suffused with echoes of Shakespeare; it’s written in blank verse, which makes it sound Shakespearean (whilst retaining a modern sense of language with contemporary references etc), and often it seems to stop just short of using Shakespearean phrases. I was almost expecting to hear ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’ at one point, and Kate does say ‘Nothing will come of nothing’ at one point (or something like it). There is certainly a feeling of ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, and some of the humorous moments of the play king_charles_iii148.jpgcome from Diana’s ghost stalking the ramparts. There are even moments when Kate – a feminist princess who requires equal recognition with William – seems to be leaning towards the character of Lady Macbeth. In fact, Kate is a realist, who understands the media, the public and the modern requirements of the monarchy better than Charles or William; she also slyly alludes to Hilary Mantel’s comments by referring to herself as a ‘plastic doll’, and she plays the part of queen long before she gets there.

Harry, meanwhile, is a tragi-comic figure not unlike the Fool in Lear: sometimes he speaks the truth unwittingly, and injects moments of slightly uncomfortable humour, but he is also concerned with his own purpose and identity. He meets Jess, a republican art student from St Martin’s, and goes on a spree of learning not unlike Pulp’s Common Peoplelearning about supermarkets and takeaways. The plot relies on this to a certain extent, since the press publishes some unsavoury pictures of Jess, Harry’s girlfriend, which under the new laws might have been suppressed, so the refusal of Charles to sign becomes doubly potent within his family.

The play asks some big questions, about the (un)constitutional relationship between crown and state, about what we want or expect from a monarchy, and about the freedom of the press. It also emphasises the psychological and philosophical difficulties of those brought up to inherit a throne. There aren’t answers, and the ending is uncomfortable and thought-provoking – making audiences wonder if what the public wants is always the right thing. However, don’t think this is a humourless play; it’s full of knowing quips, contemporary allusions, puns, jokes and moments of laughter. The actors are so convincing that they don’t even need to resemble their real-life counterparts; avoiding caricature, they play them with conviction. I don’t often get to the theatre these days, so when I do I want to see something I really enjoy. King Charles III  definitely qualified as something I enjoyed. It’s thought-provoking, well-written and performed, so I’d definitely recommend it. I was encouraged to see it by some really interesting reviews (such as this one).