Friday, 28 December 2012

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty @ Sadler's Wells

Regular readers will know that I'm a huge fan of Matthew Bourne, so I've been eagerly anticipating his  new Sleeping Beauty ever since he told me about it in our interview just over a year ago. When I learnt Matthew was taking a modern, vampirey twist on classic fairytale, I was even more excited. I'm pleased to say Sleeping Beauty certainly lived up to expectations.

Sleeping Beauty completes Matthew's reimagining of Tchaikovsky's trilogy of classic ballets, having begun with Nutcracker! in 1992, and the infamous all-male Swan Lake in 1996. He says that he has obviously thought many times before about completing the trilogy, but could never think of a way to make the story (a little insipid in his eyes) work for modern audiences. Then a visit to Tchaikovsky's home gave him the inspiration he needed just in time for Sleeping Beauty to be ready to celebrate the silver jubilee of his company, New Adventures. The brainwave: VAMPIRES! 

I don't want to ruin the story too much for anyone who doesn't like spoilers (although Matthew himself talks about it all on the recent episode of Imagine that followed the creation of the production), but basically this version embraces the dark side of the fairy tales with a truly Gothic vision and some quite brutal scenes. Like most of Matthew's work, this Sleeping Beauty proves once again that ballet doesn't necessarily mean light and fluffy.

Some critics were wary about Matthew taking on Sleeping Beauty, as for many it represents the pinnacle of classic ballet and, arguably, no modern choreography can rival its beauty. However, for Matthew, it's never been about perfect technique or beautiful lines - in his productions, dance comes second to story-telling, and that's why I love him. We might not be stunned by Aurora's pointe work, but we actually get to know her feisty character instead. The dancing, the acting, the sumptuous costumes, the sets and the lighting all come together with Tchaikovsky's magnificent music to really bring the story to life. It's unusual to laugh in ballet, or to be genuinely horrified, but this new production of Sleeping Beauty is so much fuller than a traditional ballet and offers much more to keep audiences interested. It's a testament to Matthew's skill as a writer and director that even someone I was with who said they hate dance still thoroughly enjoyed the show. Like Nutcracker! and Swan Lake, this Sleeping Beauty will surely become another modern classic.

Sleeping Beauty is at Sadler's Wells until 26th January but is completely sold out (although you can ring for returns on the day). Then it sets out on a national tour: full details here.

Katie's Guide to Unsigned and Now Defunct Indie Bands of the Noughties

Perhaps it's the prospect of moving back home again soon that's reminding me of school days (I started this post in the summer but, with all the Social Programme business, I never got to finish it, until now...), but recently I've been oddly nostalgic about the bands I used to follow around grotty north-London pubs. They provided the soundtrack to my late teens, when I was a mega-nerd at school by day but hanging out with (in my mind at least) rock stars by night. When I say follow, I mean it: some of these bands I saw at least once a month, dragging my friends along, dancing like crazy and taking terrible quality videos to relive their sets later. Most of these bands got bored of never getting their big break, split over 'artistic differences', or in some cases got overwhelmed by impending fame and quietly retreated. Whatever way, all are now long gone, but live on in my mind and in my iTunes. The whole reason I first started in radio was to promote the bands I loved (to little avail - probably because very few people listen to student radio!) While the arts took over indie rock in my broadcasts, it's only fair that the music gets a guest spot on my blog, so here's just a taste of some of my old favourites.

5. The Tacticians
As I recall The Tacticians found me on MySpace. At the time, I was writing for a local fanzine (which promptly collapsed before my second issue was published). I used the power and influence this position clearly afforded me to wangle my way in to review their single launch. Then I started seeing them every month at least; they were really lovely guys, brothers Joe and Ollie, and their music was so much fun. They started dedicating Hardcore Porn to me (because the protagonist is called Katie, ok?) which garnered funny looks but made 16 year old me feel special. I had my 18th birthday at one of their gigs (Pete Doherty - who I have to keep reminding myself is not dead - was supposed to be playing after them, so they said, but got arrested earlier that evening stealing a car, so we'll never know). I even got a thank you in their album sleeve. Unfortunately, the album sounded horribly flat, all the energy from their live performances somehow lost. It flopped and the boys were never heard from again.

4. Captain Black
I didn't discover Captain Black until I'd already left London for the musical black hole that is Bath, but still managed to see them once when they came down to play at Porter Bar. They don't count as a band I stalked then, but I put them in the same category as they were an unsigned band whose music I really loved and did my best to share. One of my best experiences of using the university radio station to promote music was when I cajoled the music team into putting their single Sister onto the playlist and it being so popular that it ended up in our top songs of the year Freshers Week playlists, blasted out again and again across campus to the new arrivals.

3. The Mules

I first encountered The Mules at an unforgettable night at Nambucca - my favourite north-London venue - at a night called Toilet, which is fitting as the Oxford five-piece apparently met in a public bathroom. The Mules say they “enjoy both kinds of music, country and western”, and this way of story telling clearly had an effect on their lyrics, but their songs pack much more of a punch than any country and western act. With hits like Polly-O and Tule Lake, taken from their recently released album, Save Your Face, they worked the crowd up into a throbbing, sweaty frenzy, leaving us feeling euphoric and the floor so wet it becomes a safety hazard. Naturally, it was an experience I wanted to repeat, so I returned to see The Mules a few times, but they weren't the most regular giggers, sadly.

They later went on to curate Pick Your Own, which resulted in an album featuring the likes of Johnny Flynn, Noah and the Whale, and even  Emmy the Great covering a Mules song.

2. Crash Convention
Described by Carl Barat as a "cross between The Pistols and The Cheeky Girls", Crash Convention were the band I was most sure were destined for success. From the first time I heard Perfect Constable on Virgin Xtreme (my favourite radio station, which like my favourite bands, no longer exists as it didn't like playing adverts and therefore made no money :s), I was hooked. They worked The Libertines' 'two guys one mic' thing but more punky and The Godfather influenced, and their live sets were riotous. They were being hyped as one of the bands to see in London and won an XFM unsigned competition just weeks before 'artistic differences' got to them. I still play their tracks when I need to get pumped (usually after a long day of essay writing), as they're like a shot of pure adrenaline.

1. The Guilty Hands/God Love You For a Liar/Plastik
The band I first met as Plastik way back in 2004 have a special place in my heart as the first indie band I saw live and the one I went to see most often. Back in Year 11, I went with a few friends to ULU (University of London Students Union) for an unsigned band competition, and was captivated by Plastik's mixture of hauntingly beautiful, poetic lyrics and incredibly catchy tunes. They sung about a town lynching a paedophile, a reluctant threesome, or a man keeping a deceased lover in his bedroom because he can't admit that she's dead - more like fascinating psychological studies than pop songs. In a year, I must have seen them at least 10 times. Later, they became God Love You For A Liar, to reflect the influence of black and white melodramas on the band and the incorporation of a fourth member; then when one of the original members left and the name GLYFAL started to feel a bit too cumbersome, they became The Guilty Hands. Over this time, they released several EPs and singles - including Razor (below) which was voted Single of the Week on URB - and had their music featured on Channel 5 adverts (it was a very surreal moment when I first heard Up on the Hill on an ad for NCIS!) but never found mass appeal. I suppose mass audiences aren't looking for such complicated, and sometimes disturbing, songs, but to me, they were perfect.

Singer/songwriter and lead guitarist Gareth is now performing solo as Vyvyn Howl, with a new EP out very soon (I have a copy already, it's incredibly catchy). Follow +Vyvyn Howl or @vyvynhowl on Twitter.

A slightly different story...

My Red Cell
One of my other favourite bands of this period was My Red Cell, but they were in a completely different league. They were played on XFM and MTV, written about in the NME, above playing grotty pubs. I instantly fell in love with their debut, 13 in My 31, back in 2005, and listened to it again and again ever since, but My Red Cell split and singer/songwriter/guitarist formed Innercity Pirates (who are pretty great too but shortly disappeared).  After six years of pleading from fans, Russell finally relented and played as My Red Cell again for one night only at Clwb Ifor Bach in Cardiff in October 2011, which turned out to be the most exciting gig I have ever been too. Six years of build up had left me pretty excited and I wasn't alone - the club was packed with fans who'd travelled from far and wide to finally see them play again, and we all bounced around like crazy shouting along to all the lyrics while Russ oozed charisma and pulled out all the rockstar moves. I ended up spending the entire night partying with the band and friends - 16 year old Katie's dream come true!! Russell is now working on a new project, which I'm eagerly anticipating. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 24 December 2012

December Filmathon

With the horrible weather outside and an order to rest over the holidays, I've become a bit of a film junkie, reverting back to my teenage days when I watched way over 300 films a year. In the last week, I've been working my through a wide range of films of variable quality: classics, musicals, arthouse, Muppets, and a Martin McDonaghfest, and thought I'd share them on here.

Seven Psychopaths- Martin McDonagh, 2012
My most anticipated film of the year. In Bruges is one of my favourite films, and I've been waiting a long time for this second feature from Martin McDonagh. As he told IdeasTap, he's very protective of his work, and wants the finished piece to be perfect, which is why it has taken YEARS, but it was worth the wait. Clever and funny in equal measure, Seven Psychopaths also benefits from one of the most impressive ensemble casts I've seen in recent years.

Project X - Nima Nourizadeh, 2012
Apparently this is quite a famous film, but I've never heard of it before. It's the story of a teenage birthday party that gets way out of hand, told through footage supposedly taken on video camera as events unfold. not recommended for parents about to leave their kids alone!

Killer Joe - William Friedkin, 2011
When I first saw the trailer of Killer Joe, I knew I had to see it. I've never been a fan of Matthew McConaughey, but it seems that while he's been wasting his time all these years on soppy rom-coms, he's made to play a psychopathic assassin. This film is not for that faint-hearted though: from the beginning it has graphic violence, nudity, strong language, sex and extremely disturbing scenes. If you can get passed all that, it's brilliantly shocking and atmospheric.

Pitch Perfect - Jason Moore, 2012
The complete opposite of Killer Joe, Pitch Perfect is a real feel-good film, about a loner (Anna Kendrick) who begrudgingly becomes a member of her college's all-girl a cappella group and obviously finds loves, happiness and success. It's like Glee only much sillier and where you can see the happy ending coming a mile away, but lots of fun.

The Breakfast Club - John Hughes, 1985
The Breakfast Club plays a pivotal role in Pitch Perfect, so as soon as I finished watching that I had to watch this 80s classic. "Won't you, come see about me..."

The Five-Year Engagement - Nicolas Stoller, 2012
Jason Segel and Emily Blunt star as a couple whose lives keep pulling them in opposite directions in this quite average rom-com. There were some funny parts, but it's certainly not a classic, unlike....

The Apartment - Billy Wilder, 1960
Now this is how rom-coms should be. Jack Lemmon stars as mild-mannered, eager to please C. C. Baxter, who can't say no to his exploitative bosses, and Shirley MacLaine as the elevator operator he's hopelessly in love with. An absolute joy. It may be a huge cliché, but they really don't make actors like they used to. The Apartment has started me on a bit of a classics binge.

First Night - Christopher Menaul, 2010
A rich industrialist's (Richard E Grant) attempt on a production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti to impress Sarah Brightman, is fraught with backstage drama as life imitates art. I've been wanting to see this film for years, since it was still in post-production and I found the trailer for it in one of my regular searching for Julian Ovenden on YouTube sessions. It took a long time to get to the cinema, and even then it didn't come out in Cardiff at all (where I was living at the time), then another age to get to DVD, but finally I got to see it. The acting is terrible and the writing is worse, loaded with clichés, but it is a lot of fun and the singing at least is really good.

2046 - Wong Kar-wai, 2004
A friend recommended this Hong Kong film and I was seduced by the very surreal trailer, which reminded me of David Lynch, but in the end all 2046 had in common with Twin Peaks was an excessive use of red curtains. It's the final part of a loose trilogy by Wong Kar-wai, which started with Days of Being Wild (1991) and In the Mood for Love (2004, widely regarded as a masterpiece). Unfortunately, I didn't know anything about either of those films before I watched 2046 and I wish I had as characters and plot points recur which would have made a lot more sense had I known about them previously. It is possible to understand the film without any prior knowledge of the other two though; nonetheless, it drags, as interactions seem drawn out, and it is overly repetitive. It's aesthetically very interesting, especially the use of green and red, and the use of music is great, but it's just not engaging enough.

Grand Hotel - Edmund Golding, 1932
The first of three Best Picture Oscar winning films I watched this week. I've been meaning to watch Grand Hotel since I first saw the musical seven years ago, but the final push was Baxter watching it in The Apartment. I know the story, and most of the dialogue, off by heart, from listening to the musical too many times, but it was a real pleasure to watch it played by such an extraordinary cast - Greta Garbo (fading prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskya), John Barrymore (bankrupt but loveable Baron von Gaigern), and above all Joan Crawford, who steals the show as stenographer Flaemmchen.

West Side Story - Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961
Best Picture Winner number 2. I may have watched The Balcony Scene from this years John Wilson Prom at least fifty times, plus the Glee version of WSS several times, so it was only right I went back to where it all began. Pretty much every song has been sung better somewhere else, but the aesthetic of the film is still unbeaten, especially the relationship between Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony (although since I found out he grew up to play the rather scary Ben Horne in Twin Peaks I can't look at him in the same way). I've seen many versions of Romeo and Juliet, but this is my favourite.

It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie - Kirk R. Thatcher, 2002
I love The Muppets, but this is one of the worst of their films... Within the first two minutes, I remembered having watched it before, but still sat through the whole two hours, 'cause even when they're rubbish, the Muppets still make me smile, and there are some gems here and there, especially the Moulin Scrooge scene. This film also has the bonus of a lot of Pepe the Prawn who has become one of my favourite Muppets in recent years.

Gentleman's Agreement - Elia Kazan, 1947
Best Picture Winner number 3, Gentelman's Agreement launched Gregory Peck as the star of the 'social conscious' film. He stars as Phil Skylar Green who begins telling everyone he is Jewish in order to really understand anti-Semitism and write a series of articles on it. Green is shocked by the treatment he receives, as was I as a viewer - I had no idea anti-Semitism was still so prevalent in post-war America. It's a really wonderful film which is particularly impressive in its ability to balance heavy issues with sympathetic characters and genuine entertainment.

Six Shooter - Martin McDonagh, 2004, short
Ending the week as I started it, with Martin McDonagh, and the Oscar winning short which started it all, a first taste of his trademark mixture of dark humour, wry observation and graphic violence. The whole 27 minutes is available on YouTube.

In Bruges - Martin McDonagh, 2008
And finally, we've gone full circle. I've seen In Bruges at least four times now, but it still makes me laugh out loud, and I'm still impressed by how cleverly the twists and side-plots all fit together. I also love how no-one can think of the tourist town anymore without thinking of this film: whenever anyone says they are going to/have been to Bruges, the first question is always about the alcoves.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Anne Chmelewsky on Through the Looking Screen @ RADAR2012

In Through the Looking Screen we meet Annabel Clarke, a shy young woman who creates a much more confident, 'popular' persona online, and stalks the man she likes on Facebook rather than talking to him in real life. It's a story that will surely be very familiar to many people today, but what makes Anne Chmelewsky's production stand out is that this thoroughly modern tale is the basis of a comic opera. The juxtaposition of new and old is striking, adding an extra layer of laughs as Clare Presland lends her stunning opera voice to phrases like 'Angry Birds, Words With Friends...'. 

Clare Presland as Annabel Clarke, with Elizabeth Challenger on piano
Anne is no stranger to experimenting with opera, having written The Office: The Opera for Comic Relief in 2009, but she admits that it is still a challenge to convince audiences that opera isn't old-fashioned and boring. I spoke with her about those issues, her inspiration and advice for fellow creatives before the show.

Firstly, I asked Anne how she came up with the idea to mix the very new and modern concept of social networking with the traditional form of comic opera. She explained that while at college she wrote The Office: The Opera not aiming to make opera accessible, but just to make it funny. "Talking about staplers and photocopying is just funny if it's sung". As that show was a success, Anne thought she would write another one. "I have a friend who was an amazing opera singer [Presland], who I knew would be really funny in a one-woman show", she explains, adding that the subject of online dating and social networks came from her part-time job in recruitment, where many people in the office spend all day attached to their online profiles. 

"People who are creatives use Facebook, Twitter etc for our work but we forget - not to generalise - how much people in offices use that stuff, to the point where I've seen people - without naming any names! - who meet people on nights out and then Google them the next day and are like 'Ooo, I don't know...', and really trust what they see on the web. The idea was to come up with a character who was totally larger than life, totally into all that stuff, and who trusted what was on the internet more than her own instincts".

When it comes to herself though, Anne isn't a social media addict - unless she has a show to promote of course, like most people in today's theatre industry. The show illustrates how social media is changing the way we interact, and Anne notices this not only in the dating world, but in the arts. She admits it is very easy to become jealous or insecure as people constantly tweet all of their successes and positive reviews, while censuring anything bad. It's important for creatives to remember that Twitter doesn't present the whole truth and not judge themselves accordingly.

Surprisingly, Anne was never a fan of opera, or even musicals, until she began studying opera at music college. Instead, her background is in writing film scores, which is a completely different process, with much less creative freedom. It wasn't until she lived with Clare Presland and began attending her performances, that she really got into opera.

"When I wrote The Office: The Opera, it was as a slight rejection of opera that was too elitist, but that actually got me to watch a lot more opera, and I realised that actually opera is really cool. It's just that sadly sometimes it is performed in places where the seats are too expensive and people can't afford to go, so people have got this view of it as really horrible, and a really unnatural way of singing. But actually, if you go to watch an opera, even if you don't like the story, the singing is always incredible".

Anne explains that her inspiration comes from the masters of operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, while the score contains a lot of pastiche of classic works. "Musically, it's very traditional", but it is that juxtaposition with the subject material which makes the show work.

While Anne had never had any problems convincing musically-minded friends to attend the show in London, she was shocked by the resistance to her work at Edinburgh Festival. "I'd go and give out flyers to people saying 'It's a one woman comedy about online dating', and they'd say 'Yeah, cool!', until they'd see that it was an opera and be like 'Take your flyer back!'". She had to make a real statement, dressing up in a wedding dress as a desperate dater, to convince potential audiences that her show would be funny and worth seeing. She explains that often people would say they didn't like opera but when asked which operas they didn't like it would transpire that they had never seen any. However, she is positive about the future, with moves like ENO and the Royal Opera House selling cheaper tickets or posting online trailers encouraging new audiences to discover opera for the first time. "People still think you have to wear a ball gown and your seat will cost £150, but it's not true any more". 

Anne did everything herself for this show: story, libretto, music, direction, even stage managing and lighting. Writing modern comic operas seems to be quite a lonely experience at the moment, and Anne wishes that there were more people doing it so they could have "a little collective" who battle against the opera stereotypes together. She has more ideas up her sleeves for future shows though, even if she has to do them alone. However, she is very conscious of falling into the trap of thinking "This is funny because people are singing it in opera voice"; it is essential that her material is funny on its own and not just because of the juxtaposition between opera and real life. While she'd love to find a more experienced librettist to collaborate with, to create a really tight, funny libretto, she realises that in the current climate of limited budgets and  scarce funding, you have to take on every role yourself to just get your show out there, until you can afford more professionals. 

"Sometimes people say 'I really want to be a writer but I'm not sure if I'd find a director, a designer, a stage manager...', that kind of thing. Well, you know what, why don't you do all that stuff yourself to start with, to show your work off. You might even discover a new talent. I've discovered I'm quite good at stage managing - that could be a second career!"

Through Anne's dedication and willingness to all the work herself, as well as a heap of talent, Through the Looking Screen was eventually a success in Edinburgh and drew rapturous applause at the Bush Theatre. Anne says she hopes the show will have a run in the new year, but it depends whether she can convince  more people that a modern comic opera is worth seeing. The audience at RADAR definitely believe that it is.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Venezuelan Christmas Bazaar

Being a huge fan of both food and all things Venezuelan, I couldn't refuse the Venezuelan Christmas Bazaar today at the Irish Cultural Institute (Bolivar Hall being booked already) and a chance to try the traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish.

Firstly, I was distracted by the lollicakes, particularly the reindeer on the right....

... then I was distracted by awesome piñatas...

...but eventually I made it to the plato navideño, the typical Venezuelan Christmas dish. The thing on top is the starter, pan de jamón, or ham bread, a sweet, brioche type bread stuffed with ham and raisins. Then the main dish is hallaca, a maize dough pocket stuffed with pork, capers, pepper, raisins, and probably a whole lot more, all wrapped up in a banana leaf and boiled. I added a dash of chilli sauce to mine in the corner. The traditional Christmas plate also includes pernil, boiled ham, and ensalada de gallina, chicken salad. However, there was a huge queue for the full plates and this was big enough for me to contend with anyway!

If you're feeling less adventurous, there's always the classic Venezuelan dish of arepas, flat bread (a bit like pitta), stuffed with whatever you want - in my Dad's case, refried beans, cheese and pulled pork.

Guasacaca sell these tasty treats in markets around London every weekend. Find out more on their Facebook page or tweet @GuasacacaLondon.

Read more about it from Russell Maddicks at Venezuelan Food and Drink.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Happy 1st Birthday Blog!

On 8 December 2011, after thinking about it for far too long, I launched this blog with a post called 'What is culture?'. 157 published posts and 20,530 views later, it's time to celebrate my first birthday :D

This isn't my first foray into blogging, but none of my previous projects had survived more than a few months, so I'm very pleased that a year later I'm still keeping it up, although I would love to post more frequently. I always have a stack of unfinished draft posts, and often wish I could just blog full-time. Recently, especially, I've been so busy going to things I want to write about - the King's Arts and Humanities Festival, the Bush Theatre's RADAR2012 new writing festival, and lots of seminars around London - that I've had no time to actually write about all of them. 

Nonetheless, this blog has become quite an addiction. I think the secret to me not getting bored with it or running out of things to say was setting it up as broadly as possible. Looking back through the last year of posts, the blog has certainly embraced many different types of post, depending on what my life was like at the time, from academic concerns when I was mid-exams or dissertation writing, to theatre criticism when I was making the most of Cardiff's cultural scene, to 'things I'm doing with the Social Programme this week' when all of my time was spent introducing international students to Britain. The blog therefore serves both as a reminder of all the great things I've seen and done over the past year, a document to look back on and smile, and a way to organise my thoughts when working. As I'm now well under way with my PhD, I hope to take full advantage of my blog in this second way, sharing and getting feedback on ideas for my thesis, but being a culture junkie, I'm sure there'll still be a lot of rambling about great plays, films, art, books and music too. I've also set myself some challenges this year, like watching a film from every EU member state, which I will be following up on.

This time last year, I had no idea what direction this blog would go in or where it would take me. As I direct result of blogging, I've been invited to write a series of guest posts for YourCardiff, spent a few months seeing all the plays and films I wanted for free, and most recently won the chance to blog at RADAR2012. It just goes to prove how useful blogging can be. I can't wait to see where the next year of blogging takes me!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Brussels: Bruegel, Magritte, music and more

I'm afraid it's been rather quiet on the blog front lately. That's because I've been jetting off - or rather Megabusing off - a lot recently. After Saturday to Tuesday in Bristol, I went to Brussels for Thursday to Sunday, for an action packed few days of art, music, inflatable lizards and lots of chips.

I was staying with my lovely friend Bethany, who works for the Quaker Council for European Affairs. The office is currently full of funky peace posters like this:

On my first night, we went to Le Cercle des Voyageurs, an amazing world food restaurant that also has a travel literature library and hosts live music, comedy, theatre and more. We then went for some late night sight-seeing at La Grande Place, where the unconventional Christmas tree is causing quite a stir. I quite like it.

The next day, I headed to the Musée des Beaux Arts following in the footsteps of Alfonso Castelao who documented every painting he saw at that museum 91 years ago in Diario 1921 (one of my three dissertation texts). My mission: to find Peter Bruegel the Elder's The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562).

As I wrote in a previous post, Castelao didn't hold back on his criticism of the vast majority of art housed in the museums of Paris, Brussels and Berlin. However, he adored the Flemish masters, and was even inspired by them to create his own sketches called 'Things that occur to you in a Brussels café'. It's easy to see why he loved this painting so much, copying parts of it (particularly the toad ripping itself open) into his notebooks. While other Bruegel paintings are more famous - especially The Fall of Icarus - I was just mesmerised by this painting, staring at it for a good 20 minutes and constantly finding new things. I love the weirdness of all the creatures.

As well as Bruegel, I was on the look out for Hieronymous Bosch, and particularly the Temptation of St Anthony triptych, another painting populated with amazingly demented characters. A picture cannot do it justice, as you can't make out the incredible detail of every face and every demon.

Talking of demons, I love these from a Last Judgement - wish I'd written down whose it was. Religious art was so much fun in the 15th Century!

Sticking with demented figures, but from four centuries later, I really liked this portrait by Antoine Mortier from the exhibition about abstraction as a response to World War II.

Again I stupidly didn't write down who this one was by, but it was part of the same reactions to WWII collection.

The Musée de Beaux Arts is joined to the Magritte Museum, a must see for a surrealism junky like myself. I spent several hours there, learning more about the artists work and enjoying the vast collection of his works which question the meaning of words, images and symbols.

The art's not just in the museums but on the streets too. Brussels is famous for its moulles, but I've never seen one like this before!

That night, after a very traditional Belgian dinner of frites, we went to a party at Beursschouwburg celebrating 10 years of Globe Aroma. The star attraction was a Kurdish/Iranian band called Mozaiek Musik, who lived up to their name, combining rhythms, songs and instruments from the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. They had the whole packed venue flailing.

The next day continued on a musical track with the Musical Instrument Museum. Housed in a beautiful old Art Nouveau department store, the MIM brings together folk instruments from around the world, mechanical music makers across the ages and more varieties pianos and violins than you can imagine. You're provided with infra-red headphones, so when you get close to an instrument, you can here what it would have sounded like. Weird and wacky instruments abound, but my favourite was this fishy relative of the lute from Portugal - you can't really see, but it even has real teeth!

Last stop, the Christmas market. The market had everything you'd expect: vin chaud, sausages, chips, chocolates, hand made tat... And then there was a giant inflatable lizard, or 'incredible Christmas ice monster'. If you dare to journey inside, you can explore the beasts internal organs and learn how they work. Infotainment at its best. Unfortunately I was a little too old to go in :(

And that's about all I had time for. I'm looking forward to another, warmer trip to Brussels at some time next year to soak up even more of the amazing range of culture on offer.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

British Tea Party + Round'ere @ RADAR2012

My favourite part of what I saw of RADAR2012 was Thursday's sneak peek, bringing two of the highlights of the last Bush Bounce, Hollie McNish and Katherine Pearce, back to the Bush stage to astound us with the power and beauty of words.

British Tea Party

Hollie McNish is more used to performing in pubs, clubs or tea-rooms, where she serves up poems with tea and cake, than theatres. However, her dramatic poems seem perfectly at home on the stage. I'm not usually a big fan of poetry readings, but Hollie gives a real performance, bringing every word to life and reading with all the force and emotion that went into writing them.

This selection of poems are all related to tea in some way, but they are by no means sweet and fluffy. Addressing British mores, fears and loves, Hollie's poems have a particular focus on questions of immigration and colonial history, urging us to be welcoming and accepting, and reminding us that nothing is pure. Hollie also condones the desire to sexualise children by making grown women dress up in school uniforms and eat cupcakes. "I'm proud to be a woman", Hollie affirms, and we all cheer. In all of her poems, Hollie speaks so much sense, and the fact that she does it with such artful words and rhymes is all the more impressive.

You can listen to Hollie's poetry here.


Katherine Pearce is a familiar face to me from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Ever since I first saw her in O Go My Man I knew she was a talented actress, with an incredible warmth, but I wasn't prepared for the force of her writing. 

Round'ere is a touching, personal, portrait of North West England: prejudice, lack of opportunities, and hatred of Thatcher, contrasted with the creative wealth of the region. Katherine fired words out like a slap in the face but with such hypnotising rhythm that it was easy to get lost in them. The aesthetic quality of Katherine's poetry is in striking juxtaposition to the sorry state of a vulnerable young woman alone on a park bench. Just beautiful.

Katherine is busy filming with the BBC and will be at the National Theatre in January for Simon Stephen's Port. I look forward to seeing a lot more from her soon.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Palabras Errantes: Voices from the Venezuelan City Launch

Palabras Errantes is a project originally set up by students from the University of Cambridge, to translate Latin American literature into English and publish it online. So far, they have brought us contemporary Uruguayan women’s writing, contemporary Argentinian poetry and Argentinian narrative. Now it’s Venezuela’s turn.

Last night, we headed to Passing Clouds in Dalston to celebrate the launch of the project with readings, discussions about Venezuelan literature and live music. There was a great turn out and a shared excitement for the project and for Venezuelan literature in general, which just proves how, as Carlos Colmenares Gil affirmed in his opening speech, this is a 'golden era' for Venezuelan literature.

Rebecca Jarman (editor of the Venezuelan edition) and Cherie Elston (editor of Palabras Errantes)
 present the latest project.

I was lucky enough to be involved in the project, translating Ana García Julio's short story, The Incident, about the human side of a random act of violence, which I read at the launch party.

The first five translations - including The Incident, plus the first two chapters of Gustavo Valle's Underground, and stories from the wonderful Dayana Fraile, Mario Morenza and Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez - are now available at here. New translations will be released each week so stay tuned!

Monday, 19 November 2012

MONEY the Game Show Sneak Peek @ RADAR2012

There are cups of Quality Street lining the sides of the Bush Theatre stage as we enter. Murmurs of excitement and sideways glances at the chocolatey treats. This is going to be interesting...

MONEY the Game Show is the latest co-production between the Bush Theatre and Unlimited Theatre, written and directed by Clare Duffy. The project began life in April this year as part of the Platform 18: New Directions Award, through which Clare won £6,000 - enough to pay for three weeks of rehearsal and two weeks of performances. The whole process made Clare think about the value of money, which fed into her preoccupation with the financial crisis that began in 2008. Now, a redeveloped, rewritten - and more expensive! - version will hit the Bush stage from 31 January to 2 March 2013.

As part of the Bush Theatre's aim to 'demystify the theatre', the audience at RADAR2012 were invited to take part in a game that captures the 'spirit of the show', giving us the chance to directly influence the development of the final piece. We got to learn about hedge-fund managing in what turned out to be the most fun economics lesson imaginable. Split into two teams, we 'went long' on our volunteer blowing up a balloon quicker than our opponents, 'went short' on our balloon bursting first (betting on failure) and 'hedged' choosing between success for small rewards or failure for large rewards. With chocolate at stake, we quickly became greedy. We swapped edible wealth for moral bankruptcy, happily betting on the failure of the Euro leading to massive death and destruction while planning how we would enjoy our riches in Brazil. The final show will have a similar structure: the audience will become contestants, split into two teams led by ex-hedgefund managers turned performance artists. Only this time, there will be more at stake, because the losing manager will kill himself at the end of the show. How will greed and and ethics mix then?

After the sneak peek, Unlimited Theatre launched their 'See Your Pound On Stage' programme. The stage will contain 10,000 real pound coins and they need to start collecting them somewhere! In exchange for our shiny coins, we got to become shareholders and once the production has finished a Extraordinary General Meeting will be held to vote on what to do with the money. Judging by the preliminary suggestions at the event, this will surely be a fascinating social experiment. Will we be greedy - holding a lottery giving one shareholder the chance to keep everything? Charitable - donating the money to a good cause? Arty -investing the money in a new play? Or sadists - gluing the money on the pavement and laughing at people trying to get at it? We'll find out in March!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Chapel Street @ RADAR2012

Fresh from summer success at Edinburgh, Chapel Street burst on to the Bush stage in a frenzy of bubbles, neon wigs, squirty foam and mini-scooters. Luke Barnes new play is pure storytelling, bringing to life two engrossing characters, Joe and Kirsty, who collide on one extreme night out. It is a high octane piece, which made me feel as drunk as the young protagonists who rush about the stage recreating their respective sides of the story. It demands concentration to follow the two separate but converging strands, told in tandem and at high-speed, but the effort is worth the rewards. After initial confusion, I quickly became drawn in to their tale, eager to know where it was all rushing towards.

Ria Zmitrowicz (Kirsty) does a drunk 16 year old really well: arms waving furiously, chest stuck out and a voice between sing-song and whine. Young, naive and optimistic, she will do whatever it takes to go to university and get a better life, no matter what her teachers say. Joe (Theo Barklem-Biggs) is more laid-back, warm and sympathetic. He would be labelled as lazy scum by the Daily Mail and he knows it, but he is totally disillusioned. While he recognises that he should probably take a boring service job, he thinks that would be soul destroying and wishes he could really achieve something with his life.

While Chapel Street is commendable for these wholly convincing and honest young characters, what makes it so powerful is that key issues of contemporary society aren’t shoved in your face but emerge between the lines and bubble away in your subconscious. The protagonists' lives are bounded by enduring class prejudice, the shadow of war, paedophilia and teenage pregnancy, the true weight of which can’t be felt in their drunken state but lurks in the background. Weirdly, the result is a strange sense of optimism – no matter the obstacles, Kirsty and Joe’s energy cannot, will not, falter.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Family Atlantica @ Hootenanny Brixton

As my PhD has made me fascinated by all things Venezuelan, when I heard that Hootenanny in Brixton - regular home of live world music - was offering a Venezuelan/Ghanaian supergroup, Family Atlantica, I couldn't resist, especially when the singer was advertised as follows:

Direct from the small town of Sanare, deep in the Venezuelan interior, comes the hypnotic singing and poetry of Luzmira Zerpa ‘the high priestess’ of the live music ceremony, first discovered by Manu Chao at a festival in the Sahara desert where he brought her into his band to perform.

'High priestess' seems like the ideal description for Luzmira, with her spectacular feather headdress and bright costume, her striking bird calls, and of course her mesmerising words. She brought the Venezuelan merengues, while her colleges from across the ocean brought the tribal drum beats, in a fusion that just begged to be danced to (I wish I had the rhythm and the wiggly hips of most of the people at the venue!). From the infectious smiles of all the band members to the enthusiastic singalongs, their performance was non-stop fun!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Chewing Gum Dreams @ RADAR2012

Michaela Coel already has an extremely impressive CV. First known as a poet, then a singer and musician, she graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama just a few months ago, the recipient of a 2011 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Student Actress and heralded as a future star. It's no surprise then that her new monologue, Chewing Gum Dreams, was chosen to open RADAR2012.

Written by Coel and directed by Che Walker, Chewing Gum Dreams takes us into the life and thoughts of 14 year old Tracey. Stories of maths lessons, the number 67 bus and school-yard crushes are told in the same breath as domestic violence, threats of rape, and racial prejudice, reminding us that all of these are part of everyday life for Tracey. She is such a warm, fun and naively innocent character that it hurts to see her go through what she does, to suffer and then to carry on with a smile. Coel imbues Tracey with such energy and humour that sudden silence and stillness is intimidating and reinforces the gravity of the situations affecting Tracey.

Chewing Gum Dreams is an involving, intimate piece, which proves that theatre doesn't need epic drama, or expensive sets and costumes. With nothing but a chair, some UK garage, a handful of real life, every day experiences and a lot of heart, Coel thoroughly captivates the audience, makes us laugh, moves us, and challenges race and class preconceptions. In a recent blog post for the Bush Theatre (How do we imagine a more diverse and accessible theatrical landscape?), Coel argues that it is up to writers to create characters that people who don't usually go to the theatre can relate to. Through bringing under-represented characters and locations to the stage, Coel proves that this is not the threat to traditional theatre that some reactionaries would have us believe, but rather a source of absorbing characters and affecting situations, the key ingredients of any successful play.

Chewing Gum Dreams will be performed again on 12th Nov @ 9.15pm and 13th Nov @ 7.30pm, at The Bush Theatre. Click here for tickets and more information.

Welcome to RADAR 2012

It was with great excitement that I arrived at the Bush Theatre today for the launch of RADAR2012: Signals from the New Writing World, three weeks of new productions, sneak peeks of works in progress and discussion panels by industry experts. While I will be writing a 500 word round-up of the first few days for Ideas Mag, I'll also be covering everything in more detail here over the next few weeks.

Having never been to the Bush Theatre before (my only prior experience of Shepherd's Bush at all was the Cooper Temple Clause gig at the Empire in 2007), I was immediately struck by the feel of the space. Just over a year ago, the Bush Theatre moved to this beautiful brick building which had previously been the public library, whose easy, unpolished architecture seems the perfect setting for new writing. For the first time since I left Cardiff, I've found somewhere which makes me feel like Sherman Cymru and Chapter did; a place where theatre is relaxed and open, not something you go to see but a space to be part of a community, to take part in something.

It was very apt, then, that the evening began with a welcome from Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, which focused on the community around the theatre. Uxbridge Road is one of the longest in London, he told us, and along it you find just about every nationality, coming together in a vibrant multicultural community. At the heart of this community, was always the Old Library, located next to the large market. Built in 1895, the library was an integral part of community life, a democratic space, a place not just to discover the magic of reading, but to meet, to see and be seen. When the Bush Theatre took over the building last year (moving from an 80-seater room above a pub where they were founded over 40 years ago), they inherited this commitment to the community and promised to make the theatre a place where local life and culture would be reflected.

Madani's presentation then went on to explain the desire to redefine the theatrical landscape which is at the heart of all the Bush Theatre's work, and the impetus behind RADAR. The festival is an occasion to share and discuss ideas with the public, to open up a debate on questions like how to develop a meaningful relationship with playwrights. This has been the topic of much consideration at the Bush Theatre recently. Previously, the theatre received around 2000 unsolicited plays ever year. Each of these was read and reviewed, but the conversion rate was just 0.1%. Surely there must be a better way to develop new talent? After consulting with many admired playwrights, directors and other theatre makers, Madani was very pleased to announce tonight that the unsolicited writing policy has been completely redesigned. The new policy aims to stimulate ideas, embrace talent and ultimately produce plays. In future, twice a year there will be three week windows for writers or companies to submit works. A selection of these will then benefit from expert mentoring and workshops, the best of which will then be offered seed commissions. At least one of these works per year will then be professionally staged at the Bush Theatre. At the heart of the new policy is a desire to develop, nurture, and create lasting links with a new generation of creatives. Full details will be released on 18 January 2013 and the first window will open in March.

As Madani looked forward to the exciting prospects of this new policy, he officially opened RADAR, beginning three weeks which will surely prove the power and possibilities of new writing, as well as questioning the way theatre is made and received. 

PS: I was also a little too impressed by the use of scripts as wallpaper in the bathrooms:

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The John Wilson Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall

Since their first appearance back in 2009, The John Wilson Orchestra and their celebration of classic musicals has been the highlight of the BBC Proms season for me. Having watched the concerts countless times on TV/YouTube, this week I finally got the chance to see them live at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of their Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein celebration tour.

I always thought it was a little absurd the amount of times John Wilson's name is mentioned in Proms coverage: "And now John Wilson and his John Wilson Orchestra present a selection of songs chosen by John Wilson and arranged by John Wilson...", but to give the man his due, he knows how to put on a bloody good show. While most children were probably out playing, John sat in watching old Hollywood musicals, which may have done nothing for his street-cred at the time, but has now granted him enormous success. As the scores for classic films from the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein were lost, and the theatre version just a shadow of the huge, orchestral soundtracks, John painstakingly recreated them by ear. The result is lavish, soaring scores which remind you that they don't make music like they used to. 

John's little black book must be an incredible document too. He's the man responsible for proving to the world (beyond Family Guy viewers) that Seth MacFarlane can actually sing, and is adept at bringing together the finest talent, from musicians to singers, for his performances. Each member of his orchestra is hand-picked, and we were truly spoiled with Sir Thomas Allen, Kim Criswell, Julian Ovenden and Annalene Beechey as soloists. Kim has an incredible talent for acting every word she sings, bringing to life the characters behind the songs. While it was odd seeing Julian and Annalene as lovers, having always thought of them as brother and sister in Marguerite, they complimented each other beautifully. I particularly enjoyed a brief glimpse of Julian's jazzy side - revealed on the album If You Stay - during The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Sir Thomas proved why he is a star with a Some Enchanted Evening that brought the house down.

Thanks to being an eager beaver and booking back around April, I had a seat right in the middle of the front row, and because the Royal Festival Hall is lovely and generous, offering half-price tickets to students, that prime location didn't break the bank. All in all, a spectacular evening. My only complaint is that I couldn't dance along like an idiot as I would if watching at home!