Thursday, 26 January 2012

Pecha Kucha Goes Poetic @ Chapter

Last night I went to my very first Pecha Kucha night at Chapter Arts Centre, this time with a poetic twist. I had a really great evening seeing something very different.

What is Pecha Kucha? Coming from the Japanese for 'chit chat', the concept is very simple: it's a night of presentations each consisting of 20 slides shown for 20 seconds each. As teaches us, it was invented in Tokyo in 2003 by architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham and has since gone global. While Klein and Dytham devised the night as an innovative way to present new projects without architects droning on for too long, presentations can now be about just about anything, from an artist's latest work to some holiday snaps (although you'd better make them interesting!). The slides change automatically as the presenter talks along with them.

This was the 7th Pecha Kucha night at Chapter, but whereas the others have been open to anything, this was specially organised by Literature Wales to bring together a diverse (in terms of style, theme, age, and experience) range of poets united only by the time-limit and visual accompaniment of their poems. I'd never really seen performance poetry before and I think this was a great introduction as each poet was limited to 6 minutes and 40 seconds and each one was so different that if one person's work didn't appeal to you another would be along soon. 

The poets involved were:
  • Will Ford - quite a moving reimagining of Oscar Wilde's WWI soldier about to be killed for desertion.
  • Clare Potter - an exploration of the power of sounds, some very interesting ideas but quite eccentric.
  • Gillian Brightmore - kind of like Twilight set in the dodgy parts of Cardiff, a bit too clichéd and prosaic for my liking, sorry.
  • Phillip Gloss - award-winning and you can see why - really interesting marriage of poetry and image, questioning how and what we see and why. 
  • Jack Pascoe - hilarious - I was giggling throughout his poetic imagining of the carnage Prince Harry's stag do will cause and a woman whose breasts explode.
  • Naomi Alderson - really moving exploration of her personal reaction to Fukushima and impressive skill for someone so young.
  • Susan Richardson - ecological poetry, nice imagery (in the poems and in the slides) but not the most gripping.
  • And finally Mark Blayney, who rather than poetry gave us the inaugural lecture for the MA in Boney M Studies which again had me in stitches, and singing Ra-Ra-Rasputin for the next 24 hours!

So all in all a very interesting night. I'm really looking forward to going to the next one on 24 April to see what the non-poetry version is like.  A huge thanks and well done to Mab Jones and her crew at Literature Wales for organising the event. You can find out more about what they're up to at

Monday, 23 January 2012

Thinking about Orientalism through musicals - from Joseph to Miss Saigon

With my last exam tomorrow (whoo!) about literary theory, I'm continuing with my mission of making everything somehow related to musicals (it makes revision that little bit more fun). It all started when I saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the New Theatre in October. I had been studying Orientalism and thought that Joseph is an incredible recent example of Orientalism in action.

What is Orientalism? A good introduction is Edward Said's 1978 Orientalism which sparked the academic debate on what was once considered an unproblematic discipline of knowledge about anything that can be considered 'East' - from China to India to Egypt. Said's core argument is that what was presented as knowledge - whether in an academic texts, travelogues or just the background of works of fiction - presents a certain image of the East to justify colonial expansion and the suppression of the colonised, as well as a way of making Westerners feel superior. Many theorists have criticised Said for his essentialist, binary dialect between East and West, his completely ignoring women and his focus on high culture (among other things) but the general idea of Orientalism has become widely accepted and expanded on by many theorists.

So what has this got to do with Joseph? Well I was struck by the way a very stereotypical version of Arabs was played for laughs (I know it's a silly show for kids but still). There's a part of Orientalism where Said talks about American student putting teatowels on their heads and comedy moustaches and saying they were Arabs. I know it's common and not necessarily meant to cause offence, but Said would argue that this just perpetuates negative conceptions of Arab people, particularly as the characters also fit the stereotypes of violent, slovenly, greedy (although redeemed at the end by a very 'Western' Joseph). The women don't fare much better, either veiled or bellydancing, recreating the dual stereotype of Eastern women as either slaves to their men or exotic sexual objects happy to fulfil any man's desire. In short, I don't think Said would much approve.


However, this got me thinking - particularly when reading Rana Kabbani's Imperial Fictions which focuses more on the dual subjugation of Eastern women as both Orientals and as women - about other musicals that maybe counteract this Orientalist attitude, until it hit me: Miss Saigon.

So the poster may look like just another exotification of the Orient and its women, but on closer analysis, it seems to me that Miss Saigon counteracts much of what Kabbani criticises. Firstly, one of the biggest complaints about Orientalist work in relation to women is that it reduces them to nothing more than sexual objects, a homogenised blob of boobs with no identity. Just think of Ingres' Le Bain Turc:

Through the American soldiers in Miss Saigon this view of Eastern women is again apparent - they are objects that the men can buy and use. However, the musical itself opposes the views of its G.I.s. Through the show we get to know not just the protagonist Kim but, Mimi and the other girls, they have names, personalities, backstories. More importantly,  as Kabbani maintains, in Orientalist works, no-one ever questioned the availability of these women - it was a well-known 'fact' that they were incredibly sexual and lived only for pleasure. Miss Saigon paints a very different picture. Kim is a shy virgin with no interest in eroticism, who is forced into lap-dancing and prostitution because all her family are dead and she has no other way to provide for herself. The Orientalist view of Eastern women as sexually available has created a market for her to work in, whereas as 'just an intellectually inferior Eastern woman' she would have trouble finding work elsewhere. Even Mimi, who seems more overtly sexual, does not enjoy her sexual encounters with the soldiers but must do it for a better life. 

Moreover, the typical Orientalist view of Eastern women (and the patriarchal view of women in general), is of passive, even lazy, characters. That's why Kim is such an amazing character. She shows remarkable strength - both emotional and physical - to survive despite all obstacles and provide the best possible life for her child. 

It would seem however, that my view is not a particularly popular one. Read this for example from David Schlossman's Actors and activists: politics, performance, and exchange among social worlds. Miss Saigon is criticised - among many other things - for Westerners talking for Orientals who can't talk for themselves - another of Said's key tenants of Orientalism. I, however, believe there is a difference between wanting to tell a story because you believe it to be interesting and emotionally powerful, and telling a story to keep people subjugated, and for me at least, Miss Saigon is in the first category. Following that logic, you would never be able to tell a story that wasn't about your direct experience. In addition, the story is criticised for Kim needing to be rescued by her white man. Again, I believe Kim proves herself in the period when she must live without Chris, and that there is a difference between being needed to be saved and wanting to be with the person you love (whatever their ethnicity).

Maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic, maybe I'm seduced by the beauty of the music and the heartbreaking love story at its centre... I'm not saying it's perfect, but at least it's trying.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Los Alegres Desahuciados

I feel really bad about not having written very much lately, but with exams coming up I've spent most of my time reading text books about Discourse or Orientalism. Once the exams are over I might well incorporate those themes into some articles, but for now, here's some thoughts on the one book I've read this week that has nothing to do with exams, Los alegres desahuciados (The Happy Hopeless) by Andrés Mariño-Palacio (1948).

I read this book in a day shortly after having finished Blue of Noon and promptly lost the will to live. It's not that it's badly written - quite the opposite - but there's only so much misery I can take. It is nonetheless a very important novel in the history of Venezuelan literature, and therefore worthy of attention.

So, back to the beginning. Mariño-Palacio was a prodigious talent. At 19 he was already writing literary criticism for a national newspaper, the darling of the Caracas literary avant-garde. He wrote Los alegres desahuciados at 21, as well as Batalla hacia la aurora (Battle to Dawn), which was noto  published until ten years later, and then rapidly fell into madness, from which he would suffer until his premature death in 1966. All of his genius is evident in LAD, but so is the encroaching madness, which is what makes it such upsetting reading.

LAD is not so much a story (very little actually happens) as a portrait of a young, rich, Venezuelan intelligentsia, Mariño-Palacio's people, far removed from the 'typical' Venezuelan's portrayed in the national narratives that abounded during the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship of the time. There's Abigaíl, who sees casual wickedness as the only release from the mundaneness of his bourgeois life; Vivian, who lives only for pleasure; Lombardo, a 'sensitive soul' in love with an older woman and yet sleeping with Malva, who has many other falderillos (literally men who go from skirt to skirt); Zoilo, who gives off the suicide vibe to anyone who meets him and wants to be 'the most beautiful corpse ever seen'.

So you can see why it's not the most fun reading! But it is important. Why? It is one of the earliest examples in Venezuelan literature of a novel that makes no attempt to present an image of the nation, and certainly not a positive image, an image that unites the people. Instead, the characters are at best morally ambiguous, at worst utterly reprehensible. I get the impression that Mariño-Palacio is presenting himself and his people to the world, showing that the Venezuelan population is much more multifaceted, more complicated than the image of the nation created through traditional 'identity fables' (as Ludmer calls them), and that literature can and should be used to create a detailed psychological profile of a few individuals. The novel is also littered with literary references, sharp changes from third person to first person narrative and self-deprecating references to Mariño-Palacio himself, all of which makes for a very rewarding literary analysis experience.

However, one thing that most intrigues me about this novel is that the version I read was republished in 2004 by Monte Avila, the official publishing house of the Venezuelan government, as part of its Basic Library of Venezuelan Authors. It seemed very strange to me that such a nationalist government, a socialist government, a government which promotes the idea of solidarity between all the different races that make up the countries population, would promote in this way a novel about rich white people in a world of their own (the only experience of other races is when Abigaíl violently attacks a 'negro' who doesn't even get a name, just because he's getting on his nerves). I can only guess that as Mariño-Palacio is recognised as an exemplary literary talent, his promotion as Venezuelan lends weight to the country's cultural credentials. I will read more though and maybe come up with some better answers.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Don Juan, Blue of Noon and intertextuality

Having watched the Don Juan Triumphant scene from The Phantom of the Opera over and over (I got the 25th anniversary concert for Christmas and the overwhelming passion in that scene just gets to me, especially the way Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Borgess play it, but anyway...), I remembered my cultural mobility class and started thinking about how many different ways the Don Juan myth has been adapted and appropriated over the centuries. What better example of adaptation and appropriation creating cultural bonds in Europe than a pastiche of an opera written in Italian (Don Giovanni, with lyrics by Lorenzo Da Ponte) composed by an Austrian (or Holy Roman Empire-an really... Mozart of course) based on a Spanish source text (El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra by Tirso de Molina), within an English musical based on a French novel (Gaston Leroux's Le Fantôme de l'Opéra)?

Once I got over just how many countries are linked in that one scene, I started reading the list of works which are, to varying degrees, reworkings Don Juan. There are loads, but one in particular jumped out at me, Georges Bataille's 1935 novel Le Bleu du ciel (Blue of Noon). "Wow, that'd be interesting" I thought. Interesting is the right word. Pleasant, however, certainly isn't. Given that I came to know of Bataille through Christophe Honoré's film adaptation of his novel Ma Mere, a shockingly graphic study of incest, I should have known what to expect from Blue of Noon really.

Our Don Juan in this story is Henri Troppman who is interminably drunk, depressed and depraved. While Don Giovanni famously had 'mil e tre' women in Spain (not to mention all the others around the Europe), we're not sure how many prostitutes Henri has been with exactly, but it's clearly a lot. What we do know is that the women in his life are currently the filthy rich and just plain filthy Dirty (or Dorothea), the disgustingly ugly Marxist revolutionary Lazare (based on Simone Veil), the somewhat naive Xenie, and briefly a German tourists, as well as an ex-wife who we never see, a mother-in-law who acts as housekeeper/guardian and the constant spectre of his mother lurking in his unconscious (returning to the subject matter of Ma Mere). Troppman isn't much of a lothario though - he finds himself impotent with Dirty, has Xenie play his nursemaid when he believes himself on death's door, and uses Lazare as someone to confess his sins to. In fact there's little to suggest this is an appropriation of Don Juan except for frequent references to il Commendatore, but it is those references that make all the difference.

The informed reader will recognise the character of il Commendatore as Don Juan's victim who comes back from beyond the grave to dine with our anti-hero and force him to repent or be dragged down to hell. Thus by mentioning il Commendatore, Troppman reveals that he thinks he should be made to repent for his depraved behaviour, that he senses impending doom. Given that the novel was written in 1938, and explicitly mentions the foreboding sense of war approaching, the images of hell and eternal suffering that il Commendatore conjures up seem very appropriate. Perhaps more interestingly, we can infer that this character is extremely narcissistic, as he wishes to equate himself with the greatest seducer in history, when his actions seem to pale in comparison with the 'trickster of Seville'. This certainly seems in keeping with a character who spends most of his time moping and thinking about his own death, but implicitly adds a new layer of depth to him.

Julie Sanders argues in Adaptation and Appropriation that part of the pleasure of reading comes from playing detective and piecing together the extra meaning provided by the intertexts (or bits of a text borrowed from/inspired by/reacting to other texts). That's certainly true of Blue of Noon - whilst I spent most of the book thinking "This is horrible, why am I reading this?", the Don Juan connection turned the chronicle of a man with unconventional sexual tastes and an unquenchable thirst for champagne and histrionics into a much more engaging story.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Siren Sisters @ Wales Millennium Centre

On Monday evening I had the pleasure of seeing The Siren Sisters bring some 1940s glamour to the Wales Millennium Centre. Everything was perfectly period from the wartime hits to the costumes and even their hair. It was wonderful to see a large crowd enjoying this performance, from reminiscing pensioners to young children dancing gaily to songs they were hearing from the first time.

The Siren Sisters are a close harmony vocal group comprised of actual sisters Sarah and Jo Perryman joined by Helena May Harrison. If you read my review of Merrily We Roll Along, you'll know that I really love Helena's voice and natural on-stage presence, and the Perryman sisters' also have great, although different, voices, which come together in a perfect combination.
The Siren Sisters have been going from strength to strength in recent years, from festival performances to appearing on S4C, and 2012 looks to be an even bigger year for them, so catch them while you can.

UPDATE: My interview with the Siren Sisters, broadcast on Xpress Culture on 30th January 2012:

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Pippin @ Menier Chocolate Factory

The Menier Chocolate Factory's bold new reimagining of Pippin is unlike any production you've seen before. While Stephen Schwartz's musical has often been written off as childish - largely because The Jackson 5 covered one of the main songs, Corner of the Sky - director Mitch Sebastian restores the dark,  sensuous, adult quality of the original whilst creating a Pippin which is decidedly 21st Century.

Pippin is the son of the great Charlemagne, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. A prodigious scholar, the future emperor is looking for fulfilment everywhere from war and politics to art, religion, sex and love. Except it's more complicated than that, because all the characters are 'players'. In the original, this meant a group of travelling players wandering through the woods, but in 2012 what could they be but video gamers? The decision to update the story to the world of video games (and internet porn pop-ups!) works so well it's hard to imagine the story any other way.

Video projections and musicals haven't always been the easiest bed fellows (remember The Woman in White?) but they are one of the main attractions to this production, sucking the audience straight into a virtual world of computer games, Skype sex and Twitter revolutions. While some older members of the audience unfamiliar with the gaming world found this quite overwhelming, I thought it was just perfect for the story and added a whole new layer to the show, a sharp commentary on the pervasiveness of technology in our modern lives. It also allows for some truly spectacular staging but I don't want to say too much and ruin the surprise!

Of course, no matter how impressive the projections are, a musical can't survive on its staging alone. Luckily, the Menier is famed for the quality of its casts, perhaps because in such a small theatre the tiniest of faults is magnified so everyone has to be flawless. The cast of Pippin is no exception.

I was first attracted to Pippin after hearing that Matt Rawle would be the Leading Player. Having been captivated by his Che, Zorro and Martin Guerre (the latter only on video sadly as I was far too young for the original production), I knew I was in for a treat. Matt brought all the charm that seduced Anne Robinson to a captivatingly malevolent Leading Player. I found it hard to keep my eyes off him.

However, the real revelation for me was Harry Hepple as Pippin. He combined a beautiful voice with an innocence and naivety that perfectly suited the character. I loved the fact that Hepple, as well as Ian Kelsey as Charlemagne, kept their northern accents, it really added to the idea that these are real people playing a video game. Similarly Frances Ruffelle's Essex giggle and inherent naughtiness worked perfectly as the scheming stepmother Fastrada. Carly Baldwin (below with Hepple) brilliantly juxtaposed the character of Catherine with the real life 'player' and again has a delightful voice. On top of all that, the new production recreates to stunning effect parts of the original Fosse choreography (that seem to have become more famous than the songs), which lends the production an even more surreal, virulent quality, especially when performed by the very unnerving, unhinged half-brother Lewis (David Page). 

In short, both the performances and the production of Pippin blew me away and I recommend you go and see it while you can.

Photos: Tristam Kenton @

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Does success stifle creativity? Pondering on The National

Today I spent most of the day discussing The National with a fellow fan (a much bigger fan than me actually). While we still both love the band, we can't help feeling that their latest songs are decidedly mediocre compared to their earlier work. When we have voiced these comments, we've been told that we're one of those people who only like a band when no one else has heard of them because it makes us feel special, which couldn't be further from the truth. We're both very happy that the band we love so much are now appreciated by so many people, we just object to the turn towards the mundane the band have taken. That their songwriting has gone from edgy to saccharine is an objective fact. Compare Karen from 2005 album Alligator (the album that first put the band on the radar)...

... with I Need My Girl, one of their latest works in progress.

Although both are ostensibly 'love' songs, Karen is so much more gritty. What changed? I can only assume that, now having found fame, The National are keen to cultivate it and lyrics like 'It's a common fetish for a doting man, a ballerina on a coffee table cock in hand' aren't exactly radio friendly. But more than that, what is so attractive about The National's earlier lyrics is the roughness born of a struggle with mundane reality. It's what made them relateable. Perhaps on of their most beautiful, moving songs is Baby We'll Be Fine, also from Alligator:

The subject matter is very similar to I Need My Girl, both are about trying to keep a relationship going despite obstacles, only Baby's protagonist is a white-collar worker agonising about winning his bosses approval, while INMG is a response to years of continual touring. Similar emotions are there, but it's much less relateable.

Moreover, the fuel of their earliest work was a desperate desire to escape from the dreariness of their offices, an indignation against the cult of the 1%. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Theory of the Crows from their self-titled 2001 début (below). Ironically, having now achieved this goal, they have lost the passion of those early days. It made us fans think, do artists need to be struggling to create truly great work?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Jane Austen in defence of the novel

The person who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

While my recently read list is packed with textbooks, histories and treatises, there's nothing I enjoy more than a good novel. So with no imminent deadlines, I decided to give myself a Christmas treat, and finally read Northanger Abbey. Having lived in Bath for four years, this novel has always appealed to me (I love to think of the characters walking down streets so familiar to me). Yet, as always when I read Austen, I've found my choice of reading material criticised. Her works are intelligent, witty and slyly critical of the social norms of the Georgian period, but more often than not they're written off as silly, fluffy, girly nonsense because they're romantic novels. With that in mind, I found the following excerpt from Northanger Abbey (Chapter Five) particularly apt:

Although our [novelists'] productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss — ?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

As Austen so eloquently argues, it takes a lot skill and creativity to create a - good - novel, so they shouldn't just be written of as a frivolity. Moreover, I believe we can learn as much, if not more, about people and society - psychologically, historically, politically - from fiction. Fiction gives authors the freedom to say what can't be presented as historical truth, the creative process lets the unconscious speak, and being captivated by characters can absorb the reader into a situation much more effectively than reading dry facts. That's why I want to research and analyse novels and why it hurts to have my choice of reading so derided.