Thursday, 29 March 2012

Blood Wedding @ RWCMD

Regular listeners to my radio show will know that I'm a huge fan of the Richard Burton Company at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. I was hugely impressed with their version of the difficult musical Merrily We Role Along and even more so with the contemporary play O Go My Man, as well as their recent actor showcase. I was therefore incredibly excited about seeing them tackle a classic play - Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding (1932) - especially when I discovered that all my favourite students would be in it. So it is with a heavy heart that I must admit that I wasn't that impressed.

While the Spanish music and the brilliantly crafted set (the whole stage turned into scorched earth under an orange sky) conjure up Southern heat and passion, the interpretive dance piece that opened the play left me cold. The dancing just isn't good enough, or choreographed well enough, to justify its place on the stage. We are then introduced to the Mother (Morgan Cambs) and the Groom (Jack Baggs) in a lengthy scene mainly consisting of the Mother droning on about how macho violence has taken her husband and elder son from her. While the anti-violence message is obviously an important one (especially considering how Blood Wedding was written just years before the civil war that devastated Spain), the Mother is a very unsympathetic character. I hate to say it, but I find Morgan Cambs quite annoying anyway, so the combination of her and this character wasn't fun to watch. As for Jack Baggs, he's good enough, there's nothing to dislike about him, but he has lost that spark which made him stand out in O Go My Man. Perhaps it's because his character is a bit of a sap, who doesn't notice until it's too late that his bride's heart belongs to someone else. That someone else is Leonardo (Tomos Harries, who you may recognise from the film Hunky Dory). Again, he's alright, but he doesn't quite bring across the passion of a man who loves a woman so much he's willing to ruin everything to be with her. As the Bride, Aysha Kala certainly looks the part, a mixture of innocence and beauty, but her acting feels like watching Eastenders. It seems to me that it is easier to be believable in a contemporary play, while the weight of a classic poses more of a challenge. There is a tendency to over-enunciate, or to shout to create meaning, and that's what Kala especially does (though she's not alone).

On a more positive note, Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins really impressed me again. His part (the Father of the Bride) was a small one, but he played it to perfection. Very natural. Charlie Langdell (Leonardo's Wife) too was as great as ever. She is just so alluring, with her beautiful voice, doe eyes and genuine talent. As for the rest of the cast, they all did well in rather minor roles. Robbie Lester was adequately menacing, mooching around the stage for most of the play as the shadow of death. I particularly liked Gillian Saker's energy as the Young Girl. Emily Hargreaves (Leonardo's Mother-in-Law) revealed a sweet singing voice, but again didn't shine as she did in O Go My Man. Moving away from the cast, set designer Madeline Girling deserves praise not only for the general design described above, but particularly for the design of the wedding feast that opens Act Two. The red carnations strung across the stage were beautiful.

I wanted to love Blood Wedding, I really did. But it is a difficult piece, which despite a few stand-out performances just doesn't play to the strengths of the cast.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Erró - Iceland's #1 artist

Several days ago I promised you Erró, then I got distracted by WOW Film Fest, but now here he his!

Erró was born Guðmundur Guðmundsson in 1932. In 1958 he moved to France and wanted to be Ferro, but for legal reasons became Erró instead. He didn't mind the change though; in an interview with Liberation, he explained that 'fer ro' in Icelandic is 'the peace that leaves' while 'er ro' is 'now it is calm', which was suitably poetic for him.

He soon became the most famous artist ever to come out of Iceland, reputed today above all for his comic book style parodies...
Erró, Ding Dong, 1979
....or his vast 'scapes', bringing together countless faces, birds, fish, buildings, whatever. He says it takes him a year to collect all the ingredients for one of these.
Erró, For Dialogue Among Civilisations, for UNESCO, 2003
 However, one part of his work that remains completely unknown (I've been scouring the internet for about half an hour and can't find a reference to it) is his Subatomic collection. Featuring distinctive skeleton-like creatures, this collection is the result of an obsession lasting about a year or two in the mid 50s and formed a large part of the Erró-Drawings exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum. The shop had no postcards or posters of them and I loved them so much I had to resort to surreptitious photo-taking.

Later on in the exhibition, we see when Erró had moved to Paris and brought politics fully into his art. This was my favourite.

You can see more of the exhibition and find out about its history in this video:

PS: If you're curious about Iceland's number two artist, it's sculpture Ásmundur Sveinsson. Here's me with one of his works.

Monday, 26 March 2012

On A Bender book launch

Between enlightening students like me at Cardiff University or being President of the Association of Galician Studies, Dr Craig Patterson has somehow found the time to translate Eduardo Blanco Amor's 1959 classic A Esmorga, widely considered the greatest work of Galician literature. Now the translation, On A Bender, is about to be released by the Welsh publishers, Planet, starting with a launch at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on Friday 30th March at 7.30.

I spoke to Craig about the book, what it means to Galicia and the process of translating:

What's not included in this clip, but that I think is a wonderful idea, is that you can follow the route set out in the book around Ourense, partaking as you go along. They even have helpful signs on the walls.

I can't wait to read it! You can buy On A Bender on Amazon here.

WOW Film 2012: Amigo

John Sayles has spent a lifetime making a name for himself as an independent film-maker, so it is sad that WOW Film Festival 2012 is the first time that Amigo  has found an audience in the UK since the Londond Film Festival 2010.

Amigo is a well-crafted ensemble piece set in a Filipino garrison town as US troops are driving out the last of the Spanish and fighting the national liberation insurgents. While any historical knowledge would certainly have helped to understand the context, the large assortment of characters were interesting enough to keep me hooked. From Rafael, cabeza del barrio, whose only goal in life is to lead the people of the village well, to the rookie soldier falling for a native girl, each character is nuanced and believable.

The film makes a strong statement about power, institutions and corruption. The US troops were at first happy to fight the locals, blindly following orders, but as they got to know the village life, a struggle brewed between their morals and their obedience to authority. Particularly striking was the Spanish priest who, as the only person who can speak both English and Filipino, wields enormous power that he gleefully abuses. 

Overall, a bleak but very interesting film, well-worth watching.

WOW Film 2012: Window On Africa

With Window on Africa WOW Film Festival gives us a fascinating insight into three countries rearely seen on screen: Uganda, Ethiopia and Zambia. The event comprised three short documentary films, a live Q+A with director Carol Salter and a Skype Q+A with directors Willem Timmers and Ilja Kok.

Unearthing the Pen (dir Carol Salter)
Telling the story of a young Ugandan boy named Lochen who desperately wants to overturn the curse his ancestors put on the pen so that he can finally go to school, Unearthing the Pen is so beautifully filmed and the protagonist so engaging that I couldn't tell if it was a documentary or fiction. A sweet, non-didactic exploration of the importance of education for those who can't have it. During the Q+A, Salter said that she had really hated school and was therefore really moved by this boy who showed her how lucky she had been to have an education.

I spoke to Salter after the film:

Framing the Other (dirs. Willem Timmers, Ilja Kok)
Framing the Other documents the Mursi tribe who have become a magnet for tourists who flock to see their distinctive lip plates. The film made me very uncomfortable for many reasons. Firstly, the lip plates really freaked me! I know they're a traditional part of Mursi culture but I'm really squeamish. Mainly, however, the interaction - or lack thereof - between tourists and Mursi was horrible. The directors said during the Q+A that they had both worked as guides in Ethiopia and their disgust at the tourists inspired this film. The tourists just want to take photos of the Mursi who, wanting to make as much from this as possible, hustle them to take more photos for more money. There is no real interaction at all, and the tourists, scared by the hustling, run off withing minutes with the most limited knowledge of Mursi life. What I loved about the film though, was how the film-makers, having won the trust of the Mursi, showed the tribe as they normally are away from foreign eyes. For the Mursi it seemed a great joke to dress up and paint themselves in a manner far removed from their traditions to scam the tourists. It felt like one way that they could gain agency in their otherwise powerless situation. While the behaviour of the tourists leads the viewer to question their own actions abroad, the warmth that the Mursi bring to the film saves it from being too bleak.

Where the Water Meets the Sky (dir. David Eberts)
When Morgan Freeman starting narrating the rural life of Samfya in Northen Zambia I wondered what kind of National Geographic film we were going to get. Instead, Where the Water Meets the Sky documents the work of international volunteers from Camfed to bring together a group of women from different background and teach them the skills they need to tell their stories through film. The result is the first film ever to be produced in Zambia, the story of Penelop who had to turn to prostitution after both her parents died of AIDS. Their film is shown around the community and beyond to encourage AIDS testing and highlight the plight of orphans. It was heartwarming to see these women, who had never been able to talk publicly about their problems before, come together and create something that both gives them a real sense of achievement and benefits the whole community.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

WOW Film 2012: Tales of the Night

Tales of the Night, from award-winning French-African animator Michel Ocelot, is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in a cinema. That might sound over-dramatic but it's true. The vibrant colours, contrasted with the silhouette figures, just completely blew me away.

Ocelot is a born story-teller. While Tales of the Night was advertised as a children's film, the simple stories it presents, and the joy the young protagonists get from crafting these stories, are just as enjoyable for adults.Whether a brave outsider saving a human sacrifice or a loyal servant discovering love with the King's daughter, each story explores love, dedication and good conquering evil. 

All together there were six stories from different backgrounds: Renaissance France, Caribbean, African, Aztec,Tibetan and a medieval European fairy tale. I was so impressed by how such different worlds were created, from the colours and patterns to the different French accents.

I can't recommend Tales of the Night enough really so I'll just let the images do the talking.

WOW Film 2012: Mysteries of Lisbon

Mysteries of Lisbon, adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco's classic 19th century novel, was the last film from acclaimed Chilean director Raúl Ruiz. At 266 minutes, it is at the very least a tempting challenge. A test of a cinema-goers endurance, their dedication to film. It has also been lauded as a visual feast and a story worthy of viewers' patience. Dave Gillam, festival director, even went so far as to say that, out of all of the films at the festival, this is the one that people will be talking about in ten years time. High praise indeed, but does Mysteries of Lisbon live up to the hype?

Mysteries of Lisbon reminded me very much of a Portuguese Les Misérables, weaving together scores of characters and disparate strands of plot that span at least sixty years. Only this story is further complicated by a complex temporality and a web of diegetic narrators. One character will tell their story which includes another character telling his story and so on. Despite the length of the film, even a brief lapse in concentration must be avoided if you want to keep track of who's who or what time period we are in. As the title suggests, the film is full of mysteries. As soon as one is solved more are introduced. I was constantly asking myself "Who? What? Why?" The desire to get to the bottom of every enigma keeps the viewer hooked. Almost all of these mysteries are solved by the end, although one or two do fall through the net. I kept waiting for answers that never came.

Beyond the need to know who people are and how they are linked to the story (we know they must be otherwise they wouldn't be in the film, but when first introduced they seem far removed), the strong central characters keep the viewer engrossed. At the heart of the story is Padre Dinis (played by Adriano Luz), who  somehow has a connection with every character. This aspect of the plot is highly unbelievable, yet a voice-over asserts (ironically?) that "In life there are events and coincidences of such extravagance that no novelist would ever dare to invent them". Finding lost parents is a recurring motif in the film, posing interesting questions about identity, as does the fact that several characters have many false names and past lives. Similarly, the instability of social status is highlighted through the character's trajectories. The recurring motif of a puppet theatre suggests that everyone is just playing a role, putting on a persona.

In short, Mysteries of Lisbon gives a viewer a lot of food for thought. But it also feeds our eyes, with beautiful photography and many sumptuous period costumes and interiors. Ruiz's style of filming through the eyes of gossiping servants, peering through curtains or doors left ajar, also makes for very interesting visuals.

My only real criticism is that I felt disappointed by the ending. Four and a half hours deserves a real climax and I felt short-changed, like it fizzled out. Watching Mysteries of Lisbon it struck me that if it were a TV drama, the meandering, large cast of characters and eventual denouement would have seemed more appropriate. I later discovered that it was in fact turned into a six-part mini-series. But at least this way we get a strange sense of achievement for making it through the whole, epic story in one go!

Friday, 23 March 2012

WOW Film 2012: Where Do We Go Now?

The opening night of WOW Film 2012 then (Turksib was just an appetiser), and what a way to start! Where Do We Go Now? directed by Nadine Labaki is simultaneously a thought-provoking view of the religious conflict in Lebanon and a genuinely entertaining film.

The film opens with a beautifully choreographed scene of a funeral procession with a poetic voice-over introducing the parable. Ladanki's primary occupation as a music video director shines through from this beginning, as well as scenes throughout the film where music and movement are weaved into the plot. It briefly seems like Where Do We Go Now? will just be a musical rom-com, focused on the potential relationship between Christian Amal (played by Ladanki herself) and Muslim Rabih, who we see flirting and dreaming of romance. But the film soon became so much more. Telling the story of a mythical village, linked to the outside world only by a precarious bridge and a weak TV signal, where Christians and Muslims live in harmony, Where Do We Go Now? highlights the fragility of peace and the futility of conflict. What seems an oasis of peace is clearly haunted by the recent memory of civil war, in which many husbands, sons and fathers lost their lives. The women are desperate to avoid further conflict, but their best efforts cannot counteract the weight of prejudice. Once word of the sectarian violence outside reaches the villagers, they seem almost brainwashed into believing that the two sides are natural enemies, and it only takes a few chance occurrences to rekindle the violent feud.

Yet just when you start to feel really down, there is totally unexpected humour. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but the methods the women take to distract the men from their conflict create both absurd laugh-out-loud situations and really heart-warming moments. It is a real pleasure to find a film that can deal with such a sensitive, difficult issue and still create such joy. Not only that, but its extremely well written and acted. I found myself caring deeply for the characters straight away. Every time the young protagonists Roukoz and Nassim headed out of the village, I was panicking that something would happen to them. The dedication that the women have to holding their community together makes them extremely likeable, so we cheer on all their schemes and wish that they can maintain peace.

The end of Where Do We Go Now? is full of hope. If we just put aside differences like religion and remember we are equal neighbours, we can live happily in harmony. The message is clear and simple, but sadly so often ignored in real life.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Barflies @ The Vuclan Hotel

"You are still not Charles Bukowski and I am not Diane Cluck" - Emmy The Great, 24

Until tonight, all I knew of Charles Bukowski was that he is one of the most acclaimed cult writers ever and that lots of aspiring poets and songwriters try to emulate him, filling their verses with alcohol, women and pain. I have often told myself to read his work (Ham On Rye has been sitting on my desk untouched for some weeks now). Now, with Barflies, the Grid Iron Theatre Company (with a little help from Sherman Cymru) has brought Bukowski to me, in a very unsettling encounter in a small Cardiff pub.

Barflies, directed and adapted by Ben Harrison, brings together three short stories from Bukowski's The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, as well as several poems and short extracts from other works. Bukowski's alter-ego Henry Chinaski, wallowing in alcohol and regret, recounts the women in his life and their effect on his work from his bar stool, while we crowd around him on stools of our own.

It is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Copious quantities of booze and bodily fluids are sprayed, sex is simulated inches from our faces. In a particularly difficult to watch moment, Henry searches through his viscera, dribbling saliva, until he pulls out his own liver. Gut-wrenching is a word often applied to theatre, but rarely is it a physical action seen on stage.

So I can't say that I enjoyed Barflies, but I certainly didn't dislike it either. Like the week when I read Blue of Noon and Los Alegres Desahuciados, I could feel the will to live ebbing away as I passed more and more time with these desperate, booze-soaked, debauched characters, yet I remained captivated by them. The quality of Bukowski's writing shines through the mire, both his gift for story-telling and his mastery of words, his enthralling combinations of sounds.

I was also impressed by the unique staging (even though the barstools got quite uncomfortable) and the cast. Keith Fleming does a stellar job bringing Henry to life. He plays drunk without falling into caricature and has enough charisma to keep the audience engrossed in an often difficult to watch character. As all of Henry's women - Cass, Vicky, Margy, Vivienne and Sarah - Charlene Boyd excels at creating distinct characters. She is particularly touching as the suicidal Cass, Henry's one true love, swinging from psychosis to very subtle emotion. Rounding off the cast, David Paul Jones' smooth, dark voice and piano playing heightens the claustrophobic feel of the piece.

"Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead" 

Bukowski's most famous quote, when finally uttered by Henry, is an awkward moment. The distinctly middle-class audience, some of whom squirm at even seeing the drunken debauchery, let alone participating, are the kind of people that Henry/Charles would abhor and that knowledge visibly causes discomfort. I think Bukowski would be pleased.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

International Poetry Day: The Great Minimum

So, it's International Poetry Day today, a fact that the Spanish-speaking twitterverse seems to be a lot more excited about than its anglophone counterpart, from what I can gather. I'm not a huge poetry connoisseur but in the spirit of the day I thought I'd share the one poem that I know off by heart.

G. K. Chesterton - The Great Minimum

It is something to have wept as we have wept,
It is something to have done as we have done,
It is something to have watched when all men slept,
And seen the stars which never see the sun.

It is something to have smelt the mystic rose,
Although it break and leave the thorny rods,
It is something to have hungered once as those
Must hunger who have eaten the bread of gods.

To have known the things that from the weak are furled,
Perilous ancient passions, strange and high;
It is something to be wiser than the world,
It is something to be older than the sky.

Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard;
Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
Let the thunder break on man and beast and bird
And the lightning strike. It is something to have been.

I learnt it way back in Year 7 (first year of secondary school) when we had to find a poem to recite in class. I'd found it, of all places, as the epigraph to a book about teen human/vampire romance, a kind of Twilight before Twilight had been written. I later realised that there are a two verses missing, but I prefer it without them! It may be very simple, lacking the phonetically pleasing combinations of words that usually draw me to poetry, but it's stuck with me over the years and become almost a mantra. No matter how bad things may seem, we are lucky to be alive and have always achieved more than we think. 

WOW Film 2012 Competition

Thanks to the very lovely people at Wales One World Film Festival (@wowfilm, #wowfilm2012) I have two pairs of tickets to give away!

One pair is to Where Do We Go Now? tomorrow 20:30, the second for AnDa Union: From the Steppes to the City on Friday at 20.30, both at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.

Where Do We Go Now? 
Lebanon/France/Italy/Egypt, 2011, 1 hour 40 minutes, subtitles. Director: Nadine Labaki
Winner of Audience Awards at Oslo, San Sebastian & Toronto International Film Festivals Watch the trailer 

Genuinely funny comedy about the religious divisions in the middle East, even rarer one with the zest and joyful panache that Nadine (Caramel) Labaki shows here. This hugely entertaining parable is set in a mythical village cut off from the rest of the world where Christians and Muslims live happily side-by-side. When this harmony is threatened by a variety of outside influences the women of the village band together to keep their hot-headed men from fighting. With some lovely comic characters and hilarious situations this warm and funny film, though undoubtedly idealistic, nevertheless reveals some home truths.

AnDa Union: From the Steppes to the City
UK, 2011, 1 hour 37mins, subtitles. Dir: Tim Betts, Sophie Lascelles, Marc Tiley. 
A fascinating music doc that cuts between AnDa Union’s extraordinary live performances, the band members lives in Hohhat, the concrete city, and their family homes out in the grasslands of Mongolia. 
+ Post-screening Q+A with the director.

This was meant to be a competition on my Culture Show on Xpress Radio, but due to technical issues has switched to a Twitter competition instead. To enter the draw for a pair of tickets, tweet me @katiebrown161 what film makes you go 'WOW' and why - with #wowfilm2012. The competition is open until midnight tonight (Wed 21 March), when two winners (one pair each) will be chosen at random and notified. I'll compile the responses here too so everyone should get some quality film suggestions.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Santiago Sierra - not everything is acceptable in the name of art

Taking a break from waterfalls, fjords and geysers, we took a trip to Reykjavik Art Museum, which we soon regretted. Apart from two rooms of Erro (more on him soon), the bulk of the museum was taken up with a Santiago Sierra retrospective. I had never heard of Sierra before but it didn't take me long to get an idea of his work. I couldn't believe so much space was dedicated to films and photographs that were so disturbing that I had to go back to Erro again just to cleanse my mind a little. I'm clearly not alone, as researching him just now I found this (warning: expletives).

So what's the fuss about? Art is one of the most subjective things imaginable. There always has been and always will be fierce debate about what 'real' art is and where to do draw the line. I'm quite open minded when it comes to art. I learnt from Duchamp and the Dadaists that found objects can be considered works of art if invested with meaning and placed in a gallery. I understand that artists want to make a point - be it political, personal or just aesthetic - by pushing the boundaries of convention. But what I can't accept is that exploitation is condoned by galleries in the name of art.

The bulk of Santiago Sierra's work - at least that on display in this exhibition - is about exploitation. He claims he is raising awareness but it seems to me that he is using these pieces more to heighten his own fame and notoriety than to spark any real social change. He pays people, desperate people, tiny amounts to do humiliating tasks, films them and puts them on display under the guise of 'art'. One piece showed an orgy, rotating each combination of men and women, black and white, all in the same position in a large hall, filmed in a startlingly clinical way. I'm not exactly the most prudish person, but it made me feel horribly uncomfortable because it was so dehumanising. I assume Sierra wants us to feel uncomfortable, but there is no purpose beyond this. This discomfort doesn't seem designed to spur us into political action. Another piece featured an elderly woman, paid to spend all day standing staring at a wall. A third, a group of Albanians struggling to move blocks of concrete across a gallery by hand. Sierra may rationalise these films by arguing that they show just how far desperate people will go for money, but to me they just seem utterly sadistic. I'm not suggesting that all art should be escapist, but forcing people into unnatural, extreme, degrading activities (even if they 'give their consent') is not going to do any more to change people's attitudes and improve conditions for the destitute. Rather the opposite - I had to quickly get away from Sierra's exhibition and left not motivated to social action but raging about what is being passed off as art.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

WOWFilm2012: Turksib

With it's opening film, Turksib, WOW Film Festival (@wowfilm) is certainly living up to its name.

Turksib is a 1928 black-and-white documentary. Directed by Victor Turin with a stunning sense of rhythm, it depicts the incredibly harsh conditions of Turkestan and Sibera, and the race to build a train-line between the two that will alleviate their difficulties. It's a very Soviet celebration of the triumph of man and machine over nature. Turksib became world-famous and highly influential, and almost a century later remains a captivating visual experience.

As a special treat, this showing of Turksib (and the following showings in the WOW Festival around Wales) had live musical accompaniment, composed and performed by Bronnt Idustries Kapital. The ethereal music compliments the images so perfectly that it's impossible to imagine the film without it. Altogether a truly hypnotising experience.

WOW stands for Wales One World, a festival which brings the very best cinema from around the world to cinemas across Wales. Now in its 11th year, the festival, directed by David Gillam, is searching increasingly wide for films, introducing works from Lebanon, Mongolia and Africa alongside films from Europe, Latin America and Japan which are now more common in UK cinemas than when the festival began. WOW runs from 22-25 March at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, and continues across Wales until 11 April. The full programme is available at If you can't make it to the festival, I'll be watching as many as I can and reviewing them here.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Cultural agency - an Icelandic example

Today I was asked if I noticed the effect of the banking crisis in Iceland. I replied "Yes, one of the top songs in Iceland at the moment is about needing to rebuild the nation after the crisis, and there was some art about it too". I think my interlocutor was more concerned about prices of commodities, but naturally I'm fascinated by how the people of Iceland are using culture to make a political point.

It's obviously not a new idea, but I'd never heard the term 'cultural agency' until at a conference late last year. From what I can find out, it's still a fairly new term, without consensus on exactly what it means (though reading Cultural Agency in the Americas edited by Doris Sommer would be a good start to understanding the term). The central idea is that cultural practices are used to promote change or action from within a certain situation. In the case of Iceland, both music and artwork are being used to call for a response to the financial crisis.

The song I mentioned earlier is Stondum Saman (Stick Together) by Helgi J Oskarsson and is incredibly catchy. At the time of writing, it's number 4 in the Icelandic chart and played so frequently that we heard it on the radio a good 5 or 6 times in the space of a few days. More than just a jaunty tune, it's a call to arms. The song denounces those who grew rich on Iceland's economic failure and urges the people to join together to create a stronger nation for the future generations. It's inspiring to hear songs like this on mainstream radio - I'd love to know whether people are following its message or just enjoy singing along.

The artwork I referred to was Adalsteinn Stefansson's Grabbing the Void, housed in the Reykjavik Art Museum as part Iceland's contribution to the EU funded European Public Art Centre. The whirlpool at its centre is supposed to represent how all the money was suddenly, shockingly sucked away, while the cherrypickers recall the continued grasping for commodities. While the piece is clearly a response to the crisis, it has much less impact than the song. It doesn't suggest future action, only criticises the current situation. Nonetheless, both pieces are interesting examples of cultural agency; creatives using their work to respond to and hopefully change a specific socio-political situation.

Shock n Awe presents Muscle @ Sherman Cymru

Muscle is certainly the most unique show I've ever seen. With just five men and minimal costumes and props, the Shock n Awe Performance Co create a whole world of characters; men and women, children and pensioners, priests and murderers. It's a testament to the strength of the cast and the writing that we were completely sucked into these characters' stories, seeing an old woman when really a young man stood before us.

Muscle began as a conversation in a pub between writer Greg Cullen and choreographer Phil Williams about what it means to be a man. Determined to move beyond the stereotype of men from Mars, they set out on a journey across Wales interviewing men from all walks of life and, as Greg explains, "Once they started talking, the most incredible stories poured out of them". One of the greatest strengths of Muscle is the diversity of the anecdotes brought to life so expertly through not just acting but dance, animation (from Kirsty Green) and music (composed by RWCMD student Benjamin Talbott). Some, like the story of an extraordinarily well-endowed grandfather, are laugh-out-loud funny, while many are quite heartbreaking, exemplifying the potential fragility of man. Muscle skilfully danced between these two extremes, joy and sorrow, the one heightening the other. The characters ranged from Welsh miners to a Libyan freedom-fighter turned Cardiff cab driver, children in the Valleys to a gay Brazilian ex-Catholic priest. Each story presented a different interpretation of what it means to be a man, but each was thoroughly engrossing.

Many of the stories revolved around fathers - losing one, meeting one, becoming one. It was very interesting to see how much the father-son relationship, or lack thereof, weighs upon the idea of masculinity. Greg and Phil both lost their fathers during the conception of the show and Muscle is a tribute to them that they would surely have been very proud of.

Although I will never know how it feels to be a man, I was still completely gripped by Muscle, because as Greg and Phil say, it's a very human show. You don't have to be a father, a son, a fighter, to be moved by these stories, nor to be swept away with the technical skill of the performers and creatives. It's truly a production not to be missed.

Muscle continues at Sherman Cymru until 17th March then heads on tour. Full details at Muscle is constantly evolving so you can add your story on their website and it might well be in a future version of the production. Shock n Awe's next project is Love At First Light, opening at Chapter Arts Centre 8th-19th May - once again you can send them your story and maybe see it on stage.

PS: I had this song stuck in my head the whole time I was writing this...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Anant Kumar - Poetry Beyond Borders?

"Poetry is what gets lost in translation" - Robert Frost

I'm back from Iceland and have lots to write about that, but first the talk I went to today: Anant Kumar - Poetry Beyond Borders. Kumar is a poet of Indian origin, living, working and writing in Germany. His talk was meant to address how to overcome cultural differences in poetry. It didn't. At least not explicitly. Instead, Kumar read the introduction to his new book, Stories Without Borders, and several poems, in German and English simultaneously (one verse in each language at a time). Then he repeatedly reminded us that he is "not a best-selling author" while asking why people - academics he has never met - have given so much time and effort to translate his work for free. While I wasn't particularly enthralled with Kumar's poetry and disappointed that his talk didn't give me what I expected from it, it nonetheless got me thinking.

Firstly, Kumar's question - while not what the talk was supposed to be about - is an interesting one. Why do people translate for free? Kumar himself suggested that it comes down to funding. There is so little funding for translators to get their work published that they will work for free if it means getting their name in print. This seems a bit cynical for me though. While he's probably right, I like to maintain a more romantic view that people fall in love with texts and want to share them with the world. I know there are many books that I love and would one day like to translate just so that they could reach a wider audience.

Secondly, Kumar unintentionally made an interesting case for poetry beyond borders by talking in German to an audience who he assumed understood the language when many of us didn't. My German is rudimentary at best (aber ich lerne!) but I enjoyed listening to Kumar read his poems in their original language, more so than in English. It made me think that perhaps the sound of words, their rhythm, their intensity can produce a stronger effect than their semantic meaning. It occurred to me then that poetry can escape linguistic borders in a way that no other literature can. Geographical borders are even more easily transcended, as Kumar himself pointed out that his readers are not 'German' but 'German-speaking', be that in Austria, Switzerland, Turkey or indeed a German teacher in the United States.

What about cultural borders then? When asked if he tried to bridge the gap between Indian and German literary traditions, Kumar said that it is not his intention, but he cannot avoid references to India and its culture. He nonetheless insisted that he was a German writer, as he writes and is almost entirely received in German. Does this mean that the language something is written and read in affects how it is read and interpreted? Does reading a language imply certain cultural understanding? Are we returning to Herder's argument that language is an expression of the soul of a people?  That would surely imply that poetry cannot truly transcend borders, but experience would tell me otherwise. As usual, I have no real answers, only questions to ponder.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

African Caribbean Society presents AfroGene

We’ve had Malaysian Society’s Festival of Diversity and Asian Society’s Elements, now it’s African Caribbean Society’s turn with AfroGene. ACS is in its infancy and clearly looks up to these longer running societies, hoping that one day their event too will be an established part of the Cardiff University social calendar. Given the quality of this first performance, it certainly looks set to run for many years to come.

One of the best things about AfroGene was the diversity of performances, not just song and dance, but drama, comedy, poetry and fashion too, all delivered with soul, style and lots of skill. After a warm welcome from the ACS President Chez Mundeta and Vice President Tobi Otudeko, the evening properly began with Silvia Anie-Akwetey, Jac Jones and Danny Kasto performing Jailer. The song gave me goosebumps thanks both to the ethereal beauty of Silvia’s voice and the song’s political message about justice and equality. Jac, who provided the guitar for this and three other numbers, was a real revelation for me, infusing his playing with Caribbean rhythms. I loved the variety of songs, from Clinton’s modern, urban This Girl to Kiki’s spiritual Freedom Reigns, all performed with real talent.  

As for the dancing, Funky Ass Dancers can always be relied on for a strong guest performance (their third in eight days), but what really impressed me was the performances by ACS members themselves, both the group dance montage and Oyinda’s Spotlight Dance.  I was equally jealous of and awed by the way the dancers could make their bodies move. The fashion shows (one in each act), reflect the colour and energy of the dancing in the clothes from the Rhian Jack Summer 2012 collection, designed by Sotonye Walson-Jack, and some perilously high shoes.

At the heart of the performance was a short play, Maame Agbeke Comes to Visit, which centres on the culture shock caused when a UK-based family get a visit from a Nigerian aunt. Silvia is clearly one talented woman as not only can she sing, but she also wrote the play. While very funny and well-acted, the play served to raise important issues about identity and belonging in relation to immigrants and their children. The final scene where Sandra (Maame Agbeke’s sister-in-law from the Virgin Islands who she calls a ‘fake African’) explains the difference and similarities between African and Caribbean cultures did feel slightly didactic, but I still appreciated the new insights it gave me into cultures I don’t know enough about. The cast also deserves praise for bringing so much personality to their performances, particularly Daima Aromolaran in the title role and Raymond Lashwayo as her nephew and wannabe-rapper Ayo.

On either side of the play were comedy and poetry, both welcome additions to the more common combination of dance, drama, song and fashion. It seemed to me that local comedian Leroy Brito was trying too hard to be controversial and I personally didn’t find him as funny as he found himself, but he was certainly ticking the right boxes for many people in the audience. It was also good to see someone from Bute Town talking about the experience of people here in Cardiff, something which many audience members could either relate to or learn from. Banwo the Poet, on the other hand, was another highlight of the show for me. His performance of Signs of the Times was mesmerising, both lyrically dextrous and thought-provoking, juxtaposing wealth and poverty, crime and religion, and questioning modern values (find him on Facebook for videos of more poems). The whole evening was rounded off with some delicious home cooked chicken and rice, showing off yet another aspect of African and Caribbean culture.

If I could give ACS one piece of advice for next year (as I am certain that AfroGene will become a permanent fixture): give the show a more spectacular ending. While I enjoyed the fashion show, something more energetic and exciting, like the ACS dance montage, would have seemed a more fitting culmination of the festivities. This is just nit-picking an otherwise incredible show, full of passion and spirit, which demonstrated what a wealth of culture ACS has to offer. Bring on next year’s AfroGene

Remember you can find the African Caribbean Society on Facebook and Twitter @CaridffACS 

Friday, 2 March 2012

A new Chapter for reading in the community

As promised in my last post, more on World Book Day at Chapter :D

Books have long been part of the community at Chapter, as it is home to  Cardiff Read book club (@CardiffRead), as well as many fantastic literature-related performances and events. Now Chapter have taken that one step further by creating an official Bookcrossing zone in the foyer. This bookshelf near the gift shop will permanently house a collection of books that visitors can take, read and replenish, as long as they log them on of course!

I spoke to Jess Best, one of the organisers of CardiffRead, about the new initiative, as well as what Cardiff Read does and how to get involved. Sorry for the background noise - there is never a quite corner in Chapter (which is clearly a good thing as it's a sign of a thriving community centre)!

I then spoke to Claire Vaughan who works at Chapter about what inspired her to bring Bookcrossing to Cardiff.

So why not head to Chapter for a free book - who knows what you might find?

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Lothar Gotz: Wait Until Dark @ Chapter

So today I was desperate to find one Literature Wales' brown paper packages tied up with string. So desperate that I walked around the university buildings and the RWCMD peering through shelves and under tables. I didn't even care what the book was, I just wanted the excitement of finding it. I think if I'd had the transport to get to Gwdihw, the WMC or Milgi's I might have found one. This unrelenting need for one of these packages made me walk all the way to Chapter. Needless to say, I didn't find a package in the end, but I did find some very exciting and unexpected art work (and some lovely Bookcrossing people, more on that soon).

Chapter Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition by Lothar Gotz called Wait Until Dark, which combines some of his drawings together with specially commissioned installations and wall paintings. Gotz is famed for his use of vivid colours and geometric shapes with immense visual force (like Circus below, which has an incredible impact in real life).

The German artists also explains that his work is inspired by the buildings that house it and what else they are used for, their inhabitants and their histories. The colours are meant to represent the spirit of these people, places and activities. In the case of Chapter, this means performance (hence Circus), community, excitement. What struck me most, however, was how so many of the works seemed to have incorporated the physical form of books, like the picture below which evokes pages turning. Perhaps I just had World Book Day on my mind, but it feels that this exhibition is the perfect accompaniment to Chapter's dedication to bringing reading into its community with its new Bookcrossing zone.

The exhibition is free and runs until Sunday 1st April 2012.

Celebrating diversity at Cardiff University

As part of Go Global, the annual celebration of cultural diversity at Cardiff University, the Asian Society put on a Bollywood spectacular at the National Museum of Wales. The production comprised traditional dancing, singing (from traditional to pop to rap) and a fashion show, topped off with a delicious three-course dinner.

Here's what I had to say about the production, as well as a backstage interview with Reemia Peters, one of the committee and performers, and a preview of African-Caribbean Society's AfroGene.

UPDATE: I had an interview yesterday (29 Feb) with Tobi from African Caribbean Society about what they do and the show.

Connie Fisher interview

Going through my old shows recently, I realised that I never posted my interview with Connie Fisher from November last year. I caught up with her just before a recording of the comedy panel show What's The Story? for BBC Wales. We talked about what makes Wales special musical and she was also very candid about her health problems and future ambitions.

I look forward to seeing her in Wonderful Town at the Wales Millennium Centre in the summer.