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!

On My Way To RADAR 2012

Regular readers will know that I'm a huge fan of new writing. While I love a classic musical or a bit of Ibsen as much as the next person, nothing beats the excitement of seeing a work in gestation or witnessing for the first time pieces that challenge our preconceptions of what theatre is meant to be. So, when I saw IdeasTap where running a competition for a reporter for RADAR 2012 at The Bush Theatre, I jumped at the chance, and am very happy to say I won.

RADAR 2012: Signals from the new writing world, runs at The Bush Theatre in Shepherd's Bush from November 7-22, combining performances of new writing, sneak peeks of works in progress and provocative debates lead by theatre makers from across the industry. For the first week, I will be attending performances and talks, culminating in a 500 word round-up for IdeasMag. I can't wait! 

I'm very grateful to IdeasTap for this opportunity. IdeasTap is an arts charity set up to help 16 to 30 year olds across the UK get a start in the creative industries. They frequently offer funding and creative briefs, often working with top names like Sky Arts, The Barbican or the BBC, as well as maintaining a list of arts jobs currently recruiting. Whether you want to be a performer, an artist, a curator, a journalist, a technician, or a PR guru, if it's arts related, they'll help you find it. On top of that they run a magazine full of arts news, comment and advice for jobseekers, and provide space for the community of over 75,000 members to meet and collaborate. Find out more in this video:

Stay tuned for my RADAR reviews!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Ways of Seeing, John Berger and Imagometia

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of two of John Berger's most famous works: Ways of Seeing, his seminal BBC TV series about the nature of art as property, and G, his Booker Prize winning novel. It also sees the culmination of almost two years of work by Tom Overton, cataloguing sixty years worth of documents donated by Berger to the British Library, as part of a joint PhD between that institution and King's College London. That work has resulted in an exhibition at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House, running until November 10.

Berger at the exhibition, photographed by Greg Veit, official photographer of AHFest
Tom was kind enough to give us a private tour of the exhibition, which combines unseen documents with artworks related to Berger's life to provide a unique insight into one of Britain's greatest art commentators. Until 2009, these documents had been boxed up in a shed at Berger's home in rural France, in old fruit crates. Tom probably gave himself lung cancer breathing in all the cigarette smoke absorbed by the documents from Berger's chain-smoking but assures us that it was worth the sacrifice to get a deeper understanding of Berger's way of working and correspondence with others.

According to Tom, Berger's father was also the 'father of modern accounting', meaning that young John was sent from his home in Hackney to private school in Oxford, expected to become a middle-class professional. Instead, Berger went to art school and became committed to Marxist humanism, as is evident throughout his works and the correspondence on show here. The exhibition includes a painting of the late Eric Hobsbawm, one of many British Marxist intellectuals with whom Berger would meet and discuss politics, as well as a selection of Socialist Realist paintings.

One thing the archives make very clear is Berger's penchant for cutting and pasting, from long before Microsoft Word. His notebooks are full of newspaper clippings or notes scribbled on the back of envelopes precariously sellotaped into manuscripts in progress. The archive also highlights the collaboratory nature of Berger's work, creating projects with many artists, photographers and film-makers. One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is the documents behind I Send You This Cadmium Red, a book which brings together the years of correspondence between John Berger and John Christie that began with sending a small colour sample (you can buy the book here).

Tom is full of anecdotes about Berger's life and work. A particular favourite is how Berger, who did not approve of literary prizes, donated half of his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers, allowing them to acquire a building for their headquarters. However, Berger's philanthropy backfired in an unexpected way: all the members of the group moved in together, then swiftly all slept with each other, had huge fights and the movement broke up!

To tie in with the exhibition, a performance piece was specially commissioned for the King's Arts and Humanities Festival:  Imagometia, by Rafau Sieraczek. Inspired by Berger's seminal work, as well as Jacques Ranciere and Guy Debord, the performance aimed to make the audience reconsider how we see things. We were split in two, one group on either side of the stage, and told not to look around, as we were shown videos and dance performances. After a while we were made to swap sides: the same music played, but the images were different, making us question whether we were seeing the same thing as those on the other side of the room. Moreover, we were provided with mirrors and blacked-out glasses, which meant we could only see behind us or out of the very corner of our eyes, again making us question the traditional way of viewing art and performance straight on. Sadly, the event seemed to lose its way after a while, descending into a parlour game: one participant, blindfolded, had to describe an object in his hands to another who had to draw it from his words - an interesting concept, but sloppy in practice. Nonetheless, we all left Imagometia wish fresh ideas about how to view art and performance - John Berger would surely approve!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Finding Neverland - A New Musical @ Leicester Curve

Second star to the right, and straight on til morning, Neverland is waiting for you...

Genuinely new musicals - as opposed to revivals and jukebox musicals - are a rare treat these days, and rarer still is it to find one that unites such a talented cast and creative team. Finding Neverland, in previews at Leicester Curve from 22 September to 18 October, is just that - a musical so new, it's not even finished yet.

Harvey Weinstein is making his first foray into theatreland with a stage adaptation of the film his company, Miramax, produced in 2004, staring Johnny Depp as depressed play-write J.M. Barrie and Kate Winslet as the beguiling widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the real life Wendy to his Peter Pan. The reviews (see The Guardian and The Telegraph for instance) all say more or less the same thing: while the cast are commendable, and the £7million staging is impressive, the story has gotten lost somewhere along its journey to the stage and the score isn't particularly stirring. While I loved the film, to be honest, I wasn't expecting too much from Finding Neverland beyond the pleasure of seeing Julian Ovenden again, so I was pleasantly surprised by the show.

This photo from The Telegraph highlights just how energetic Julian Ovenden is in Finding Neverland
I have to agree that Scott Frankel's music isn't particularly memorable, but it's not bad either, and works better in the context of the performance than in YouTube clips like the ones below. It also seemed that director Rob Ashford threw everything possible at the stage - from a real St Bernard to a giant pirate ship - to win over the audience, which was great fun but did appear to be covering the cracks in the story and the score. The ending, which in the film is so heartbreaking, had no power at all, perhaps in an attempt to make the show more family friendly.

I don't really care though, because I had a wonderful time at Finding Neverland. Julian - on stage for almost all of the two and a half hour long production - proves just how versatile he is, wowing the audience not only with his voice, but unwavering energy, swashbuckling, Scottish dancing, and being led in a tango by Captain Hook. Rosalie Craig, too, displayed an impressive voice, creating a very sympathetic Sylvia, while strong support came from Liz Robertson as her mother, Clare Foster as Barrie's wife, Mary and Oliver Boot as Hook/an unappreciative theatre critic. It's always a pleasure to watch such a talented cast, even if they aren't working with the most exciting material. 

Finding Neverland also benefited from musical direction by David Charles Abell, the man behind the baton at the opening of any good musical (you'd recognise him from the Les Misérables 10th and 25th anniversary concerts among many others). I was extremely excited to see him right in front of me, singing along enthusiastically throughout the show. I told him afterwards how I was a huge fan - I think he was surprised that anyone was a fan of conductors! Anyway, as well as being very polite, he told me that the production was evolving every day and would surely change significantly again before its eventual London opening. Given the money and powerful names behind Finding Neverland, I have no doubt that the  critics concerns will be addressed and the production will thrive in London.

After David, I put my fan-girl skills to even better use, spotting Julian just as he was about to escape from the theatre, and grabbed him for a hug and a photo. He was really lovely and I spent the rest of the day grinning idiotically. I'm so uncool. 

After all that effort on stage, Julian clearly needed a nap!
When Finding Neverland makes its inevitable transfer to London, I'll be there, hoping that the show will have found its spark along the way, just as J.M. Barrie did.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

King's Arts and Humanities Festival 2012

The King's College London Arts and Humanities Festival 2012 is in full-swing, offering many fascinating events from dance to digital humanities. The full programme is available here and you can read more about events relating to the festival on their blog:

I have been so busy attending and discussing events throughout the last week and a half, that I have had little time to write them up, especially as I am supposed to be working on my PhD at the same time. Take this post as a promise that over the next week or so I will have written posts about:
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing, and a conceptual performance piece based on his work, Imagometia
- The Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies Postrgrad Student Showcase
- Digital Humanities

Friday, 12 October 2012

Grande Sertão @ Minas: Heart of Brazil

This week the King's Brazilian Institute and the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies hosted Minas: Heart of Brazil, a festival celebrating the rich culture of the Minas Gerais, an often overlooked area of the country. As the festival organisers explain:
"Most cultural and educational events presenting Brazil to UK audiences have tended to focus on a limited repertoire of images and locales, typically those of Rio de Janeiro, the northeastern state of Bahia and its capital, Salvador, or the Amazon. Although a less familiar international tourist destination, the southeastern state of Minas Gerais arguably boasts the richest and most diverse of the country’s cultural traditions and history. The economic heartland of colonial Brazil during its gold mining boom in the eighteenth century, Minas was home to a startling concentration of Baroque culture in architecture, sculpture, painting and music, and the first literary and intellectual movement to sow the seeds of Brazilian nationalism. African slave labour in the colonial mines left an important legacy of Afro-Brazilian festivals and traditions such as the congados, as well as numerous maroon communities or quilombos in the interior of the state".
The six day event - which finishes tomorrow (Saturday 13 October) with music and food at The Oxford in Kentish Town from 7pm to midnight - brings together music, cinema, poetry and theatre. It sounded amazing, and I would have loved to have gone to all of it, but as it's an extremely busy week for me, I only made it to one event: the screening of Geraldo e Renato Santos Pereira 1965 epic Grande Sertão.

The film is an adaptation of Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956) a classic novel by João Guimarães Rosa, which narrates life in the wild Minas Gerais backlands at the turn of the 20th century. Voted one of the top 100 novels of all time, became famous both for its original style of writing, an unusual mixture of archaic and colloquial language, and its homoerotic themes, which remained highly taboo at the time of publication. As an old and not yet lovingly restored film, the sound was pretty bad, but it didn't make a difference to me as it turns out I really don't speak Portuguese very well yet! There were no subtitles either, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that dialogue really wasn't that necessary for following the storyline. It helps that a good 70-80% of the film is either drawn out battle scenes, as rival groups of mercenaries or jagunços attack each other, or shots of the mysterious and unforgiving landscape of the backlands. The idea that looks speak far louder than words is proved by this film though - I thought maybe I was reading too much into the overt sexual tension between the two main characters, Riobaldo and Diadorim, but it turns out that is the main plot point. As you can guess, then, little actually happens in the film beyond lots of people killing each other and some long lust-filled looks, but as a portrait of a place very really seen on screen - beautifully shot in sepia - I found it quite mesmerising.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Let's Get Multilingual

I've just finished watching the fifth episode of the excellent Norwegian-American co-production Lilyhammer, which is currently airing on BBC4. Steve Van Zandt (famous for being part of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band) stars as New York mafia underboss Frank Tagliano who, after testifying, chooses to go into witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, because he enjoyed what he saw of the town in coverage of the 1994 Winter Olympics. It has an odd, Norwegian sense of humour which appeals to me, but one of my favourite aspects of the show is how Frank (or Johnny as he becomes) speaks English and everyone else speaks Norwegian and they all understand each other perfectly. 

If only the rest of the world was like Lillehammer! (Or maybe not, the people there seem quite strange on the programme....) I love the idea of mutual understanding without the need for English linguistic hegemony. Yes, Johnny expects people to understand his English, but they expect him to understand their Norwegian too. I think it would be amazing if we could all just speak our own languages and everyone understand. It would take a lot of effort of course - and effort not many would be willing to put in given how relatively few people learn languages in England - but understanding a language is far easier than learning to speak it. You would never have to worry if your grammar or pronunciation is correct, plus it is far easier to express yourself fully in your own language.

It's an idea explored in more depth in Un Filme Falado (A Talking Picture), a 2003 film by Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who amazingly is still working at 103! One of my students told me about the film one night during the Social Programme - between the group of us we spoke English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek, but no-one spoke all of those languages, though we wished we did. In the film, Catherine Deneuve (French), Stefani Strandelli (Italian), Irene Papas (Greek) and John Malkovich have a prolonged conversation, all speaking their own languages.

One day I hope to be able to hold a conversation like this, only less melodramatic! (By the way, if Malkovich sounds incredibly insincere, it's apparently intentional, as all the characters are supposed to highlight stereotypical 'flaws' of each culture, insincerity being the American example).

PS: While we're enjoying all things multilingual, I recommend David Garza's very catchy mash-up of many languages, Dead French Dudes. Annoyingly embedding the video has been disabled, but you can listen here.

Monday, 8 October 2012

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream

Just in time for 7O (the Venezulean elections on 7th October which gave Hugo Chávez another six years in power), the 7th issue of Bibliomula is all about dystopias. You can read my original article here, but here it is in English.

When asked me to write about literary dystopias, I immediately thought of the British classics - George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. However, a physicist friend with a taste for comics and video games suggested a story from the other side of the Atlantic, that I had never heard of before: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison. This same friend has recently told me that if she shared a room in a hostel with strangers she would whisper "I want to wear your skin" just before they fell asleep to freak them out, so I should have known what I was getting in to.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream tells the story of the five last surviving humans on Earth, trapped forever in the belly of a sentient supercomputer, AM, which has destroyed the rest of the world. Like any classic dystopian tale, it mixes political concerns with fears about the power of modern technology. Written over one night in 1966, at the height of the Cold War, it is a response to that conflict and the very real fear that the war machines would bring about the end of the world.

The premise is that each of the world superpowers - the United States, Russia and China - built their own supercomputer to fight a war that was too complicated for human minds, but before long the computers became sentient, and, aware of their own power, united to create an enormous God-like monstrosity. This cluster, programmed to kill, destroys almost every living thing, but keeps five victims alive, torturing them forever as revenge against the human race that built it and filled it with rage.

The concept of sentient Artificial Intelligence is nothing new (see Isaac Asimov's 1950 I, Robot for example), but Ellison approaches it a particularly chilling way. I read I Have No Mouth... for the first time on the train and was shocked by my visceral reaction. The story left me miserable and weirdly shaken. I couldn't quite act normally afterwards, and left the carriage in a kind of fugue. The story's impact is in large part the result of its stark narration. Ted, the narrator, enumerates horrific acts of violence dispassionately, without excessive details, which is worse because it forces you to imagine them for yourself. Moreover, as the title (taken from a picture by Ellison's good friend William Rotsler) suggests, the story feeds on our deepest fears: perpetual hunger and pain; loss of individual identity; the inability to see, to think, to express oneself. These fates worse than death are caused by the caprices of AM, but any reader would recognise them as potential results of a nuclear holocaust.

At its heart, the story highlights how war and technology end in the destruction of civilised society. One of the victims, Benny, the intellectual, becomes a dumb ape, reduced to his carnal instincts. Gorrister, once a passionate idealist, becomes apathetic, listless. Ellen, the only woman, who was 'almost' a virgin before, is now everyone's lover. It is clearly a warning. Ellison became famous for holding a mirror up to contemporary society and underlining the perils to come if we did not change. In an interview years later (quoted here), he affirmed: "I have never, ever, espoused a position of hating technology. Even the original short story, is not anti-technology. What it is anti is anti-misuse by humans".

The lasting legacy of I Have No Mouth...

First published in March 1967 in an issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction, this short story went on to become one of the most reprinted stories in the English language. One reason for this enduring success is undoubtedly its continued relevance to contemporary society, which is ever more reliant on technology. Another reason is that it has enjoyed a life beyond the page which has introduced it to new audiences and maintained public interest in the story. In 1995, for example,, the graphic artist John Byrne turned it into a comic as part of the graphic novel Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, while an audiobook, narrated by Ellison himself was released in 1999. The most intriguing incarnation, however, is the critically acclaimed video game which came out in 1995. A point-and-click adventure game, with a script adapted by Ellison among others, it obliged players to make ethical decisions in order to prove that humans are better than computers. Curiously, in contrast to the unrelentingly bleak short story, in the video game the humans can actually win. It is possible to destroy AM and salvage the Earth. Written almost thirty years after the story, in a time of relative peace (the nuclear holocaust did not happen, after all), could it be that the video game shows a little optimism? Saying that, the game does treat themes of madness, rape and genocide, so maybe not that much optimism! Whether as a video game, audiobook, comic or the original short story, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream still forces us to examine the worst of human nature and its consequences.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Los Miercoles Al Cine... Los Lunes Al Sol @ Instituto Cervantes

A week and a half in, and I'm starting to feel like a real Londoner again, especially last night when I went for a wander through Belgravia, to reach the Instituto Cervantes. Created by the Spanish government in 1991, the Instituto serves two purposes: it both provides Spanish language teaching at all levels for all ages, and promotes Hispanic culture through free film screenings, concerts, discussions and exhibitions.


My first trip to the Instituto was as part of the 8th London Spanish Film Festival, which runs until 10 October. The festival offers a packed programme of films and Q+A sessions, held mainly at the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français. While I was tempted by far too many of the films, Los lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun) at the Instituto Cervantes had a major bonus: it was free.

Showing as part of the Luis Tosar special feature, Los lunes al sol (2002, dir. Fernando León de Aranoa) was hugely successful on release, winning five Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of Oscars), including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Javier Bardem. It tells the story of a group of shipworkers who are laid off so the shipyard can be turned into luxury waterside apartments, and the degrading effects of unemployment. Although I - and the rest of the viewers - laughed a lot, this is no comedy; rather a scathing social commentary. Opening with scenes of violent protest at the shipyard, the film highlights issues such as the humiliation of competing with much younger people for a job you do not understand, the breakdown of marriages when one partner can no longer contribute financially, and the descent into alcoholism of those with nothing better to do all day - issues all the more pertinent given that Spain's financial situation has only gotten far worse in the last decade. At times, I found it difficult to identify with the characters because their discussions sounded more like political propaganda than a group of blokes down the pub - especially when Bardem's character Santa discusses the effect of some workers crossing the picket line and making deals with the company that left the others with nothing - but Santa's cheeky personality is endearing and saves the film from becoming too bleak. As a film, it is a bit too slow and not quite engaging enough, but as an insight into an important aspect of Spain's recent history, I recommend it.