Category Archives: rage

Arts Council Cuts: the Midlands and beyond

I’ve followed the Arts Council England cuts today with deep sadness and anger. Our society – not the Big Society, but the place(s) we really live – is under threat, and in this time of economic attack from our coalition overlords, the arts’ position is especially contested. There are lots of issues here, most of which I don’t feel qualified to speak on, but I did want to discuss the following.

The myth of the press officer class

Quentin Letts scoffed at the sufferings of what he calls the “press officer class”, i.e. those in arts admin (some of which could, perhaps, be more accurately known as arts bureaucracy). I have no animus against arts administrators whatsoever, and I hope that as few administrative roles as possible are lost. But what I hate most about Letts’s argument is the way it elides all the other people who work in the arts. At least if you’re an administrator or other office-based professional, you have transferrable skills! God knows there are few enough administrative and management posts available at the moment, and it’s appalling when people have to take skills and wage cuts, but for many people in theatre, that kind of transition just won’t be possible. If you’ve spent twenty years as a followspot operator, how many other roles can you step into? Stage carpenters are stage carpenters. A career in automation (formerly known as “flying”) doesn’t allow you to move between different kinds of organisation in the same way as a background in development or HR. These technicians are also incredibly skilled professionals. What will happen to them?

Creatives, technicians, and artisans don’t have the same prominence or vocality in the anti-cuts movement as doctors and teachers, and for good reason. But there’s a new body of workers who’ll be badly affected by these cuts, and Letts’s argument ignores them completely.

Audiences and young people: a manifesto

I am lucky: I’ve seen a lot of theatre because my parents were willing and able to make theatregoing a priority throughout my life. I also had inspired, discriminating and proactive teachers. A few weeks ago, the RSC (who have themselves taken a 15% hit) opened a Facebook discussion on why it was so important for young people to see theatre. I’d like to say that theatre is important because not only because it enriches our cultural lives, our imaginations and our intellects along with the rest of the arts, but also because it builds tribes, encourages acceptance, and creates communities with dignity. When a young person becomes involved with theatre, in any capacity, it changes how they see themselves, and how they see the world. Theatre prioritises the development of physical, mental and emotional stamina, of confidence, of self-worth and the capacity to take risks. Theatre offers to chance to step into a different kind of life, where people are valued in new ways, and where personal and professional relationships are based on immediacy, intimacy and trust. Unlike almost everything else in popular entertainment, theatre demands that people come together in the same room and listen to each other. Theatre demands that audience and performers treat each other with respect and generosity. When you make theatre, you have the unbelievable privilege of making your thoughts come alive around you, of creating a private world that then becomes gloriously, unbelievably public. Around the world, wherever there have been struggles for freedom, dignity and equality, theatre has been there somewhere. The defining figure in British culture, for better or worse, is not a statesman, a musician, a sportsman or a surgeon, but a playwright. On personal level, theatre has, again and again, created and changed the course of my life. When you take theatre – performance, stagecraft, design, text, activism – away from young people, you are denying them the chance to be the best they can be.

The Midlands

A ROUGH GUIDE TO THE CUTS: if you have “Birmingham” in your title, get stuffed. Foursight Birmingham: 100% funding lost. Birmingham Repertory: 11% cut. Birmingham Royal Ballet: 15% cut. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: 11% cut. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: 11% cut. Big Brum: 11% cut. Also in and around Birmingham; the Ikon Gallery and the Midlands Art Centre will each lose 11% of their funding, while Ixia (visual arts) loses 15.2%. Another big loser in the West Midlands is Multistory, which loses over 43% of its funding. Recent work by Multistory involved developing original work by primary school children in Coventry. Simultaneously, the Coventry Belgrade is losing 14.9% of its funding, meaning that pretty soon the only thing in Coventry will have to offer is IKEA. Oh, and the West Midlands disability arts user-led organisation DASH loses 38% of its funding. Of course. Nationally, two other major, brilliant companies with investment in disability arts are DV8 (whom I was privileged to see as a sixth-former) and Zinc. DV8’s losing 11.7%, Zinc’s losing 100%. Yes, you did just read that – the Arts Council are cutting all funding for the largest disabled-led arts organisation in England. That must be the most disgusting thing I’ve read all day.

In the East Midlands, the Theatre Writing Partnership loses 100% of its funding. God forbid that Leicestershire, for example, should produce another playwright like Joe Orton or Sarah Kane. Leicester Theatre Trust are losing 11% of their funding, as are the Nottingham Playhouse. Two East Midlands companies who made unsuccessful applications for funding are the participatory community theatre company Hanby & Barrett, and Metro Boulot Dodo.

Warwick Arts Centre, responsible for all the experimental theatre I saw before uni, loses 11%. The Royal Shakespeare Company loses 15%. I love the RSC beyond all reason and am partisan to the point of incoherence in its favour, so I find this… painful. I have faith that they can take it, nevertheless.

Whichever way you look at it, the Midlands has suffered horribly today: we’ll feel the repercussions for years. It’s not just the arts, of course – I heard today (from my mother, who taught me feminism and liberalism and exactly why you never ever vote Tory – I only wish everyone else’s mothers had done the same) about some of the other services being axed in the West Midlands. Dudley Council closes Meals on Wheels next week, meaning that 120 Stourbridge pensioners will no longer receive a cooked meal each day (total saving: £32,000). The voluntary organisation Birmingham Tribunal, which provides a free welfare benefits legal advice for the city, is also shutting soon. But it’s another, depressing, regressive nail in the UK’s coffin, helping to push our society and its citizens further into unemployment and suffering. Forget the cultural value if you can, or even if it doesn’t matter to you: so many jobs and families will be threatened by these cuts. Even if you think the arts are elitist (although how anyone could think Clean Break, the theatre company working with women in prisons, is elitist… they’re taking an 11% cut), recognise that this is yet another sector in which workers are being threatened.

What next?

I have no answers. I urge everyone who can to focus on supporting their local arts organisations and services, and to keep voicing their displeasure. I offer my deepest sympathies to all the organisations mentioned in this post, and indeed to all who’ve been adversely affected by the decisions today. If anyone reading this is affiliated with an organisation attempting an appeal or looking for fundraising in the light of the Arts Council’s choices, please comment: I’d be delighted to add your links to this post.

Victorian Scandals & Glittery Skulls

Emmanuel Ray, Gisele Ganne, AW 08

Last night, I stayed up (too) late reading about family scandals, hatred, illegitimacy and death in the supposedly idyllic domestic life of one of my thesis’s subjects. The actress in question is Madge Kendal (1848-1935), an incredibly successful, powerful Victorian actress – and just about one of the biggest hypocrites I’ve ever (literarily) met.

The past few days have involved a lot of reading about Victorian marriages – the bride, the wedding night, divorce laws and annulments, and rituals surrounding mourning and death. My love of genealogy and my love of scandal are both growing exponentially with my doctoral research! Last night I found exactly what the Kendals’ youngest daughter did, to warrant being disowned, and it shocked me horribly.

Today I’m having to be good and get back to hermeneutics. But then I saw this image, and it was so gloriously, gaudily, bitterly self-indulgent with all its splashy Victorian mourning glitz that I had to include it.  It reminded me so much of all the accounts of mourning I’ve been reading – in public, theatrical, self-indulgent form. It’s Gisele Ganne‘s mourning-inspired jewellery collection, and the model is Emmanuel Ray. I love it, Madge Kendal would hate it, and since her sustained vileness to her offspring deprived me of my sleep, that seems an excellent reason to reblog!

REVIEW: MONSTERS, BT STUDIO, PICNIC PRODUCTIONS

Monsters, by Niklas Rådström, deals with the 1993 killing of toddler James Bulger by eleven-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The script veers between self-righteous harangue, and the disingenuous blurring of fiction and reportage. Most of Monsters’ dramatic force derives from co-opting Venables’s confession, a verbatim text that, in describing Bulger’s slow death, would horrify whether read by cast, lawyer, or android. This sickening account made me want to leave the theatre, but this is no tribute to Rådström. His own writing is mainly overwrought posturing: avant-garde theatre at its exploitative, sensationalist worst.

Monsters opens with a choric harangue of audience by actors. They don’t know why we’re here. They don’t know what we expect. They don’t know what we want from a play about children killing a child. Do we think it’s useful? DO WE? Once the cast have stopped criticising the audience for having the temerity to turn up, Monsters consists mainly of quotations from Venables and Thompson’s interrogations, interrupted by further choric hand-wringing and hectoring.

Director Matthew Goldhill’s cast are four good actors doomed by a dreadful script. Standout moments include Fen Greatley’s childlike demeanour as Thompson under interrogation. Chloe Orrock is memorable as Thompson’s mother, describing his childhood: her understated delivery somewhat tempers Rådström’s melodrama. All four could excel in a better play. Throughout, Monsters fails to fully engage with the specificities of regionality and abusive poverty that surrounded Bulger’s killing. Murder happens everywhere, but by ignoring the details of location, cyclical abuse and social deprivation, Rådström’s text – heavy on handwringing, low on characterisation – does not universalise what happened on Merseyside. Instead, attention is refocused away from the murder, back to the four performers. Too often the consequence is the spectacle of bright young things in a state of unfocused indignation about a death they were barely born for; privilege theorising its unimaginable reverse.

The temptation is to turn the play’s questions – is seeing Monsters useful? Moving? Educational? – back on performers, director, and ultimately on Rådström. Why is anyone there? To help thesps feel angry? To let audiences look sombre? Underpinning Monsters are two insulting and reductive suppositions: first, that nobody has attempted to think deeply about the murder before, and, second, that we share complicity in Bulger’s death. The first is laughable; the second dangerous. There are ways not to be complicit: voicing our suspicions and be prepared to risk our own safety in defence of a child’s. Monsters does not reflect this, preferring its dubious mission of blame and mimetic outrage.

Like the press coverage of which Denise Bulger complained, Monsters withholds James Bulger’s real name until its closing moments. Everything – injuries, indignation, avant-garde posturing and vague sympathy for the killers – is made more important than the personhood of that little boy. Ultimately, Monsters is guilty of the fetishisation and exploitation of which it accuses its audience.

Monsters’ cast were born at about the same time as James Bulger. He deserves a better memorial than that afforded by Rådström’s play.

 

A version of this article originally appeared at Oxford Theatre Review.com

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christmas speech to a grateful nation

This Christmas, I wore a lot of false moustaches, wrote a lot of words and ate a lot of mince pies. I am delighted to hear that Harriet Walter is being made a dame. I was appalled and baffled as to why Hercule Poirot And The Prisoner of Azerbaijan, or whatever it was ITV put out on Christmas Day, had to start with an irrelevant and disturbing scene of a bunch of Muslims stoning a pregnant woman to death (Well done on that congruence of multiple offensive and unnecessary -isms, Independent Television! Truly, you speak for the people). I wish Huw Edwards wouldn’t keep referring to the murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates as ‘Jo’ as opposed to Ms/Miss Yeates. I am in love with the film Nativity. On Monday, I’m visiting Germany for the first time!

Hopefully 2011 will be the year David Cameron’s vast bubble of a face finally explodes, disgorging slime and social immobility. Meanwhile, enjoy Kenneth Williams, because he’s awesome, and have a Happy New Year.

REVIEW: Theatre Set-Up: The Merchant of Venice

The garden at Hall’s Croft first came to my attention when I learned you could get married, or have a civil partnership in the grounds – it’s a shame you can’t do the same at the Birthplace, but we’re a lot closer to traffic and you’d run the risk of your wedding being papped by 60 ecstatic Japanese tourists. One of the great things about the garden at Hall’s is the potential for outdoor theatre – a couple of weeks ago, some friends and I went to see Theatre Set-Up’s latest production of The Merchant of Venice.

Half an hour before it opened, I was sitting on the steps opposite, staring in fascination as the elderly rich of Stratford (so elderly! So rich!) carted the contents of (what they probably call) their sun lounges, conservatories, drawing rooms and breakfast bars into the green and pleasant land of theatre. There were cloches. There was cutlery. Chairs were de rigeur, and in one party of six septuagenarians, I distinctly saw a snowy tablecloth receive, on platters, two cheeseboards and a quiche.

The sheer stamina on view impressed me. People whom the uncharitable might regard as nearly dead were acting as their own pack mules, deckchair in each hand as they trekked through an Old Town heatwave, determined to live the dream of eating an excellent dinner, while watching mediocre Shakespeare.

Antonio opens the play saying that, in sooth, he knows not why he is so sad, and by the end of the play, I was still none the wiser. Generally, the characterization was unfocused and the relationships undefined. I didn’t know why Portia loved Bassanio, or why he reciprocated – Salanio’s claim that Antonio ‘only loves the world for’ Bassanio describes an intensity of emotion that nobody onstage seemed to feel. The most interesting thing about the production was their use of the text. Not so much individual line-readings; in fact, the performance was characterized by inaccuracies; but with the ingenuous system of doubling and cuts. With a cast of only eight actors, it’s a tribute to editorial skill that the only felt losses were Gratiano’s mocking repetitions of ‘a Daniel’ in the court scene, and a few choppings from Nerissa and Jessica.

The production’s heavy cutting of the ‘salads’ (Salanio and Salarino) should be a model for directors – they weren’t missed. My friends and I were divided on the success of the Lorenzo/Shylock doubling. I, personally, was a fan of both performances, but felt the company wasted an opportunity of shedding any light on the (as ever) under-directed Jessica. As Shylock’s daughter, the actress began with startling vitriol against her father, spitting as she resolved to become ‘a Christian, and [a] loving wife’ to the Gentile Lorenzo, only to transform into a sulky madam the second she actually got him. Perhaps the doubling was meant to show Jessica exchanging one identical set of problems for another, but there was no suggestion that the amorous lover was as difficult as the father.

Only one moment in the production really disturbed me, and it was the audience who caused me unease. It’s always nice when a play by Shakespeare can show you the mass of anti-Semitism eating Eton Mess in an audience. At the end of the trial scene, Antonio (still alive, still fully-fleshed) gets his penultimate kick by demanding that his Jewish adversary ‘presently become a Christian’. Most of the audience laughed.

There’s no humour in that line; no context or delivery could make it funny. There had been nothing in the production to suggest that a presentation of Shylock as cartoonish or laughable was what Theatre Set-Up intended. It makes me wonder, though, how often that line gets laughs, and where. Anyone else who’s seen a production of Merchant, did this happen to you? What’s the most shocking or upsetting audience reaction you’ve seen?

My sudden enforced awareness of the Merchant audience reminded me of Kate Woods’s Britgrad paper on Sophonisba (1605). The play was performed at Blackfriars where, for the first time, the lighting conditions of indoor theatre directed an audience’s attention right away from each other, towards the stage. Before that, daylit productions in the playhouses meant that audiences were completely aware of each other. It was a point I’d never really considered before – funnily enough, my research into theatre spaces really starts with Aphra Behn and discovery spaces. Today, open-air productions are our closest link to that kind of atmosphere, and it made me wonder what other audience are hidden by the comforting darkness of the stalls.

brave new world

And then there was silence. Stratford stayed Tory, Gordon Brown resigned and our new Prime Minister entered a political civil partnership, except without the sex or advanced LGBT rights. Nick Clegg has emerged as either a brave pragmatist or a morally negligible shyster (I say both, with a side order of bewildered hilarity at his actually acquiring power), and Theresa May is quite definitely a homophobe.

After days of political prevarication, which I spent rushing in and out of a netless workplace, and asking tourists if I had a government yet, I witnessed the death of the printed newsrag  (what’s the point of a paper you can’t reload?) and the resurrection of the dessicated zombie that is the Conservative government. I took the early 1990s as a promise that things would never have to be that bad again; when in 1997 Labour promised Things Could Only Get Better, I had the temerity to believe them. I too got horribly sentimental at Brown’s CitizensUK speech, and the moving pictures of his delightful small boys, but I think I’m fairly clear-eyed when I say that now, things can only get worse.

If you took a pin to Portcullis House today, spun round and jabbed the first available face, you would stand a better chance than ever of pricking a white, Oxbridge male who spent his formative years in a boarding-school, and who regularly munches fox for his Sunday lunch.

But I’m still here, and I am still addicted to politics. I look forward to watching Labour regroup and rebuild, and even if Dave&Gideon have banned elections (I thought that was something we frowned on, in our nominal democracy) until 2015, by the time the electorate does get to refill the Reichstag, we should have something better to offer the 19 million people who did not want a Conservative government. I also look forward to watching David Cameron turn into a jowly, pop-eyed psychopath, while Nick Cameron does his best impression of Dorian’s portrait in the attic.

Stratford-on-Avon PPCs: Zahawi, Johnston, Turner et al (and why you should save your spin for the Bodleian)

My prized collection of spin, hope and lunacy.

The John Johnson Collection, the Bodleian Library’s Archive of printed ephemera, are collecting material related to the General Election. If you have received any leaflets/postcards/scratch ‘n’ sniff perfume samples from your PPCs, don’t throw them away! Election ephemera can be sent direct to the relevant librarians – email me at clamorousvoice [at] gmail [dot] com to learn more.

PPCs for Stratford-upon-Avon (as of 29th April):

Conservative: Nadhim Zahawi
Labour: Rob Johnston
Liberal Democrat: Martin Turner
Green: Karen Varga
Independent: Neil Basnett
English Democrats: Frederick Bishop
UKIP: Brett Parsons
BNP: George Jones

What I’ve learned about these candidates, so far

In February, the blogosphere claimed that Zahawi had received “the promise of a safe Conservative seat” in Stratford – “ultra-safe”, according to the Voter Power Index. For a while, Jeffrey Archer’s crony looked set to become the Midlands’ latest British Asian Tory poster boy, along with the charismatic Allah Ditta, Worcester’s first Asian Mayor. Now, however, Independent Neil Basnett has frothed up to split the right-wing vote. He’ll do well – if Stratford’s unhappiest Tories are too blinded by bigotry to notice his lack of policies.

Meanwhile, Rob Johnston’s got himself a PPC webpage – even if it is empty – and was sighted at Alcester Grammar School. A schoolfriend of mine claims he bought her a drink and was nice (perk up, Johnston, I agree being given S-on-A to fight is shitty, but there’ll be another election soon and important people are watching). Martin Turner‘s a Baptist and knows a sheep farmer. Vince Cable likes him (Turner, not the shepherd). Karen Varga may just be a conspiracy theory. No, wait, she has a blog. The most recent entry starts “Weapons kill – no seriously“. I think I’ll vote for the sheep.

Stratford also boasts three nationalist-slash-racist-slash-embarrassing candidates, in the form of Frederick Bishop, Brett Parsons and George Jones (I shan’t link to them). From what I can gather, the English Democrats hate everyone who’s not English, UKIP hate everyone who’s not British, and the BNP hate everyone who’s not white (and British. And Christian. And straight). George Jones doesn’t look quite as hilarious as the pencil sketch I posted two weeks ago, but does resemble Fagin’s seedier half-brother.

Which is ironic.

I can’t vote Labour. I think the Liberal Democrats (and, realistically, a coalition government/hung parliament) are our best hope for a) change and b) the destruction of the New Conservative dream. I just hope Nick Clegg doesn’t meet any bigots in the forthcoming week. I bet Murdoch wouldn’t have broadcast Cameron with his microphone left on.

Zahra Rahnavard, Tehran’s women and the American mythos

Women rush to the aid of a man being beaten in Tehran.Women rush to the aid of a man being beaten in Tehran.

This picture makes me proud to be a woman. Also, yeah: don’t tell me my sisters in headscarves are passive, that they’re uneducated, that they’re apolitical (hi, Dr. Rahnavard, I hear you’re 64 and wear the chador) and automatically oppressed. There is nothing more political than these women, rushing forward in their religion and their politics. This is their revolution too. They will not disappear once it’s over (I don’t think it will ever be over).

Go here for quotations from Zahra Rahnavard. And go here for a bloody stupid line of reporting.

Nor do I like the awareness-raising meme post that’s been circulating on blogging sites, begun here. The sentiments are worthwhile (if poorly expressed), but the reference to how ‘For the first time in a long time, a voice for change struck the youth of Iran, just as it did for many people in the United States only seven months ago’ really bugs me. I know plenty of American media are suddenly interested in Iran because it can be written into a cosily Obama-analogous mythology now that the departure of Bush and the advent of Barack makes it easier for the US to look outwards and see itself as a saviour again, but, really. The situation in Iran, the situation in America? Zahra Rahnavard PhD, Michelle Obama? One of these things is not like the other. Iran isn’t important because it can be conveniently compared to the American mythos. The protests in Tehran aren’t important because they’re timely. They’re just important.

OUCA race shame

The (chief) racist berk in this article is my college grandson. I’m so proud.

Not all of OUCA is racist; I have some dear friends who are (or more usually, were) part of that organisation and who are – in behaviour towards men and women of all races and orientations – a world away from Gallagher (who admits telling the joke). I do not think any of them were at that meeting; I’d be very shocked if they were.

But any decent man would have left the room immediately rather than tell that joke, and I hope that everyone who stood around to laugh at it feels thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Perhaps they will also begin to recognise their resemblance to the predominantly working-class, white male BNP voters to whom they no doubt consider themselves manifestly superior.

Griffin accuses BBC of being “obsessed with race”

And how did Nick Griffin spend his first morning as an MEP? Complaining on the Today programme that Friar Tuck, in the BBC children’s series Robin Hood, is played by a black man. This amounts to “race-obsessed craziness”, apparently.

David Harewood, the actor in question, can be seen in interview here. Turns out he’s from Small Heath, hurrah! The RADA graduate has played Nelson Mandela for the BBC, will appear in Doctor Who later this year, and would have been a footballer had he not become an actor: his U16 team won the All-England Championship. He also played Lord Asriel in the stage version of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

We used to get letters of complaint at the RSC when occasional patrons couldn’t cope with colour-blind casting in Shakespeare’s plays. They received, in turn, a very stinging letter explaining RSC artistic policy. I think some of them had honestly expected a refund.

I know the BNP got fewer votes than at the last elections. But they’ve got two MEPs now. I don’t want the two prevailing sentiments in any part of this country to be racism and apathy.