RNCM Jazz Collective

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RNCM Jazz Collective

RNCM Theatre, 12 May 2018

A concert of many colours.

We were taken all around the world, as Mike Hall and his talented collective played jazz from all four corners of the globe. Duke Ellington featured a few times, there was a tango suite by Astor Piazzolla, and a wonderfully atmospheric street tapestry of sound (conjure the noise of a boisterous Arabian bazaar) by a Lebanese composer whose name I cannot now recall.

Of the countries represented, vivid impressions of Africa (particularly South Africa) and the Carribean (a joyous calypso number), Norway and Egypt, occupy a firm foothold in my memory still.

There were brilliant solo performances on saxophone, trumpet, piano, guitar… And as a collective, the musicians were storming. Global warming? Nah, full-on global roasting.

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RNCM Symphony Orchestra

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RNCM Symphony Orchestra

RNCM Concert Hall, 3 May 2018

RNCM Symphony Orchestra

Listen now.

Attentively, mind. To this grand, ebullient orchestra.

The concert hall is cool and they are playing works by Saint-Saëns, Bartók and Brahms. Several musicians reinforce the orchestra’s number after each performance. Wyn Chan plays piano for Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 1.

Brahms’ sonority is so sumptuous in his Symphony No 2 that it calms the heart, soothes and uplifts the soul. Somehow you loosen, feel the warmth of sunlight. Your breath flows freely, even though you are ascending some sort of hill. A phalanx of strings evokes a verdant Wienerwald landscape. Careful as you go, don’t stumble. You are at he peak

Listen now.

Long Day’s Journey into Night @ HOME

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Long Day’s Journey into Night

By Eugene O’Neill

HOME & Citizens Theatre

HOME, 11 May 2018

Sam Phillips (James Tyrone Jr) and Lorn Macdonald (Edmund Tyrone) in Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Dominic Hill, at HOME Manchester, Thu 10 - Sat 26 May 2018. Photo by Tim Morozzo.

Sam Phillips (James Tyrone Jr) and Lorn Macdonald (Edmund Tyrone) in Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Dominic Hill, at HOME Manchester, Thu 10 – Sat 26 May 2018. Photo by Tim Morozzo.

It is a journey that starts slow, steadily gathers speed, then accelerates wildly, this marvellous production of Eugene O’Neill’s grand-hearted, largely autobiographical (mind, all these people are real) play, so that by the end it is a wonder that the car is still on the road, and everyone is still (just about) standing.

There is the regular rhythm of the day and, alongside that, another motion too, an insistent, invasive digging into what makes this family tick, what keeps these people alive and together, coming back for more. The family is made up of James and Mary Tyrone (George Costigan and Brid Ni Neachtain) and their two sons, James Junior (Sam Phillips) and Edmund (Lorn Macdonald). Edmund, based upon O’Neill, has a ‘summer cold’ which may prove to be a more serious illness. On this fateful day he visits the doctor to learn of his fate, and afterwards has it out with his father and mother and brother about their mutual flaws and failings. They are none of them bad people by any means, they love each other, but they have been stunted and scarred by experience.

He digs deep here, does O’Neill, wielding an incisive scalpel, and the cast, particularly Sam Phillips as the elder brother James, are fully engaged in the operation. What is especially fine about the play is this increasingly urgent, eviscerating reveal. What is invisible and/or obscure in daylight (everyone’s secret motor) becomes gradually more distinct as day yields to twilight, twilight gives way to flickering lamplight. Then darkness falls.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is at HOME until 26 May 2018. Details here.

You can watch a trailer of this production of Long Day’s Journey into Night here.

Western

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Western

Directed by Valeska Grisebach

Austria, 2017

HOME, 25 April 2018

Western

These industrious German workers, led by a hard-driving foreman, are in Bulgaria to construct a water pipe or irrigation system or something of that sort.

Anyway, they aim to construct some badly needed infrastructure in a former Soviet bloc country, courtesy of the European Union and its principal net contributor. Not all of the Bulgarian villagers welcome the German presence, it has to be said, some seeing them as alien interlopers. Mind you, a few are perhaps overly enthusiastic, speaking in warm, nostalgic tones about the last time that Germans had arrived there, bringing a badly needed (new) order.

It is an engrossing drama, actually, and you follow the fate of one of the workers. He forms a bond with certain of the villagers, putting him at odds with his workmates and his boss. In Germany, we come to learn, there is nothing really for him – that is why he joined this work gang – and so he tries, tentatively, to put down roots in the village. One family lets him buy a horse, which he comes to love. Certain women notice him, an appraising, speculative gleam in their eye. Another, better chance might lie in store for him here; as Europe offers Germany another, better chance.

Although not a Western as such, despite the horse and the odd firearm, the film does give you a vivid picture of the politics of village life: casual corruption, sudden danger if you step out of line. I was put in mind of The Passport, an old, rather excellent Herta Muller novel – it is the same world. And you could view the film as a kind of comment on Karl May (Hitler’s favourite novelist: the fool had no taste) and the old notion of Lebensraum. All of that.

A fine film.

Let the Sunshine in

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Let the Sunshine in

Directed by Claire Denis

France, 2017

HOME, 25 April 2018

Let the Sunshine in

I found this film ever so slightly disappointing: I mean, you expect more than the standard chick-flick fodder when Claire Denis directs and Juliette Binoche is the lead actress.

Man, do these men – and they are young and old, rich and working class, married or/and free spirited – let our noble heroine, who moreover is an artist and a good liberal kind of gal, down. She works her way through a fair few of them in her pursuit of wellness and a healthy fulfilling lifestyle, and they’re a right royal shambles and no mistake. If one of these men, just one mind, could be laundered clean, formed while damp and crisply ironed into a partner for life she’d be sitting pretty, sorted for security. All her travails would have been worth it, maybe. She could sit down and relax with a nice glass of herbal tea. But of course that cannot ever happen in chick-flick world, or not for long anyway. Yet even so, the hope of love, the torment of longing, the possibility that communion can be found, must be kept alive.

Not Claire Denis’s best film.

Ghost Stories

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Ghost Stories

Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman

UK, 2017

HOME, 25 April 2018

Ghost Stories

There is a TV star, a certain Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), who is a sceptical psychic investigator, a debunker of superstition.

He is handed three very different, equally difficult cases by his role model, a celebrated predecessor. They are all tough insolvables, immovable mysteries, designed to challenge his firm faith in reason and science.

It is compelling throughout, this extremely elegant, cerebral horror film, the portmanteau structure harking back to cheesy British horror films of yore (do you, like me, remember watching Tales from the Crypt and others late on a Saturday night?). And the way in which the three stories, and Goodman’s story too, cohere at the close is very satisfying indeed.

I would add as well that the theme of anti-Semitism, at first subtly hinted at and then made overt and insistent, gives the film a curious contemporary resonance. Europe’s old malady has returned and is abroad in Britain now.

The Cherry Orchard @ the Royal Exchange Theatre

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The Cherry Orchard

By Anton Chekhov

Royal Exchange Theatre and Bristol Old Vic

Royal Exchange Theatre, 24 April 2018

The Cherry Orchard

There is much to praise about this production of The Cherry Orchard, one of Chekhov’s great plays.

The performances were steely and strong, with Jude Owusu as Yermolai Alekseyevich Lopakhin, the self-made businessman descended from serfs (as was Chekhov himself), a realist who urges Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya (Kirsty Bushell) and her brother Leonid Andreyevich Gayev (Simon Coates) to get with the times, to sell their only asset, a bountiful cherry orchard at once, before it falls in value. They cannot countenance its destruction and the encroachment of the railways, a force bringing great change. There is the spectacle of aristocrats living hand to mouth, subsisting on borrowed money and time, delaying the inevitable. Existing beyond their means.

They were supremely chiselled individuals, all these people, which is a great tribute to the cast. In particular, Eva Magyar as Charlotta Ivanovna, an athletic older woman, caught the eye, one compelling performance amongst many.

Throughout the play, few individuals were able or willing to adjust to the sizeable quakes of seismic historical forces. Cometh the hour, no one showed up. Some were catatonic, lost in the febrile labyrinths of their personal affairs, some seemingly lacked energy and drive. There was a bit of a Brexit resonance to it all. The cherry orchard (poppies unseen) as nostalgia for a lost empire, all of that.

Which brings us to Tom Piper’s design. The Royal Exchange offers theatre in the round, of course, and here the actors looked outward at the cherry orchard, at a bounty that was always off stage. On stage, Piper’s design was minimalist but, to be frank, nothing special. I like Tom Piper’s work very much: the poppies, the Blood exhibition at Jewish Museum London, Endgame at HOME, but I didn’t see anything distinctive here. Perhaps at the Bristol Old Vic it looked different.

The Cherry Orchard, a great play redolent with futuristic speculation and humour, passion and muted tragedy, is showing at the Royal Exchange until 19 May, further details can be found here.

Lost Kingdom

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Lost Kingdom

By Serhii Plokhy

Allen Lane, 2017

ISBN: 9780241255575

Lost Kingdom

Though all nations are founded on fantasy and falsehood, you have to concede that Russia has had it bad.

Their foundational myth is of a great Russian nation torn asunder by marauding invaders (Genghis Khan and the Mongols), then put together again (though incompletely) by the Tsars. It is a myth with a grain of truth and it explains, perhaps, why Russians feel constantly under threat, beset on all sides by enemies. Why they have a suspicious stance towards the world that seems out of kilter with reality. Why their outward aggression is so often explained (excused?) as a prophylactic and pre-emptive response to outside enemies.

Serhii Plokhy’s fine book traces how the notion of Russia as a lost kingdom has played itself out over five centuries, from Ivan the Great to Catherine the Second, from the Romanovs to Lenin and Stalin, ending with the current President, a certain Vladimir Putin. His thesis is twofold:

  • The notion of a Great Russia, a lost kingdom in need of reunification and redemption, continues to exert a pull on those in power in Russia today; and on ordinary Russian citizens as well. It has shaped Russian identity and saturated Russian culture.
  • In part because of the corrosive power of this founding myth, Russia has itself become a bewildered and lost kingdom. You think of Keats’ knight-at-arms, ‘alone and palely loitering’, although Russia, a nuclear power still if no longer a superpower, and with a hankering for expansion (the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine was indicative of that), is more dragon than knight: the veneration of St George notwithstanding. And Russia’s newly minted capacity for waging cyber-war means it can make much mischief far beyond its borders, if it so wants.

As evidence of Plokhy’s second point, consider for a moment Putin’s notion of ‘the Russian World’, which he first introduced in a talk given to an audience of writers and artists. This sounded at first sight (and was originally meant to be, perhaps) something like the British Council: a projection of soft power, an encouragement to people to read Pushkin and see Swan Lake, to take an interest in Russian language and culture generally. So far, all sweet reason: who could possibly object? But then Putin used it (a pan-Russian, pan-Slavic orientation) as a pretext to invade Ukraine. There was, apparently, an urgent need to protect the ethnic Russian speakers there. The Russian world was not limited to the borders of the Russian Federation. Putin’s was a Nazi move. Hitler used the same sort of pretext to invade Czechoslovakia: a need to protect the Sudeten Germans. And it was a bit mad as well: as though Austria were to set out to recreate the Habsburg empire by invading its neighbours and so recovering a Golden Age…

There is a slogan that the current crop of Russian nationalists use to sum up their project: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus / There you have it: Holy Rus’. The problem with this is that Ukraine and Belarus and Poland too (some of the primordial Russian lands are in present-day Poland) are all sovereign states. Poland is, as well, a member of NATO. So to achieve Holy Rus’ will entail military conflict, probably with the West. Russian nationalism – beguiled by a vision of a lost kingdom – is a danger to its neighbours, to the world and to Russia itself.

The publisher’s description of the book is here.

 

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

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The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

By Timothy Snyder

Tim Duggan Books, 2018

ISBN: 9780525574460
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

Timothy Snyder’s book could hardly be more timely, what with the Skripals’ poisoning and the allied military strike in Syria, following the use of chemical weapons.

Fallout from that military strike remains extremely uncertain at the time of writing, but this book, as you may have guessed, is all about Russia. It dissects the autocratic, some might say fascist, kleptocracy it has become under Putin. It traces the malign encroachment on the integrity of the governments and institutions of Europe – cyber-attacks, interference in national elections and the like. It recounts the violent annexation of Crimea and the cruel invasion of Ukraine. And finally, there is Russia’s sly and sinister tampering in the American election that saw Donald trump emerge as victor.

In telling these and other histories, Snyder challenges two attitudes that many hold about the modern world: a belief that progress (or an imagined, ideal future) will happen all by itself: he calls this ‘the politics of inevitability’; and a fatalism that the same old shit will happen, whatever: ‘the politics of eternity’, that’s this one. I wonder, though, whether these two attitudes are not one and the same (indifference, passivity), depending on whether you’re one of life’s winners or one of life’s losers. Anyway, he wants to replace these attitudes with engagement and activism based on historical understanding and respect for facts. His heroes are reporters, those brave souls who get out there on the ground and place themselves in harm’s way. His villains are media columnists, opinion-formers like Seamus Milne who follow the Russia Today line. (In The Guardian, once, facts were sacred.) Truth, that’s the prime value.

There is a lot of meat in this substantial though wordy book, unlike his previous On Tyranny, which was basically a Facebook post with a little padding (at least it didn’t have an extreme excess of padding, like Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life book: as soon as this genre dies out, the better). Here, we are given vivid portraits of Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanov and other members of the Izborsk Club (the Metaphysical Club it ain’t), a coterie of fruitcakes and nutcases and grotesque personages that have a shot-light bulb, Eurasian, pan-Russian ideology that belongs in another century. One originator of this ideology was Lev Gumilyov, the son of Anna Akhmatova and the subject of her great poem Requiem. Snyder calls all of these fellows fascists, sometimes ‘schizofascists’ (as I said, he’s a bit wordy), and he is not wrong. They come across like characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a James Ellroy novel, call it Russian Tabloid. But, unfortunately for us and for Russia, they have real influence on Putin and those around him.

One of the most compelling parts of the book describes the shooting down of the MH17, a reckless Russian military strike where 298 civilians, most of them European citizens, died. Snyder outlines the steps that the Russians took to obscure their guilt. He calls one stratagem ‘implausible deniability’: you lie and lie (‘It wasn’t me, Guv’), while at the same time putting out multiple versions (often contradictory) of the same event, even though you don’t really expect people to believe you. The purpose is to make the truth, the factual account of what actually happened, simply one version among many. To degrade truth, to divest the facts of their veridicality. Sound familiar? After recounting and placing side by side the diverse Russian explanations of the destruction of the MH17, Snyder concludes that ‘the fictional world thus constructed would be impossible , since its various elements could not coexist.’ It has come to this: in Putin’s Russia, Daniil Kharms is a realist.

What is the nature of Putin’s game? On my understanding, Snyder’s view is something like this: Russia cannot get better or stronger, or Putin cannot or doesn’t want to improve the lot of its people. (Think of Putin’s Russia as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: a kleptocracy.) Russia is unwilling to subordinate itself to the European Union, for example, like other Eastern European countries have done. So the policy then becomes to weaken other countries, because they have what it cannot have. By and large, these other countries are liberal democracies: the member states of the European Union and America. Hence Putin’s support for the Far Right in Germany, France and Italy. His support for Trump in the American election. It is not a grown-up strategy, and it is hardly sustainable without conflict of some sort.

There are thought-provoking insights scattered throughout the book. Snyder’s remark that hybrid war is ‘war plus’ not ,as many assume, ‘war minus’ hit the mark. Likewise, his statement that China is Russia’s real geopolitical rival (perhaps particularly on Russia’s Far East?) and that Russia’s Achilles’ Heel is the lack of a succession principle: who will follow Putin? And how will this happen, since Russia is not a democracy? These all made sense. From a British perspective, his diagnosis that the nation-state cannot survive long on its own is troubling, post-Brexit. We are used to thinking of Britain as a nation state – that is what our politicians tell us – but really we are a former Empire. Look at how ungainly Britain is – e.g., sovereign territories in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Gibraltar – these are the legacy of Empire.

Finally, and also from a British perspective, it is interesting to note that Seamus Milne, now Labour’s strategy and communications honcho, has links to Putin’s Russia. In this, he stands alongside Nick Griffin, former leader of the BNP: not the kind of fellow traveller you’d like to keep company with. These links have hardly been explored in the mainstream media, but they perhaps explain why his puppet (or should that be muppet?), that Jeremy Corbin fellow, was so lukewarm when came to holding Russia accountable for the Skripal poisonings. Syria, Russia’s ally, also got an easy ride despite the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Was Corbyn towing the party line as laid down by Milne and Moscow? You can read more about Seamus Milne, Nick Griffin and Putin’s other useful idiots in Britain in a Henry Jackson Society report here.

The Road to Unfreedom is a compelling work of contemporary history, though whether Putin is an actual danger to the West, or simply a pest and mischief-maker, remains to be seen. The publisher’s description of the book is here.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

By Daniel Jamieson

Kneehigh Theatre and Bristol Old Vic

HOME, 4 April 2018

kneehigh-the-flying-lovers-of-vitebsk-4-c-steve-tanner-marc-antolin-as-marc-chagall-audrey-brisson-as-bella-chagall.jpg

A splash of splenetic colour – go see!

In his autobiography My Life, recently reissued by Penguin, Marc Chagall describes his work as ‘a wild art, a blazing mercury, a blue soul leaping on my canvases’; and this show is as alive with colour as any of his paintings – it too could have been dreamt by an angel.

We are told the story of Marc’s life with his wife Bella in Vitebsk and beyond, up until her death in 1944. Many of his paintings show the couple flying above that town – like Renaissance angels looking protectively on the townsfolk below – and here the lovers sing and dance and (almost) fly. There is music throughout the show : klezmer, cossack, a touch elegiac. And Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood, the two principals, are superb dancers as well as actors. They give it all they’ve got.

You are shown Chagall’s world: cockatoos and cows (a green cow here – he has a brilliantly radiant blue cow in the Albertina in Vienna), samovars and menorahs, synagogues and farmyards. Now, that world is gone – it was vanishing as he painted it – and that gives his work (which can veer ever so slightly toward whimsy) a fragile beauty.

The play doesn’t quite capture the full grandeur of Chagall’s art. In his work in the 1940s (and even later) he would place post-Holocaust Christs – a very Jewish Jesus, crucified – within his world. And with good reason: more Jews died in mass murders in places like Vitebsk, towns and villages in Eastern Europe, than in either the death camps or concentration camps. We don’t realise this for various reasons, foremost because there were almost no survivors or witnesses (the so-called ‘Auschwitz paradox’). And because the national archives of Belarus (etc.) were inaccessible until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, by which time the history of the Holocaust (with its familiar tropes of mass deportations, the camps, the gas chambers, etc.) had already been written. Perhaps, also, because of a bias against Ostjuden.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is at HOME until 7 April. Details here.