Review of ‘The Human Document: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day’ at Mead Gallery, Coventry

There are few social-documentary photographs more well known, nor more heavily plundered for significance, than those of rural America from the era of the Great Depression. Black-and-white shots of sharecroppers, cotton pickers and economic refugees from the deep-south, the photographs contained in this exhibition have become part of a sort of American folklore, a complex heritage that has engaged sociologists, art historians and critical theorists in broad scope.

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Review of Barbara Walker’s ‘Shock and Awe’ at mac Birmingham

In the victory parades in Paris that crowned the end of the Second World War, the Allied Nations agreed that Black soldiers – those mainly from the colonial troops of West Africa – should not be permitted to attend. The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted only white Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

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Review of ‘Oppenheimer’ by Tom Morton-Smith, RSC, Swan Theatre

How do we depict the past? One way is to travel along the byways of hindsight, to remember with knowing sobriety the magnitude of some event and then sift through the circumstances that led up to it.
The danger of hindsight is that it can so easily lead to a patronizing perspective, to judge the past by its moral acceptability. It is easy to wag one’s finger and roll one’s eyes, and say “how could you?”.
This might very well have happened in Tom Morton-Smith’s new play, Oppenheimer, which is showing at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from 15th January to 7th March 2015, before transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre, London for an 8 week run. The play explores physicist Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Manhattan Project, which secretly developed the nuclear weapons that were dropped on Japan in August 1945.
The explicit theme of Morton-Smith’s play ask us to consider the onward march of science, namely that if science makes the most fantastical ideas seem imminently possible, does it also make them inevitable?
The momentum of historical circumstances, especially seen in the rear-view mirror, may suggest that fate was already sealed. With the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, and the implication that the Nazis could develop extremely powerful weapons after having split the atom, President Roosevelt established the Manhattan Project in 1941. Robert Oppenheimer was appointed it’s director and set up a new research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
But there is, or course, the human element. How responsible should we hold Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists for the development of the most destructive weapon ever invented?
The strength of this play is it’s refusal to take a judgemental position. When seen through the viewfinder of hindsight, a story like this can gain mighty resonance. Since we already know the ending, we can discern the plotting all the more readily. We know where those thoughts and those ambitions will lead, even (or especially) when the characters themselves do not. Yet Morton-Smith, Angus Jackson (director) and the excellent cast, manage to keep us guessing. The staging is a characterised by a constant procession of scene-swapping, giving the play a brisk, excitable air. The floor of the entire stage is a blackboard, upon which equations are chalked throughout the duration of the play. In some of the most successful passages, the stage is transformed into a lecture hall – a free-standing blackboard is whisked on and the players address the audience directly. The ensuing lesson is bombastic and played with great animation, enforcing the idea that the characters are most at home when pure physics is the topic at hand. I enjoyed these sections the most, when a palpable sense of energy emanates from the young theoretical physicists who interchange, line by line, to deliver an ever more crucial finding in the infant science. The overall effect is a play that simmers at a high heat from start to finish, never hitting a complacent note or settling on an easy assumption.
Realism is approached through the dress and accents, which are authentic and broad approximations of 1930s America. Some of the truisms are forgivable – the jazz party at the start of the play is less imaginative. Yet overall the action is fresh. The Oppenheimer presented here is not untouched by imagination, nor unmoved by wit and emotion. John Heffernan is persuasively enigmatic in the role. From the opening scene, when he addresses the audience promising that whilst he can make atomic physics clearer he can not make it more simple, the acting is wry and precise. Heffernan also has the ability to slow the action down, inserting pauses and silences into scenes that are otherwise hectic with dialogue. This has the effect of de-cluttering the stage, but also on occasion to disrupt the rhythmic pace of the action. Nonetheless, he delivers a potent performance that holds the attention.
The play succeeds because it does not try to flatter us into thinking we know the future any better than the characters depicted. If we seize the past in order to bolster our contemporary perspective, this play shows that the subtly of our approach is a recognition of our shared humanity.

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Review of ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ by William Maxwell

In Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, the wistful Bernard reflects “I have lost friends, some by death [...] others through sheer inability to cross the street.”
The manner in which friendships meet their end, from the profound to the questionable, is a paradox that echoes through So Long, See You Tomorrow and helps propel the book into the moving work of fiction that it is.
Two friendships occupy the heart of Maxwell’s novel, and they contrast in virtually every detail. The first is in fact hardly a friendship at all. The book’s narrator, looking back from the perch of old age, recalls a single summer playing on the scaffolding of a building site where he makes the brief acquaintance of another boy, Cletus Smith. They spend a few simple hours together, and only scant details about the encounter remain: “I seem to remember his smile, and that he had large hands and feet for a boy of thirteen.”
Despite it’s brevity the friendship comes to dominate the thoughts of the aging narrator, since a deeper connection unites the two boys, that of having to come to terms with the loss a parent at a young age. For the narrator, this understanding can only occur in retrospect – “There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self” – and begins with his recollections over the early death of his mother. Changes in the family situation are soon afoot, with a new stepmother to get used to, and later, the family’s upheaval to Chicago.
Details of the second friendship occupy much of the second half of the novel, and describe the story of two local tenant farmers, one who dies at the hands of the other, with whose wife he has been having an affair. The jilted husband is the father of Cletus Smith; he later commits his own life to barrel of a gun, thus leaving a second child parentless.
The structure of the story is serpentine, slipping back and forth in time, and side to side between characters. Maxwell employs a paired-down prose that is direct yet not unyielding. Upon moving into a new home, the boy narrator finds it “too new to be comfortable. It was like having to spend a lot of time with a person you didn’t know very well.” On his bedroom wall he pins a map of North America “[...] with coloured pins for all the radio stations I had picked up. The pin that gave me the most pleasure was stuck in Havana, Cuba.”
On the surface, there are some issues with the structure. The first half of the novel, told from the point of view of the narrator, offers an explicitly partial view of the world. In the assembling of the facts of the murder trial he seeks out old newspaper clippings, realising “[...] I didn’t need to remain in total ignorance about something that interested me so deeply.” Yet as the book develops, the central voice is granted much greater omniscience, so that the domestic, familial and even private interiors of all the other main characters are obtainable for description. As the door to others’ private thoughts is opened further, the novel is able to map out the visceral territory that prefigures the murder of the tenant farmer in all its emotional detail, thereby leaving behind the personal perspective of the boy narrator.
What emerges in the later stages is a patchwork of perceptions that are subtly drawn, each character expressing loneliness or a sense of distortion at the challenges they come to face. In this way the reader is allowed to amass a series of viewpoints, ever widening to the personal circumstances of all those directly or indirectly affected by the events of the affair and consequent murder.
The shift of narrative perspective is a function of the narrator’s imaginings, his way of exploring the predicament of the boy he never knew. In this way, the narrator makes atonement for the guilt that he comes to feel after one day, following his move to Chicago, he is surprised to see Cletus Smith walking along the hallway of the big city school, so much so that he fails to utter a word to him. The issue of the shifting perspective is rendered unproblematic when read as an elusive reliquary of fictional memories.
Maxwell stresses the tangible momentum of relationships; how they move irresistibly along upward and downward curves. There are no grotesque caricatures of malice – every personality occupies a landscape of comprehensible desires, so that even in their wrongdoing they are nuanced and sympathetically rendered.
In interviews Maxwell declared the influence of Virginia Woolf on his development as a writer. In So Long, See You Tomorrow the narrative perspective splinters into a refracted series of episodes that recalls Woolf’s stylistic inventiveness. The reconstruction of this “fragile house of matchsticks” superbly describes the very blurred distinction between interior imaginings and exterior realities.

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Review of ‘Candide’ Adapted by Mark Ravehill, RSC, Swan Theatre

Anyone who is familiar with Voltaire’s satirical classic Candide will recall the calamitous, if not frankly pernicious, series of trials and tribulations the eponymous hero undergoes as his faith in the principle of Optimism is tested. Everything from war and pillage to heartbreak and earthquake all arrive at the young protagonist’s feet, with the words of his tutor, Pangloss, ringing stoically in his perplexed ears: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Candide remains a steadfast pupil, and takes his tutor’s logic in the design of the universe – for instance, that the human nose is so constructed for the carrying of spectacles – as clear evidence that the Creator has ordained a perfect order on the world. “Well, all must be for the best” he concludes patiently as yet another misfortune strikes.
The target of Voltaire’s satire was the contemporary Leibnizian philosophy of Optimism. Given God’s intrinsic benevolence, the thorny question of evil and suffering in the world is addressed by Optimism with the assertion that our own human perspective is too limited, that God’s moral weighing scales are too large, for us to comprehend: accept your lot and be glad about it, as there is a bigger picture of which you are not aware.
Mark Ravenhill’s new adaptation of Voltaire’s classic is superbly footloose with the original. At first we are presented with Candide in a state of enervation, apparently tired and withdrawn from his adventures. In order to rouse him from his melancholy his guardians decide to stage a play about Candide’s own life and to present it to him. This is the first of many ingenious devices that Ravenhill employs to stage what is, in its original form, a fantastical storyline of epic death and disaster. By reducing Voltaire’s text to an amateurish (and therefore very funny) play staged in Eighteenth century costume, the wild and absurdist tribulations of Candide’s life are managed succinctly and grippingly. Even Candide is enraptured; having never seen a play before he repeatedly confuses the actors for real people, and brawls with them on stage as they re-enact the atrocities he has already witnessed in real life. This first section concludes with Candide setting out to find his sweetheart Cunégonde, who though reportedly dead, remains the last vestige of hope for Candide’s schooling in positive thought.
The production next turns a sharp corner, landing in the present day and to a nightmarish family dinner party. Here the furniture, food and party-balloons are all staged in boutique-black, and the family, drunk and argumentative, take turns to address the birthday girl, Sophie, with empty birthday eulogies. It is the worst of modern day scenes: everyone is obnoxious and excessive. The birthday girl herself remains tight-lipped, but when her mother pleads for her to say something, chanting with excruciating venom the mantra “speech, speech, speech,” Sophie eventually cracks. And how spectacularly. Nothing short of a bloodbath follows, with Sophie wielding a pistol and unleashing all of her frustrations at the dismal selfishness of those gathered around the birthday table. The theme of her disgust centres on the bleak prospects for the human race, with environmental catastrophe on our doorstep and a world population growing at an alarming rate. Thus, the problem of evil returns as the core thread of Ravenhill’s play, rendered now not as a theological issue but as a drama of contemporary concerns: if humans are a superior species, how do we find our way out of this mess we have created?
By the end of the scene, only the mother is left alive. The play now spins into the setting of a film producer’s office. Here the mother is being persuaded into retelling her family tragedy for the moral benefit of cinema goers. These scenes, with a jet-lagged, weak-willed screenwriter, his aggressive film producer boss, and the mother’s overly protective therapist, are brimming with satire and biting one-liners, and make up some of the most entertaining scenes of the play. The arguments continue over how the story of Sophie’s killing spree can be told with a Hollywood-style redemptive conclusion. Thus in our media driven society, the problem of evil is restated as a question of how tragedy can be meaningfully represented as entertainment.
The remainder of the play seeks to draw the established plotlines together. We return to the fortunes of the Eighteenth century Candide, who arriving at a utopian society known as Eldorado, is astonished to learn that the whole population is kind and sharing and naive to such traumas as war and disaster. Even notions of commerce and profit are unknown. At Eldorado, where of course gold is to be found in abundance, nothing has any value above its practical use. Candide is incredulous when, holding up a meteor sized lump of gold and his own shoe, the people of Eldorado point to the shoe as the more valuable object. Candide returns home over the mountains, dissatisfied with the plain innocence of the Eldorado community.
The final scenes of the production take place in the future, some twenty years from the present day. By this time, the still living Pangloss has established his own genetics company whose aim is to engineer every new born child with an active ‘optimistic gene’. A cryogenically frozen Candide is awoken by Sophie’s mother and outraged at what he now sees as the deterministic views of his tutor. He is eventually reunited with his beloved Cunégonde, who having endured centuries of waiting for Candide’s kiss, has been ravaged by age and suffering. These concluding scenes, whilst somewhat confusing due to the converging of plotlines, make the point of the play explicit. At it’s heart is an attack on an uncritical faith in science and the assumption of perpetual human progress, and the blindness to real suffering this assumption brings. Hence, the problem of evil is finally brought inline with Voltaire’s treatment, with science taking the place of God as the trusted panacea to all of life’s ills. There is nothing new about such a position, but here Ravenhill has succeeded in brilliantly refreshing the argument. His reading of Voltaire is adept, intelligent and funny, and with combination of a committed and talented ensemble cast, strong staging and a gifted set of musicians, has resulted in a first rate production.

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Review of Marat/Sade at the RSC

marat-sadeIn his 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double (Le Théâtre et son Double) , French dramatist and actor Antonin Artaurd proposed a theory known as “Theatre of Cruelty”. The purpose was to challenge the text-based canon of theatre and turn it into a sensual and violent spectacle, a mode of performance that liberated from the audience subconscious truths which the shield of pretension and custom had disguised.
Echoes of this ‘metaphysics through the skin’ are present in the latest RSC production of Marat/Sade, directed by Anthony Neilson. The play was originally written in 1963 by the German playwright Peter Weiss. For a theatre more used to the flattering ruse of a Shakespearean farce, this self-consciously rapscallion production bites and bruises the audience with an audacity that is as effective as it is convoluted.
The play’s context is itself an elaborate and unsettling paradigm. Set in a mental asylum in early nineteenth century France, the patients are mounting a play concerning the personality and murder of the French Revolutionary journalist Jean-Paul Marat. Orchestrating the play, or more often interrupting and generally plunging the discourse this way and that, is the Marquis de Sade. The effect is to place Marat and De Sade in philosophical conflict; Marat the left-wing socialist revolutionary and de Sade the self-concerned raconteur of human woe, suffering and individualistic experience.
The inmates of the asylum, portrayed in unflinching realism, suggest a much overlooked reality of political discourse, that of the varied and uneven disunity of personal concerns in a field that sees people predominantly as members of groups, parties and armies. So the inmates fail to stick to script of the play they are meant to be performing. They develop anxieties and obsessions, spinning off into chaotic subplots under the sardonic, disinterested eye of de Sade, who offers comment and parody, but little guidance. As a play about the vicissitudes of revolution, it succeeds in exposing the unpalatable notion that individual suffering persists even after a successful social uprising.
And yet this is to bestow too much coherence on the play. At times provocative, at times frenzied, the play whirls between lucidity and chaos in a manner that impedes any attempt to understand it. This is no doubt the whole point. There are moments when the entire fabric of the play is disrupted as the fourth wall between audience and actors is broken. In one of the most arresting moments of the performance, a disabled actress abandons her character to address the audience personally. Speaking confessionally into a microphone, she gently bemoans her salary paid by the RSC and begins to ask audience members if they have any spare change. In the performance I saw, a man in the second row gave her a twenty pence piece, at which she immediately re-entered character and abused the man for his insensitivity, joined in by a chorus of affront from the rest of the asylum, including de Sade.
Unfortunately, such moments of ingenuity and humour are few. Amid its dark chaos, the play is overly concerned with establishing a subversive, provocative tone, and moreover seems self-satisfied with its attempts. Visceral invocations of torture, folatio, masturbation, and sodomy, hosted within the setting of a mental asylum, lack the rigour and austerity of meaningful counter-attacks. And like most revivals, the new production takes the opportunity to insert bland contemporary motifs that indicate topicality. So Marat becomes modern day activist, a symbol of the Arab Spring, or perhaps a terrorist brandishing a machine gun. De Sade is a suited-up businessman (a banker?) with a proclivity for cross-dressing. In the famous whipping scene, he is not flayed with a lash but contorted by the administrations of a tasar gun. The female torturer then poses for a digital camera with thumbs-up, echoing the images that leaked painfully from the prison at Abu Ghraib. At various other moments during the play, mobile phones, shopping trolleys, and dildos, litter the stage.
Despite their arresting presence, these references lack any sense of valid meaning. The garish panoply of incidents and allusions is predictable and clumsy. The potency of the original setting is thus lost to what feels like a whimsical miscellany of positions. Noise, calamity, flying props, and a lively but somehow arrogant ensemble cast, all added together to produce what was a confused performance and an unsatisfactory piece of theatre. Was this the intention? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

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Review of “False Warnings” by Rita Gabrowska, at Gallery 150

There was a time when abstract painting was all the rage. Perhaps never quite de rigueur, but in a more compelling way, it was the language of avant-garde European and American artists who made works that gave abstraction a potent edge. A notion gained widespread acceptance, that representational art had naturally succumbed to this more rarefied mode of painting, as crystallised by Clement Greenberg in his attempt to justify abstraction as the fulfilment of an inevitable historical tendency. Yet this belief was wrong. We see now that abstraction was not the end of the story. Far from it; abstraction has somewhat returned to the sidelines, and might even be regarded as an outmoded choice for today’s artists. A trace of controversy still lingers around this marginalised art form, with some quarters still failing to find merit in pictures that are not representations of “things”, but this is really nothing more than a sort of threadbare priggishness. In short, Abstraction has lost its clout.

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Mischievous Folk: “What the folk say” at Compton Verney

Compton Verney has raided its own collection of folk art in an attempt to open up its collection to new and multiple interpretations. Artists and curators have been invited to select items from the extensive folk art collection housed in the attic rooms of the 18th century country house and place them in an act of “intervention” amongst the fine art and artefact collections around the museum. This interspersal is designed to generate unmanaged dialogues between diverse items within the museum’s collection, as the visual language of non-academic folk art is made to rub shoulders with images and sculpture that sit comfortably inside the canon of traditional high culture.

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Review of public artwork: “Spring” by Oliver Barratt

Oliver Barratt’s sculpture, Spring, is a bright and fulsome tribute to the influence of water. Its signature is the uninterrupted line, which swirls and undulates in heavy blue ribbons. It attends to a period of history when the healing properties of Leamington’s spa waters were much sought after, and brought great wealth to those who exploited them.

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Review of ‘Since I fell for you’ by Susan Collis at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

The events that happen inside buildings often leave behind marks, like a little scar on a wall where a ribbon of paint has been displaced by accident, or a naked screw where a picture once hung. These small histories are the utilitarian signs of other enterprises, human activities, the comings and goings of art exhibitions, public gatherings, music recitals, and other events that are the life-blood of buildings. The distinction between these events and the marks they leave behind is usually indicated by the fact that the marks are later covered up or removed altogether.
Observance of such a distinction is resiliently avoided in the exhibition at Birmingham’s Icon Gallery, ‘Since I fell for you’, by Susan Collis. The utilitarian mark is the very emblem of the show. A visitor might be forgiven for imagining they had turned up too late, or too early, when first entering the gallery. The first work on display, This too shall pass, 2010, imitates a plain white wall, precisely the sort of empty, pockmarked wall one might see in a gallery between exhibitions, with various remnants of the transition in tact – holes, screws, rawplugs, scratches, staples, and so on. It is only by instruction that a visitor learns of the materials that have gone into making the piece, and an alternative reality begins to dawn: Indian and African ebony woods, platinum, diamond, sapphire, ruby, emerald, topaz, gold, quartz, and coral, amongst other precious matter. To the spectator’s surprise, the whole piece is a disguised array of valuable and exotic materials.
It probably goes without saying that a typical encounter with many of these materials is under the hot lights of a jewellery shop. This is how we expect precious materials to be offered, on a velveteen stage, hewn into glinting jewels, presented under strict security arrangements. In the format presented by Collis, where a piece of platinum is cast into a staple and a gold nugget into a screw, the items offer a perplexing meeting place of the precious and the mightily mundane.
The artist’s technique is to present a catalogue of valuable materials in configurations that are anything but glamorous. Take a piece such as Twice removed, 2009. At first appearance it is a piece of junk wood, discarded perhaps from an old doorframe or wardrobe. It is only on closer inspection that this identification must be revised. The work is actually a composite of rosewood, walnut, bronze, silver, and lapis lazuli, materials that have been carefully manipulated to give the appearance of damaged wood and disintegrating paint.
Collis’ earlier works provide an understanding of where her ideas began. Untitled, 2002, is a pair of overalls hung on the gallery wall. They might have been left there by a technician or builder. From a distance the overalls seem unremarkable, covered in paint splats and marks of wear. Once again, it is only by closer investigation that a different reality is revealed, that these random blemishes are not random at all but in fact carefully embroidered cotton sewn into the fabric in precise formations. By using embroidery to represent dirt, Collis is playing with expectations of opposing categories; industrial and domestic, randomness and precision, sudden and gradual. The use of embroidery techniques also references the feminist strategy of reclaiming traditional craft-forms and subverting them by putting them to use in overtly conceptual artworks. What underpins all of this exposition is the question of value and context.

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