- Pilgrimage to nowhere
There has long been an ambivalence about the man who was both the ultimate betrayer and the means by which God’s plan was fulfilled. The author of a new book visits the lonely place where the renegade apostle took his own life
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It is a happy consequence of the Coalition Government’s legislation creating fixed five-year parliaments that this exhibition can be timed precisely to coincide with a general election campaign. In the years when it was in the prime minister’s gift to give a minimum notice of 17 working days of a poll, such topicality would have been achieved by coincidence.
Virtue and sin suffuse two releases in cinemas this week. One is a surprisingly fresh and apparently simple re-telling of the Cinderella fairy tale and the other a spirited rampage through the dark pleasures of revenge, served hot and steaming.
The second of Nick Baker’s three-part investigation proved once again that a radio programme’s merits may exist in inverse proportion to the account of it given in the Radio Times. In a decade’s worth of reviewing, one of the dullest-sounding – and also one of the most absorbing – items I ever chanced upon was a feature about the members of a tape-recording club in 1960s Derby.
With the next election fast approaching, what better time for a dramatised account of the horse-trading that gave us the present Government?
Is it possible to judge objectively the work of a writer who died tragically young? What is known in literary criticism as the Sylvia Plath Problem applies in theatre to Sarah Kane, who between 1995 and 1999, wrote five short, shocking stage plays before taking her own life at the age of 28 while being treated for severe depression.
In 1941 the French composer Olivier Messiaen was released from a German prisoner-of-war camp and returned to live in Paris, which was by then occupied by the Nazis. He immediately set himself to writing two enormous religious works for piano duo and solo. One was the Visions de l’Amen, the other, Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus
Noel coward advised that playwrights should “never come out of the same trap twice”, using a metaphor drawn from greyhound racing to mean that a new piece should always differ from its predecessor. The dramatist Mike Bartlett has shown a conspicuous example of such Cowardly courage by following his award-winning West End hit King Charles III
As extinctions go, the demise of the passenger pigeon was more than usually poignant. The dodo and the sea cow may have vacated the planet without anyone really noticing, but the last rites of a species that had filled the transatlantic skies a generation or two before its decline took place more or less in public.
It is nearly 100 years since the first woman was sworn into the police and given the power of arrest. This documentary (16 March) told of the rocky road they have travelled since then.
Critics are supposed to have slightly more recherché tastes, I know, but I fall for Puccini’s tear-jerker like a sack of potatoes every time. It says a lot for English Touring Opera’s desire not to do the obvious that I can’t remember the last time the company staged this work, and ETO’s general manager, James Conway,
The popularity of Impressionism has a lot to do with its escapist appeal: its philosophy of capturing the moment and distilling it into dappled colour and light. The political turmoil of the period presented French artists with plenty of reasons for escapism – and just as Impressionism was getting going, escape they did.
Rana Mitter began last week’s symposium on “The Arguments Against Democracy” (4 March) by inviting his listeners to smell the roasting beef, so convinced was he that a sacred cow was being slaughtered in their presence. And certainly, his collection of guests – two academic political scientists (Duncan Kelly and Patricia Thornton) and two writer-journalists (David Runciman and Tim Stanley)
An unfinished work has the potential still to be perfect. When the novelist Irène Némirovsky was captured by German forces in 1942, she left behind work in progress for a series of novellas about life in occupied France. (Despite her conversion to Catholicism three years earlier, Némirovsky was classified as of Jewish descent.)
From George Eliot’s Middlemarch through the novels of Dickens and Disraeli to the plays of David Hare and David Edgar, there is a strand of “state of England” fiction, which aims to show the working of the nation from Downing Street to village green.
Every so often the BBC announces that it has shown enough costume dramas and will henceforth be concentrating on contemporary stories. But still the costume dramas come, proof of their popularity with audiences at home and abroad, where they do no harm to the BBC’s bank balance.
It is a long way from the raucous eighteenth-century London of William Hogarth to the rarefied post-Second World War Hollywood Hills where Igor Stravinsky made his home, but they are joined by the scatty rich boy who comes a cropper in Hogarth’s 1732 tale in eight paintings, “A Rake’s Progress”, and who was then rewritten by the Russian exile as opera for the mid-20th century.
Setting the tone of what is to follow, Patrick Marber’s 1997 romantic tragedy Closer, now revived for the first time, begins with a cruel wound: a young woman called Alice is waiting in an A&E department with a badly gashed leg.
Cometh the hour, cometh the movie. The silent era made dramatic mileage from ailments that modern antibiotics would despatch. Garbo’s Camille was not the only 1930s screen heroine to succumb to a mycobacterium.
“Who are these people? What do they experience? What do they feel?” So began another of those Channel 4 documentaries about people with unusual medical or psychological conditions. Watching it this time, though, was different; I am one of those people and I know how it feels.
No doubt about it, as one Lent succeeds another, the BBC Radio 4 talks commissioned to mark the seasongrow steadily more oblique. This year’s theme is “performance” and both of the first two speakers, James Runcie and Kate Saunders (25 February and 4 March, respectively), ...
Some sent abroad were as young as four. Their fates were often heart-rending
These days we are used to comedians taking us on trips abroad. But it is rare for anyone to take us back to their homeland and declare that when they left it, 20 years ago, they hated it.
William S. Gilbert was a frightful tease. He dangles before you a blatant satire on the evils of the rich that turns out to be no such thing, and then turns his withering parody on that softest of targets, the low-level Victorian melodrama (resolving itself with a witches’ curse finessed by a point of law and the most passionate of the protagonists electing to unsex themselves and move to the prim death-in-life of Basingstoke).
Most newspapers run a star system for arts reviews, asking critics to allocate up to five asterisks for each production. This system is doubly unpopular with journalists due to the suspicion that the visual ranking offers busy readers an alternative to the article and because,
In the end you get used to people you were at college with going on to occupy positions of stratospheric influence and power. And so Lord Dilnot, as he now is, turns out to be warden of Nuffield College, Oxford, and chairman of the UK Statistics Authority,
It is not hard to see how religion and contemporary art might hold each other in tolerant disdain. For many believers, contemporary art – having given up on the pursuit of beauty and truth – is considered the decadent wing of secularism.
Half the fun of an early morning chat-fest lies in seeing how the presenter will handle the guests. What if they don’t get on? What if they turn out to be such badly assorted specimens of modern humanity that no common ground exists?
As part of its summer carnival, a provincial town holds an annual singing competition on the riverside meadow that serves as the fairground. What could be more homely?
During a general election year, broadcasting schedules become even more cautious about political balance. But theatre is not subject to a Representation of the People Act and so, as the May poll approaches, the listings contain even more anti-Tory plays than normal.
Many city dwellers dream of moving to a pretty village for the beautiful countryside, delightful old houses and an atmosphere of peaceful harmony. Well, you might get the first two, but the third is hard to find – at least according to The Casual Vacancy (15 February).
The artist Marlene Dumas probes her images for their meanings of life and death
It is Handel’s most intense opera, a claustrophobic story of psychological collapse and wracked hearts that evolves through a cat’s cradle of emotional and mental freight.
David Boyle’s account of the plight of the British bourgeoisie (3 February) was full of anguish. Here we heard from middle-class professionals “locked out of the lifestyle their parents had enjoyed”, from a pair of married West London GPs who, for all their joint salaries, struggled to afford a mortgage on a two-bedroom cottage in Twickenham
The early plays of Tom Stoppard were concerned with the God question: the courtiers imported from Shakespeare in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967) debate the existence of a creator, which is also the theme of the lecture that the moral philosopher George Moore is constantly interrupted while trying to write in Jumpers (1972).
There’s a lot to be said for gentle humour, in which the writers drift away from the set-up/punchline rhythm and explore character and setting, eliciting wry smiles rather than big laughs. Go too far in that direction, though, and you have something that is neither comedy nor drama.
The weather was dire. The local paper reported “heavy rain accompanied by violent gusts”, then “two days of hurricanes” followed by “a truly horrifying night of furiously raging wind”.
It would be a brave man, or woman, who dared to criticise the brain-fest that ended last week after proceeding in daily instalments on Radio 4 for the past three months.
Taken at Midnight is the theatre-writing debut of Mark Hayhurst but, in another sense, it completes a trilogy.
The organisation of the civil-rights march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 represents Dr Martin Luther King Jr at the peak of his powers.
Like many institutions facing public scorn or indifference, Parliament has decided to explain itself through the medium of a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
The playwright Jonathan Moore’s very contemporary reimagining of the founder of the Jesuits It is possibly unusual to compare St Ignatius of Loyola’s selection of the first Jesuits to “putting a great band together, like the Sex Pistols or the Clash”. But then Jonathan Moore has never been drawn to the usual.
Denmark’s principal exports are: bacon, dairy products, Lego and babies. Well, not babies exactly, but the raw material. According to The Vikings Are Coming (29 January), a thought-provoking and well-rounded film in the Modern Times series, Denmark is now the “sperm capital” of the world.
Whether a composer need be religious to compose a religious work is a frequently asked question. It would seem not. Composers see themselves as responsible only for music, not words.
You could see the difficulty in assembling a programme to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. How to convey something of the vast, emblematic spectacle that was his funeral through the medium of sound?
The urchin who tackles the mighty is a staple of folklore, the fantasy that just occasionally finds a place in news stories. Trash is a fable, based on a young adult novel by Andy Mulligan. For the screen it has become an international collaboration of film-making, social awareness and community activism; it is also entertaining.
Igor Levit is one of the finest emerging pianists. He does not mince his words about rising intolerance in Western Europe
Mark Hodkinson’s elegiac return to the world of the self-financed seven-inch single, seen by so many pop groups of the 1970s and 1980s as a route into the big time, began with a voice wryly remarking, “Twenty-five years on and we’re still struggling to fathom why it never happened for us.”
This is going to be another big year for anniversaries. The BBC kicked it off this week with a 90-minute drama/documentary meant to mark 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. But to me the Holocaust is not something you remember on special days, like Magna Carta or the opening of the Post Office Tower.
Digital technology is changing the ways that theatre is written and staged: the parallel virtual world in Jennifer Haley’s drama The Nether and the spooky walking-through-walls effects in Ghost the Musical would both have been impossible to produce without recent advances in video projection and lighting.
As an example of the second-generation immigrant capitalist, Michael Corleone of The Godfather is difficult to forget. Francis Ford Coppola’s films follow him from idealist to reluctant pragmatist, a man who seeks to separate his family from crime only to find it becoming ever more enmeshed, even to the point (by the third film) of involvement in the Vatican banking scandal of the early 1980s.
Is there any mythological hero more versatile than Orpheus? The founder of poetry, music and even of civilisation itself – according to some – he tamed men and beasts through the power of his lyre, originated a religion based on the immortal soul, and harrowed hell to rescue his Eurydice.
With its very personal perspective on the First World War, Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth proves enduringly affecting. As the title suggests, it does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of the conflict.
Christopher eccleston’s account of the life and times of the left-wing playwright Jim Allen (8 January) began with a Damascene moment of revelation – the evening in 1978 when Eccleston, then aged 13 and living in his parents’ council house in Salford, chanced on The Spongers, a hard-as-nails BBC Play for Today in which Allen addressed the consequences of the Callaghan-era “cuts”.
Neil brand’s new series (16 January), looks at the changing relationship between technology and popular music. He is an excellent musician. Nobody is better at sitting at a piano and explaining how music works, but he didn’t do much of that.
Sports fans often swap odd familial statistics: three brothers playing in the same Australian cricket team, a father and son as rival managers in an FA Cup game. Because theatre is prone to dynasties, DNA links are common in casting ...
One of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, as described in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, is coming “unstuck in time”. After surviving the bombing of Dresden, like the book’s author, its hero Billy Pilgrim stops making normal earthly distinctions between past ...
At the heart of this film is a chamber as chilling as any horror film location. An exemplar of American achievement, the room displays sporting trophies in neutral toned grandeur. Yet it also has pretensions to be familiar: the armchairs and television suggest this is a regular domestic den ...
George Orwell, a fan of outsize Russian novels, once complained that the chief impediment to reading one was that you spent the first chapter being introduced to dozens of people with triple-barrelled names whose identities and precise relation to each other you were then expected
In a branch of a well-known supermarket chain this week, adjoining shelves held the first Easter eggs of the year alongside savagely discounted packets of Christmas puddings, mince pies and stollen.
Rich people like their privacy, especially on holiday. And those who cater to their needs learn to keep their mouths shut. Which made Sir Richard Branson’s Caribbean holiday retreat an unpromising subject for a documentary.
Most of us have had the experience of listening to the radio and feeling that the producer (or, these days, playlist algorithm) is scheduling only music that we would have chosen.
Here’s a notion that’s increasingly common in contemporary cinema from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Interstellar: the mysteries of love may prove more powerful than science.
Renting out your house to strangers is a guaranteed recipe for conflict. In Mapp and Lucia (29-31 December) it also proved a reliable source of humour.
Of all the ingredients in whose absence no BBC radio programme seems able to proceed these days – the honeyed tones of Ms Mariella Frostrup, the doleful sarcasm of Will Self, endless MacGregorian part-works – by far the most vital seems to be a live audience.
There I was getting ready to write about the “Gilbert and Sullivan revival” when the obvious truth dawned that they have never gone away. Even if traditional purveyors like the D’Oyly Carte and Carl Rosa opera companies fell on lean times, a million amateur, university and school performances have gone on as ever
This Christmas, the BBC has opted to avoid the troubles of our current world by plunging us into the recent past. Amid the usual round of tinsel-bedecked episodes of sitcoms, soaps and panel games, there are three period dramas.
The announcement that the hole left in the London Palladium schedule by the closure of the X Factor musical I Can’t Sing! would be filled with a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats led to some feline media remarks about the substitute being a safe Christmas option.
Although the current talk is often of newly founded girls’ cathedral choirs and their success, there is not a recording this Christmas to touch that of Byrd: the Three Masses on the Hyperion label (CDA68038) by the boys and men of Westminster Cathedral under conductor Martin Baker.
One curious thing about the festive radio schedules is how often the same names predominate. Are there certain presenters and performers to whom the commissioning editors’ thoughts automatically turn at this time of the year? At any rate the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, winds her way through the proceedings like tinsel around a yule log, and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop is not far behind.
The story of New Yorker Louis Zamperini, who died in July aged 97, is studded with facts that few fiction writers could smuggle through with credibility. The altar boy who stole and lied, who could run so fast he represented his country at the Munich Olympics, served in the US Air Force, was shot down over the Pacific,
The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics would not have been complete without a performance of “Jerusalem”. The solo voice of 11-year-old Humphrey Keeper soaring over the stadium’s reconstruction of “England’s green and pleasant land” struck that special chord of mystical patriotism that only the poetry of William Blake can touch.
Stephen sondheim wrote two musicals in the latter half of the 1980s that could not superficially be more different. Into the Woods (1986) combines figures from children’s literature – Little Red Riding Hood, Jack on his beanstalk – into a comic romp, while Assassins (1990) is probably Broadway’s most adult score: a homicidal songbook dramatising nine of the people who have tried to kill (some succeeding, others not) an American president, from Lincoln to Ford.
The link between literature and hard cash is insufficiently appreciated by critics. Why, for example, are the novels of Alexandre Dumas filled with terse, interrogative dialogue? Because the author of The Count of Monte Cristo was less interested in the aesthetic effect produced by this treatment than in the fact that he was being paid per line.
Professor jim Al-Khalili of Surrey University is the man the BBC turns to when it wants someone sensible to talk about physical science. On radio and TV, with a minimum of histrionics, he discusses, enthuses and explains. This week, though, he met his match.
When my family lived abroad in the 1960s, a feature of my childhood television viewing was a tea-time series about what seemed the never-ending voyage of the Kon-Tiki, a representation of the 1947 expedition led by the adventurous ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl.
David Hare and David Edgar belong to the same generation – Hare born in June 1947, Edgar eight months later – and collaborated in the left-wing touring theatre scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, working on so-called “state of England” plays.
It’s too soon to be talking about a “post-referendum” spirit in Scottish culture. Novelist Ian Rankin recently described the ballot as too “toxic” to figure in fiction for the time being at least. But as the toxicity slowly fades, it has become clear that there is something new in the air or, maybe more accurately, a return of something old.
The latest instalment of what is now becoming a Radio 4 institution kicked off with an appearance by that game old trouper Sir Terry Wogan (27 November). The year was 1953, at which time young Terence was in sight of his fifteenth birthday and living in Limerick, but the record of his adventures
Jason Reitman’s film about intimate relationships begins with a long view: specifically it’s the perspective on earth from six billion kilometres, the view from the Voyager space probe that inspired Carl Sagan’s musing on the significance (or otherwise) of the human race in his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot.
In 1851, the Great Exhibition drew crowds to the Crystal Palace like moths to a lamp. But one young visitor resisted its lure – when taken to the exhibition, William Morris refused to go in.
The subject of religious extremism has engendered powerful films in recent years – from Haim Tabakman’s study of an unorthodox relationship between two ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, Eyes Wide Open to Abderrahmane Sissako’s striking Timbuktu about the influence of fundamentalist Muslims in Mali, which will be on release in the spring.
Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), opens on a storm-wracked cross-Channel ferry whose upper decks are populated by the improbably named minions (“Faith”, “Charity”, “Fortitude”) of “the woman evangelist”, Mrs Melrose Ape.
You may have heard of the “listicle”: an article in the form of a list, or a list purporting to be an article. The first episode of Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction (22 November) was what you might call a “listumentary”:
One of the duties of theatre is to explore lesser-known work by canonical dramatists and two British theatres have just admirably fulfilled this obligation. Welsh writer-actor Emlyn Williams (1905-87) wrote two popular hits – the thriller Night Must Fall and the melodrama The Corn is Green
The sun rises over the Moscow River; birdsong flutters out amid shimmering strings, a folky melody winds through a musical fabric of light and air. The Kremlin guards wake, joshingly recall their atrocities of the previous night, and the human world shatters the calm beauty of the natural one.
There is a long-standing rivalry between Brussels and Antwerp over ownership of the legacy of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) going back to the artist’s own day. When, after his return from Italy in 1608, Rubens was appointed court painter to the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella
What makes a man good or otherwise? Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a grizzled former actor – the owner of a rambling hotel tucked into the Anatolian mountains. He is a patriarchal figure in a small community, both landlord and respected artist, husband to a beautiful if melancholy young wife,
Many people think their jobs were better “in the old days”. It is not just about workload and job security. It is about the replacement of autonomy and freedom by regulation and paperwork. That is true of doctors, academics, teachers, journalists and, probably, priests. It is especially true of police officers.
Following the world premiere of Wildefire, a new Roy Williams play about the Metropolitan Police, the Hampstead Theatre will revive Tiger Country, writer-director Nina Raine’s drama set among NHS staff. This means that the Hampstead repertoire suddenly resembles a mainstream TV schedule, with detective and medical procedurals in adjoining slots.
The brief of Independent columnist Grace Dent in this six-part series is to sit down with various Titans of recent BBC radio comedy and thereby sketch out its history between the somewhat arbitrary dates of 1975 and 2005.
It seems a long way from Mary Magdalen to farmers’ markets; when you are talking to American director Peter Sellars, the conversation can go in strange directions. But when I suggest we may have drifted off the point, he exclaims: “No! It’s exactly the same thing!”
The last series of The Fall (13 November) attracted admiration and opprobrium in about equal measures. This week it came back, and it was interesting to see whether creator/writer/director Allan Cubitt would respond to his critics.
As an account of bygone religious experience, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s documentary (9 November) had several conspicuous merits. One was its insistence that we ought to examine spiritual responses to the Great War on their own terms rather than by yardsticks devised a century later
In the midst of the numerous “based on real events” films this year, there are remarkably few that take a radical approach to the subject in the way that a few years ago I’m Not There did with Bob Dylan.
Edwin smith’s photographs capture the beauty of age on buildings, of the patina that time, wear and weather give to metal and stone.
This is the time of year when theatrical producers start angling for the office party and Christmas outings crowds, and two likely contenders have just opened in London.
Anselm kiefer wishes people wouldn’t fuss over his work. Everywhere his paintings go, curators follow, picking up bits that fall from their encrusted surfaces for conservation. Given that his work now changes hands for millions of dollars, their attitude is understandable. But for an artist whose principal theme is creation from destruction, it misses the point.
In cinema terms, space still represents the greatest adventure, if not necessarily the final frontier. Western governments may have abandoned ambitious programmes but screenwriters persist in placing their superheroes at the far reaches of the galaxy or their star protagonists
It is still startling to think that 30 years ago you’d hardly ever see a Handel opera performed, and now they are almost the mainstay of the repertoire. This music is a kind of medicine to de-gunk the spirit after the hysteria of regular nineteenth-century fare, and the range and depth of sympathy and emotion expressed in a minutely controlled
A year of classical makeovers has so far seen Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge staged in jeans and T-shirts, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya done with mobile phones, Shakespeare’s Henry IV in a women’s prison and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People relocated to an apartment in twenty-first-century Germany.
It is rare to be able to pinpoint the moment at which a cultural archetype was created; but at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, two came into being at once.
Religious conversion is an unusual subject for opera, whose concerns tend to be secular, even frivolous. It is arguably better suited to oratorio, a more static and sober form. When in 1838 Donizetti proposed to depict on the Neapolitan opera stage the martyrdoms of an early Christian and his wife, the royal authorities would have none of it.
Few phenomena are more dispiriting than the British public in a fit of righteous indignation. The death of the toddler known as Baby P, and the failure of the authorities to prevent that death, unleashed a torrent of fury.
Mike leigh’s film about J.M.W. Turner is not, he emphasises, a biopic. There’s no dalliance with the artist as Covent Garden-born prodigy. Instead, we catch up with him well established in the art world in the 1820s, aged 50, with a house in Marylebone where a dedicated housekeeper, Hannah Danby, prepares his canvases and pigments
It’s an unusual thrill to find two current Shakespearean productions that are, for different reasons, unrecognisable: Love’s Labour’s Won will be a title unknown to most theatre-goers, while few are likely ever to have imagined seeing Sir John Falstaff played by a woman.
IsaiaH Berlin divided humanity into hedgehogs and foxes. The fundamental separation here in Cuba Offline (23 October) seemed to be between the connected and the unconnected.
Think of Rembrandt and you think of the late self-portraits, those ruthless examinations of a lived-in face speaking of pain, regret, resignation and fortitude in the face of senescence. But take the portraits one by one and the expressions differ, even among those painted in 1669, the last year of his life.
Controversial catholic first ladies have a history of proving powerful material for musicals. So it is fitting that a revival of Rice and Lloyd-Webber’s Evita came into London just before the opening of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s show about Imelda Marcos, half of the dictatorship partnership that was overthrown in a peaceful revolution in the Philippines in 1986.
This animated feature begins with a busload of recalcitrant American youngsters arriving at a museum towards closing time. A glamorous guide diverts them to a side door and a mysterious shadowy gallery dedicated to the Mexican Day of the Dead; here she begins to relate folkloric stories from the Book of Life (not to be confused with the Jewish and Christian ideas of a register of the blessed).
Asmall group of religious fanatics, supported from abroad, plan a devastating terrorist attack against their home country in an attempt to wipe out its political leadership and ensure the triumph of their faith. The Gunpowder Plot becomes more relevant every day.
With a new Dad’s Army film in pre-production, it was a fine idea of somebody’s to blow the dust off this ancient tape and give us an opportunity to hear Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier in action for the very last time. Conceived as a sequel to the long-running television classic, It Sticks Out Half a Mile (16 October) managed a single pilot before Lowe’s death in 1981.
His work is little known outside his native Italy. But an exhibition opening next week suggests Moroni is one of the great artists of the Counter Reformation
One of the features that distinguishes theatrical drama from TV and film is that the same script can be given two radically different productions.
To this pair of ears, Neil MacGregor’s wildly successful A History of the World in 100 Objects delivered rather less than it promised.
The record industry now produces so much music on so many CDs per month that it is not at all unusual to receive simultaneous accounts of the same piece. This happened recently when two versions of Schumann’s Second Symphony arrived.
It hardly needs saying: David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West would be hooted off the stage these days, for its clichés, its gimcrack realism, its sentimentality, its tawdry domesticity, its sheer dumbness.
Rarely has archive footage been so revealing as that in Cosmonauts (13 October), a 90-minute documentary about the Soviet space programme; but the revelations in the clips only served to the incurious nature of the film as a whole.
One of the theatrical trends of the moment seems, somewhat unexpectedly, to be monologues about Jesus Christ. After Fiona Shaw’s glorious performance at the Barbican in Colm Tóibín’s adaptation of his novella The Testament of Mary, in which Christ’s mother struggled to explain and accept the fate of her son, Simon Callow is performing in The Man Jesus this autumn.
It often takes a few decades, if not centuries, to gain dramatic perspective on history. By contrast, the plight of the individual, the foot soldier as it were, remains poignantly unchanged through millennia.
ONE OF the pleasures of living in a reasonably affluent area is that as you walk the streets at dusk, you can peer into well-lit basement kitchens. Look at those appliances! Those worktops! The tiling! What are they eating?
You could tell how seriously the BBC was taking this update on the status of the papacy (2 October) from the choice of reporter. None of the corporation’s religious correspondents got so much as a look in; such well-known Catholic trusties as Edward Stourton and Lord (Peter) Hennessy were barred the door.
“THE SOUND of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork. I love such things. These scenes made me a painter.” From this famous statement sprang the romantic myth of John Constable (1776-1837) the natural-born artist who drew his inspiration direct from the River Stour.
In david fincher’s Gone Girl, the opening sequence starts quietly enough. We are in an affluent (but not too swanky) suburb early in the morning. Nothing stirs except the wildlife, raccoons or opossums, even the odd deer, wandering the lawns, nosing at the bins.
The “last days” assembled by this excellent five-parter (22-26 September) took a variety of forms. There was Madeleine, the school administrator, saying goodbye to colleagues and pupils after 22 years in the saddle;
VERDI BELIEVED wholeheartedly in the Furies. In Il trovatore, the characters are tormented by a malevolent doom that pervades the universe; in La forza del destino, the same malign force pursues people across continents like a disembodied medieval Terminator.
Many admired the first series of Peaky Blinders for its unusual setting – Birmingham at the time of the First World War – as much as for its subject matter: gang violence. This week (2 October) it came back in a new series, and it is worth asking what the series has to offer beyond novelty.
Sometimes THEATRICAL schedules bring happy accidental overlaps and, opening on consecutive nights last week, were plays, written 132 years apart, that both dramatise whistle-blowing and activism.
A schoolboy has a scary dream, gets attacked by a snake, is sent on a mystic mission to defeat evil and rescue a kidnapped girl, and in a startling Patty Hearst moment ends up joining the smug Masonic outfit behind the kidnapping, and marrying the girl in a ceremony organised by them …
When a black-and-white film from Poland, spare in style, about a young woman about to become a nun, wins more than 20 international awards, you know something is going on.
Back in the 1940s George Orwell famously remarked: “Poetry on the air sounds like the Muses in striped trousers.” And how does poetry on the air sound in 2014?
The playwright Richard Bean has recently become the toast of the National Theatre – with his journalistic comedy Great Britain following the smash-hit farce One Man, Two Guvnors from the South Bank to the West End – and now a smaller London venue usefully and enterprisingly takes us back to the start of this flourishing career with Toast.
Ebola sounds like something from science fiction, with its sudden arrival, terrifying contagiousness and shocking fatality rate. And that impression is only redoubled when you see the doctors and nurses struggling to combat it, clad head to toe in what look more like space suits than hospital scrubs.
In 1846 A respectable couple moved into a riverside cottage on the Thames at Chelsea. Mrs Booth was in her late forties; her other half – dubbed “Admiral Booth” by the local tradespeople – was 20 years older.
IN HIS SONGS, Nick Cave descends to the catacombs of the imagination, drawing on myth, mysticism and religion. You might encounter Lazarus or Orpheus, Old Testament fury or glory, and always lurking, the threat of damnation, the sweet promise of salvation.
THE LIVES OF artists, or artistes, can be full of drama. But the life of Cilla Black does not seem to have been among the most eventful. Cilla (15 September) is a three-part biography of the enduring entertainer, starting with her life as a typist in early-1960s Liverpool.
LENNY HENRY, I thought to myself as the first strains of the Velvet Underground broke upon the early morning air: what better choice could there be to front up a programme about Andy Warhol? He is certain to be exuberant.
HISTORICAL NOVELS are often given a second life by anniversaries of the events depicted and Pat Barker’s Regeneration, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991, has cannily been adapted as a drama (co-produced by the Northampton theatres with the Touring Consortium Theatre Company) to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War.
WHEN NIETZSCHE was asked in what category he placed his book Also sprach Zarathustra, he replied “Symphonies”, so it was appropriate when his younger contemporary Mahler set a text from it at the heart of his Third Symphony, completed in 1896 (the same year as Strauss’ wordless Also sprach … ).
Rossini liked to present himself as a frivolous man, but his operas suggest otherwise
The changing alignment in world order since the fall of the Berlin Wall has put a dampener on one particular genre, the spy thriller.
How gratifying it must be to be one of the senior politicians whom Peter Hennessy regularly invites to sit down with him in a BBC studio and reflect on the patterns of an illustrious career.
Challenging the usual trade description, Alecky Blythe is a dramatist who never writes a word.
The musicians of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra drew a sell-out crowd on 3 September.
Of the 145 galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the modern ones are the poor relations. Tucked away behind the National Art Library in a remote corner of the third floor, they provide a rather perfunctory coda to 3,000 years of decorative arts history. But now the coda has a sting in its tail.
The seoul Philharmonic came under the Proms’ spell for the first time on 27 August. Under conductor Myung-Whun Chung, it played Debussy’s La Mer with a sense of power unleashed and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique, with such thrilling third-movement drive that the impromptu applause would not stop until Chung had taken a bow.
In Simon Raven’s novel Friends in Low Places (1965) there is a wonderful moment in which a bluff, no-nonsense character named the Marquess of Canteloupe remarks that any fool can make a profit: all you need is to find out what people want and make them pay a proper price for it.
Sometimes, as Tammy Wynette so plangently observed, it’s hard to be a woman – and this particularly increases if you happen to be a female character in a thriller, whether literary or on-screen.
For Keen Shakespearean theatregoers, the possibility of collecting a complete set of the plays becomes like an adult game of trading cards.
Although he has been in the limelight for a decade, the official career of the 22-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor began only when he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music two summers ago. He celebrated by opening the BBC Proms that year and has been a frequent, popular guest ever since.
The record collector and label founder Eric Isaacson recently told the story of rooting through a damp cellar in Portland, Oregon, finding rare LPs and promos amid the debris and dirt of an old bandleader’s life. The blind owner had spent his last few years scribbling furious messages to himself, or to posterity.
With the GCSE and A-level results safely gathered in, and a good half-million or so of the nation’s 18-year-olds university-bound, Radio 4’s new series on education (continues until October) scores high on the relevance gauge.
Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls is one of the select number of Broadway musicals (including A Chorus Line and 42nd Street) actually set in the American theatre district, although its male characters,
The main difference between the official Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe is scale, especially in budgets and running times: the main official event, “The James Plays” (reviewed here last week) stretched to around nine hours while the average Fringe show lasts 60 minutes, meaning that this selection is made from around 50 productions I was able to see in eight days.
Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have worked now for more than 30 years on stories – first documentary and then drama – from their home town of Séraing in Belgium. Their subjects are loners, usually isolated more by circumstance than choice.
Mahler’s fourth symphony culminates in the last-movement setting of the anonymous folk poem, “Das himmlische Leben” – “life in Heaven” – which he had written and rejected for the Third Symphony. His works of 1899/1900 started to spill into each other.
The days of themed Edinburgh Festivals seemed to have gone, missed or unmourned depending on your point of view. Fortunately, the relationship between art and conflict offers so many different and oblique perspectives that there was never much danger that the programme would lapse into any of the familiar poetry-and-pity, lions-and-donkeys, guns-of-August clichés.
CULTURAL HISTORY is powerful, which explains why programme commissioners give the green light to series like Brilliant Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities (20 August), whose title conceals three mini-breaks in Vienna, Paris and New York.
An amusing Hollywood story involves Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III being renamed The Madness of King George for its cinema version because of apparent concern in the marketing department that audiences would assume the theatrical title to be the third part in a sequence of summer comedies called “The Madness of George” and choose not to see the movie without knowledge of the previous two.
THE PREVAILING tone of artistic reflections on the summer of 1914 is elegiac; this may be appropriate but not necessarily accurate, as this collection of early cinema entertainment shows. A Night at the Cinema in 1914, assembled by Bryony Dixon, curator of silent films at the British Film Institute National Archive, is touring to venues around the country until mid November.
You could not help but feel that Jonathan Meades’ choice of Edward Burra (1905-1976) to open the new series of Great Lives (5 August) highlighted the enterprise’s solitary drawback: its much canvassed attempts to make better-known people who, a moment or two’s reflection insists, are pretty well-known to begin with.
Even at 90, the conductor Sir Neville Marriner was not too senior to bring to the Proms last Sunday afternoon the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the small orchestra which, as a violinist, he had founded 56 years ago to play in the confines of the eponymous Trafalgar Square church.
THE DEATH penalty is an interesting crux for our democratic society. MPs overwhelmingly oppose it and yet, 50 years on from the last hangings in Britain, a slight majority of those who elect them would like to bring it back.
The first few days of the Edinburgh Festival always feel a little like a vast marathon start at which all the fun-runners have set off already, leaving the “elite” athletes of the official Festival waiting politely for the gun of the opening concert.
Major retrospective of an artist whose work was banned in the Soviet Union and who heavily influenced the modernist movement
ALTHOUGH ALL modern theatres try to attract new customers, most audiences still consist of the sort of people who go to the theatre. One consequence of this is that classics become familiar, which has led in turn to a fashion for revamping masterpieces.
Sean rocks’ beguiling account of the arrival of blues and soul music in the Emerald Isle (1 August) began at St James’ Church, Dingle, with a résumé of the concert played there in 2006 by Amy Winehouse.
WITH THE focus of many English-speaking nations on the Commonwealth Games in Scotland recently, it was appropriate that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave last Sunday’s Prom.
There is always room in the evening schedules for a heart-warming drama about a group of female friends. And what better setting than the world of ante-natal care, where emotions run high, lives are changed, and men are just a nuisance?
Attention focused on the proletariat during the twentieth century after Karl Marx’s call to unite. Previous eras had ignored the workers. The Henry Wood Orchestra was established in 1895 to entertain Londoners too poor for a holiday, and became the Proms.
Drawing on a career in broadcast drama that included periods in charge of both EastEnders and The Archers, the producer John Yorke wrote a fine book called Into the Woods, which analysed the recurring principles of storytelling from Greek drama to soap opera.
What would Channel 4 do if we suddenly lost our desire to look down on the Americans? Kids and Guns (31 July) was another run-of-the-mill exercise in moral superiority. It showed us several US families who had introduced their children to gun sports; with fatal results, in one case.
Peter HennessY’s analysis of the planning exercises undertaken by successive British governments in the lead-up to the Great War (26 July) began in the Downing Street Cabinet room.
Even among an operatic public armour-plated against the laughable, the final moments of Francesco Cilea’s 1902 opera can provoke outraged guffaws: the heroine pegs out not as a result of disease, suicide or even fatally impugned honour – no: she takes a whiff of a poisoned bunch of flowers … sniffs it, snuffs it.
It’s a sad fact that, 100 years on, the thousands of monuments to the First World War in Britain are more often used for orientation – “Turn left at the war memorial” – than remembrance. Simply by becoming part of the landscape, monumental sculptures become easy to ignore. Pictures, on the other hand, are harder to walk past – and it was pictures, mainly, that the British War Memorials Committee collected for its planned Hall of Remembrance in 1918.
Like taking to a moving escalator, the 2014 Proms has resumed the atmosphere of last summer – the heat, the crowds, the intensity. This sense of continuation is also built into the opening work, Elgar’s The Kingdom, the second part of a projected trilogy on the early Church, which adopts leitmotifs from Part I, Wagner-fashion, while adding new ones.
Normally one is suspicious of exercises in historical fast-forwarding – that is, investigations of some bygone event which take as their starting point the premise that the social or cultural arrangements of 200 or 300 years ago were pretty much like our own.
Appropriately for a play in which seven of the eight characters are prone to quote from the Bible, Perseverance Drive is thematically a case of old wine in new bottles.
When The Mill (20 July) started its first series, this time last year, it was derided by the critics; the public, however, rather liked it. Now it’s back, with the formula essentially unchanged: some characters have moved on, but it continues to be grim up North.
THE RETIRING Master of the Queen’s Music, composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is 80 this year and features prominently at the Proms, which begin this weekend. He will appear in person for his Fifth Symphony and other works, though he was not expected to see this summer after his struggle with leukaemia last year. Doctors gave him six weeks.
An oddity of theatrical posterity is that a dramatist’s most famous play is often overtaken in the reputation stakes by what once seemed a lesser text.
Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, Lord Sugar’s erstwhile Apprentice sidekicks, have developed a highly marketable double act, and this week (15 and 16 July) they used it to cast light – or to direct heat – on a highly inflammable area of British life.
Having presented its calling card with a résumé of high-street retailer John Timpson’s efforts to find a space in his own company’s car park, Sir John Tusa’s three-part enquiry into the state of leadership in some of our major organisations (weekly from 11 July) began its deliberations with excerpts from the work of one or two parliamentary select committees.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are clear – immediate and vital, intimate or journalistic, composed with great sensitivity whether on manicured lawns or down garbage-strewn alleyways – yet the life is a mystery.
What to do with the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square?
Theatre is a profession notable for having no retirement age and, at 89, the director Peter Brook has brought to London another of the shows created by the troupe he set up in Paris after departing, Prospero-like, from the RSC, where he had staged a celebrated King Lear in 1962 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970.
Dredged up from the vault by some enterprising BBC archivist, A Life of Bliss (from 6 July), scripted by Geoffrey Harrison, turns out to have run for a mammoth 118 episodes in its original 1953 incarnation.
British television viewers have recently been subjected to a slightly creepy advertisement in which a digitally resurrected Audrey Hepburn eats chocolate in an open-topped car. The slightly reptilian movement of the figure is disturbing enough, as is the faux nostalgic 1950s setting.
Campaigning drama tends towards the melodramatic. Characters are destroyed, not by their own flaws, but by outside forces.
If summer opera is any kind of a barometer of economic health – and it could after all be handy for gauging the mood of hedge-fund managers and other plutocrats – then we are in quite a period of retrenchment. The schedules are majoring pretty heavily in the hard-times fallbacks of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini, with a few extra old chestnuts in the fire.
Now that publicity has become more of an industry than an art, most theatre productions can be seen coming from a long way off. Just before starting this piece, I opened a National Theatre email alerting me to a David Byrne and Fatboy Slim musical in October and a December adaptation of Treasure Island.
It’s good for screenwriters to withhold information and keep the audience guessing. But they still have to tell a story.
The particular charm of the novelist A.L. Kennedy’s radio voice is not easy to decipher. Part of it is to do with her characteristic wryness. Rather more is to do with the tinge of melancholy – a peculiarly personal sadness, often seeming to exist at one remove from the subject under discussion – that marks her delivery.
The audience was packed with pneumatic blondes in loud clothes, and some of them were women. They were there to pay tribute to the world’s most durable, and in unexpected ways complex, music star.
THERE IS A saying that good plays are not written but rewritten and it can equally be argued that the test of a play’s strength is not the premiere but revivals.
Cinemas this week are showing two demonstrations of young male attitudes to their homeland. Each is heartbreaking in its way; both show the humanity behind the headlines.
THE POLICE were among the first groups to be caught out by a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary, when Roger Graef pointed his cameras at them in 1982. But, as Police Under Pressure (23 June) showed, they have learned their lesson since then.
Orla Barry’s feature on the Irish diaspora of the 1950s and 1960s (18 June) began with the members of a Hammersmith, west London singing club belting their way through a number about “digging for gold in the streets”.
Nothing reminds you that opera is alien to England quite like a trip to somewhere it is truly native. Germany is modern Europe’s true operatic homeland; dozens of state-funded opera houses, a native tradition stretching back unbroken to the seventeenth century and the ingrained idea that music should be a serious moral and philosophical force make it the only place where opera is genuinely taken seriously.
I’ve not seen the stage production of Jersey Boys, the musical about the group the Four Seasons featuring Frankie Valli, internationally famous from the 1960s.
The most obdurate non-football fan would probably have taken an interest in Peter White’s encounter with an off-duty Howard Webb, referee of the last World Cup final and currently engaged in supervising this year’s tournament in Brazil.
ALL DRAMATISTS desire good reviews but the downside for younger writers is the pressure of expectation on what comes next. Currently facing this test are three recent recipients of prizes for most promising playwright.
A title such as this invites cynicism: another celebrity presenter sprinkling stardust over a worthy subject. But the television chef explored the story – her own story, too – with curiosity, sympathy and courage.
Imagine the Apostles at Pentecost, gabbling away about the wonderful work of God to a multicultural crowd of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judaeans, Cappadocians, Pontian Greeks, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, Arabians and Jews, all “amazed and in doubt” to discover that they understand every word.
Ten years ago, BBC Radio 4 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings by commissioning a Frank Cottrell Boyce monologue in which a soldier in small-hours transit – played by Christopher Eccleston – reflected on the task that awaited him come dawn.
In a double portrait from 1779, believed to be by Zoffany, a pair of young society women in gleaming draped silks smile out from a bucolic setting. One is apparently bolder, more mischievous; she sports a fashionable turban with a jaunty feather and seems to gesture to her own face.
As one of the few dramas that takes place entirely outside, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons was theoretically an ideal choice for the repertoire of the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park. And as the opening lines include “Gonna rain tonight”, Miller’s 1947 play further suits a venue that is as vulnerable to the weather as a cricket ground.
One of the foundation stones for a good life, few are more important than a secure home. But according to Britain’s Benefit Tenants (12 June), two million people now struggle to pay their rent, which means eviction is always waiting in the wings.
Most social historians would probably agree that one of the first large-scale British cultural revolutions of the twentieth century took place in the early 1920s. It was then, by degrees, and despite dire warnings from librarians and educators, that the great mass of the population transferred its allegiance from literature to cinema and radio.
Two of the major European playwrights of the twentieth century – Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht – suffered opposite complaints about their work, with the Irish-French writer indicted of writing plays that were too ambiguous, while the German was arraigned for being too politically dogmatic.
It has been a year for commemorating the outbreak of the First World War; but it is also worth remembering that 70 years ago this week, the largest invasion force ever assembled set out across the English Channel and on to the unwelcoming beaches of Normandy.
The “true story” is a regular feature of contemporary films. Effective story-telling, however, is more elusive. Fruitvale Station manages both persuasively – to the point that you wonder about an already known outcome.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to spot the pitfalls lying in wait for Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera: this tale of the death by guillotine of 16 nuns could be voyeuristic, irrelevant, preachy, sentimental – or (possibly) transcendently powerful and moving.
Bill Viola’s latest video installation is charged with spiritual insight and evokes powerful emotions
Greeted at the door by fairground barkers, you understand this staging of Mozart’s 1790 opera isn’t going to be a searing social critique. But a likeable production by Phelim McDermott’s theatre company Improbable at least reminds us that Così is a comedy
NICHOLAS RANKIN’s fascinating enquiry into the pre-Virginia career of Leonard Woolf (22 May) began with an archive clip of the subject being interviewed by Malcolm Muggeridge in his Sussex garden some time in the late 1960s.
Some theatrical productions are budgeted and publicised with the expectation of being a hit, while others sneak up on success. An example of each is provided by two just-opened West End musicals: the Miss Saigon revival seems to have been advertised on the side of London buses for at least a year...
An originaL setting can enliven a run-of-the-mill drama. A central character with an unusual profession helps too. And then there’s star power.
CUSTODIANS OF the national collections of paintings and works of art have a duty to those on whose behalf they care for the works – all of us, in other words – not only to make sure the collections are safe from rain and beetles and available fairly regularly for us to look at, but also to help us enjoy them by understanding them, if that is what we want to do.
REGARDLESS OF the quality of subject matter or dialogue, plays can easily be scuppered by having the wrong structure: length or sequence of scenes, even the positioning of an interval. So it’s intriguing that the National Theatre’s early summer schedule includes two peculiarly shaped scripts of different vintages.
SHORTLY AFTER the 1992 general election, the BBC broadcast one of the earliest attempts to investigate what might be called the neurological basis of politics.
Language is powerful juju, and meddling with it too intently can release all manner of horrors; hence the poète maudit, the cursed poet. The story of Dylan Thomas is emblematic.
Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary takes powerful life in Fiona Shaw’s portrayal at London’s Barbican Theatre
It was through the Chinese social media site Weibo, rather than official news, that director Jia Zhangke first learned of several localised incidents of extreme violence that would inspire his latest film, A Touch of Sin.
The journalist Rosie Millard’s Independent columns regularly turn on the habits of her four progeny. There was a particularly striking one the other week in which Ms Millard complained about the innocuousness of today’s young people and contrasted it with her own freewheeling teendom.
Two despairing hearts, two solitary souls … On the face of it, teaming up Schubert’s harrowing song cycle (1828) with Béla Bartók’s stark one-act opera (1918) should yield some piquant parallels, despite the wildly different aims of the two pieces.
Deutschland über alles. The great puzzle and conundrum is how the poets, dreamers, musicians and philosophers of this large and various country went from putting Germany “above everything” in the 1920s to installing “over everyone” only 20 years later.
One death in the First World War I shall now always remember. It is only one of the many remembered by the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, “The Great War in Portraits” (until 15 June) and commemorated at north London’s Jewish Museum, in its “For King and Country” exhibition (until 10 August).
Ignore the header: Little Bulb Theatre’s production is no opera – it’s way too much fun for that. Neither is it a play or a musical or a review, but perhaps it is distantly related to the ballad-opera of eighteenth-century London (e.g. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera), which used popular tunes with new words to tell their tales.
One of the great unwritten laws of radio scheduling is that you can’t go wrong with royal protocol. The producer who, this time last year, reassembled five out of the six aristocratic “gels” who had attended the 1953 Coronation and invited them to recall the frightfully good time they had had, knew exactly what he, or she, was doing, and so did the commissioning editor
You might be best advised not to take young children to this cartoon, even though its director, Hayao Miyazaki, has made some of the most enchanting animations of the past 30 years.
Named after a stupendously successful and tawdry song by American-Canadian R&B artist Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines: the New Battle of the Sexes (8 May) will have shocked most (adult) readers of this journal. The content was shocking; but the accompanying analysis was feeble.
The Donmar’s new production begins by breaking two conventions of theatre-going: first, the names of the title and writer are blacked out on the cover of the programme, and then there is a public warning that customers should switch their mobile phones on.
Mary’s lament at the foot of the Cross has captured the imagination of composers across the centuries. Three new settings receive their premieres next month
Crime, especially violent crime, is falling across the Western world. But you would never think that if you watch British television, where murder continues to be the preferred form of entertainment.
It is no disrespect to Jane Garvey and the array of talking heads assembled to explain the new-found allure of knitting (23 April) to suggest that the result, while combining equal amounts of idiosyncrasy and downright weirdness, was also entirely predictable. Nothing, it might be said, is more myth-infested these days than those human activities once thought to be safely mundane.
While there are many plays written specifically for the Christmas season, fewer – except for the medieval mystery and Passion plays and Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade – thematically reflect the other major religious festival. It seemed accidentally fitting to me, though, that a new production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge should have opened just before Good Friday.
Tate Modern’s Henri Matisse exhibition chronicles how the artist wrestled through serious illness to create what was probably his defining work
Anyone who watched television in the 1960s and 1970s will remember Tommy Cooper. Barely adapting his old stage act for the new medium, he performed magic, and his tricks went wrong.
The distinguishing mark of Martin Wainwright’s week-long assault on the “Northern myth” (14-18 April) was its array of regional accents.
What if” fiction as a genre generally explores alternative versions of the past – suppose Hitler had died young or won the Second World War
A BBC documentary, broadcast tonight, recreates a first in philanthropy: a unique musical event held in 1750 to alleviate the plight of London’s orphans
Some say it was Stalin himself who wrote the Pravda critique of this work that concluded with the chilly words “
Peter White’s intriguing foray into the world of Giovannino Guareschi (1908-68) and his most celebrated creation, the Italian priest Don Camillo (10 April) began in a trattoria in downtown Brescello.
Critics attempting to characterise the regimes of different artistic directors of the National Theatre have often alighted on their attitudes to the work of Alan Ayckbourn ...
John Banville’s Booker-winning novel The Sea is framed as an account by art historian Max of the recent death of his wife, Anna.
Manchester’s Passion Art Trail is a unique Way of the Cross, conceived by its curator to make vivid the possibility of redemption amid the distractions of modern urban living
Calvary – like limbo or, in a secular context, Coventry – can refer both to place and state of being. This ambiguity runs through John Michael McDonagh’s thriller/meditation set in a village on the spectacular west coast of Ireland.
Lord Adonis’ contribution to this year’s series of Lent talks (2 April) – on the general theme of “power” – pursued a somewhat circuitous path: from the New Testament to votes for 16-year-olds in little more than 13 minutes.
It looks like a bank holiday weekend, and Ian Hislop is wandering around in a field full of battle re-enactment enthusiasts, bristling with weapons and resplendent in their costumes. “It is clear that many of us in Britain are in love with the past,” he says.
Theatre in New York is dominated by musicals and star-cast revivals and the chances of new plays reaching Broadway are reduced even further by the absence of a subsidised circuit. Every so often, though, an original drama becomes a hit there and one of them – Jon Robin Baitz’s 2010 success, Other Desert Cities
Many scores by C.P.E. Bach were removed from Berlin by the Soviet army in 1945 and presumed lost. The rediscovered St John Passion will be performed in London during Holy Week
Noah has a problem. His Creator has indicated that he wishes by watery means to eradicate human life on earth on account of its sin and general destruction.
Kim Philby was devoted to the Soviet Union, until he had to live in it. Such are the rewards of 30 years of treachery. He died in 1988, a lonely, bitter man who had been perhaps the most effective, and most destructive, Soviet agent of the last century.
Dr Thomas Dixon, the presenter of this new multi-part enquiry into the meaning and experience of friendship over the last half-millennium (from 24 March) turns out to hold the somewhat eye-catching title of director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London.
The regular transfers of productions from the subsidised to the commercial sector can give the impression that there is not much of a gulf between the interests of public and private money. However, two startlingly contrasting current shows demonstrate just how far apart the ambitions and instincts of the two types of theatre can be.
The Veronese exhibition at London’s National Gallery brings together the most comprehensive collection of the artist’s masterpieces – both sacred and profane – ever to be shown in Britain
Sometimes only the echo remains; does anyone still read Ariosto? From the moment it appeared in 1516, his epic poem Orlando Furioso gripped the consciousness of Europe, a blockbuster which everyone read, which instantly created its own mythology and a sparkling, fully formed chivalric world of knights, magic horses and distressed damsels, a continental Camelot.
Five months before the anniversary itself, Radio 4’s coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has begun to explore some of its non-military byways.
The question of whether to make a point of someone’s age is traditionally delicate – and especially with actresses, who have been known to knock a few years off in reference books – but there is no avoiding the fact that the greatest distinction of the new West End production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is the fact that its leading lady is 88.
Every year, 2,000 British people disappear. They just leave the house and never come back. The Missing (25 March) looked at the effect of such disappearances on those left behind to search, speculate and grieve. According to this documentary, someone disappears every two minutes. Most are back within 48 hours; 99 per cent have turned up within a year. The rest are still being sought.
In a unique staging by the Royal Opera, Francesco Cavalli’s L’Ormindo is to be performed in a London theatre built to evoke the period when the piece was written
Donald Rumsfeld, twice US Secretary of Defense during the course of four decades, is both the youngest and oldest individual to have held that post – for Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, respectively.
Imagine what Jonathan Swift, or Lindsay Anderson, or even Armando Ianucci would have made of the BBC’s recent turmoils. W1A (19 March), set in New Broadcasting House, is satire – but not that sort of satire.
Premiered in 1958, A Taste of Honey, the debut (and only enduring) play by Shelagh Delaney (1938-2011), has usually been discussed as part of a wave of working-class drama
How does one comprehend the revelation of the divine in the person of Jesus Christ?
A cathedral’s decision to cut back the membership of its choir has sharpened anxieties that the Anglican choral tradition is under threat
With BBC3 headed for oblivion – or the internet, which might be the same thing – this was a good week to see what the channel’s young TV audience will be losing.
There is a bleak moment in The Simpsons – most of the best bits in The Simpsons are anything but comic – when Homer, addressing his for once under-achieving daughter, remarks: “Lisa, you tried, and you failed.
Among the most difficult jobs in modern Britain is running a historic regional theatre. A steady downward curve in audiences – due to a preference among the young for other entertainment forms
While films appear to get more sophisticated with their visual effects, the ways of storytelling remain largely conventional. A successful formula is still, in much Western film-making, a three-act structure, ...
In what has become an annual event, the parish of Discoed on the Welsh borders commissions an exhibition reflecting on Lent. This year’s theme is Christ’s 40 days in the desert
Champions of the inter-war stories of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, born 1881, praise their insight and style. Max Ophüls made what is possibly his most rapturous film, Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Zweig’s novella of a woman who yearns at length (and distance) for a concert pianist.
Tired of London? Not exactly, but it is possible for those outside the capital to tire of hearing about it, its global fame, its glamour and its apparently unstoppable economic success. It sometimes seems as if Britain is in danger of being a rich megalopolis with a poor country attached...
Asurprising void exists in our knowledge of Handel: we haven’t the faintest idea whether he had a love life of any description. Nonetheless, he wrote some of the most sincere music of the heart ever made, and in Rodelinda, premiered in 1725 when he was 39
Edward Stourton opened his three-part examination (26 February-12 March) of the most significant event in modern Chinese history poised halfway between the old China and the new.
There’s a scene in the successful 2009 romantic comedy It’s Complicated in which the leading character, a divorced mother played by Meryl Streep, consults a cosmetic surgeon about her drooping eyelids.
It’s strange that, in television drama, the hidebound, rule-driven world of the law has become the last bastion of the maverick, the risk-taker and the loose cannon.
The politely sceptical tone in which Jolyon Jenkins tends to conduct his Radio 4 features was perfect for the first instalment of Out of the Ordinary (24 February), a three-part series which, according to the accompanying publicity, will supply “stories from the left field”.
Macbeth was Verdi’s first grown-up opera. After the artillery bombardments of Ernani and Nabucco, the 33-year-old composer for the first time flexed his muscles as a true musical dramatist, bending the structures of opera to the demands of real theatre.
The artist Félix Vallotton captured moral ambiguity and the shadows in human relationships like few others. A retrospective of his work has just opened in Amsterdam
My first job in journalism was on an architecture magazine, at a time when the mutual distrust and incomprehension between the profession and the public was at its height. And one thing was more responsible for that division than anything else: concrete.
Every so often the Radio 4 schedules throw up a work of such startling obscurity that one pauses to wonder how exactly how it got past the commissioning editor.
There can’t be many concerts in Paris that end up with an audience singalong to the words “and heigh for the honour of Old England!” – so the Belle Epoque jewel of the Athénée, a swirl of neo-Baroque gilt, crimson and sexy caryatids, made a jolly venue for fans of entente cordiale.
The young Kurt Elling’s interest in music was encouraged by his father, kapellmeister to a Lutheran congregation. Now he is one of the most exceptional jazz singers of his generation
Stephen Sondheim has written 19 major musicals and, in his eighty-fourth year, is working on the twentieth. But there are also five extra shows created from offcuts of other musicals, including Putting It Together,
Our relationship with technology is increasingly intimate. Websites remember your preferences and anticipate your needs; you can even converse with an “intelligence navigator” like Siri
Comedy about the police is nothing new. Nor is drama. Put them together and you might have something innovative; but the result would need to be better focused than Babylon (9 February).
To anyone monitoring the fall-out from Michael Gove’s suggestion that most First World War history exists in the shadow of Blackadder, Michael Portillo’s two-part series (4 and 11 February) will have come as an eye-opener.
The work of the Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed, which has gone on show at the Hayward Gallery in London, is a salad of visual sensations, but light on meat
A costume drama about a love affair between the Victorian literary superstar Charles Dickens and a little-known actress raises certain expectations. There will be strictures and conventions, agonised looks and perhaps a deathbed scene.
The correct technical term for the Irish novelist Colm Toíbín’s entertaining tour of James Joyce’s Dublin (2 February) is “psycho-geography”.
Sweden is a full of strange and fascinating things. But elk-hunting, fermented herring, Ikea, extended parental leave, Abba and Volvo are not among them.
We tend to categorise theatres as “new” or “old” but there is also a third category that might be called “new-old”, in which the Globe Theatre specialises.
An intense spirituality characterises the work of the Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary is celebrated throughout the year with special performances
Without sounding too much like Donald Rumsfeld, with his “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”, the future calendar of a great actor consists of unwritten parts and written-in roles.
Lance Armstrong – what a great story that was! The high achiever who is knocked back by cancer but rebounds the stronger, confounding doubters (and doctors) to carry off his sport’s greatest honour a record seven consecutive times!
The bicentenaries of the great Victorian novelists are coming thick and fast. Dickens’ (born 1812) was celebrated with all due ceremony, but Thackeray’s (1811) passed with barely a whimper.
Jeremy Paxman is a no-nonsense interviewer who has, in recent years, produced a series of sensible, trustworthy books about big British topics. The First World War is a divisive subject;
As film critics reflect on the prospect that Steve McQueen may become the first person ever to win both the Turner Prize and the Oscar for Best Director, Hilary Mantel might be on course to become the only novelist whose stories have claimed Olivier and Tony Awards as well as Man Booker Prizes.
The covers of those early Bob Dylan albums are monochrome or subdued in colour. Freewheelin’ from 1963 shows the curly haired troubadour in a tan leather jacket sauntering down the centre of brown-and-blue tinted Fourth Street in Greenwich Village, arm in arm with a smiling, russet-haired girl.
Giles Dilnot, so enthusiastic about his subject that at times the radio seemed practically to vibrate, began his account (15 January) of the Natural History Museum’s attempts to preserve its collections during wartime in the establishment’s main hall alongside “Dippy” the Diplodocus.
This is surely the most comprehensive opera ever written: four hours (including breaks) of pure theatrical slickness, gambling-hall scene, church scene, street scene, ballet, Traviata-meets-Carmen-meets-Queen of Spades-meets-Bohème
While the world amuses itself with the marital difficulties of politicians or the latest shiny gadgets, the uprising in Syria has turned into a war of attrition, with battered tower blocks instead of trenches and women and children at the heart of the conflict.
A few years back, I couldn’t step outside my front door in north London without hearing Polish spoken. Those were the boom years for the economy, pre-recession, when 500,000 Polish nationals came here to work.
As a director, Martin Scorsese has often dealt with the less salubrious parts of American society, the hoodlums of Mean Streets, the pimps and drug dealers around Times Square in Taxi Driver, organised crime in Brooklyn or Las Vegas in Goodfellas or Casino.
The only dramatist mentioned twice in my recent look back to 2013 and look forward to 2014 (The Tablet, 4 January) was Howard Brenton: for #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, a Hampstead Theatre hit last Easter, and Doctor Scroggy’s War, which is due at London’s Globe Theatre this September.
Start a family business, it has been said, and one day you’ll end up with neither. There is nothing like the pressures of commerce to set father against son or sister against brother. That wasn’t the message of Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses (15 January), however.
Richard Strauss’ grand 1911 work is, for many, the epitome of what an opera should be, with its elegant old-time setting, wistful romantic heroine, almost obscenely gorgeous music and a knowing sophistication that flatters the opera fan just as it can repulse the sceptic.
The pianist Steven Osborne, one of the finest interpreters of Michael Tippett’s work, talked to our music critic about the composer’s determination to speak truth to his audience
Cultural shock is a perishable commodity, so it is an intriguing test of the longevity of contention that one of the most controversial comedies of the 1970s and one of the most disreputable novels of the 1990s are among the productions bridging the 2013 and 2014 theatre seasons.
They were out in force before Christmas, but otherwise members of Britain’s uniformed Church are looking a little sparse on the high street.
There is an extended sequence some way into 12 Years a Slave that is so beautifully composed and executed, its subject so cruel and true, the effect both extreme and oddly quotidian, that it is a small film in itself.
Firmly nailed to the mast of this year’s referendum on Scottish independence, Linda Colley’s three-week-long series (from 6 January) is, as one might have predicted, an attempt to de-mythologise vast stretches of recent British history.
Our theatre critic casts an eye over the highlights of the year ended and what to book for in 2014
Neil Oliver opened his new documentary series (30 December) at the bottom of a waterfall near Tintagel in Cornwall.
Neil Oliver opened his new documentary series (30 December) at the bottom of a waterfall near Tintagel in Cornwall.
Michael White’s richly evocative portrait of life in these isles circa Christmas 1973 (28 December) made much of the technological gulf between past and present.
The Railway Man begins with a gentle, whimsical encounter, the kind that often presages a mature romance onscreen. A reserved middle-aged man meets an attractive woman on a train travelling north.
Michiel Coxcie, ‘The Flemish Raphael’, and one of the most influential painters of his time, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum Leuven
The trend in Christmas music recordings this winter is away from traditional carols and towards newly written cantatas.
If certain traditional features of Christmas in radio-land seem to have vanished from the schedules – the apparent absence of anything about the Beatles is almost unprecedented ...
Two new shows calculated to catch the seasonal outings and holiday audiences deal with two of the biggest-ever British political scandals – the MPs’ expenses row of 2009 and the Profumo case of 1963
There’s the Spirit of Christmas, and there are spirits at Christmas; not those that slide out of a bottle on Christmas Day and then whack you over the head the next morning, but shape-shifting spectres who lurk in dusty old rooms
Stanley Spencer sought signs of salvation in the everyday. His canvases, on display at Somerset House in London, are among the most arresting images of the First World War
Even before the passing of Nelson Mandela, the film that depicts his life, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom had broken box-office records in South Africa
Laura Barton began her exploration of what a psychologists would probably call the concept of “pre-adolescent gender transgression”
This was a television self-portrait (7 December) that showed the scientist’s uncomplicated pride in his own achievements and enjoyment of fame.
Having famously been filmed by Laurence Olivier as a Second World War morale-raiser, Henry V tends to be staged during conflicts
It is in its final act that Covent Garden Royal Opera’s new production of Parsifal properly articulates Wagner’s vision of forgiveness and a society purged of its bad faith
A favourite word in the vocabulary of Dame Edna Everage is “spooky” – and the great Melbourne performer was responsible for one of the spookiest moments of my life.
Sarfraz Manzoor seemed to spend a fair amount of Leaving the Faith (27 November) shuttling between two central London pubs.
People go on pilgrimages to the birthplaces of their favourite authors, to historical sites, to the graves of pop stars and to the vineyards that produce their preferred tipple.
Nebraska is a film about fathers and sons and the “land” you come from, an old-fashioned film, if you like, about legacy.
In the spirit of doing different, vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble named itself 40 years ago after the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, painter of exquisite, finely detailed, passport-sized portraits of wealthy clients, courtiers and nobles.
A regular lament in this column is British theatre’s increasing dependence on cinema for inspiration: 10 of the highest-profile shows in London are familiar from multiplexes, with the musical version of From Here to Eternity
Recorded in front of a live audience at London’s Riverside Studios, this three-parter was originally to have been presented by Sir David Frost.
There’s an interesting double journey in this new staging of Mozart’s luminous opera-panto: as humanity moves towards light and reconciliation, so the show’s director throws off his well-publicised prejudices about opera and begins to get the point.
Like many children growing up in the 1960s, my first encounter with Mary Poppins was through the Disney film. The books followed soon but required an unwelcome adjustment of perception.
In the 1970s, British intelligence went mad. Some MI5 officers spread the story that Harold Wilson was a KGB agent. Others bugged Downing Street. It was even believed that the endless industrial disruption of those days was a Soviet plot.
The flags and banners that flutter above the visitor at the entrance to this exhibition (to 11 March 2014) turn out to be reproductions of eighteenth-century playbills, maps, pamphlets, advertisements, cartoons and engravings.
Since the chronological rehang of Tate Britain’s collections in May, banners have gone up outside the gallery inviting passers-by to “Meet 500 years of British art”.
It’s a short task to number the films about ordinary black people and civil rights – from well-meaning narratives from a white perspective that play in mainstream cinemas (a group that includes To Kill a Mockingbird, and more recently The Help)
This week the subtitled Danish drama Borgen (16 November) started a new run. At the same time, the British television writer Paula Milne announced that she was in negotiations to write an English-language adaptation.
The huge success of the farce One Man, Two Guvnors (still running in London after two and a half years) – and the astonishing ratings performance of the slapstick sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys on TV – have been attributed to the hunger for distracting laughter during a recession.
Dawn French, the comedian, was a “crab”; the actress Juliet Stevenson a “pongo”; the theatre director Fiona Lindsay, charged with the task of interviewing them both, a “fish-head”.
For an artist who is held in universal respect and esteem for decades by museum visitors, collectors and art historians, Georges Braque seems to be very little loved.
It’s not so long since Leos Janácek was a frightening name on the peripheries of opera, composer of spiky pieces contemporary with Puccini’s last years but too modernist for the average audience.
Not long ago I went to see Will Self read from his works at the Norwich Playhouse. There hung over the event the sense of a writer who has so stylised his public persona as to have become a kind of performance artist.
Dominic Sandbrook’s new series (12 November), began at Chelsea Football Club, which in 1945 hosted the first match of a goodwill tour by Moscow Dynamo.
The young dramatist debbie tucker green absolutely refuses to give interviews – that staple of cultural coverage – despite having won plaudits and awards for earlier work including born bad and random.
The focus of London’s musical beam this week shifts to the new Royal Borough of Greenwich where, in the magnificent eighteenth-century neoclassical buildings now occupied by the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, the annual International Early Music Festival and Exhibition takes place.
The current trend for films that immerse you in an environment continues. If you’ve been at sea with Captain Phillips (and are preparing to bale out with Robert Redford when All is Lost is released on Boxing Day) then you might contemplate a space walk with Sandra Bullock ...
Despite having written two of the most enduring modern musicals – Cabaret and Chicago – composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb routinely had numerous new shows on the go that struggled to reach completion or production.
Philip Dodd’s enquiry into China’s impact on our intellectual and cultural life (1 November) began with what he called “a tsunami of facts and figures”.
My Agnes, it’s called – the sketch of a tired young woman seated at a table, chin pressed against the back of her hand, eyelids drooping.
Fiftieth birthdays are traditionally a time for an extravagant celebration and taking stock of what has been achieved.
Any aspiring sexagenarian writer who assumes that literary success will be hard to find should take comfort from the career of Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000).
Historians are divided about the old Bedlam, the famous lunatic asylum. They know the public were allowed to gawp at the lunatics. They’re just not sure whether they were charged a penny for the privilege.
Subtitled “the art of revival”, the “Victoriana” exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery (until 8 December) makes no mention of the nineteenth century’s refashioning of Gothic, Classical and Renaissance architecture and design.
“Based on a true story” remains one of cinema’s most reliable tag lines. No matter how small the foundation, how loose the interpretation, the suggestion of veracity can burnish the dull, smuggle through the implausible and generally make audiences more forgiving of contradictions in narrative.
Musicals have always been a powerful currency in theatre, but this autumn’s London season is packed with song-and-dance shows even by recent standards.
Not long ago, Private Eye produced a cartoon version of Lord Bragg’s Thursday morning intellectual round table.
The picture of three bright, articulate young women in a cage in a Russian courtroom went round the world.
Oscar Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant begins with the sentence: “Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play...
Somewhere in the depths of Act IV, Verdi throws off the shackles that have kept this long opera off the boil for the preceding hours and allows a soprano and a tenor
Give it a cursory glance, and opera hardly seems terribly well acquainted with ethics, morals, the norms of civilised behaviour.
It’s almost inevitable that plays which a century or more ago inflamed censors – and sometimes even brought theatres to flames – will seem tame today.
Glenn Patterson’s account of the Belfast murals (10 October) was crammed with bits of fascinating, if frequently sinister, socio-historical detail.
Tom Hanks has become through roles from Saving Private Ryan to Forrest Gump the kind of American screen hero who, whatever the social standing or intellectual capacity of the character, stands for truth and decency and threatens no one – or at least no one unless they get out of line.
By some triumph of the schedulers’ art, Thursday nights at 9 p.m. have become the place where new British drama series gather to fight it out, and it is interesting to see the different approaches that are being taken.
Clustered around a crossroads with a church, two pubs, a tea room and an estate agent, Ditchling is a typical East Sussex village. Atypically, though, it boasts its own silversmith, Pruden & Smith, and its own museum, the newly relaunched Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.
It is the general aim of theatre to make us forget that we’re watching a play but there are certain dramas and dramatists that deliberately draw attention to the artificiality of the medium
The message of Robert McCrum’s entertaining miniseries Publishing Lives (30 September-4 October) seemed to be that great publishers were salesmen rather than aesthetes, sharp-eyed chancers rather than the gentlemen for whom that occupation was traditionally thought to be reserved.
Called by the film-makers a “dramatic thriller based on real events”, The Fifth Estate has all the components of a thriller – duelling protagonists, international locations, high stakes, secrecy, betrayal, pounding soundtrack ...
“The sick man of Europe”: that five-word formula was all that generations of British schoolchildren learned about the Ottoman Empire. There was a lot more to it than that: the vast and opulent empire enjoyed 600 years of dominance before it fell ill.
Did the pioneers of in vitro fertilisation imagine that one day poor women in India would be earning their country US$1 billion a year as surrogate mothers for rich Westerners?
It was typical of Beethoven to make no concessions to what was expected of the urbane opera composer.
In Rylance’s Much Ado, though, the concept, after the opening line, consistently works against the text. Is it possible – as this Beatrice clearly is – to be greatly older than your own uncle?
The Independent’s political columnist, Steve Richards, began his audio diary of last summer’s attempt to bring “pro-politics comedy” to the stage in early June.