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The Sublime and the Ridiculous

Going to the theatre is a special event for me, so two trips in as many weeks is a definite rarity – not least because I see so many movies that it can be easy to forget about the altogether different joys and techniques of live stage performance. Last weekend I was through at the Lowry in Salford for a production of Willy Russell’s 80s classic Educating Rita, while last night’s performance of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show (this time at the Manchester Opera House) couldn’t have been more different. The first, I was familiar with, having seen the Julie Walters/Michael Caine film adaptation; the second, I know mainly by reputation and due to the devoted cult following it attracts among its fans. But while Douglas Adams was clearly an extremely smart guy, making wry and intelligent points about physics, metaphysics and humanity, Hitchhiker’s tongue remains firmly in its cheek, being in essence a ludicrous and comical affair. Educating Rita, although often extremely witty, presents us with a more problematic and clearly political seam of social critique. I’m not going to review the performances or the productions here.1 Instead, I want to muse a little on some of the issues around class, education, and stereotype that these two shows (primarily Russell’s) stirred up in my mind.

Rita changes drastically throughout the course of the play, enrolling in an Open University course that leads to weekly tuition sessions with grumpy but likeable English literature lecturer Frank. The play being much inspired by Pygmalion, she undergoes a transformation comparable to that of George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle. Beginning as a frustrated and rather lonely – but undeniably smart, determined and insightful – professional hairdresser, Rita is defined (or actually, self-defined) as the product of working class conventions that don’t chime with her true personality or her aspirations. Learning about herself and the middle-classes along with the disciplined conventions of literary analysis, she becomes a knowledgable, popular and semi-bohemian University graduate, dressing differently, thinking more clearly and leaving behind hairdressing, pub sing-a-longs, a book-burning ex-husband, and “talking about irrelevant rubbish”. Frank meanwhile is sent on sabbatical to Australia, not having given up drinking, but having been dumped by his girlfriend. Whether he will return to writing poetry remains ambiguous, as indeed, does Rita’s own future, but both are aware of new possibilities.

The Hitchhiker's Guide Radio Show

The Hitchhiker’s Guide Radio Show

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

In many ways, Rita’s story resonates as much now as it did in the 1980s, although undeniably the contexts and conditions of the working class, women, the higher education system, and notions of social “betterment” are a little bit different now than they were under Margaret Thatcher.2 As we cheer Rita along on her journey of discovery and smile at the lessons she seems to teach the equally frustrated but far less determined Frank, it’s worth wondering whether Rita would nowadays be able to save enough of her wages to cope with even the less-than-average tuition fees of the OU. We might also wonder about the extent to which Frank’s already shaky position in academia would be valued at all in 2013, given the ‘ivory tower’ quality of his knowledge and his lack of enthusiasm for most of his students. Alcoholism aside, would Frank’s influence on Rita count as “impact” given that it merely enriches her sense of self and possibly her earning potential, rather than the budget of the institution? What would her gratitude, and his, count for?

Of course, the whole play revolves around an examination of class stereotypes, at the same time as we can detect them in it. Undeniably, Rita achieves what she sets out to. For her, the intellectual opportunities offered by access to a previously more exclusive education system, are a liberation. Yet while she is hardly a stock agitprop-style ‘everywoman’, and although Russell gives her a personality and subjectivity all of her own that makes the audience actively like her, it’s hard to deny that there are elements of cliché about both her and the working class world she describes. Back home, it seems, she is the only person in existence who values learning, education, or going against the grain. Unless she settles for marriage and motherhood, literally no-one will support her. Further, she believes that Frank’s suggestion of a “working class culture” is just a risible middle class invention. Of course, she may paint in broad, harsh strokes through anger; her stance seems to soften by the end as she realises that not all is as she once imagined in the University environment. But isn’t it worth being cautious of her conviction that she must leave one group so fully behind in order to embrace the ‘best’ aspects of another? Equally, it doesn’t seem certain that Frank was ‘born to’ his position. He is not really Henry Higgins.

Having gone back to school at a time when there was barely such a thing as a ‘Mature student’ and after a period working as – you’ve guessed it – a hairdresser – Russell himself effectively was Rita; or a male version of her. He was no doubt aware of the potential issues with his ‘girl-done-good’ narrative and probably they are deliberate; still, I’d say they are not the most obvious so they’re worth flagging up. Do Rita and Russell, to some extent, unintentionally parody and patronise working class ambition? For me, slightly, yes. Watching Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its geeky sub-textual jokes about the cosmos, relativity, and the perfect cup of tea, we also find stereotypes being played with. But these are of a different sort – cheeky, apolitical and uninterrogated. What else would an Englishman do in space after all, but worry about his tea? Nonetheless, Hitchhiker’s humour works on multiple registers and, presented as a colourful multimedia “adventure” in this production, there are multiple ways to enjoy it. Here, I thought about the very different types of experience and knowledge that must have influenced the works of Adams, educated at a paid-for prep-school before he went on to Cambridge; the very kind of trajectory in fact, that Rita initially envies. As Willy Russell explained in an interview with Jim Mulligan:

Both my parents were passionately opposed to mob culture or mob thought. They could never stand unquestioning groups of people and I was brought up to see both sides of the question.

In a British culture too often obsessed with the supposed as well as the real divisions between those who come from different “classes”, and in which those are used negatively, that resistance is what we should remember.

1All I’ll say about that here is that Gillian Kearney was absolutely captivating and spot on as Rita, while Shappi Khorsandi, who clearly hadn’t bothered to rehearse her script, spoiled the combined efforts of an otherwise great cast at Hitchhiker’s.
2I’ll let others debate just how different and to what effect!

Anarchy Lives and Breathes

For months now posters and banners have been appearing all over the city centre to promote the 4th Manchester International Festival which brings artists and performers from around the world together for 3 weeks worth (almost) of exciting, new and original events. I’d hoped to go along to something but feared it might all be a bit expensive and had put off making arrangements. Imagine my joy then when a friend unexpectedly offered me a free ticket. Hurrah! After a few drinks in Albert Square, off we went to the Albert Hall, properly opened for the night to host an incredibly short but powerful performance by the massively popular Maxine Peake (does anyone NOT love her?!). She was here to interpret one of the most radical pieces of poetry written in the English language to date: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. As you probably know, this was Shelley’s reaction to “the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” – the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where hundreds of peaceful protestors were injured by government troops (Hussars and infantrymen) on horseback, 18 in total being killed.

Manchester town hall: not far from where the Massacre happened

The Albert Hall is usually shut. It’s been in a state of uncertainty for a number of years with the downstairs now and then used as a bar and the chapel upstairs in semi-disrepair, although it’s soon to reopen as a music hall. Repurposed by MIF as a pop-up performance space, this meant that Ms. Peake had an amazing place to orate from, emerging (it seemed out of nowhere) onto the candle-lit vestry where at moments she shook with a nervous adrenaline brought on most surely by the power of the words she was to share. Her tone and manner were those of an imploring, fiery and impassioned prophetess conjuring a vision for all who would listen. For a fleeting moment I wondered if her delivery was a little over the top. She quickly disabused me of that notion, or maybe she just made me forget. Like a muse summoned by Shelley himself she urged and implored us, still at first and then (in the poem’s final and longest movement) with outstretched hands. We (or at least the English) must stand fast against oppression; rise like lions after slumber against the ghastly and bloody pretenses of the corrupt authorities who hide from us their true nature.

peake orates

It’s blurry because she was all spectral and Joan of Arc like, okay?

As she came off stage to walk ghost-like through the crowd, at least half of the audience were left wondering how it could all have gone by so quickly. Ninety-one stanzas in barely over fifteen minutes! Leigh Hunt did not choose to publish this poem until after Shelley’s death, saying that he felt “the public were not yet sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit with which this flaming robe of verse is written”. Whether or not that was his real reason I am not qualified to say but it makes me wonder how much more discerning we are these days? Personally speaking, I vaguely remember reading the poem as an undergrad, and probably even saw an original copy at the Keats-Shelley house over in Rome. But if I’m honest, it’s not one that really struck me. During this performance the poem not only came to life, it transcended its source. It almost felt like we were part of some great historical moment. Quite possibly we would be, if only we could be shaken out of our apathy.

Fans of Maxine can hear her talking about her part in the Festival here.

A Serpentine Spring

Emerging, before even the turn of last century, from a handful of immigrant families and some traditional money-making laundrettes, Manchester’s Chinatown has grown to become the third largest in Europe. A half square-mile filled primarily with restaurants, supermarkets, herbalists and accountants, its growth was driven by a population explosion that began in 1984. In 1987, the erection of a beautiful Ming Dynasty Chinese arch (or Paifang) marked the fact that Chinatown and its community were most proudly and definitely here to stay.

Sometime every February then (the exact date changes according to the moon and the sun), various surrounding roads are closed off, everything becomes a great deal more colourful, and celebrations marking the start of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year begin. Food stalls, traditional music, a Dragon and Lion dance, and a 12 minute firework display were among this year’s festivities. The weather wasn’t exactly friendly, meaning that the crowds were a little smaller than hoped – but everybody who made it seemed to be having a great time, particularly the children buying paper dragons and sweets and waving long streamers around in the cold air while the stall holders gleefully shouted out half price promotions or cooked up delicious smelling food.

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According to the Chinese Zodiac, this year is the year of the Snake, the meaning of which varies by gender. According to Mary Bai at CITS:

People born in the year of the Snake often have a good temper and a skill at communicating but say little. They possess gracious morality and great wisdom. They are usually financially secure and do not have to worry about money. They are determined to accomplish their goals [and] hate to fail. Although they look calm on the surface, they are intense and passionate. They have a rich source of inspiration and understand themselves well. They are people of great perception. Women under the sign of the snake do well in housework but are irritable.

Masked Robbers

The first thing I do before settling down to work in the Geoffrey Manton building is fill up my bottle with a stream of lovely ice-cold water from the Water at Work machine. This is of course essential for anyone used to Scottish “council juice” rather than the harsh and hard English variety. 😛 Trying to stave off a craving for coffee, imagine my surprise when I was greeted by this:

A mysterious visitor at the water cooler

A mysterious visitor at the water machine

A student, armed with a laptop and a cardboard box full of masks and hats, sat cross-legged on the floor. Cheerfully he asked me whether or not I intended to walk down the nearby glass corridor, which leads toward the canteen, a stairwell, and various doors which have, in the past, confused me. “Ah, sorry, I’m not. I’m going the other way”. Which was a shame, because it meant that I couldn’t take part in his Masked Exposures project/experiment, losing my chance to consider “the perception and performance of altered identities” while embracing anonymity.

An intriguing box of faces

An intriguing box of faces

“So how do you make sure you get the masks back?” I asked, as he very kindly let me crouch down to take some photographs of him and his equipment. Another cheerful smile. “There’s a bucket at the end of the corridor for people to put them in. So far only one of them has gone AWOL.” Ah! Such faith in humanity. I wished him luck and went back to Room 118.

It must have been thirsty work because before heading off to TRAUMA to watch excellent film noir The Fallen Idol (sorry for the gratuitous plug but I do have to mention TRAUMA whenever possible) I returned to the water at work machine yet again, empty bottle in hand. The boy and his masks had disappeared. The sign which he’d enthusiastically stuck up on the door had been crossed out with biro and sadly annotated:

Abandoned due to theft

Abandoned due to theft

I found myself feeling disappointed and a little bit sad on his behalf. On the other hand, I wonder if this is all a semi-intentional part of the experiment? He’s certainly learned something about what people might do when they get the chance to embrace “anonymity”. In fact, his pretense was that anonymity when entering that corridor was “compulsory” – so in some ways it might be said that his participants/subjects were executing a certain predictable (?) act of rebellion through their thievery. Okay, okay, I realise that might be pushing it a bit! I only hope the masks won’t be too difficult for him to replace. He also learned a valuable lesson about University security – who told him that masks or no masks, he didn’t have permission to be there and really would have to clear off 😦

I’ll be interested to see Jake’s footage when the project is eventually completed and I wish him the best of luck.

Putting on the Ritz

Last night I took my first trip to the Ritz – a famous city centre club/live music venue – to hear Tame Impala, an Australian “psychedelic hypno-groove melodic rock” band who have a real and genuine buzz around them at the moment. It’s easy to hear why because their short but captivating set was some of the best live music I’ve heard in a long time. The entire audience seemed to have fallen (or be falling) hopelessly in love with the music, a feeling which only intensified when Kevin Parker and co let loose on tracks including Solitude is Bliss, Be Above It and Make Up Your Mind, which worked everyone into a happy frenzy. The Ritz is a great venue, somehow feeling intimate despite its size (capacity = 1500). There weren’t any signs of trouble either, which must have been a relief for the security guys who were more than happy to let me get in their way by leaning over the barrier to take some photographs. Thanks for that! 🙂

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I’ve said before I don’t like to try and write about music and I’m really not that good at it anyway. So if you haven’t heard the young, beautiful and unique Tame Impala yet then please, check them out straight away. You’ll probably hear the influence of early Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Supertramp, but apparently not anything drug-induced. Next time they play the UK, I’m definitely going to go see them again! You should too.

Between past and present

Last night I was spellbound by something that happened in Church. Actually, a lot of us were. There were DJs, dancing-girls, a futuristic robot… all sorts of strange machinery. At one point, there was even talk of witchcraft – and then a riot broke out. Seriously! You should have been there. But unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the latest attempt at modernisation by the Church of England. In fact, it was all down to the strange but blissful union between a legend of German cinema (Fritz Lang) and a legend of German electronic music (Dieter Moebius). Definitely a contender for coolest 68-year-old on the planet, Moebius performed a live, synthesised, and largely improvised score to a brand new restoration of Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis, in an event organised as part of Manchester’s annual Future Everything festival. To add yet another layer of spectral atmosphere, the whole thing took place inside the beautiful and spacious chapel of St.Philips church in Salford.

Lighting up in church

Appropriately then, proceedings were watched over by a rather saintly icon – sadly, not Maria – high up on the stained glass window above the altar, while at the lectern, a majestic eagle spread its wings. Moebius, standing at the other side with only a little workspace, looked calmly up at the screen and then back at his sonic toolkit, feeling his way into the narrative. Somehow, regardless of its age, the film manages to remain timeless. Class, religion, delusion, scientific progress, desire, politics, dreams, technology; all are wrapped up in an easy-to-follow narrative which reveals itself as a sequence of ethereal yet starkly symbolic Expressionist “mindscapes”. Special effects which, decades later, were often still risibly executed (e.g. the use of miniature sets or the appearance and movement of cyborgs) seem effortless: beyond reproach to an audience half-hypnotised by the world that Lang, cinematographer Karl Freund, and special effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan created. Included in this new version of the film are 25 precious minutes of lost footage, discovered only two years ago at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, in the archive of a private collector. This essentially brings Metropolis as close as it will get to the way it was when first released over 80 years ago.

The famous head of Hel


Watching in reverence

The film’s ultimate message, repeated more than once by Brigitte Helm‘s Maria, is that: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” Of course there is a role for technology in the achievement of societal advances; but we should never let ourselves be enslaved because of it. The feelings and qualities which make us human must move in harmony with what we invent; in precisely the way illustrated yesterday (music and film technology, composer, audience and sentiment) at what was a truly memorable event.

The Pen is still mightier

Last night I went along with some friends to a poetry recital at the Nexus Arts Cafe in the Northern Quarter. The event was called “Big Writing for a Small World” and was the showcase for work produced as a result of a creative writing workshop led by professional writer John Siddique and funded via English PEN. The authors were diverse in terms of nationality and also in terms of style, coming from Iran, Zimbabwe, China, England and Rwanda and reading work on a variety of themes – some light-hearted, others poignant and deep. Many of the authors are refugees or recent immigrants to the UK. As Mr Siddique pointed out in his introduction, sometimes being “milked for their stories” seems to be the entry fee for admission into Britain. His workshop was therefore about inspiring the writers to find and express them selves rather than creating something directly derived from whatever conflict or trauma they may have borne witness to.

Heaps of creativity...and sandwiches

All of the writing was very impressive, particularly the work of Elmi Ali, who is just 20 years old but whose poems have the wisdom and sensitivity of someone far older. Having grown up surrounded by sisters his instinctive poetic voice is, he says, a very female one. It’s an interesting challenge then to try and write from a “masculine” perspective – at the same time as embracing what he learned from his female relatives. Mahboobeh Rajabi‘s “My Maria”, a tribute to her sister, was genuinely touching, and Yinka Akintayo‘s “The Bag” (using the imagined voice of an over-stuffed handbag) had everyone laughing out loud. This morning, reading the anthology produced to celebrate the work of all “Big Writing” participants nationwide, I’ve found many more gems. If you want to discover them for yourself then you’re in luck – English PEN have uploaded the full collection to Scribd! 🙂