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August 14 2012

Glyndebourne 2012: Le nozze di Figaro from page to stage - video

This film follows the creation of award-winning designer Christopher Oram's Moorish inspired set from the page to the Glyndebourne stage





July 26 2012

Tino Sehgal, participatory art and the Booker prize: a week in the arts

Who's on – and off – the Man Booker longlist, varying responses to Tino Sehgal's new Turbine Hall installation and the Twitter debate about who should be paid in participatory art

The Man Booker longlist – sans Tremain, Lanchester, Amis, McEwan, Pat Barker, Banville, and, most surprisingly, Smith, was announced. Gaby Wood on the Telegraph, who was a judge on the much-criticised prize last year, welcomed the fact that the longlist supports "ambition and experiment". Justine Jordan of this parish, though bewildered by the absence of Zadie Smith (and yes, she has read it) praised the list's "eccentricity and invention". (When pressed in person she suggested that if you're going to read one book on the list, aside from the one you already have – the Mantel – it should be Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. I'm also hearing from early readers that the Will Self is very good.)

• The new Turbine Hall installation, These Associations by Tino Sehgal, opened. I wrote a report on the work, in which participants approach members of the public and tell them a story about themselves, and Adrian Searle gave it a really enthusiastic, five-star review. Jonathan Jones offered a view on the fact that there are no official photos allowed of Sehgal's work. Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph was less enthusiastic, saying: "There is still a whiff of artifice about their stories, which feel polished and rehearsed."

• There was an interesting piece by Claire Bishop on the Guardian's comment pages about the nature of participatory art, which fed into something that had kind of been bugging me regarding what Sehgal had been saying at the press conference about anarchy and crowds and suchlike: his work is, of course, highly organised and controlled in one sense, presenting a highly wrought structure for the human interactions to take place within. Bishop addressed this. Sehgal's pieces, she wrote, "like so much other participatory art under neoliberalism, serve a double agenda: offering a popular art of and for the people, while at the same time, reminding us that today we all experience a constant pressure to perform and, moreover, this is one in which we have no choice but to participate". I sort of agree with her; on the other hand, Sehgal's work is such an elegant rebuff to the idea of monumental sculpture and such a fascinating way of looking at crowds versus individuals (let's face it, the experience of Tate Modern is usually about the individual (oneself) trying to have a moment with another individual (an artist) despite the hordes, that I'm still inclined to like it.

• This leads me to another debate about participatory art: who should, or shouldn't be paid? The "interpreters" in the Sehgal piece are not professional performers but are taking part in the piece in their free time. They are working in strict four-hour shift patterns with breaks, and paid between £8 and £9 per hour – "a matter of respect", Jessica Morgan, the Tate curator said to me. I suspect it is also a matter of good fortune, since the Tate has its Unilever sponsorship to help pay for this to happen all day every day until the end of October. But, what if you are producing You Me Bum Bum Train? Here the performers are not being paid, as Laura Barnett reported, and Equity is not pleased. It's clear that the blurring of boundaries between the audience and the performers in such works hits a bit of a nerve; are the structures of traditional theatre, including the union, fitted to tackle this kind of experimental work? Marcus Romer, artistic director of Pilot Theatre, wrote a blog arguing that performers always ought to be paid. This came out of an interesting discussion on Twitter, in which that view was challenged by Andy Field, for whose Forest Fringe performers and theatre-makers have worked for free. A flavour of his tweets on Bum Bum: "They're not working, though are they? It's not a 3-month internship or three weeks of rehearsal. You do it in your spare time."; "And what about people that volunteer to work [with] Spencer Tunick? Or Nic Green? Or who run with the Olympic torch?"; "I'm suggesting there's a difference between the demands and expectations of an actor in a play and a performer in Bum Bum."

• It's almost a month now since the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela mambo'd out of town. The debates it raises in Britain go on. A piece in Classical Music magazine was highly critical of the adulation that the Sistema receives on these shores. Marshall Marcus wrote a rejoinder on his blog. Perhaps the most penetrating piece, however, was by cellist and former Maestro judge Zoë Martlew. In several respects, she nails what's going on: she exposes the poor quality of many music-education projects in the UK and, despite her own clearly expressed scepticism at elements of Dudamania, she identifies what's good about the Sistema. "They didn't get there via PC education projects. They have achieved excellence by sheer hard work from a young age combined with an absolute love of the music they play instilled by a fully funded training system." She adds: "I find it supremely ironic that [the Simón Bolívar Orchestra], trained (in part) by volunteers from my own state-funded music generation, is now invited back here to light the classical music fire in the generation Thatcher lost."

What I'm reading

Elanor Dymott's debut novel Every Contact Leaves a Trace. It is very, very engrossing, a kind of fragmentary literary thriller set, in part, in Oxford. But it is much cleverer and more nuanced than that description suggests (the university setting is not just for colour, but becomes thematically active as the place where knowledge is sought and tested). Highly recommended as pacy holiday reading that's also deeply thoughtful and very smart.


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June 29 2012

The designer going from Gaga to the Olympic closing ceremony

Es Devlin has designed sets for Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Take That, and has just recreated Carthage for Les Troyens at Covent Garden. Now she is preparing for the biggest show of all – the London 2012 closing ceremony

What do Harold Pinter, Lady Gaga, the Royal Opera House, Batman and the organising committee of the London Olympic games have in common? More clues? Add to that list Kanye West, Sadlers Wells, Take That and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Answer: the stage designer Es Devlin. Since emerging in the late 1990s, Devlin has put together an impressively varied body of work that ranges from rooms above pubs, opera houses and sporting stadiums. A revival of her production of Strauss's Salome at the Royal Opera House has just closed and a new production of Berlioz's Les Troyens has just opened. She designed Kanye West's recent O2 concerts and Rihanna's sets for her Brits and Grammy appearances. In August she will design the closing ceremony for the London Olympic games.

"Of course they are all different, but they are also all the same in the thought processes that go into them," she explains. "There's no other way to do it." She says while the productions have different rhythms, with the lead time for opera measured in years and for television sometimes in hours, there is extensive cross-fertilisation of ideas that emerge over time. "I was thinking about a 20m-high man made out of junk for the Take That tour in 2010, at the same time as having my first thoughts about a huge horse made of destroyed weaponry for Les Troyens. I was creating a model of Gotham City for the Batman live show at the same time as a version of Bruges that was like a map of a brain, with its system of neural canals for Korngold's opera Die Tote Stadt in Helsinki. There's also a miniature city in Les Troyens. Everything comes out differently in the end, but you can sort of trace where my head has been at any given time."

Devlin has previously dealt with the narrative material of Berlioz's monumental five-hour opera based on the Aeneid when designing Euripides's Hecuba, starring Vanessa Redgrave, for the RSC. The research into Berlioz's life and work has largely come through David Cairns's award-winning biography. "The bloody thing is two volumes long. He could have got it into one book! But it is a magnificent project. Absolutely fascinating. And that's always the way it happens for me. Someone brings me a project I know little about before taking it on, and I find myself asking 'how the fuck didn't I know about this stuff?' It all adds to a bed of information that becomes part of my mental landscape that I then can't imagine not being there."

Les Troyens is directed by David McVicar. The pair also worked together on Salome and Devlin claims her route from theatre and opera into the pop world began with that production. In a South Bank Show about McVicar, Devlin was spotted by the pop singer Mika – "I suspect it was actually his mother who saw the programme, although he insists it was him" – which lead her to work on his stadium concerts. Soon after she was designing the Take That tour, working with some of the team behind the London 2012 events.

She chose Niall Ferguson's history of the British empire as her primary Olympics research book. "I was trying to find some virtuous things about the empire, but most of what I came across was pretty bad. However, British music was and is something we can be very proud of and so we have tried to imagine a celestial radio that only tunes into British music and then made something out of finding your way through the frequencies. There are a lot of technical restrictions – there is only a 4m door for a start, so nothing higher can be brought into the arena than that – so my starting point was simple: what would it be like with just a single voice in the darkness and we've gone from there."

And it was a simple sound and light show – albeit on a more modest scale than in an Olympic stadium – that provided Devlin with one of her first theatrical memories. "There was a son et lumière set in the model of Rye town where I lived as a child. The little houses would light up and they would tell the ghost stories associated with writers who had lived in the area such as Henry James, Rumer Godden and Joan Aiken. I loved it and actually took my own children back to see it quite recently; the magic held up pretty well."

Devlin was born in 1971 and grew up in Sussex. She and her siblings "made things all the time. We'd make board games and try to invent the new Monopoly. We'd always be playing round with projectors and light bulbs." Her theatrical exposure included annual pantos, but also trips to London with godparents to see Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. "I was stage struck, but that was as much to do with coming to London as with the shows. Woven into my memory of the shows was going to a restaurant and seeing the lights of cars going past the window. It was very exciting."

She played the violin, clarinet and piano and studied at the Royal Academy of Music Saturday classes but eventually went on to read English at university. A fine art foundation course followed at St Martin's before she was accepted to study set design on the Motley Theatre Design Course. "People kept telling me to go and look at this course which only has 10 people and is in Drury Lane. I wasn't even that much of a theatregoer – but that's not so unusual among designers. It's a standing joke that you ask what have they been to see lately and they haven't been to see anything – but when I got there I felt completely at home and that's when I started going to see absolutely everything in London as well as making things like a Duracell rabbit. I just got going."

In 1996 she won a Linbury award as a student "and the prize was a job, which is the best thing you can give anyone." She designed a production of Edward II in a swimming pool for the Bolton Octagon and by 1997 she was an associate artist at Bush Theatre from where she would "audaciously" send letters to theatre people asking them to see her shows. Trevor Nunn accepted the invitation – "he wanted to see the show anyway" – and in 1998 asked Devlin to design his new production of Pinter's Betrayal at the Lyttelton. Devlin wrote to Rachel Whiteread, explaining that she intended to pay homage to her art work, House, in her design for a play she thought was about remembered rooms.

"She gave her blessing which was wonderful. But that poor Pinter piece," Devlin laughs. "All it needed was a stage and some good acting. It's all in the writing and did not need all the stuff I laid on to it. But Pinter was so sweet about it and he would introduce me to people and say 'This is Es, she wrote the play.' I'd never do that design now, but I was thrilled that I did it then because it was absolutely what I believed in. It was wonderful that my parents gave us all so much confidence, and it's been a huge help. But when I look back now I do cringe a little. In that sense being given the name Esmeralda was a good as an open invitation to other children to prick that bubble at least a little bit, but some of the things I did were still so wrong, but I just pushed them through because of this confidence. People must have looked at me like I was crazy upstart, but I just muscled along."

It was an approach that soon saw her working with the Rambert Dance Company for the re-opening of Sadlers Wells and being asked to design her first opera for the Guildhall School of Drama. "And then things started to come in thick and fast," designing for the RSC as well as for opera houses all over europe. In 2003 she was offered her first non-operatic musical commission when the group Wire asked her to design one half – Jake and Dinos Chapman designed the other – of their farewell gig at the Barbican.

"I was becoming slightly institutionalised so it came at good time for me. When I began I would be asking theatres for awkward things and they would give me reasons why they couldn't do it. Pretty soon directors were asking me for awkward things and I would be telling them why they couldn't do it. I was getting a little conditioned by the establishment so to step outside theatre gave me a kind of jolt."

Kanye West heard about the Wire show and the two have been working together since 2005. "Seven years is quite something in a world that changes so rapidly. He's a completely extraordinary character. The speed of mind is phenomenal and you really have to be on your toes. You get halfway through a sentence and he says 'Yeah. got it.' And you have to move on. We've had some serious fights because he is a perfectionist. But you have to realise you are working with extraordinary people. I do think performers are a different species. It sounds pretentious, but if you have an opportunity to be part of what they're doing then you put your hands up and help out. I think I'm busy. But just getting up and being West or Gaga for a day is exhausting."

Devlin invited West to see Salome at Covent Garden and on his next tour he incorporated an orchestra pit into his stage show. She says there is increasing crossover between the different worlds in which she operates, particularly in terms of technology, but the essential aims are ultimately the same.

"It is all about creating a coherent world. If you walk into a theatre you trust your imagination to the people putting on the show. That is why it is so important at the beginning of a show to broker the terms of that engagement and then to see it through. It comes down to telling the truth. Honest people are interesting." The act of telling a truth is fascinating whether it's in a theatre, opera house or stadium. "You might think a Take That concert is lacking in truth. But when you are there, with 80,000 other people singing those tunes you see how important they have been to their lives. You hear those songs on the radio, whether by Gary Barlow or Elton John or whoever, and they hook into you before you realise what the song is. There is a huge emotional truth in that for an awful lot of people." One of her notes to self for the Olympics is that people have to get things absolutely instantly. "It has to be get it! Get it! Get it! You can pick out just a fraction of a song and people will recognise it immediately and it takes them to the place they remember it from. The music is going to be wonderful. Putting it on is the tricky bit."

After the last medal has been awarded Devlin and her team will have 16 hours to prepare the set. Half of that time will be spent protecting the pitch. "It's going to be tight. As Jay-Z says: 'Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week,' which is part of the reason that when you work for these guys you can get a bit mangled. You are the person doing the impossible in a week. We will have rehearsals off-site and if we're lucky we'll get one inside on the day, but not necessarily. Flying? Lighting? Video? You'd usually say sort it all out in the tech rehearsal, but there might not be one. I don't normally get stressed, but I am a bit anxious about this one."


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June 28 2012

Culture coach: the week's essential arts stories

RIP Nora Ephron; the Spice Girls musical girl-powered into London; and the Venezuelans hit the South Bank

• What you always wanted: the Spice Girls musical. Mark Brown reported. Viva Forever! with book by Jennifer Saunders, is at the Piccadilly Theatre from December. He told me the publicist had said it was like herding cats, getting those women together for the photo opp.

• The British Museum and the V&A have been given an Art Fund grant to establish a contemporary photography collection charting changes in the Middle East. The most recent works relate to the Arab Spring.

• In a row about Scottish arts funding, Creative Scotland apologised for inadvertently causing anxiety over changes announced to the funding regime ... More of this to come in the Guardian.

• Lots of reviews of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela. Financial Times; the Independent; the Guardian. Love them or hate them, it's impossible to deny the impact they have on audiences.

• RIP Nora Ephron, whose real force as a feminist thinker and essayist is being appreciated, it seems, only now. All our coverage on one page. Hadley Freeman wrote a lovely thing. So did Emma Brockes. For a quick and lovely treat give yourself her Girl with a Dragon Tattoo spoof.

• For a heavenly, and very funny piece about the perils of a conductor's life, read The Worst Concert of My Life from Mikel Toms' blog.


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May 20 2012

This week's cultural highlights: The Raid and Bath festival jazz weekend

Our critics' picks of this week's openings, plus your last chance to see and what to book now

• Which cultural events are in your diary this week? Tell us in the comments below

Opening this week

Theatre

Wah! Wah! Girls
British musical meets Bollywood in new love-against-the-odds show set in the East End of London with a cast of 14, almost all British Asians and a Polish handyman. Peacock,London, Thursday to 23 June.

Posh
Laura Wade has updated her Royal Court hit to point the spotlight once again on the Oxbridge dining clubs that spawned the posh boys currently in power. Duke of Yorks theatre, London, until 4 August.

Betrayal
John Simm stars in Harold Pinter's semi-autobiographical play about an adulterous love affair. The power of the piece is that it works backwards from its bitter end to the moment the affair first sparked. Crucible, Sheffield, until 9 June.

Film

The Raid (dir. Gareth Evans)
Brilliant martial arts bulletfest from Indonesia that puts western action movies to shame. Welsh director Evans orchestrates nail-biting sequences. Out now.

Dance

The Royal Ballet Ballo Della Regina and La Sylphide
Romantic illusion and virtuosity combine in this double bill of works by George Balanchine and August Bournonville. Royal Opera House, London, in rep from Monday until 15 June.

Emio Greco/PC: Rocco
Dance is reconfigured as a boxing match in this new work from Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten, inspired by Visconti's film Rocco and His Brothers, about a prostitute who brings trouble to the siblings. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London , Tuesday and Wednesday.

Classical

Caligula
The British premiere of Detlev Glanert's 2005 opera based upon the play by Albert Camus. Peter Coleman-Wright is the crazed Roman emperor in Benedict Andrews's production for ENO, with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting. Coliseum, London, Friday until 14 June.

Philip Glass at 75
The latest instalment of Glasgow survey of minimalism pays a birthday tribute to one of its founding fathers, including the British premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Kronos Quartet playing his film score to Bela Lugosi's Dracula, and the man himself giving a solo piano recital. Royal Concert Hall and City Halls, Glasgow (0141-353 8000), Thursday to Saturday.

Jazz

Arve Henriksen/Trio Mediaeval
Norwegian trumpeter Henriksen has taken the ambiguous, muted sound of Miles Davis as adapted by his fellow-countryman Nils Petter Molvaer, and given it a unique contemporary spin with the help of ingenious electronics, and a world-music perspective that includes study of the ethereal Japanese shakuhachi flute. He lends his inimitable variations to the early-music vocals and plainsong of Trio Mediaeval. Sage, Gateshead, Monday. Then touring.

Visual art

The Historical Box
Dissident American art created in the aftermath of Vietnam, 1960s performance and the feminist revolution – mangled things and angry things, from a time when art thought it could make a difference. Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly, London, Wednesday to 28 July.

Pop

Japandroids
The euphoric rock duo preview forthcoming album Celebration Rock up and down the UK. Cooler, Bristol, tonight. Then touring until 29 May.

Jay-Z and Kanye West
Superstar rappers bring their Watch the Throne collaboration to London as a forerunner for gigs in Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield next month. 02, London, tonight and tomorrow.

Last chance to see

Theatre

Making Noise Quietly
Robert Holman's exquisite triptych of mini-dramas that explores what it means to be human in a violent world. Just beautiful. Donmar, London, until Saturday.

Film

Breathing (dir. Karl Markovics)
A tremendous social-realist drama from Austria directed by actor-turned-director Markovics. An orphaned teenage criminal tries to discover his mother's identity.

Classical

The Flying Dutchman
The end of the first run of ENO's new production, much praised for Edward Gardner's conducting, and for performances by James Cresswell, Orla Boylan and Stuart Skelton. Coliseum, London , until Wednesday.

Jazz

Lynne Arriale/Benny Golson
Arriale, a quietly forceful Bill Evans-influenced American pianist with a knack for unusual interpretation and evocative composing invites legendary saxist/composer Golson (the bluesy acid-jazz favourite Killer Joe is his) into her regular Convergence Quartet. Ronnie Scott's, London, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Art

Elizabeth Price
Fetishised objects, great music, scenes in galleries – and in a drowned container ship. These are digital video installations with a hardcore hi-tech sheen from the 2012 Turner prize contender. Baltic, Gateshead, until Sunday.

Pop

The Horrors
Southend-on-Sea's post-punkers conclude the UK leg of their seemingly endless world tour. Brixton Academy, Friday.

Book now

Theatre

Fuerza Bruta
Return of the rave show from the people who brought us the legendary De La Guarda. This isn't in the same league, but if you're looking for excitement and sensation, this shouldn't disappoint.Roundhouse, London, 27 December to 26 January.

Ben Hur
An impossible feat: a stage version of the epic novel featuring sea battles, Roman orgies and chariot-racing, all on a stage the size of a postage stamp. A cast of four play 12,059 characters! Should be fun. Watermill, Newbury (01635 46044), 22 June to 28 July

Dance

Flawless and English National Ballet: Time Is of the Essence
Ballet, street dance and acrobatics test out their mutual chemistry in this new collaboration choreographed by Marlon Wallen and Jenna Lee. HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London, , 1-2 JuneThen touring.

Classical

Spitalfields summer festival
This year's associate artists are the Gabrieli Consort and Players, cellist Matthew Barley and composer Talvin Singh; plus there's a wide range of choral music, from the renaissance to the present day, with new works from Alec Roth, Huw Watkins and Nicola LeFanu. Various venues, London, 8-23 June.

Jazz

Bath festival jazz weekend
This festival always features a wide-ranging jazz weekend: this year's includes saxophonist Jason Yarde's subtle duo with pianist Andrew McCormack, Courtney Pine's genre-bending Europa, pianists Stan Tracey, Tord Gustavsen, Gwilym Simcock and Zoe Rahman, along with Manchester's acclaimed young Beats & Pieces big band. Various venues, Bath, 2-4 June.

Art

Wide Open School
A hundred artists lead courses, lectures and demonstrations open to the public. Get down and dirty with the Gelitin group, take a course in queer home economics, cook offal with Yto Barrada, learn about energy not quality with Thomas Hirschhorn. Hayward, London , 11 June-11 July.

Pop

Richard Hawley
The bequiffed son of Sheffield takes his latest album, Standing at the Sky's Edge, out for an autumn jaunt. Tour begins at Holmfirth Picture House, West Yorkshire, 16 September.


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April 01 2012

This week's cultural highlights: Into the Abyss and Madonna

Our critics' picks of this week's openings, plus your last chance to see and what to book now

• Which cultural events are in your diary this week? Tell us in the comments below

Opening this week

Theatre

In a Garden
The Ustinov's ambitious season of modern American plays continues with the British premiere of Howard Korder's play about an American architect summoned to a Middle Eastern country to fulfil an impossible commission. Richard Beecham directs a tale of dangerous misunderstandings. Ustinov, Bath (01225 448844), Wednesday until 5 May.

Film

Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog probes the dark heart of humanity with his death-row interviews. Why do people kill?

Dance

The Royal Ballet: Mixed Bill
The Royal at their adventurous best, with new works by Liam Scarlett and Wayne McGregor, plus a revival of Wheeldon's classy, intelligent Polophonia. Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), Thursday until 23 April.

The Eifman Ballet: Anna Karenina (Tue-Weds) Onegin (Fri)
Big, passionate storytelling from this St Petersburg-based company. London Coliseum, WC2 (0871 911 0200), Tuesday until 7 April.

Classical

St John Passion
Stephen Layton's performances with his choir Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are regularly among the best of the annual crop of Easter passions; Ian Bostridge takes the role of the Evangelist this time. St John's, Smith Square, London SW1 (020-7222 1061), Friday.

Aldeburgh Easter Weekend
Beethoven is this year's focus; Elisabeth Leonskaja's performances of the last three piano sonatas are flanked by performances of the Ninth Symphony, with the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Ben Parry, and Schoenberg's rarely heard choral piece Friede auf Erden providing the prologue. Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh (01728 687110), Friday to Sunday.

Jazz

Oxford Jazz festival

Lively, week-long international festival, including Swedish jazz singer Cecilia Stalin (exploring new vocal settings for classic John Coltrane themes) at the Ashmolean Dining Room on Thursday, innovative young guitarist Kristian Borring at COPA on Friday, and a full Easter weekend programme – headlined by bass star Michael Janisch's international group, the New York Standards Quartet at Oxford Playhouse on 7 April. Various venues, Oxford, 1-7 April.

Pop

The Futureheads
In the wake of their a cappella album, Rant – a pretty bold move by anyone's standards – the Futureheads embark on an acoustic and a cappella tour. Tour begins Monday, Komedia Brighton (01273 647100).

Orbital
There's something rather pleasing about the way the reformed Orbital have gone from providing a night out for disco dads to a genuine musical force once more: new album Wonky may actually be their best. Tour begins Thursday, Manchester Academy (0161-832 1111).

Visual art

Remote Control
Exploring the impact television has had on culture, this is more than just artists on the box. This huge group show channel-surfs Richard Hamilton and Richard Serra, Adrian Piper, Taryn Simon, Mark Leckey and many others, from the 60s to the present. ICA, London SW1 (020-7930 3647), Tuesday to 10 June.

Last chance to see

Theatre

Romeo and Juliet
Young, fresh, vibrant and completely heartbreaking, and you can't often say that about Shakespeare's over-familiar tale of star-crossed lovers. A memorable revival from director Robert Icke and Headlong. Hull Truck (01482 323638), until Saturday.

Film

Michael (dir. Markus Schleinzer)
This brilliant and bizarre drama, inspired by the Fritzl and Kampusch cases, shows the banal life of a paedophile. The suspense is unbearable.

Jazz

Get the Blessing
Vivacious jazz-rock band driven by Portishead's rhythm section plays mix of Ornette Coleman-influenced jazz, Morricone-like atmospherics and old-school twangy guitar rock from new OC DC album. Ronnie Scott's, London W1 (020-7439 0747), Tuesday.

Pop

Le Beat Bespoke Weekender
The Pretty Things, the Sorrows, July, the Poets and the Trashmen: if these are the kind of vintage names that excite you, then this mammoth annual mod/psych event offers nirvana. 229, London W1 (020-7323 7229), Thursday to Sunday.

Kylie Minogue
Who would have thought, 25 years ago, that Kylie Minogue might celebrate her silver jubilee by playing gigs consisting entirely of B-sides, demos and rarities? Tour ends Monday, Manchester Academy (0161-832 1111).

Visual art

Thomas Demand Model Studies
Demand photographs models of real and imagined places – this time working with rediscovered architectural models by celebrated US architect John Lautner (1911-94). Images of haunting, mysterious, decaying places. Nottingham Contemporary (0115-948 9750), until 15 April.

Book now

Theatre

Professor Vanessa's Wondershow
The era of the 1930s and 40s circus sideshow is recreated in a show that will take over the Roundhouse's main space and invite audiences to step back in time. Gawp at the headless lady and the electrifying 27,000-volt girl, and marvel at the human insect circus performers. Roundhouse, London NW1 (0844 482 8008), 23-29 April.

Wonderland
Alice gets a makeover, in an adults-only new piece from the ever-inventive Vanishing Point, which looks at what happens when a young girl leaves home in search of fame and stardom. A tale of dreams, temptations and curiosity. Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000), 29 August to 1 September.

The Sunshine Boys
It's not so much Neil Simon's tale of a legendary vaudevillian double act that is the draw here as the casting, which is very tasty indeed. Thea Sharrock directs Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths in this tale of showbiz rivalries. Savoy, London WC2 (0844 871 7687), 27 April until 28 July.

Film

This Must Be the Place (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino's English-language debut has Sean Penn as a retired Goth rocker living in Dublin. News about his father sends him on an American quest.

Dance

International Dance Festival Birmingham
Birmingham's month-long dance programme brings UK revivals for hit shows like Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant's Push, a solo for Louise LeCavalier created by Nigel Charnock, and the premiere of a new work featuring the disabled dance virtuoso David Toole. Various venues, from 23 April until 19 May.

Classical

Einstein on the Beach
Some seats still available for the UK premiere of Philip Glass's groundbreaking stage work, in a recreation of Robert Wilson's original 1976 production. Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 4-13 May.

Jazz

Esperanza Spalding

Charismatic young Grammy-winning vocalist/bassist Spalding brings her 12-piece band to London, showcasing songs from her April album release, Radio Music Society. With her stage presence, acoustic-bass virtuosity, graceful vocals and seamless fusion of jazz, pop and classical chamber music, Spalding has star power written all over her. Koko, London, NW1 (0870 432 5527), 28 May.

Pop

Madonna

Whether you think MDNA represents a return to classic form or a more modest achievement, Madonna's UK tour is bound to be one of the summer's biggest musical events. Tour begins 17 July, Hyde Park, London (0844 576 5483).

Visual art

Glasgow international festival of visual art
Interactive art by Jeremy Deller, Wolfgang Tillmans photographs, Richard Wright drawings, LA-based installationist Kelly Nipper at Tramway, a new film co-commissioned with Scottish Ballet by Rosalind Nashashibi, and much more, at venues throughout Scotland's funkiest city. What's not to like? Various venues, 20 April to 7 May.


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March 31 2012

Spring arts calendar 2012

From Snow White to Jack White, and Cumbria to Cannes, the Observer's critics pick the season's highlights. What are you most looking forward to? Post your comments below

Download the spring arts calendar 2012

April

2 Pop Dr John The New Orleans legend decamps to Nashville to record with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach; excellence ensues on the Locked Down LP.

4 Art Damien Hirst The world's richest living artist enjoys a major survey of more than 20 years of his work, including medicine cabinets, diamond skull and a certain preserved shark. Tate Modern, London until 9 September.

6 Film This Must Be the Place Sean Penn plays a retired rock star scouring America for the fugitive Nazi who tormented his father in Auschwitz. Paolo Sorrentino escapes from the art house in his first English-language film.

7 Theatre Where Have I Been All My Life? Following the success of London Road, her verbatim musical at the National, Alecky Blythe documents a local talent show for the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Until 28 April.

11 Art Hans-Peter Feldmann A retrospective for the German conceptual artist whose work since the 1950s has involved collecting and re-presenting everyday cultural artefacts. Serpentine Gallery, London until 3 June.

11 Dance A Streetcar Named Desire Scottish Ballet unite choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and theatre director Nancy Meckler in a new take on Tennessee Williams's psychodrama. Theatre Royal Glasgow until 14 April, and touring.

12 Theatre The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning Before he was a WikiLeaks whistleblower, Bradley Manning was a schoolboy in Wales, and this National Theatre of Wales production is staged in his old Haverfordwest school before transferring to two other Welsh venues. Until 28 April.

13 Theatre Wild Swans Jung Chang's international bestseller charting the incredible lives of three generations of women in China takes to the stage. Young Vic, London until 13 May.

16 Classical Bruckner Project Daniel Barenboim (conductor) and his Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra return to London for Bruckner's three final symphonies, 7, 8 and 9, paired with Barenboim as soloist in two Mozart piano concertos. At the Royal Festival Hall, London for three nights.

19 Dance Artifact Set to the music of Bach and danced here by the impeccable Royal Ballet of Flanders is the subversive new-dance master piece of the American choreographer William Forsythe. Sadler's Wells, London until 21 April.

20 Theatre Sea Odyssey The Sultan's Elephant entranced us in 2006; now Royal de Luxe take over Liverpool city centre with 50-foot marionettes for a street spectacular marking 100 years since the Titanic's maiden voyage. Until 22 April.

20 Art Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art More than 130 artists, including 2009 Turner prize-winner Richard Wright, show work over 18 days at this major visual art festival in Glasgow, now in its fifth edition. Until 7 May.

23 Pop Jack White Jack White's debut solo album, Blunderbuss, is every bit as tremendous as you would hope from this restless former Stripe. There's a new colour scheme – blue – and his touring outfit (coming to the UK 21-24 June) features one all-male band and an all-female counterpart. The album, though, doesn't need gimmicks to sell it. Replete with waltzes, ballads, pianos, bravura guitar solos and troublesome women, it finds the newly-divorced White on energetic, mischievous form.

25 Art Out of Focus Major show featuring 38 photographers, including Ryan McGinley, Mat Collishaw, John Stezaker and Yumiko Utsu, who challenge the received rules of the medium. Saatchi Gallery, London until 22 July.

27 Film Albert Nobbs In a role she created on stage 30 years ago, Glenn Close plays a cross-dressing hotel waiter in Victorian Dublin. Close also co-wrote the script with novelist John Banville. Both she and Janet McTeer were Oscar-nominated for the film.

28 Classical Monteverdi's Vespers 1610 The great Italian choral masterpiece associated with St Mark's, Venice takes over the galleries and balconies of Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow for full spatial effect. The Dunedin Consort hold court.

May

1 Classical Vale of Glamorgan Festival Taking place in spring not autumn for the first time, this contemporary music festival celebrates Gavin Bryars, Philip Glass at 75 and more, across several venues in Cardiff. Until 11 May.

2 Theatre The Rest is Silence Site-specific company dreamthinkspeak kick off this year's Brighton festival with a "meditation on Shakespeare's Hamlet". Expect labyrinthine adventure. Malthouse Estate Warehouse, Shoreham until 27 May.

3 Design Bauhaus: Art As Life A big show of a big school: before the Nazis closed it down, the Bauhaus led the way in defining modern architecture, design and art. Barbican, London until 10 August.

6 Pop Grimes Canadian synth darling Claire Boucher brings her Visions album – already one of the year's most talked-about – out to play in Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. Until 10 May.

8 Theatre Babel Wildworks, the Cornish creators of last year's acclaimed Port Talbot production of The Passion starring Michael Sheen, stage an outdoor event inspired by the biblical story of Babel. A collaboration with four London theatres involving 500-plus people, this epic show explores what happens when the scattered tribes are called back. Caledonian Park, London N1 until 20 May.

10 Dance Snow White With costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier and music by Mahler, Angelin Preljocaj's darkly adult take on the Grimms' fairytale promises a very sophisticated pleasure indeed. Sadler's Wells, London until 12 May.

10 Pop The Great Escape This Brighton powwow has become a nigh-on unmissable appointment with every new band going. Until 12 May.

11 Film Dark Shadows In Tim Burton's film version of the camp gothic American TV sitcom, an 18th-century vampire (Johnny Depp) is unleashed on the year 1972.

12 Classical LSO and Valery Gergiev The London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev brave evening traffic to play Trafalgar Square for the first time with The Rite of Spring. "The acoustics will be a challenge," says Gergiev.

16 Film Cannes Film Festival Wes Anderson's new film Moonrise Kingdom opens the 65th festival. The Artist's silent march to Oscars success started at Cannes last year – will another winner be unearthed this time round? Until 27 May.

16 Art Bedwyr Williams: My Bad Biggest solo show to date for Williams, whose often hilarious work explores the absurdities of life in his native north Wales. At Ikon, Birmingham until 8 July.

18 Film The Dictator After Borat and Brüno – General Admiral Shabazz Aladeen. Sacha Baron Cohen's newest mock-doc character is the dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern state. Megan Fox appears as a concubine.

20 Art Photographers' Gallery Reopens London's biggest public photography gallery, recently relocated to Oxford Circus, celebrates its £8.9m facelift and extension with an Edward Burtynsky show, until 2 July.

23 Theatre Posh Laura Wade's 2010 Royal Court hit about an elitist Bullingdon Club-style dining institution at Oxford gets a West End transfer to the Duke of York's theatre, London. Until 4 August.

27 Classical King Priam A strong season at the Brighton festival (from 5 May) culminates in this rare chance to hear Tippett's King Priam in concert, performed by the Britten Sinfonia and Brighton Festival Chorus, conductor Sian Edwards.

31 Theatre Wah! Wah! Girls Love against the odds in London's East End drives Sadler's Wells' Bollywood-style musical at the Peacock theatre, directed by Kneehigh's Emma Rice. Until 23 June.

June

1 Design Serpentine Pavilion Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, the team who gave Beijing its Bird's Nest stadium, reunite to build the latest of the Serpentine's annual pavilions. Until 14 October.

1 Film Prometheus; Snow White and the Huntsman Beginning of the summer's blockbusters as Ridley Scott's hotly anticipated Alien prequel goes head-to-head with the Grimm Brothers reworking.

6 Dance Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch Month-long season of 10 works by the late, great German choreographer, each exploring a different world city. Barbican and Sadler's Wells, London. Until 9 July.

7 Classical Opera Holland Park Another mouth-watering seven-opera season opens with Lucia di Lamermoor. Also includes Gianni Schicchi, Eugene Onegin and the family-friendly Fantastic Mr Fox. Holland Park, London W8 until 4 August.

8 Pop No Direction Home New boutique festival from the End of the Road people bringing sounds to north Notts's Welbeck Estate. Richard Hawley, Gruff Rhys and Dirty Three headline. Until 10 June.

15 Film Rock of Ages This adaptation of the Broadway/West End smash, a musical constructed around rock anthems, stars a bewigged and mostly topless Tom Cruise as fictional headbanger Stacee Jaxx.

15 Pop Plan B in the Forest The Forestry Commission lures various artists into the trees every year, but urban crooner Ben Drew is probably the most surprising sylvan songsmith yet. Until 7 July.

18 Theatre Kiss Me, Kate Trevor Nunn returns to Chichester Festival theatre for its 50th anniversary, directing Cole Porter's feisty musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. Until 1 September.

19 Art Yoko Ono: To The Light Major London retrospective will include a project called Smile, in which Ono invites people worldwide to email a photograph of their own smile. Serpentine, London until 9 September.

21 Pop Bruce Springsteen The Boss has never been more pumped than on his recent album. Join his tour-cum-rally. Until 24 June

21 Theatre Lakes Alive Les Commandos Percus follow up the arrival of the Olympic torch in Windermere, Cumbria earlier that evening with On the Night Shift, a theatrical lakeside firework display set to music at Glebe recreation ground.

22 Classical Stour Music This tiny 'festival of music in East Kent' held in a beautiful church on the pilgrim route to Canterbury has lured star countertenor Andreas Scholl. Until 1 July.

22 Film Killer Joe Directed by William "The Exorcist" Friedkin, this dark, pulpy film about a murderous cop (Matthew McConaughey) was the talk of last year's Venice and Toronto festivals.

23 Pop Radio 1's Hackney Weekender Hackney's famed football fields play host to a 48-hour Premier league of pop. Jay-Z leads the roll call of international talent, with Lana Del Rey, Jack White and Azealia Banks in defence. The cream of British pop, R&B and hip-hop are represented too (Tinie Tempah, Florence Welch, Emeli Sandé). Best of all it's free. Hackney Marshes, London E9 until 24 June.

24 Pop Nicki Minaj With her Roman Reloaded LP fresh out of the blocks, hip-hop's firecracker is set to dazzle London, Birmingham and Manchester. Until 28 May.

25 Classical The Trojans Berlioz's ambitious masterpiece, conducted by Antonio Pappano and director David McVicar; starring Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek. ROH's Olympic-season climax. Until 11 July.

25 Classical Dr Dee London premiere at ENO of Damon Albarn's masque-cum-opera about the mysterious Elizabethan magician-philosopher, directed by Rufus Norris with conductor Stephen Higgins. Until 7 July.

28 Art Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye The Norwegian artist's interest in photography and film-making is brought to the fore in this major reassessment of his work. Tate Modern, London until 14 October.

29 Film Friends With Kids In this sophisticated Allenesque New York comedy, actor Jennifer Westfeldt makes her debut as writer-director, co-starring opposite her long-time partner, Mad Men's Jon Hamm.

What are you looking forward to this spring? Post your cultural highlights in the comments section below


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March 25 2012

This week's cultural highlights: Roberto Fonseca and Laura

Our critics' picks of this week's openings, plus your last chance to see and what to book now

• Which cultural events are in your diary this week? Tell us in the comments below

Opening this week

Theatre

I Dreamed a Dream
SuBo is played by Elaine C Smith in this new musical based on the life of the Britain's Got Talent sensation, who has given her personal endorsement to this money-spinner – sorry, show. Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0844 811 2121), until 31 March, then touring.

Fierce festival
Birmingham gets ready for boundary-busting performances from UK and international performers, including Ann Liv Young, Playgroup and Graeme Miller. The festival takes place in unusual spaces all across the city, including the soon to be demolished library and under Spaghetti Junction. Various locations, Birmingham, Thursday to 8 April.

Film

The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross)
Suzanne Collins's teen bestseller is turned into an exciting dystopian thriller. Jennifer Lawrence stars.

Dance

English National Ballet: Beyond Ballets Russes
The second programme of this ambitious mix of revivals and reinventions from the great Diaghilev legend. Coliseum London WC2 (0871-911 0200), 28 March to 1 April.

New Dance Commissions
Enterprising selection of new work commissioned by ROH2 from Sarah Dowling, Laila Diallo and Freddie Opoku-Addaie. Linbury Studio Theatre, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), 29-31 March.

Classical

Parsifal
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera give concert performances of Wagner's final stage work, followed in Cardiff the next day by Mahler's Eighth Symphony, and in London by Verdi's Requiem. Millennium Centre, Cardiff (029 2063 6464), Saturday. Then touring to London and Birmingham until 6 April.

Pacifica Quartet
The US group return to complete their Shostakovich cycle with the Ninth to the 15th Quartets. Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141), 26 and 28-29 March.

Jazz

Roberto Fonseca
The piano star and Buena Vista sideman takes Cuban jazz and dance traditions and wrenches them into new identities – mixing in electronica with familiar guitar and percussion sounds, reconnecting Cuban music to traditional and contemporary Africa, and leading a thrilling band promoting his new Yo album. Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) Monday, then touring to 1 April.

Pop

Odd Future
Overhyped or hip-hop's big hope? Perhaps the response to the controversial LA rappers' first major label album, The OF Tape 2, will decide it. Tour begins at O2 Academy, Birmingham (0121-622 8250), 28 March.

Pulp
One-off Teenage Cancer Trust gig by beloved, reconstituted national treasures. Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 4015034), 31 March.

Visual art

Gillian Wearing
Private lives and public personas, false identities and intimate confessions are at the heart of Wearing's humane and humorous art. This major survey of the Turner-prize winning artist also includes new films and sculptures. Whitechapel gallery, London E1 (020-7522 7888), 28 March to 17 June.

Last chance to see

Theatre

Democracy
Cold war politics and flawed West German chancellor Willy Brandt are examined in Michael Frayn's intelligent 2003 play, which gets a masterly revival from Paul Miller. Crucible, Sheffield (0114-249 6000), until 31 March.

Uncle Vanya
Roger Allam, Dervla Kirwan and Timothy West lead the cast in the first production of the 50th Chichester festival season. With so many West End transfers (Sweeney Tood, Singing in the Rain and The Browning Version/South Downs), Jonathan Church's outfit should be enjoying a golden 50th birthday. Minerva, Chichester (01243 781312), 30 March to 28 April.

Film

Laura (dir. Otto Preminger)
This rereleased 1940s noir classic of obsession is a must-see. A cop becomes obsessed with the memory of Laura (Gene Tierney), a murdered ad executive.

Classical

The Rake's Progress
A brief run for David McVicar's coolly stylish new production for Scottish Opera, with Edgaras Montvidas as Tom Rakewell and Steven Page as Nick Shadow. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-529 6000), on 27, 29 and 31 March.

Jazz

Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet
Young American trumpeter Akinmusire made waves in 2011 for the remarkable purity of his tone, coupled with a punchy American postbop feel laid down by a powerful band of long-time friends. Another original, UK pianist Robert Mitchell, shares this tour. Ronnie Scott's, London W1 (020-7439 0747), 26 March, then touring until 29 March.

Pop

Feist
Canadian singer-songwriter is fantastic live, exploring darker, bleaker waters on recent album Metals. Tour ends 27 March at Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (0844 847 2487).

Pokey LaFarge
Acclaimed St Louis country-blues and string-band revivalists do not exactly reinvent the wheel, but are a treat on stage. Tour ends at Concorde 2, Brighton (01273 673311), 28 March.

Book now

Theatre

What the Butler Saw
Sean Foley directs a revival of Joe Orton's dark farce, a Freudian nightmare involving cross-dressing, perversion and Sir Winston Churchill's penis. Omid Djalili plays Dr Rance, the government official sent to investigate dodgy dealings at a private psychiatric clinic. Vaudeville, London WC2 (0844 412 4663), 4 May to 25 August.

2008: Macbeth
Grzegorz Jarzyna's version of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis was a wonder, and now he and Poland's TR Warszawa return to the Edinburgh international festival with a contemporary take on Shakespeare's play set in the Middle East. Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston (0131-473 2000), 11-18 August.

Gulliver's Travels
Romanian director Silviu Purcarete's production of Faust was quite something, certainly memorable for its excesses if not its content. Now EIF gets the premiere of his new version of Jonathan Swift's savage political satire. King's Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000), 17-20 August.

Film

Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog probes the dark heart of humanity and society with his death-row interviews. Why do people kill?

Dance

Royal Ballet of Flanders: Artifact
A rare UK showing for the first work created by William Forsythe when he was appointed director of the Frankfurt Ballet. Back in 1984, it set down a clear marker of Forsythe's postmodern ambitions, and it still looks subversive today. Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300), from 19 April.

Classical

Bow Down
The Opera Group and London Sinfonietta combine for Frederic Wake-Walker's new production of Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison's hauntingly unclassifiable 1980s theatre piece. Brighton festival, (01273 709709), 17-18 May; Norfolk and Norwich festival (01603 766400), 20-21 May.

Jazz

Cheltenham jazz festival
Guest director Jamie Cullum curates an all-star international jazz lineup, with artists including former Miles Davis producer/bassist Marcus Miller, guitarist Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers trio, a new Radio 3 commission for UK piano giant John Taylor, cutting-edge US pianist Vijay Iyer with radical saxophonist Steve Lehman, a showcase for new musicians from Norway and much more. Montpellier Gardens, Gloucestershire (0844 880 8094), 2-7 May.

Pop

The Charlatans
Tim Burgess's Lambchop-assisted second solo album is more hotly anticipated than you might expect, but at these gigs the Charlatans play their Britpop-era hit album Tellin' Stories. Tour begins 8 June at Hammersmith Apollo, London (0844 844 4748).

Visual art

Hans-Peter Feldmann
Feldmann is a collector of everything from the contents of women's handbags to the views from hotel rooms, seascapes and snatched moments. The Dusseldorf-born artist is part installationist, part joker, part archaeologist of the fleeting moment. Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7402 6075), 11 April to 3 June.


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February 28 2012

Caravaggio: Renaissance rock star

The alluring paintings of Caravaggio, Leonardo and Lorenzo Costa hint at the passion of Renaissance secular music

In Caravaggio's picture The Lute Player, which the fiery Lombard artist painted in Rome in the mid-1590s, a beautiful man plays a round bodied instrument that was the electric guitar of the Renaissance. But a lot quieter. People learned the lute for the same reason that teenagers since the 1960s have learned rock guitar, because they thought it made them look sexy. In Caravaggio's painting it works – the lutenist sings seductively among sensual fruits and flowers. But what is he singing?

I've been listening to modern recordings that attempt to capture the sound of Renaissance music, and I am more baffled than ever about what it really sounded like. Looking at Caravaggio's lutenist, we imagine a romantic, alluring song. Yet in many recordings Renaissance madrigals sound like church music, they are so harmonious and pristine.

Maybe musicians who play early music should look harder at Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Works such as Leonardo's portrait of a musician, or Lorenzo Costa's picture of a woman and two men singing together, give intimate glimpses of the world of Renaissance secular music. And again and again, what they stress is the frisson of excitement and desire at the moment of performance.

There was no way to record music in that age; it was always live. That meant it was always a drama between performers and audiences. What Caravaggio's painting shows is that it could be a dangerous, daring drama, with deep issues of love and longing electrifying the chamber where those tender lute notes sounded.

So perhaps when consorts and choirs today recreate early court music, they should have a bit more fun and think less of the harmonies of Pythagoras, and more of a rock concert's drama compressed into a room that happens to be hung with gorgeous tapestries and paintings.

There is one abundantly alive genre that links us directly to the emotional power of music in the age of Caravaggio: opera. Few would deny that opera tends to be passionate and extravagant. It was invented in late 16th-century Italy, drawing together the sounds and sights of the age in a spectacle that delighted the senses.

You can still feel a tension and mythic impulse in a very early opera like Monteverdi's 1607 masterpiece Orfeo. The story Monteverdi tells in his opera is disturbing: Orpheus pursues his lost love into the underworld, and almost succeeds in bringing her back to the realm of the living, but fails at the last moment. It is a story of sex and death that perfectly matches the provocative beauty of Caravaggio's lutenist. This is what music meant 400 years ago: longing and deep emotions. Renaissance music is reborn every time an opera house thrills to grand passions.


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December 14 2011

Readers' cultural review of 2011: What, no Katy B?

Last week our critics picked their highlights of 2011. Did they get it right? Readers respond with their own highs (and lows)

MattB75

One Man, Two Guvnors was the most fun I've had in a theatre for years – easily the best play of 2011, and James Corden best performer. The National theatre largely misfired for me: A Woman Killed with Kindness, Cherry Orchard, 13, The Kitchen, Frankenstein and Greenland were all largely disappointing.

The RSC's Homecoming was the best revival. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice was great fun, even if the inconsistency in Portia's characterisation (from ditzy blond Glee fan to brilliant prosecutor, hm) took the edge off it.

Tom Brooke was my favourite actor of the year – in The Kitchen, and I Am the Wind.

oogin

Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are still two of my least-admired starchitects. However, credit where it's due. I had the pleasure of wandering Toronto's AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), redesigned by Gehry [a few years ago], and apart from his usual frivolous facade, the interior had been quite brilliantly done. So restrained and sophisticated: words I never never thought I'd use for the old showboater.

daveportivo

Katy B owned pop in 2011, or temporarily leased the lower sections of the charts from Adele at least. Seven singles off one album and a successful B-side, bridging the gap between cool, intriguing dance and charming, relatable 2000s-style British pop-star writing. Loved it.

Kleistphile

The programme of the year has been Mark Cousins' superb history of the cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, on More4. Incredibly wide-ranging, informative and inspiring, with extremely intelligent analysis of how film developed and how the great directors innovated.

drdownunder

Artist Christian Marclay's awesome 24-hour film-montage The Clock, shown as part of the British Art Show in Plymouth. Mesmeric, fascinating, witty editing and marvellous film-buffery content.

SlimJim888

The Inbetweeners Movie. The snobs may scoff but this film says more about Britain and its youth than 20 Ken Loach films ever could.

OldFriar

Two of the greatest musical evenings were the appearances of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer in Mahler's First symphony, and the zany late-night Prom with audience requests including Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky. A month before that, the magic combination of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO in Richard Strauss and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

At the Royal Opera, the three most memorable performances were Madama Butterfly with Kristine Opolais in the title role and her husband Andris Nelsons in the pit; Werther with Sophie Koch and Rolando Villazón doing his best (still short of what Jonas Kaufmann can do); and the recent revival of Faust, with Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

digit

The release by the BFI on DVD and Blu-Ray of Barney Platts-Mills's 1971 film Private Road, starring Bruce Robinson (who later wrote Withnail and I). I first saw this in about 1987 on TV and I've been wanting to see it again ever since. Even better than I thought.

Mark42

Gruff Rhys's Hotel Shampoo was my favourite album of the year; Cashier No 9 was not given the recognition it deserved. Enjoyed Kate Bush, Tinie Tempah, Noel Gallagher and Will Young's offerings, but very disappointed with Coldplay. Adele: lovely voice but too many songs sound the same on her album.

Still, it wasn't all bad: the end of Westlife and hopefully the beginning of the end for X Factor.

dbeecee

Right Here Right Now; Format international photography festival in Derby. Thousands of photographers took part from all over the world, including Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Gilden. An exciting and eclectic mix showing the best in street photography.

davidabsalom

Best resurrection: Rab C Nesbitt. Comedy of the year for me. Now that the Tories are back in, he seems to have found his mojo again.

zibibbo

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery. I think the major problem with this absurdly hyped show is that, apart from the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks and the unfinished St Jerome, the other six "Leonardo" paintings on display are either too unattractively gauche, stiff and mannered to be considered good or significant. Or they're too implausibly naturalistic to be an autograph work (La Belle Ferronière is too lifelike to be by Leonardo). Or just too plain weird and damaged to take seriously (step forward, the newly discovered Salvator Mundi).

Thank you, Adrian Searle, for having the integrity to give your honest opinion about this insanely promoted but hugely disappointing show.

andglove

The High Country, an album by Portland band Richmond Fontaine, demands your attention from first song to last. It's one of the only albums that will give you the same sense of satisfaction that finishing a novel does.

LDTBFJ

Bridesmaids was a great and genuinely funny film. Comedies (and female comedians) are too frequently dismissed, especially by the Oscars board.

Snarlygog

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet in Plymouth. It was good to see [Christian Marclay's] The Clock and Sarah Lucas's work up close and personal. At least there is an emphasis on craft skills in video art: good focus, framing and timing are back in fashion.

alphabetbands

Nicola Roberts, the good one from Girls Aloud. In her album Cinderella's Eyes she lays out her inner demons and anguish on a platter of sumptuous dance pop hooks and beats. The album is so simple that my two-year-old can sing along, and layered enough that we slightly elder statesmen can appreciate it as well.

juliendonkeyboy

In no particular order: Sufjan Stevens live at Southbank: ambitious, experimental, joyous, exciting, sad. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle: the sixth episode, Democracy, was quite simply awesome. Senna is my film pick: made in 2010, but didn't get released on these shores until 2011. Wonderfully moving.

habsfan0303

Propeller's Comedy of Errors was riotous. I mean, how often does a naked grown man run past you with a sparkler wedged into his buttocks?

glynluke

Archipelago is the worst film I have ever seen in 50-odd years of cinema-going. How Peter Bradshaw and Philip French can find a single redeeming quality in this dreadful two-hour river of bathetic, emotionless, drama-free drivel baffles me.

Shatillion

I loved Attack the Block. I got mugged the week before it was released and actually found watching it quite cathartic. I was rooting for the little shits by the end. That's good screenwriting.

JimTheFish

A really disappointing year for British TV, which has been on a downward slide. Doctor Who was probably still the best thing domestically. The Crimson Petal and the White and The Hour were underwhelming misfires; The Shadow Line was about the only really promising new kid on the block.

The basic problem is that there's just not enough TV drama being produced. We need more one-offs, more Plays for Today to allow TV to find new voices and take more chances. Everything seems to be market-researched and focus-grouped into mediocrity.

LocalBird

We went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this summer and were blown away by the incredible Jaume Plensa exhibition; the alabaster heads took my breath away. Beautiful, mesmerising and enchanting.

Carefree

Memorable plays: Flare Path, Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature was brilliant), and Much Ado at the Globe (Eve Best and Charles Edwards were good enough to almost match my memories of Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance as Beatrice and Benedick).

Damper squibs were Chicken Soup with Barley (far too long). Conor Macpherson's The Veil at the National started brilliantly but didn't deliver the beautiful, haunting, elegiac power of The Weir – a great shame.

Alarming

There were aspects of Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman that drove me round the bend. But he wrote well about his theme and chose some absolutely lovely objects from the British Museum's collection.

uptomost

85A collective from Glasgow's brilliant mechanical opera Idimov and the Dancing Girl at the Secret Garden Party. Spooky, funny, ingenious.

AdminGuru

The Tree of Life: a vast expansive film with multiple interpretations, and little in the way of film convention for the casual viewer to latch on to. Viewers fall into two camps I think: those who want simply to be entertained and led, and those who want to explore and participate. Tree of Life is about participation.

Wrighthanes

I just couldn't get The Tree of Life. I tried. I wanted to like it. Admittedly I was on a Singapore Airlines flight, which is not the ideal way to appreciate its cinematic beauty.

DeunanKnute

The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most overrated movie of all time. The sheer brilliance of every single actor isn't in dispute, nor is the superb cinematography. The movie itself is the problem, because it's a real clunker. It's also one of the few films I've seen at the cinema where people were either (vociferously) walking out in disgust or staying behind just to boo.

GorillaPie

The [designs for the] new US Embassy in London. I realise these buildings have to be more fortresses than offices, but really. I'm disappointed that such an important new commission isn't going to be more iconic. Especially since I live opposite the site.

Gundmundsdottir

Possibly the biggest disappointment was the final track on Bon Iver's second album: it never fails to surprise me with just how cheesy and plain bad it is.

CurlyScot

Some of my favourite moments have been in otherwise unremarkable shows. I was slowly won over by Susan Hiller at Tate Modern, and Nancy Spero's works Azur and Hours of the Night II [at the Serpentine] were so incredible I forgot all the meh stuff that surrounded them. The only exhibition I have been unreservedly knocked over by was Mike Nelson's Coral Reef at Tate Britain – an old piece so I'm not sure it counts. Not a superlative year; let's hope 2012 is better and isn't overwhelmed by a spurious Cultural Olympiad.


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November 04 2011

Ring the bell! Cultural Olympiad announcement

The London 2012 festival, which will form the grand finale of the Cultural Olympiad, unveils countrywide programme of arts events from a bell-ringing flashmob to Cate Blanchett's return to the stage

The simultaneous ringing of every bell in the country, from doorbells and bike bells to church bells; a world-famous Venezuelan symphony orchestra performing on one of Scotland's most deprived council estates; a play in which audiences track performers through the Rheidol forest in Wales as they transform themselves into animals – all are to form part of the London 2012 festival, the climax of the Olympics' cultural programme.

The London 2012 festival, details of which were announced on Friday, runs from Midsummer Day until 9 September next year, in venues from Shetland to Belfast and Hadrian's Wall to Margate. The festival is planned to form the grand finale of the Cultural Olympiad, a programme of Olympics- and Paralympics-connected arts events that have been running since 2008. The organisers, under artistic director Ruth Mackenzie, promise 10m free tickets or free places at events for the countrywide celebration.

It is Turner-prize-winning artist Martin Creed's project to encourage people across the UK to ring whatever bell they can, simultaneously, on the day the Olympics and Paralympics open. And it is the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela – which has entranced audiences at the Proms, Southbank Centre and Edinburgh international festival – that will visit the Stirling housing estate of Raploch for an outdoor concert on midsummer's night under its conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Raploch – an area best-known for its drug problems, educational underachievement and violent crime – is the setting for a social project inspired by the radical Venezuelan "Sistema", in which children are given intensive musical training in order to teach them skills to help them break through the poverty gap. And in Wales, the event in Rheidol forest, inspired by the ancient stories of the Mabinogion, will be staged by Argentinian choreographer Constanza Macras with the National Theatre of Wales.

Other theatrical highlights will include the first chance in 13 years to see Cate Blanchett on the British stage: she will star in Botho Strauss's Gross und Klein at the Barbican in London. There will also be a festival devoted to the work of Samuel Beckett in Enniskillen, featuring artists such as Robert Wilson, Antony Gormley and the tenor Ian Bostridge; and theatre-makers Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw will create installations on 10 British beaches, exploring love poetry.

Art highlights of the festival are to include major exhibitions in London of the work of Damien Hirst, Yoko Ono, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. A show of work by Tracey Emin in her hometown, Margate, at the new Turner Contemporary art gallery, will also be included in the programme, as will next year's Turbine Hall commission in Tate Modern from the German-British artist Tino Sehgal – which is likely to involve mass audience interaction with performers.

Aside from the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, the festival will also welcome another orchestra of young people when the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – composed of Arab and Israeli musicians – appears under its conductor, Daniel Barenboim, at the Proms. Simon Rattle will also make an appearance, conducting Wynton Marsalis's Swing Symphony at the Barbican in London. And the previously announced World Shakespeare festival will bring together the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe and the National Theatre to present interpretations of Shakespeare from as far afield as Tunisia and Iraq.

According to Mackenzie: "This is my take on world-class excellence. These are exceptional, gold-medal talents. They are capable of producing something experiences that are once-in-a-lifetime. Of course there is no guarantee – but exceptional talent is a great start." Mackenzie was brought in to turn around the Cultural Olympiad last year after widespread criticism of the early manifestations of the games' cultural programme. She was appointed by Royal Opera House chief executive Tony Hall, chair of the board of the Cultural Olympiad.


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October 12 2011

Young arts critics competition 2011: the winning entries

Read our top-rated entries to the Guardian's annual competition to find the best young talent in arts writing

OVERALL WINNER

Visual art, under 14

Freddie Holker, 12 – Homage to Lucian Freud, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Disgusting. That's what I'm thinking; that's my gut instinct. It's reminiscent of the swimming-pool changing rooms back at school, where I'm scared to look at anything in case it offends someone. This is the Homage to Lucian Freud, one of Britain's best modern artists, who died on 20 July 2011. Seventeen paintings by Freud are displayed. I'm standing in an eerily plain room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art 3,000 miles away from where I'm comfortable.

The only painting I can easily look at is, funnily enough, Naked Man, Back View. The only one that doesn't contain full-frontal nudity offers full dorsal nudity. It shows a fat man plonked on a footstool. His sitting position pushing out roll after roll of grey white fat, meshed together, leading down to his small feet which are holding up all this blubber. When you look at his head, you can see very little of his face, his one dark eye patrolling the floor. His joined hands give me the impression he is contemplating. He has nothing to hold, nothing to cherish, he doesn't even have any hair. He is simply being.

I realise that there's more to these paintings than nudity; these pictures are giving off emotions. Despair, joy, isolation, shame and most of all secrecy. The one that catches my eye is And the Bridegroom. It is the same fat man as before, but he has a partner, a tiny little creature, half the size of the man: she's pale against his reddish tanned skin. Beauty and the beast. They look like a pair of puppies sleeping in odd positions, one stretching and one curled up. This time it is nude but I'm not surprised or disturbed, because I finally understand what Freud's thinking, what his "vibe" is. He creates paintings of love and despair, a rainbow of feelings, but he tries to explain that the greatest gift of life is living, and that you need nothing to decorate yourself. There should be no shame in being bare, because when you think about it, everyone is equal.

CATEGORY WINNERS

Visual art, 14-18

Angelica Gottlieb, 14 – Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty exhibition fills New York's Metropolitan Museum with the rapture and allure of his art, muted by the grief and tragedy of his death. A buzz of anticipation reverberates through the queue that seems to stretch round the block. However, fashion that was once famed for its exclusivity is now fully accessible, and it's an experience no one would want to miss.

The curator, Andrew Bolton, has clearly embraced the gothic romanticism of McQueen's fashion by incorporating dark and bright lighting with futuristic music that reprises the music played at many of his fashion shows.

Each room becomes more and more intriguing despite becoming increasingly congested. For instance, the Cabinet of Curiosities is the concrete manifestation of McQueen's notable description of himself as a "romantic schizophrenic". The curiosities include a marvelous skeleton-like back brace and antelope ears crafted from gleaming twigs, reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Contrasts are everywhere – the exhibition is so public yet the proliferation of gilded mirrors throughout reflects the intimacy of the dressing room. The clothes seem vibrant and vigorous, yet hauntingly, the mannequins themselves are faceless and appear to be wearing death masks.

The precision and perfection of the designs on display contrasts starkly with the uncertainty of McQueen's personal life. The clothes are spine-tingling, as McQueen evokes a cocktail of emotions, visible on people's faces. You may ask: "How could such an icon, a man feted for his brilliance, become so tormented?" Aristotle explains: "No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness." On that basis, McQueen's intensely creative designs seem like vivid scars covering his emotional wounds.

New York is undoubtedly a city "fit for McQueen", yet his Britishness shines through. A room full of tartan dresses pays homage to his Scottish roots and he invites the viewer to revel in his uniquely British eccentricity. Quite rightly, there is an online petition to bring Savage Beauty to the UK. I fervently hope it succeeds so that McQueen's legion of British admirers can share in the awe-inspiring experience of his very grand finale.

Pop, 14-18

Julia Smith, 18 – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Whether it's a lengthy examination of Justin Vernon himself or a brief review of their eponymously named new album, it seems the oft-uttered phrase (now revered indie legend) "lonely cabin in Wisconsin" is impossible to disentangle from the myth surrounding Bon Iver.

New album Bon Iver, Bon Iver – so good they named it twice? – is a marginal departure from the sound that made this modest band, then merely a solo music project, beloved by the media and the masses. Though For Emma, Forever Ago was by no means a flawless record, will the meaty auto-tune of this release ever replace the softly strummed guitars and breathy silences of the album produced in the little cabin in the woods?

Like For Emma, the lyrics this time around aren't particularly descriptive, but I feel that's where this band really shines. Rather than crafting four minutes of disco pop around a questionable refrain about not answering a telephone call in a club because you're "k-kinda busy", Vernon et al manage to pick lyrics out of the guitar reverb and spin them into allusive poetry. Something about the arrangement of chords and the swirling rawness of Vernon's voice has made For Emma stand out in the minds of millions, I'm sure, as an album that hits you right there. You know, there, that space between your head and your heart where the child of logic and emotion rests only to create total loneliness and insecurity. There.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver may not be as isolated as the last record was, but I can safely say that I see myself enjoying this album, synthesizers and all, in the months to come. Tracks like Holocene are a slight throwback to the echoing Bon Iver of old, but there's something in the masterful composition of the likes of Perth that comforts the insecurity that has waited, bated, in the three years since Vernon left that cabin in the woods. Even without an alternative indie fairytale story behind it, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is sure to be a magical chapter in the evolution of this band.

Pop, under 14

Holly MacHenry, 13 – Gogol Bordello, Womad festival

It was only my second Womad festival, the most amazing place I've been in my life – all the different smells, rhythms, cultures and stalls selling exotic treasures. We'd had a pretty mellow weekend, but all that was about to change …

On Sunday night we went early to get a good spot at the open-air stage where Gogol Bordello were the closing act of the festival. For those of you who don't know, Gogol Bordello are a gypsy punk band from New York, consisting of nine members from all over the globe. The charismatic Ukrainian lead singer, Eugene Hutz, fronts an eccentric bunch of skilful musicians, with a reputation for starting parties wherever they set foot.

They started with Pala Tute from the latest album. At first I wasn't sure what to do, so just clapped in time to the song and raised my arms now and then for good measure. About halfway through the second song I decided being cool wasn't important and I started jumping about as the band worked the crowd, beckoning them with their hands as if to say "Come on, is that all you've got?".

Suddenly, everyone was airborne. I started getting bashed about like a pinball and before I knew it I was in the midst of my first – and quite possibly Womad's first – mosh pit! I was boiling and could feel the heat of all the people around me, but every time I jumped I could feel the cool night air before disappearing back into the crowd. By the time the band played Immigrandia (We Comin' Rougher) most people seemed to have lost their inhibitions.

For Gogol Bordello, it's not the fame or money that matters, it's the music, the crowd and their message of unity between people. They're not content until everyone's up on their feet having a good time. The blend of the frantic fiddle-playing and the manic energy of the band is infectious and before you know it you're part of the act.

Film, 14-18

Kiera McIntosh-Michaelis, 16 – Life in a Day

Over 4,500 hours of footage. 493 countries. More than 80,000 entries. All of this edited into a poignant 90-minute film about what it means to be human. The incredible medium of YouTube and director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void) called to the world to submit a short film of their daily lives on 24 August 2010. The result? Mass montages of the sun rising, getting up, washing serve to show that all across the world the same things happen and that folk aren't so different. Immediately this connects the watcher to the film – relating their life to those of thousands. Each scene is linked together by a similar theme, perhaps of time or through the soundtrack of one leaking into the next, giving the film an unstilted flow and maintaining audience interest. Although at times some of the editing feels slightly manipulative, it is outweighed by the genuine honesty and emotion of the subjects. There is no hiding from the pain of life – a young mother's tale of living with cancer or the graphic slaughter of a cow demonstrating this. However, the tone of the film is overwhelmingly joyful and hopeful. The moment when an older couple renew their vows in a rather saucy manner, a wife laughing at a husband's failed attempt to look strong, women singing as they go about their work – all gave me joy, laughter and hope. Life in a Day is a masterpiece; its creation shows the beauty and mundanity of life as a human being.

Film, under 14

Francesco Dernie, 13 – Project Nim

I recently went to see Project Nim, a film-documentary recounting the experiences of a unique chimpanzee that was selected for an experiment and went by the name of Nim.

It progressed chronologically through key events in Nim's life, starting with the time when he was placed with a foster family where he grew close to his human foster mother. Unusually, the film focused on the emotional consequences of science – a plot that centred on teaching Nim to communicate through sign language. Why would anyone do this, you might ask? "It was the hippy mentality," remarks the woman's daughter.

During the experimental phase, live interviews with key players in the experiment proved fascinating – their own characters came through as they recounted their personal experiences with the chimp. The combination of footage and still photographs from that era helped the audience take their own view of this diverse group of people, as well as understand the tensions within it and those surrounding animal experimentation in general.

As the story continues, the tempo slows as it charts the fall of the experiment and Nim's subsequent experiences in terrible laboratories and cruel institutions. How could they do this to such an adorable animal?

The final part details the time when his human foster mother visits him in Texas, where he has grown unhappy and solitary. Taking it for granted that his feelings towards her are unchanged from when he was living with her, she enters his cage without heeding the warnings of his aggressive behaviour. He attacks her (but does not kill her) as if genuinely angry that she let him be taken away from her to be put through terrifying laboratory experiences.

Perhaps the experiment to teach him language could never have worked, because for him it would have been just a communication device (like say an email is for us today), not like language that's part of human culture. But I do think he did achieve some humanity – more perhaps, than the experiment could hope to give him and more perhaps than the scientist could understand.

Theatre, 14-18

Thomas Marshall, 16 – Richard III, Young Vic

At about 11pm, a hunchbacked man with a leg brace is hung upside-down, dead, in a darkened room somewhere in London to the applause of hundreds. Then he gets down again and takes a well-deserved bow. The man is Kevin Spacey and he has just completed another dazzling lead performance in Richard III.

One of the most fascinating things about Sam Mendes's production is the ease with which it is transposed into the modern era without jettisoning the grandeur of the original. Beside the visual Mussolini reference, Richard's military gear has a whiff of the 1930s dictator about it; and much of the production employs film, photography and word projection, whilst Act 2, Scene 3 – traditionally involving citizens on a London street – takes place on the Tube. Updating the play in this manner has a weighty resonance, too – Shakespeare's kingly tyrants are hauntingly mirrored by modern-day presidents.

This is a play with a large cast, most of whom are impressive. Of particular note are the female characters Lady Anne, Lady Margaret, and Queen Elizabeth, who all exude helpless grief and anguish. Chuk Iwuji's Buckingham is also memorably slick; when he grins you can almost picture him welcoming the audience to a quiz show.

Good though these characters are, they fail to carry the momentum unless Spacey is on the stage. Equally at home bouncing off others' suffering or withdrawing into his own brooding, this is a truly acting Richard, a man utterly convincing in his friendly air. There is a moment when the crowd is urging him to be the next king and the expression on his face is that of mild-mannered perplexity, yet with great engines churning behind his brow. He plumbs Richard's humorous lines for all their worth throughout, and conveys his pre-battle crisis particularly effectively. If there is a criticism which can be levelled against him, it is that he is never a completely terrifying villain.

But this is a small niggle with an otherwise excellent production, and I would urge anyone to do whatever it takes to obtain tickets for the international tour.

Theatre, under 14

Laura Stevens, 9 – A Midsummer Night's Dream, Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford

My review is on William Shakespeare's classic, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Set in ancient Greece, this funny love story is brought to reality by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon.

At the entrance of the auditorium, you expect to see a great forest background with dark tangled trees and twisted paths. Instead, a variety of chairs suspended on a string from the ceiling are lowered and raised throughout the performance. Although this makes the stage look bare, the lighting is so imaginative and effective, it makes a dreamlike atmosphere.

The mischievous fairies really helped to create the atmosphere with their many leaps and swivels and the way they seem to creep into the background then suddenly leap back out again like chameleons that keep changing their mind about where to hide.

Bottom, played by Marc Wootton – who also played Mr Poppy in the film Nativity – did a great job of being the brash fool always full of misplaced confidence leading him to play the main part of Pyramus and Thisbe, the tragedy performed at the end of the performance. His part was played hilariously and was one of the highlights from the show.

The most enjoyable part of the show for me was, as mentioned before, Pyramus and Thisbe being played by Bottom and a group of ordinary villagers to perform for Hypolita and Theseus, rulers of Athens, on their wedding night.

Helena, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, was very funny as she embarked on her very own quest, to gain Demetrius's love. Many times she fell to the floor almost crying about Demetrius and his love for another.

With the combination of the modern, the old and the fantasy all in one production, it brought a great performance to the stage. I would recommend this to anyone with a sense of humour who is prepared for surprises. Just remember, the course of true love never did run smooth …

Television

Hannah Quinn, 17 – The Bachelor

The end is nigh! A mad scientist has succeeded in creating a robot and an army of clones! Oh no, hang on, this is The Bachelor, that robot is rugby "star" Gavin Henson, and those clones are battling to win his heart/a career in TV rather than to take over the world. Phew. The end is slightly less nigh than previously imagined.

We are reliably informed that 25 girls are about to embark on the "adventure of a lifetime" in the south of France, which in this episode (SPOILER ALERT!) involves a lot of awkward stilted chit-chat from Robot Gavin. I love an adventure. Highlights: one girl tries to get him to carry her upstairs! Twins! Tia's half-pagan, half-Wicca and that makes her ker-azy! Someone called Carianne has an annoying voice!

Meanwhile, Gavin calls a reality TV contestant "innocent and genuine" without laughing, which is more than I could do, so fair play to him. Although it might just mean some circuits are faulty. Quick, call a technician! One girl writes him a love letter, which causes someone to start hissing about how they're going to have to act really sweet and nice now, as if before that her plan was to turn up, smack him in the face, and scream "Love me!". It would have worked too, because Gavin would have just crumbled. Gavin, I'm starting to learn, is a bit of a wuss. He falls for that creepy love letter, too, and gives the girl responsible the you're-through-to-the-next-round rose, because this show is romantic, honest; look, we have roses, don't be so cynical, this is a beautiful insight into Gavin finding true love after having his heart broken by someone called Charlotte Church, who totally isn't more famous and talented than he is, no she's not. And breathe.

At the end, Gavin gives out a whole pile of roses to the 15 girls he's deemed worthy, while looking as blank as ever. Ker-azy Tia doesn't make the grade, but Squeaky Carianne does – obviously RoboGav's hearing circuits are faulty as well. Poor luckless RoboGav. He just wants to be loved.

Architecture, 14-18

Mollie Davidson, 14 – Coventry railway station

I want to explore Coventry railway station because it is different. It is not the most noticeable of buildings; however I feel there is some significance to it. WR Headley designed it in 1962. It was built as part of the modernisation of the railways and as part of the rebuilding of Coventry after the blitz.

It is not beautiful. The building is very angular and is coloured in different shades of grey. The building is a collection of rectangles joined at right angles to each other. You enter the station to a large booking hall which is imposing. The hall is brightened by the huge windows letting the light through. Moving through the station is easy. You are on a direct path to wherever you need to be, the platforms or the coffee shop.

Hidden away by the waiting room is a small rectangular goldfish pond, giving passengers something to focus their minds on while waiting for their trains. There are also a couple of gnomes enjoying fishing. All of the doors and the ceilings are made of vanished hardwood. There are small tiles in blocks covering the walls. The floor in the booking hall is made of polished granite, dark with blotches of white.

The balcony overlooking the booking hall is a good place to look at people and a good place to be seen. It is a place to look for those who are arriving and a place to wave to those who are departing. The station is obliged to have advertising everywhere, which means you focus your attention on this, not on the building. Overall it is sincere and it does what it is meant to. It is not very ambitious but it works for the people of Coventry.

Architecture, under 14

Michael Sackur, 13 – Jewish Museum, Berlin

Berlin's Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is housed in a building that makes an unforgettable impression. Its location, set among uniform apartments in a residential area of Berlin, makes it seem all the more striking. The structure has many unmistakable features: its twisted zigzag, Star of David-inspired shape, and its scar-resembling slashes for windows, which immediately reminded me of the wound that has been left on history by the Nazi holocaust. The colours used in the building – stark, dark grey – and the various bolts visible on the exterior give it a raw, industrial feel, which even spills out into the museum's garden.

In the Garden of Exile, olive trees sit atop 49 grey concrete pillars, just out of reach. This theme is appropriate for a museum which focuses partly on the industrialised killing of 6 million innocent people. Playing on our apprehension of the unknown, visitors take a flight of steps underground in order to enter the main building, and emerge in a tangle of tunnels. Emptiness is another recurring theme; a huge void 20 metres tall slices through the building, and in the museum tunnels, exhibits are lodged into the walls, making the spaces feel strangely bare. I interpreted this as an attempt by the architect to convey the void that emerged in the Jewish community following the genocide of 6 million of its members, as well as the hole left in German society after the extermination of its Jewish component.

The most extraordinary structure in the museum, however, is the Holocaust Tower, a great slab of concrete that is neither heated nor cooled, lit only by a tiny shaft of light at the top. It is simple, but its darkness and its surreal, unearthly echo make it a highly appropriate commemoration of the victims of Nazi tyranny and a disturbing experience for all who enter. The architecture plays an important part in a museum shouldering such an appalling burden of history, but Libeskind has designed a radical building, which meets the challenge.

Dance, 14-18

Rachel Balmer, 16 – Riverdance, Dublin Gaiety theatre

Having never encountered Riverdance before, I was totally clueless as to what to expect. What followed next was possibly the oddest genre of theatrical art I have – and probably ever will – see.

For those who have never seen Riverdance and would like to know what it involves, I am still none the wiser. And I've been to see it. A quick peruse of Google has just told me that it's the "Irish dancing phenomenon". It's certainly phenomenal. In a kind of whoa-there-how-on-Earth-is-he-moving-his-legs-so-fast way. And there's lots of Irish dancing. So I suppose it is as accurate a three-word summary as you could ask for, apart from the fact it doesn't mention that it's not just limited to Irish dancing. There was singing, a bout of flamenco, a candlelit vigil after a booming voice announced that "your leader is DEAD!" (did I mention there was a plot?), some Irish-style disco dancing complete with cartwheels and even a pan-pipe solo. All with some Irish dancing thrown in, sometimes in medieval costume. I told you it was odd.

Regardless, the dancers were amazing. Talented and ridiculously energetic; I wanted to bottle their exuberance. The leads were fantastic, and at one point our budding Michael Flatley almost propelled himself off the stage, his legs were moving so fast. Before long I started wondering whether it would be a viable business if I were somehow able to harness the heat being produced by their feet for electricity generation. To a casual onlooker, it was as if their legs were in a state of perpetual spasm.

It did, however, have an undoubted sense of "Irishness" to it. More than once I had the urge to stand up and shout "Bejaysus!". The dancers played upon the audience's enthusiasm – the majority being tourists, as I'm sure no single Irish person will openly admit to seeing Riverdance – and the show received a standing ovation. A feast for the senses, a little definitely goes a long way. Even if Irish dancing isn't really your thing, it'll certainly have you attempting to do some leg-kicking on the way home.

Dance, under 14

Thomas Holmes, 13 – Romeo and Juliet at the 02

The atmosphere at the 02 on 19 June 2011 was intense. The Royal Ballet was performing Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, with the score of Sergei Prokofiev.

The three-act ballet starts in the marketplace of Verona, with the company on the huge set, designed by Nicholas Georgiadis. MacMillan's choreography told the compelling story of Shakespeare's great work.

The technique was impeccable, from the gorgeous pas de deux (performed by the exquisite Tamara Rojo in the role of Juliet and the inspiring Carlos Acosta as Romeo) to the jaw-dropping fight scenes. The controlled and elegant movement from the Royal Ballet really inspired me and everyone else in the audience, too.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played Prokofiev's challenging score. The conductor, Barry Wordsworth, lead the orchestra in harmony with the dancers, providing an exciting soundtrack.

The big screens, which showed fine detail and occasional video in the musical interludes, provided a close-up view of the facial expressions and, in particular, to Tamara Rojo's technical "potion scene". It added an extra approach for ballet, and in a new generation – it worked!

The original production, which was premiered in 1965 at the Royal Opera House, starred Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Sir Frederick Ashton was director at the time, and participated in the production direction.

The elevation and flexibility of the company really inspired me to go further in my dance training. As a ballet dancer myself, I understood the stamina of the dance, and the pure effort needed for the male roles in particular.

Carlos Acosta is a world-renowned Cuban dancer who is famous for his technique and elevation, and Rojo an elegant and awarded Spanish dancer who provides a story for the audience. The famous balcony scene at the end of Act I was breathtaking. The pas de deux was sensitively portrayed.

Overall, this production of Romeo and Juliet was to an excellent standard by the Royal Ballet, showing the company at its best along with its incredible dancers. It inspired me and thoroughly enjoyed it as my first ballet experience!

Classical music

Rosie Busiakiewicz, 18 – Quatuor Byron: Shostakovich Eighth and Ninth String Quartets

Every time a new recording of Shostakovich's Eighth string quartet is released, the classical world sits up – the emotional and technical demands of the work are notoriously difficult, and Quatuor Byron unfortunately falls prey to them.

Some movements are significantly faster than Shostakovich indicated. Each melodic line is saturated with so much non-functional harmony that you should savour each dissonance; the terrors of the Holocaust are represented in the modal shadings of C minor. Shostakovich is famous for these heart-wrenching harmonies, yet here they are lost. This fast tempo also causes much vibrato to evaporate, giving the quartet a shallow tone which is incongruous against the work's emotional, programmatic context. It serves as a haunting musical autobiography to the composer, quoting his 10th, first and fifth symphonies alongside his passacaglia from Lady Macbeth as well as his DSCH monogram (his musical "signature", in which four repeated notes represent his first four initials). Poignantly, the quartet is seen as Shostakovich's suicide note due to his referencing of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, yet this tragic nature is tragically lost in the childlike non-vibrato of the strings.

The players' hesitance is evident elsewhere in the recording. Whilst the frantic eruptions at the opening of the fourth movement should allude to bombs, or to the Gestapo knocking at the door, Quatuor Byron's interpretation only brings to mind a rabbit thumping its hind leg. Similarly, whilst the allegro molto opening of the second movement is a tremendous contrast to the first, none of the pictures of Jewish outrage are capitalised upon, despite the perpetual rhythmic movement and violent chords that should make the music powerful and intense. The third movement's satiric "grotesque waltz" is, however, captured well – the lighter mood cleverly mitigates the previous movement, and Quatuor Byron's playing is effervescent. Yet it may be telling that the only movement in which this recording excels is in the third's playful irony. It reflects a quartet that is comfortable with the absolutist works of Haydn and Beethoven, but are perhaps out of their depth with the emotional sophistication of Shostakovich.


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October 11 2011

Guardian young arts critics competition 2011: the winners

Our young critics competition turned up some fearless talent

What makes a great critic? Lots of things: an eye for detail, an instinct for the right adjective, an empathy with audience and artist. A great critic can make a reader feel that they, too, have been there: watching, listening, holding their breath. A great critic's opinion carries conviction; a great critic loves language. And, in a world where everyone has an opinion, and the means to share it, these qualities matter more than ever: a professional 21st-century critic has to look harder, write funnier, be smarter than anyone else.

So it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it – and somebody has to do it after this generation have had their turn. For the fourth year running, we've been looking for the UK's best young critics. We asked for entries in eight categories, and split those into two age groups: under 14, and 14 to 18. Most wanted to write about film, TV, theatre, visual art and music; there were fewer entries for classical, dance and architecture. You told us about your 2011 highlights and lowlights: Bon Iver's "magical" new album, Kevin Spacey's Richard III (not terrifying enough), Gavin Henson's "robot" turn on The Bachelor, the discreet charms of Coventry railway station. You were direct, engaged, enthusiastic, occasionally brutal – and you impressed our judges, who included writer Anthony Horowitz, singer Emmy the Great and Kick–Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman.

In the film category, 13-year-old Francesco Dernie reviewed Project Nim, James Marsh's documentary about the chimp raised as a child, concluding: "I do think he achieved some humanity." For Goldman, this was "the stand-out entry, a beautifully honed balance between information and opinion". Kiera McIntosh-Michaelis's review of Kevin Macdonald's crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day won in the older category. "A little gem that showed natural writing talent," said Goldman.

Among younger pop critics, 13-year-old Holly MacHenry won for her rousing review of Gogol Bordello, with the judges praising its ability to convey the raw excitement of being there ("About halfway through the second song I decided being cool wasn't important and started jumping about"). Julia Smith, 18, was first in the older age group for her review of Bon Iver's recent album. His previous album, For Emma, Forever Ago, she wrote, "hits you right there. You know, there, that space between your head and your heart". Judge Emmy the Great said: "She will doubtless be the sort of music critic who has fans. I am one."

There was a surprising amount of foreign reporting in visual art: Seward Johnson's controversial 26ft Marilyn Monroe in Chicago, two shows at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, ceramics in Switzerland. The Met shows inspired the best writing: 14-year-old Angelica Gottleib's take on Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen retrospective ("a marvellous, skeleton-like back-brace … antelope ears crafted from gleaming twigs"); and 12-year-old Freddie Holker's extraordinarily accomplished review of a homage to Lucian Freud, in particular his painting Naked Man, Back View ("Disgusting. That's what I'm thinking, that's my gut instinct.") Of Freddie, art critic Adrian Searle said: "The writing is tight, the descriptions vivid."

It was a strong year for theatre. Thomas Marshall, 16, won the older category with his review of Kevin Spacey's Richard III: "At about 11pm, a hunchbacked man with a leg-brace is hung upside-down, dead, in a darkened room somewhere in London to the applause of hundreds." (This first line had director and judge Katie Mitchell "hooked".) The under-14s group scored the competition's youngest winner, nine-year-old Laura Stevens, whose review of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Stratford used "beautiful imagery to relate what she'd seen, conveying her enthusiasm and insight", said playwright Lucy Prebble.

There was a confidence and swagger to the TV reviews, pleasing our TV editor, Vicky Frost. Hannah Quinn, 17, won for her savagely cynical review of Gavin Henson's The Bachelor ("The end is nigh! A mad scientist has succeeded in creating a robot and an army of clones!"). Horowitz said: "This is a critic who puts her personality right on the page – great fun to read."

Dance critic Rachel Balmer, 16, wrote one of the bounciest, liveliest reviews. Riverdance, she said, was "the oddest genre of theatrical art", featuring "singing, a bout of flamenco, a candelit vigil … some Irish-style disco dancing complete with cartwheels … I told you it was odd." Our classical music winner was Rosie Busiakiewicz, 18, who reviewed a new recording of Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet.

In the final category, architecture, judge Ted Cullinan declared Michael Sackur, 13, winner in the younger category, for his "beautifully observed formal critique" of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin: "Criticism like this is hard to write." Fourteen-year-old Mollie Davidson won the older category for her review of Coventry railway station. This, Cullinan said, was a brilliant summary of the "earnest economical period" of architecture just after the second world war.

The winners will receive a Guardian certificate and a £25 book token; their entries are published today at guardian.co.uk/culture. Picking an overall winner was tough, but with Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC, and Georgina Henry, head of guardian.co.uk, we agreed on 12-year-old Freddie Holker for his amazingly mature critique of Lucian Freud. I would conclude by saying something along the lines of the kids are all right – but that's just the kind of cliche our young critics know to avoid.

• Winner Freddie Holker will be writing for G2 later this year.


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October 07 2011

TV highlights 07/10/2011

The Culture Show | Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello | Autumnwatch 2011 | Criminal Minds | A League Of Their Own | Chris Addison: My Funniest Year

The Culture Show
7pm, BBC2

Another week, another eclectic collection of reports from the arts show, which this week visits Glasgow. Top of the bill is host Andrew Graham-Dixon interviewing Grayson Perry, who's lately curated an installation of new works mixed up with objects drawn from the British Museum collection. Mark Kermode discusses We Need To Talk About Kevin with its director Lynne Ramsay, Simon Armitage celebrates National Poetry Day, and critic Michael Collins considers representations of working-class characters in the theatre. Plus, choreographer Akram Khan and the work of artist Gerhard Richter. Jonathan Wright

Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello
7.30pm, BBC4

The cello is the closest orchestral instrument to the human voice in its range of expression. It has achieved a pre-eminence in the classical repertoire, growing throughout the 20th century. Much of this is to do with the tireless brilliance of the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This profile, rich with footage, depicts a man whose energy and lust for life, as well its joys and sadnesses, informed his playing, and whose excessiveness broke the banks of mere virtuosity. David Stubbs

Autumnwatch 2011
8.30pm, BBC2

Once a week for eight weeks, Autumnwatch will be hoping something happens. Presenters Chris Packham, Martin Hughes-Games and Michaela Strachan will be travelling the country to try to catch wildlife in action. The live locations include the wetlands at Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire, where kingfishers, otters and 35,000 wildfowl are all potential stars, and the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, which will probably be worth a visit for the stunning seasonal colours alone. Martin Skegg

Chris Addison: My Funniest Year
11.10pm, Channel 4

Addison takes to the stage of the Hackney Empire to deliver a live clip show based around his favourite year. His comedy odyssey takes us back to 2001, when Bush Jr came to power and ITV's Popstars gave us Hear'Say. News footage shows the year to be not that funny at all, with the twin towers falling and mass culling of foot and mouth-infected livestock, but this just gives Addison a chance to deploy the stockpile of gags he's had a decade to gather. Phelim O'Neill

Criminal Minds
9pm, Sky Living

A show based around the FBI's behavioural analysis unit, which psychologically profiles killers. For this seventh season, Criminal Minds departs forensic reality for a slightly far-fetched fantasy. Last series, it seemed that team member Emily Prentiss was a goner – stabbed in the abdomen by her arms-dealer former lover. How straightforward that would have been. In fact, Prentiss is alive, and hiding out in Paris until she finds an opportune moment to rejoin the unit. Fun stuff – and look out for Mad Men's Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) guest-starring as a member of a senate committee. John Robinson

A League Of Their Own
10pm, Sky1

While its antecedent, They Think It's All Over, managed to show the surprisingly sharp side of sporting figures such as David Gower and Steve Davis, A League Of Their Own merely plays down to expectations. Team captains Andrew Flintoff and Jamie Redknapp, though likable enough, aren't terribly interesting, leaving the burden of entertainment on James Corden and his interchangeable support staff of panel-show comics, which, for this fourth series, includes Jack Whitehall, Jason Manford and Lee Mack. Gwilym Mumford


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September 22 2011

Mike Leigh, AL Kennedy, Mark Wallinger speak out for the LPO Four

Writers, film-makers, artists and academics 'dismayed' at suspension of four musicians, and urge the London Philharmonic Orchestra to reconsider

A letter to the Telegraph (scroll down) expresses what so many people in the audience at the London Philharmonic Orchestra's excellent opening concert were saying privately last night: that the measures against the four musicians who signed a letter to the Independent protesting against the Israel Phil's appearance at the BBC Proms were absurdly draconian.

Those who signed today's Telegraph letter include filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach; actors Sam West, Simon McBurney and Miriam Margolyes; writers AL Kennedy, Philip Hensher, Kamila Shamshie and Ahdaf Soueif; artists Cornelia Parker and Mark Wallinger; composer Steve Martland; playwright Lee Hall and others, including many academics and scholars.

The LPO has certainly made a crisis out of a drama. I'm not sure it could have stoked the flames of this episode more effectively if it had tried.

Here's the text of the letter:

We are shocked to hear of the suspension of four members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for adding their signatures to a letter calling for the BBC to cancel a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to a statement from LPO managers, quoted in the Jewish Chronicle, the action was taken because the musicians included their affiliation to the orchestra with their signatures – a convention that is common practice within the academic world, for example.

One does not have to share the musicians' support for the campaign for boycotting Israeli institutions to feel grave concern about the bigger issue at stake for artists and others. There is a link being created here between personal conscience and employment, which we must all resist.

A healthy civil society is founded on the ability of all to express non-violent and non-prejudiced opinions, freely and openly, without fear of financial or professional retribution.

The LPO management states that, for it, "music and politics don't mix" – yet its decision to jeopardise the livelihoods of four talented musicians for expressing their sincerely held views is itself political.

Why should it be so dangerous for artists to speak out on the issue of Israel/Palestine? We are dismayed at the precedent set by this harsh punishment, and we strongly urge the LPO to reconsider its decision.


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June 19 2011

The time of my life

From an illicit Pixies gig to a Mesopotamian ziggurat, Guardian critics recall their biggest moment of inspiration in their respective fields

How to enter this year's competition

Pop: Alexis Petridis

Can any gig you see as a critic ever match the ones you saw as a teenager? Bizarrely, going to a gig when I was 17 was harder work than writing reviews has ever been. It involved not merely getting to London, but lying to my parents about where I was going, lying to my friend's parents about where my parents thought I was going, bunking off school, and then convincing somebody who looked 18 to go to the bar on my behalf.

But none of that mattered the night I saw the Pixies supported by My Bloody Valentine, in September 1988. It's not every night you see arguably the two most important guitar bands of the era on the same stage at the peak of their powers: the Pixies had just released their incredible second album, Surfer Rosa, while My Bloody Valentine had released the astonishing single You Made Me Realise.

It says something about the pre-internet age that, before they walked on, I had no idea what the Pixies looked like. I didn't expect the guy who sang all those dark songs about sex and violence to be chubby and balding. This was nothing compared to the shock of their sound: a ceaseless roar, with the next song starting as the last chord of the previous one was still dying away.

I remember that gig in snapshots. Two roadies having to hold on to My Bloody Valentine's drumkit as Colm O'Cíosóig hit it with such ferocity that it started moving across the stage. The Pixies performing Hey, a song so self-evidently filthy it seemed to have been beamed in from another world. But most of all, I remember feeling more excited than I'd ever been in my life. You could argue that my career has involved chasing that feeling ever since.

Visual art: Adrian Searle

The first serious art exhibition I ever saw was on a school trip to Goya and His Times at London's Royal Academy in 1963. I have seen many Goya shows since and think I know his art well, but he always surprises me, even when I look at paintings I have known for most of my life. How time flies.

I can't say this was the best show, or even the best Goya show, I have ever seen. I was, after all, only 10. But I remember being struck by Goya's weirdness: the distorted faces of the Spanish royal family, the isolated, looming figure of the Duchess of Alba (Goya's lover), the strange skies. Decades later, I saw that the clouds over Madrid often look like old, torn tapestries.

I must have about 20 books about Goya now, including the tiny paperback I bought at the time. It's a useless book – pictures too small, colours all wrong – but I kept it. Another book is Goya's Last Portrait, a play by the critic John Berger. A few years ago, Berger and I had a long talk about that dog Goya painted, the one that could be drowning in quicksand or might just be sticking his nose up over a hill to sniff the sky.

I remember wondering why Goya's paintings meant so much to me when I knew nothing about art and had never been anywhere, least of all to Madrid. Maybe that show only became important later, because of things that happened in my life. Many roads lead back to a kid looking at Goya and understanding nothing.

Classical music: Erica Jeal

It was 10 years ago, but I remember it better than things I heard last week. The Alban Berg Quartet and the cellist Heinrich Schiff were playing Schubert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: the String Quintet in C, the one with two cellos and the glorious first-movement melody that begins again and again, as if the composer couldn't bear to let it go.

A few minutes in, I knew this performance was different from any I'd heard before. Then I realised why. It was all coloured by death, every note. Something in the Alban Berg's playing made it obvious: Schubert, at 31, knew he was dying, and had composed a love letter to the world that was as sweet as it was sincere, full of anguish, acceptance, anger and serenity. I wondered if I was just a bit strung out: perhaps I was the only one experiencing it this way. But at the end, the usually reserved QEH audience was on its feet.

There are few things more depressing than a performance of a work you love that leaves you cold. But there is nothing more exciting than hearing a musician, or an orchestra, take something you thought you knew, and make you realise there is still more to fall in love with. I felt that way hearing Iván Fischer conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony in January this year. I felt that way in 2003, when I heard veteran tenor Peter Schreier sing a searing Die Schöne Müllerin, somehow bringing an old man's wisdom to a young man's tale.

That was Schubert again. I'm starting to suspect that Schubert understood everything there was to know about the world, and that the answers to all life's big questions might be found in his music. I haven't uncovered them yet, but I'm still listening.

Architecture: Jonathan Glancey

For as long as I can remember, right back to when I was a teenager trying to piece together the story of architecture, the ziggurat at Eridu had been a presence in my life. I was haunted by the thought that somewhere in deepest Mesopotamia, today's southern Iraq, there lay, in ruins and largely hidden under sand, what might be the world's first monumental building: the mother of all architecture in the world's first metropolis.

I finally got to Eridu just months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Somehow I had persuaded the right people to let me go, and a platoon of Saddam's soldiers now escorted me along routes flanked by unexploded munitions dating from the first Gulf war. The heat was intense: 50 degrees. On the way, we stopped to climb the ziggurat of Ur, walking the site's excavated streets in the zig-zagging shadow of the great pyramid.

When we reached Eridu, the young soldiers were as excited as I was. We almost fell on the sands. It was thrilling to palm them away and find the stepped form of its crumpled ziggurat, built and rebuilt over thousands of years. There was a lake here once, and marshes. Eridu, founded in 5,400BC, was a sacred place for millennia until finally being abandoned in the 7th century AD. In 1949, excavations were undertaken, but it became a no-go zone after the first Gulf war.

At the same time as those excavations were taking place, Le Corbusier was designing his astonishing Unité d'Habitation, a block of flats in Marseilles. Although ultra-modern, this building also managed to be as elemental in form and as ancient in spirit. Great architecture connects with the past and pushes into the future.

Film: Peter Bradshaw

In my time as a critic, there have been many films that have made me want to punch the air with joy (and a few that made me want to punch a brick wall). But the film that I come back to, over and over, is Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, a beautiful, sad, sexy, mysterious movie that came out in 2000, when I'd been in this job for less than a year.

The premise is simple enough. The scene is 1960s Hong Kong, and Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play neighbours who discover their spouses are having an affair. The realisation gives them a kind of intimacy: they have a tragic, erotic quasi-affair of their own. It is electrifying. Leung's desperate sadness is something he cannot admit to anyone, and the final sequence, in which he "confesses" it secretly to himself, is heartbreaking.

So many mainstream films have everything signposted and underlined, leaving no doubt as to what you are supposed to think and feel. In The Mood For Love demands you notice nuances and subtlety; you have to exert yourself to see, really see, what Wong is doing.

Theatre: Michael Billington

The toughest challenge for a theatre critic, and the greatest excitement, comes from responding to something new. How to describe, interpret and evaluate a play that expands the frontiers of drama? My mind goes back to a night in April 1975, when I reviewed the first performance of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at the Old Vic.

I knew something about Pinter, having seen The Homecoming, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. But I'd never reviewed a Pinter premiere, and this one had the smell of a big occasion: a production starring Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud.

I know I got some things wrong. At one point, Hirst (Richardson) engages in a prolonged reminiscence with Spooner (Gielgud). I took that as genuine rather than a parodic fantasy. But I did intuit that the play was a reflection of Pinter's own fears: that Spooner, the shabby minor poet, was the man he might have been; and Hirst, the literary celebrity cut off from life, was the figure he was terrified of becoming.

What I remember above all is the crackling comic vitality and sombre poetry of Pinter's language. In the mouths of Richardson, who was all spring-heeled ebullience, and Gielgud, who looked like some seedy, downmarket WH Auden, Pinter's phrases bounced off the walls like a ball in a squash court. In the play's overpowering final moments, one had a sense of Hirst starting to crawl unburdened towards death. Or, at least, to what Pinter poignantly calls a no man's land "which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains for ever, icy and silent". That struck me as theatrical poetry at its best: distilled, precise, yet infinitely mysterious.

Trying to pin down a Pinter play at first sight was exhilarating, like stepping into a ring with a champion boxer: one ran the risk of being knocked out.

Dance: Judith Mackrell

It was a Royal Ballet matinee in April 2001, and the hairs on the back of my neck started prickling: I realised I was witnessing the start of one of the great careers. Alina Cojocaru was just 19 and performing her first Giselle, a role that challenges even the most experienced ballerinas. In act one, she has to play a naive peasant girl, her heart broken by the aristocratic love rat Albrecht; in act two, she is a ghost, her dancing as transparent as air. Cojocaru did more than dance both roles with mesmerising beauty: she made you believe she had performed Giselle in some other, previous life.

I have seen more technically brilliant performances (although in act two, Cojocaru's dancing was so eerily exquisite, her feet barely seemed to touch the floor), but I have never seen a dancer live the role with such intensity. In the mad scene that leads to Giselle's death, Cojocaru's body looked so broken with pain you weren't sure she was acting.

Other great productions I have seen would include Les Noces, created by Bronislava Nijinska back in 1923 with a visual, emotional and musical power that blows your head off; Mark Morris's fierce Dido and Aeneas, with himself as the lead; Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring, a dance to death on a stage covered with black earth; and Frederick Ashton's poetically exact Scènes de Ballet.

The best moments I have as a critic are when I forget I'm working, when nothing I know has prepared me for what I'm experiencing. As I wrote on that extraordinary day back in 2001: "You felt that flukey thrill of being in exactly the right place at the right time."

TV: Sam Wollaston

The best thing I've ever watched on TV? That's impossible. If you're including drama, news, sport, documentary, comedy, everything, how can you possibly say which is better: news coverage of the twin towers coming down (extraordinary but hardly "good") or series four of The Wire (extraordinary, but less important in terms of changing the world)? Then there's Mad Men, The West Wing, The Thick of It, Ali G, The Office. And Big Brother's first series, when Nasty Nick was kicked out, because it changed television for ever. No, I don't dare pick that – too scared of the flak.

I'm going for Seven Up on ITV. Or 49 Up, as the last instalment, in 2005, was called. Back in 1964, 12 seven-year-olds from a wide range of backgrounds told film-maker Michael Apted what they wanted and expected out of life. Every seven years, Apted has been back to check on them. We've seen them grow up, become adults, fall in love, start careers, get married, have children, succeed, fail, despair, get more posh, get less posh, become Australian, have grandchildren.

It's been an extraordinary journey, a social history of this country: we've seen how attitudes to class, work and family have changed, along with clothes and hairstyles. But it's also, more importantly, the story of 12 individuals. This is real reality TV, touching, sad and funny – and about as important as television gets.

• This article was amended on 20 June 2011. The original stated that 49 Up was in 1995


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June 07 2011

This week's arts diary

Lloyd Webber relaunches Love Never Dies, plus Donald Trump's golf course, Dave Stewart sells Hirst to save art, and Wilton's gets the thumbs down

Love Never Dies not dead yet

Andrew Lloyd Webber is positively beaming at the new version of his not-entirely-acclaimed Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. It's "quite extraordinary", he told the Diary. The downside (unless you live there) is that it's in Melbourne. But Lloyd Webber, who was in the city for the opening last week, is optimistic that this version will eventually make it to London's West End, probably after opening in Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, and then Broadway.

If you recall, Love Never Dies opened to grim reviews in March 2010 (it was dubbed Paint Never Dries by some), but then was rejigged by the producer Bill Kenwright. It's still not as good as it should be in Lloyd Webber's eyes, however.

The Melbourne show started almost from scratch. "It's a new production in every single way, wonderfully designed and wonderfully directed," says Lloyd Webber. "We didn't quite get it right in London. To let somebody else have a go is sometimes a very good idea. Forgetting that I have anything to do with it, I'd go so far as to say that, as a piece of musical theatre, it's as good as I've seen – ever."

Lloyd Webber says he wants to "let it settle" in Australia, since much of next year will be spent touring Jesus Christ Superstar. But the end plan does seem to be a move to London, where it would replace the Love Never Dies currently running at the Adelphi. "I'm confident it will be the production that, eventually, everyone remembers," he says.

Donald Trump's golf-course

A documentary chronicling the almost unbelievable ease with which Donald Trump was allowed to build a £1bn golf course for the mega-rich on environmentally protected dunes north of Aberdeen will get its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday. You've Been Trumped won plaudits at Toronto film festival, and Anthony Baxter's film, which the Diary has seen, is certainly compelling stuff.

Trump (right) comes across as a buffoon and bully, while Alex Salmond's Scottish government seems to roll over and say yes please, no problem. Grampian police, which put Baxter in a cell for four hours and held on to his camera for six days, also come across badly. So what will the reaction in Scotland be?

Baxter tells me that arts investors Creative Scotland refused his initial application for money – he wanted £10,000 – on "lack of audience interest" grounds. The Edinburgh film festival declined to show it and "told me not to ask for a reason". So in Scotland it will show instead at Aberdeen's Belmont Picturehouse on 17 June.

Dave Stewart sells Hirst to save art

The Guardian reported at the weekend that musician Dave Stewart was selling seven works from his contemporary art collection, including a Damien Hirst spot painting that is presumably close to his heart – in that it is dedicated to Stewart himself. The one question that went unanswered was why he's selling. Stewart now tells the Diary: "I'm selling because I'm investing in something revolutionary that will help artists in the future." We can't wait to hear more.

Thumbs down for Wilton's

It was a genuine shame that Wilton's Music Hall in east London failed in its bid to get money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Here is an amazing building, the world's oldest working music hall, playing host to some wonderful work including a terrific all-male Iolanthe in April. Wilton's wanted £2.25m of lottery money to put towards the £3.8m it needs for renovating and conservation. The refusal must be a blow, but director Frances Mayhew remains ever optimistic. "If we do nothing, by autumn this year we would be closed down," she said. "We won't let this happen." Anyone wishing to donate should go to wiltons.org.uk.


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May 29 2011

A seat near the deer, please

This pop-up opera house in the heart of the English countryside is one of the most thrilling venues in Britain. Jonathan Glancey goes wild at Garsington's new pavilion

Robin Snell takes a look around the rolling fields and hills of Wormsley Park, a luscious green space in the Chilterns that's home to hares, kites, sheep, deer and partridges. "The site we found was perfect in pretty much every way," he says. "It has a beautiful outlook. It's quiet. And we've been able to fit the pavilion into the landscape very conveniently."

Snell, an architect and clarinettist, has reason to be proud. The pavilion in question is an astonishing creation: a 600-seat opera house in the heart of the coutryside. What's more, after its five-week season, this daunting collection of steel poles, timber planks and PVC screens will be packed away. This is pop-up opera, and when The Magic Flute opens here on Thursday it should confirm this delightful marriage of architecture and landscape as one of the most thrilling places in the country to hear live music.

Wormsley Park is the new home of Garsington Opera, founded in 1989 by Leonard Ingrams, a banker and violinist. He bought Garsington, a 17th-century Oxfordshire manor house, in 1982. Within seven years, inspired by Glyndebourne, he had created his own country-house opera in the walled gardens of his estate. "But," says Anthony Whitworth-Jones, Garsington's director, "when he died in 2005, it was clear the show would have to go elsewhere. The family, although hugely supportive, wanted their home back."

Whitworth-Jones and his team visited more than 40 sites before settling on Wormsley. They could have gone further afield, he says, "which might have made our search easier, but that would have meant breaking away from our backers, who are our audiences. Garsington was a local event. At heart it still is – and always will be."

Wormsley Park, a 2,500-acre estate boasting an 18th-century country house, is the former pile of philanthropist Paul Getty, who died there in 2003. It is now home to Mark Getty and his family, who have granted Garsington a 15-year lease, on condition that the site – next to the estate's farm and Getty's famous cricket ground – is returned to grazing land for the deer after each season.

As a result, the pavilion doesn't just settle into its surroundings, it actually exploits them – in particular the ha-ha, as the hidden ditch designed to keep the deer in is called. "The ha-ha now doubles as the orchestra pit," explains Snell, who was project architect for Glyndebourne's superb 1994 opera house. "So we've not had to excavate. The concrete foundations are like pads set into the grass with the building bolted on top. Once it's taken down, the pads are grassed over and you'd never know there had been a building of any sort here, let alone an opera house."

Want decor? Then look around

Snell based his design on traditional Japanese kabuki theatres. These colourful timber pavilions, which flowered in the 17th and 18th centuries, made elegant use of sliding screens and were often connected by bridges to gardens outside. Stage, bridge and garden would be used for performance, making indoors and outdoors meld into one. This spirit lives on in Snell's sparsely yet elegantly functional steel frame. Apart from its gently rippling roof, it does little to draw attention to itself; all the colour stems from either the gardens, costumes or sets.

"It's simply a question of what was appropriate," says Snell. "We needed to find a way of building, and deconstructing, that would be quick and easy. This is a big kit of parts that serves as a frame to performances. The landscape, along with what's on stage, is all the decoration you could want. Things might be different if this was to be a permanent building, though."

No one will expect a temporary pavilion to be as proper a setting for full-blooded opera as, say, the Royal Opera House. Yet the Garsington pavilion really is fully functioning, complete not just with high-ceilinged auditorium, stage and pit, but also with boxes, champagne bar, verandas and stairs to parade up and down in fine summer frocks and dusted-down DJs – all the while looking out at that meandering view. That's not something you spend a lot of time doing in a big city venue.

In fact, thanks to its clear screen sides, you can see out into the forests and fields from any one of the linen-covered, timber-framed seats. And, as performances start at 6pm, the auditorium will still be filled with light as the orchestra strikes up. "A part of the magic," says Snell, "is that the audience arrives in bright sunshine and leaves in the dark, when the pavilion lights up, changing character almost completely. It's meant to be a theatrical experience in every way."

Let's pray it doesn't hail

But what happens when it rains? "We thought a lot about this," says acoustician Robert Essert. "What we've come up with is a fine mesh screen, a bit like a mosquito net, stretched above the roof. This breaks raindrops down into tiny globules, so that when they hit the roof below, they will have turned into mist. Unless we get hail, you won't hear rain inside the auditorium."

Essert has also shaped what he calls "windsurfer sails" along the sides of the pavilion. These bounce sound from the pit and the stage back into and along the auditorium, so that it isn't lost to the skies. The roof is designed to do likewise. The pavilion promises some fine sights backstage, too: to swap wigs, change costumes, or just take a breather, performers will have to nip off to nearby farm buildings, bustling along paths and through flowerbeds.

Oboist Helena Gaunt can remember some stormy nights at the previous Garsington venue. "You couldn't hear yourself play because of the wind and the rain. But equally, you'd have those extraordinary evenings when the birds were singing in the first half, and dusk was falling on a warm, still night. There's something very special about that. And audiences seem to love the spirit of it come what may."


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April 30 2011

The Observer Summer Arts Calendar

Our critics pick the season's highlights: From Lady Gaga to Harry Potter, Coppélia to Tony Cragg, this summer has something for all

MAY

4 FILM The Tree of Life
The much-delayed fifth feature from director Terrence Malick, snapped up by Icon for UK release ahead of its Cannes showing, is a multi-generational drama featuring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn – and, reportedly, dinosaurs.

5 CLASSICAL From the House of the Dead
Opera North's production of Janáek's final work, directed by John Fulljames and conducted by Richard Farnes. Stars Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Alan Oke and Roderick Williams. Leeds and touring

DANCE By Singing Light/Romance Inverse

National Dance Company of Wales bring Stephen Petronio and Itzik Galili's arresting double bill to Dance City in Newcastle, with the former set to the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

6 THEATRE Shrek
Nigel Lindsay plays the lime-coloured, lovelorn ogre, with Amanda Holden as Princess Fiona and Nigel Harman as Lord Farquaad, in this Anglo-American production at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

CLASSICAL The Damnation of Faust
Ex-Python Terry Gilliam takes on the devil as director of this ENO staging of Berlioz's masterpiece, conducted by Edward Gardner and starring Peter Hoare, Christine Rice and Christopher Purves.

7 CLASSICAL Steve Reich at 75
UK premiere of Steve Reich's WTC 9/11, part of the two-day Reverberations festival at the Barbican. Then toured by the Kronos Quartet in Glasgow (13 May) and Norwich (17 May).

10 THEATRE The Cherry Orchard
Zoe Wanamaker stars; Howard Davies, who has excelled in the staging of Russian drama, directs in the National's Olivier, with a design by Bunny Christie and a translation by Andrew Upton.

11 FILM Cannes film festival
Robert De Niro heads the jury at Cannes this year, casting his eye over eagerly awaited films by Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar, Lynne Ramsay and Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris opens the competition.

13 DANCE Royal Ballet
The season's penultimate triple bill at the ROH includes the Royal Ballet premiere of Balanchine's Ballo della regina and a new work, Live Fire Exercise, from Wayne McGregor, set to a score by Sir Michael Tippett.

FILM Attack the Block
The debut feature from Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe fame. A "hoodie horror" about aliens landing in south London and teenage gangs uniting to fight them.

14 ART Tate St Ives
Treats at the Cornish gallery's Summer Exhibition include late paintings by Agnes Martin, installations by Martin Creed and sculpture by Naum Gabo.

16 POP Kate Bush: Director's Cut
While fans await an album of new material, the fabulously eccentric Bush has chosen to rework a selection of older songs: "The Sensual World" gains a new title and lyrics from Ulysses.

THEATRE Much Ado About Nothing
Hotly anticipated. David Tennant and Catherine Tate play the sparring lovers at Wyndham's in London. They are directed by Josie Rourke, who takes over as artistic director of the Donmar next year.

18 ART Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want
Tracey Emin needs no introduction, and quite possibly no huge solo retrospective, but this show of sculptures, photographs, films and drawings at the South Bank's Hayward Gallery will no doubt thrill her fans and infuriate her detractors alike.

19 THEATRE Lord of the Flies
William Golding's savage fable, adapted by Nigel Williams, plays in the open air until 18 June at Regent's Park theatre, which is enjoying its most imaginative era for decades.

21 ARCHITECTURE The Hepworth Gallery
The second David Chipperfield-designed gallery in two months. The Hepworth promises to be as good as the first, the Turner Contemporary in Margate. No beach in Wakefield, but a fine permanent collection of Barbara Hepworth's sculpture.

23 POP Lady Gaga: Born This Way
Two taster tracks have overtly recalled Madonna, both musically ("Born This Way") and irreligiously ("Judas"). But the proper follow-up to Monster remains this year's most eagerly awaited pop release.

27 POP Take That
Britain's best-loved manband have sold out 27 nights at the UK's vastest stadiums, with the Pet Shop Boys supporting.

JUNE

2 DANCE Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!
Dave St-Pierre is the enfant terrible of Canadian dance and has provoked comparisons with Pina Bausch. In this production at Sadler's Wells, his 20 performers are literally and figuratively stripped naked.

3 ART The Government Art Collection
Discover which works of art your government owns; which Lowrys, Turners and Bridget Rileys hang in Downing Street. All is revealed at the Whitechapel Gallery.

4 ART Venice Biennale
Quite simply the most important international art event in the world; 82 artists in the official Giardini pavilions, with many more off site at the Arsenale. Until 27 November.

7 ARCHITECTURE Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
Usually less stuffy than its art counterpart; curated this year by a stylistic odd couple of the flamboyant postmodernist Piers Gough and the more restrained Alan Stanton.

8 DANCE Coppélia
Peter Wright's production of Coppélia with the Birmingham Royal Ballet is a funny, occasionally spooky, family ballet, set to Delibes's irresistible score. At the Lowry, Manchester, and touring.

10 POP Meltdown
Former Kink Ray Davies is this year's curator at the South Bank, recreating 60s TV show Ready Steady Go!, and springing surprises such as the Fugs. But will the Kinks reform?

CLASSICAL Aldeburgh festival
Opens with Simon Rattle and the CBSO. Premieres by Elliott Carter and Harrison Birtwistle , as well as Netia Jones's site-specific Everlasting Light, set in Sizewell. Runs until 26 June.

15 FILM Edinburgh film festival
Instead of an artistic director, EIFF has appointed guest curators, including Isabella Rossellini and Gus van Sant, who should make this year's event particularly interesting.

21 ARCHITECTURE Transport Museum Glasgow
Zaha Hadid now has several UK works to her name, but this will be her biggest public work to date, pending completion of the Olympic aquatic centre.

22 THEATRE Ghost: the musical
Matthew Warchus's production of the 1990 movie moves from Manchester to London's Piccadilly, with music by Dave Stewart. Stars Richard Fleeshman.

POP Glastonbury festival

Barring any mishaps, U2 finally lead the charge at Worthy Farm, with Beyoncé, Coldplay, the Chemical Brothers and Morrissey providing backup. NB: Dengue Fever are a band on the bill, not this year's health scare.

24 CLASSICAL Two Boys
ENO premiere of Nico Muhly's co-production with the New York Metropolitan Opera about a teenage stabbing. With a libretto by Craig Lucas, directed by Bartlett Sher and conducted by Rumon Gamba.

FILM The First Grader
When the Kenyan government introduces free primary schooling, a former Mau Mau fighter, now in his 80s, applies for an education. Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) directs, Naomie Harris co-stars in this British film which won an audience award at Tribeca.

ART Magritte: The Pleasure Principle
Still the best of the surrealists, with this first show in a generation focusing on eroticism, visual revelation and the influence of commercial design. More than 100 paintings at Tate Liverpool.

FILM Bridesmaids
In this female riposte to the stag-party-gone-wrong subgenre, produced by Judd Apatow, Saturday Night Live regular Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote the script) plays a lovelorn maid of honour ill-equipped to organise her best friend's pre-wedding rituals.

29 POP Arcade Fire
First, the Texan/Haitian/Canadian indie wunderkinder took London's O2 Arena. Now, they are taking Hyde Park, with help from Mumford & Sons, Beirut and the Vaccines.

30 ART Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography
Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy: more than 200 works showing the astonishing impact of this single country on photojournalism, documentary, fashion and art photography. At the Royal Academy until 2 October.

THEATRE Manchester international festival
The flourishing festival will include Robert Wilson's The Life and Death of Marina Abramović and Victoria Wood's The Day We Sang, inspired by Manchester Children's Choir. Runs until 17 July.

JULY

1 ARCHITECTURE Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
Every year the Serpentine asks a famous architect to design the gallery a temporary pavilion. This year it has lured Peter Zumthor out of his Alpine lair.

3 POP Ke$ha
America's second-most outrageous starlet is back on our shores. Ke$ha's Get $leazy world tour is oversexed and over here until 13 July.

5 DANCE Sylvie Guillem
New contemporary works by William Forsythe, Mats Ek and Jiří Kylián performed by the celebrated ballerina. Essential. To 9 July at Sadler's Wells.

6 ART Thomas Struth
One of Germany's most praised photo artists comes to Whitechapel Art Gallery. Includes the celebrated Museum series and recent installations of Cape Canavarel and the Korean shipyards.

7 ART Glamour of the Gods
Hollywood portraiture from the industry's golden age, 1920-60. From Greta Garbo to Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe: portraits that transformed actors into international style icons. At the National Portrait Gallery.

8 THEATRE Double Feature
Four new plays by Sam Holcroft, DC Moore, Prasanna Puwanarajah and Tom Basden - all writers new to the National Theatre - are staged by a new ensemble in the Cottesloe.

FILM Jack Goes Boating
Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his directorial debut and stars in this tale of lost souls and confused love lives in snow-bound New York. It's based on a 2007 play in which he also appeared.

12 THEATRE A Woman Killed With Kindness
In what promises to be a radical production, Katie Mitchell directs Thomas Heywood's celebrated but rarely seen play. The domestic tragedy, written in 1603, will be staged in the National's Lyttelton.

15 FILM The Deathly Hallows: Part Two
After 10 years the Harry Potter franchise reaches its denouement with a film set to keep box-offices busy.

CLASSICAL The Proms
The BBC Proms opening fortnight includes Havergal Brian's mammoth "Gothic" symphony, new conductor Juanjo Mena, soloist Steven Osborne and pianist Lang Lang. To 10 September.

POP POP Latitude
The headliners may be iffy – the National and Paolo Nutini – but Latitude in Suffolk is a sublime antidote to the mud and mayhem of other festivals. And Alan Hollinghurst is in the Lit Tent.

POP Snoop Dogg
The lazy drawl of Calvin Broadus has long been eclipsed by the rapper's multiplatform media career. It's worth savouring, as he performs 1993's Doggystyle at Manchester international festival and Lovebox Weekender.

20 DANCE Roland Petit
Triple bill of works by the French choreographer, Margot Fonteyn's lover and husband of Zizi Jeanmaire. Includes the sexy, existentialist Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. ENB at the Coliseum.

FILM Nader and Simin, A Separation
Winner of the Golden Bear award at Berlin in February, Asghar Farhadi's fine film explores class tensions in present-day Iran as a middle-class couple on the verge of separation battle over the care of an elderly relative.

26 CLASSICAL St Endellion festival
An ambitious festival in north Cornwall (stars perform for no fee). Includes Wagner's Die Walkure with Susan Bullock (30 July), which then goes to Truro's Hall for Cornwall (2 Aug).

POP Womad
Womad's organisers are on solid ground with headliners such as Baaba Maal and Rodrigo y Gabriela, but the splendour of Womad is always in the discovering.

29 FILM Horrid Henry
The popular series of children's books about a troublesome pre-teen gets the 3D treatment, with Theo Stevenson as Henry, and Anjelica Huston and Richard E Grant among the adults.

30 ART Tony Cragg
Huge retrospective for Tony Cragg, senior British sculptor, with an emphasis on the cast-art of the last decade. At the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to 6 November.

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April 17 2011

Daniel Barenboim: unstuff your shirts

His recent cameo at Tate Modern offended the piano purists, but Daniel Barenboim doesn't care. He tells Alan Rusbridger what Arab revolution can teach classical music

When Daniel Barenboim's hands are not at the piano or holding a baton, they demand a cigar. It is the first thing he mentions as he bustles into Claridge's Hotel on the afternoon of his recent cameo concert at Tate Modern. We will go upstairs to his suite, he explains, and then he can light up.

As if reading his mind, a member of staff shouts down the corridor after him: "Now then, Maestro" (he really does call him Maestro). "No smoking now."

Safely settled into an armchair, Barenboim produces a double-barrelled leather case, lights a very fat cigar and savours the moment. It's 3pm. He's not due at the Tate for four hours. He has not yet decided quite what to play, and is not sure of the acoustic that awaits him in the giant Turbine Hall. He looks tired, but up for a conversation. And a smoke.

A conversation with Barenboim does not take a regular, linear form. It if were a score, it would not resemble a sonata, or indeed anything with a recognisable beginning, middle or end. It is much more like a Sibelius symphony – a multitude of thematic germs, which occasional fuse into a big theme.

So, within five minutes, the thread might go something like this: the shape of the recording industry since the 1980s; the need for new marketing ideas in music, post-internet; the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions; the Japanese tsunami; the speed of change in the world today; his performances in the West Bank; and the nature of musical communication. There is a connection there, and in time it reveals itself, but there are moments, as with Sibelius, where it's not entirely clear where it's all going.

We start with his new recording deal with Universal. He recalls that he made his very first recording in London ("of all places") in 1954. For years, he was with Deutsche Grammophon ("We did quite a lot of not unimportant things together, like the cycle of the Bruckner symphonies in Chicago"). The Universal deal retains his link with DG, but now he wants to try new things.

The first three discs give a flavour of what's to come: a Warsaw recital of solo piano Chopin pieces; the first recording he has made of the Chopin concertos with the Staatskapelle Berlin; and conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together musicians from Israel and Arab countries, in the Schoenberg variations and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6.

You could say his primary current obsessions are wrapped up in those three programmes: his rediscovery of Chopin (forbidden to him by his father, who was interested only in the Haydn-Schubert grand tradition); his life in Berlin; and his work exploring the power of music to bridge cultural divides.

But, Barenboim being Barenboim, he first takes a step back before discussing his new recording deal – to talk about recorded sound.

"When the CD came in 1982, it was a completely new departure in the sense that it took [music] completely away, technically speaking, from the human experience, because it was so perfectly recorded."

A spiral of dense smoke drifts up from his chair. I peer up through it, at what may or may not be a smoke alarm.

"It was both the blessing and the curse of the record industry. The blessing, because any technological advance is very positive. It's a curse because it was able to make all the old recordings sound almost like contemporary recordings. Therefore all of us artists were not only in competition with our contemporaries, but with Furtwängler and Nikisch.

"I think now, after 30 years, we must really see what should be done for the future – how to record, what to record, and how to present it. The technical development has been huge, but the presentation, if you want, or to use a more vulgar word, the marketing didn't change that much. I think this evening [at the Tate] is a very small point, but it shows a new departure."

From Egypt to Japan

The subject of change leads him to Egypt. And then Japan. The next bit is more linear in my recounting than it was in the increasingly fusty room in Claridge's as he warmed to his theme.

"I don't want to sound melodramatic, but I think that in the last 15 or 20 years, the world has changed so much, in so many ways. And in the last two months, the Egyptian revolution and the Japanese catastrophe – I mean, obviously, not just the earthquake but the atomic menace – shows that we cannot think in the old ways.

"Sixty per cent of the population of Egypt is under 30 years old. In the occupied territories it is 85%. For the first time in history, it was a revolution that happened without leadership.

"What a unique gesture it was that young people were able to create this kind of revolution with the help of the internet and other means of communication. That means we all have to speak of other ways of communication. Can you understand what I'm trying to say?"

I can, but he is on to Japan. "Two weeks ago, I went back to reading what Einstein was writing about the atomic dangers. How many years ago? And how he foresaw all that.

"What the world is saying to us human beings is, 'Don't stick to the old ways, learn to think anew.' And that's what musicians do every day. You don't go out and play Beethoven's Opus 111 without having rethought about it every time you play."

Then come digressions on the uncertain future of the Venezuelan experiment in musical education; why the Palestinians have yet to rise up; the folly of Israel's current political path; how a common love of cuisine might draw Middle Eastern cultures together; and playing Bach in Ramallah.

Performing The Well-Tempered Klavier in the heart of the Palestinian occupied territories in 2007 left a deep impression on him. "It was the quality of listening," he says. "I had the feeling I didn't have to go to them, they were all coming on to the stage to me, in their concentration. This is what music is about" – not, he says, the centuries-old traditions of Vienna or Berlin. "In Ramallah you don't have that. It was one of the most wonderful audiences I ever had for that piece."

This leads Barenboim on to a diatribe against governments cutting back on the opportunities for young people to experience music. This, he thinks, is not only diminishing for them, but for music, which will become limited to a select elite of passionate aficionados "away from the rest of the world, away from the human problems. Therefore you get a community made up of artists and an audience that is an ivory-tower community, because both have lost a great part of the connection between music and everything else."

It's this stranglehold on the future of classical music that Barenboim says he is trying to break. The impromptu concert at Tate Modern – a short recital in an unfamiliar venue – is one tiny example. Within three days of the free concert being announced, 8,000 people had applied for the 400 seats, while 700 more watched a live relay in the hall below. When he was finished, the 1,100 people gave him a standing ovation.

As if to illustrate his point, there was a bitterly divided critical response the following day. One critic was struck by the spell he cast, how no one in the throng stirred as he played: "Sixty years on, he still plays the piano with boyish curiosity, as if the instrument had just been invented."

Another critic expended 900 words sneering at the "legions of crazed fans . . . there to witness their Messiah.

"Mention his name in pianophile company," continued the lofty wordsmith, "and it is quickly dismissed". He concluded: "We were . . . wrong to attend last night's recital."

Barenboim had begun our conversation with a recollection of an unkind notice by a Guardian critic (of Menuhin, not himself). There may have been a time when he cared about the opinions of "pianophiles" and musical arbiters of ivory tower taste. But, 18 months short of his 70th birthday, he gives every impression of having his eye fixed on new and much more expansive horizons.

• Daniel Barenboim's Chopin Concertos; The Warsaw Recital; and Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 and Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are out now. He performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 on 13 June, and at the Wigmore Hall, London W1 on 15 June


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