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July 21 2012

Timon of Athens; Peace Camp; The Only True History of Lizzie Finn – review

Olivier, London; Cuckmere Haven, Sussex, and other venues; Southwark Playhouse, London

Suddenly Timon of Athens looks essential. Nicholas Hytner's aggressively witty production, which transforms Athens into a city, the City,

of HSBC and helicopters, shows Shakespeare looking into the heart of finance and of debt. Simon Russell Beale makes the central character more coherent than ever before, and more vital, more important, more all-encompassing – part Thersites, part corporation smoothie, part Lear. The evening is a marvel.

This is a play that is rarely performed and hardly ever praised. It's not a mystery that this should be so. An argument rages about how much was written by Middleton. The drama seesaws violently: at one point Timon, snugly surrounded by fawners and flatterers, is beaming away as he puts his hand into his pocket for anyone. At the next, having discovered he is broke, and that his erstwhile "friends" will not help him, he has turned into a raging misanthropic hermit. He has been accused of having no inner life.

Objections now meet their match. Russell Beale, the most intimate and complicated of actors, absolutely melds the two parts of the play. He starts off plummy, slightly bouncing on his well-heeled shoes; he ends up wizened, stooped, the mellifluousness of his voice strained, with a woolly hat and a supermarket trolley full of his "goods". Yet he always suggests, at his smuggest or most excoriating, that he has an internal commentary going on that makes him slightly sceptical of his current mode: when he turns on his former life – "who had the world as my confectionary" – it seems not arbitrary but inevitable. Meanwhile the elasticity of his verse speaking – whole paragraphs of cursing on a single breath – sweeps his character along.

The ability of Hytner's production to press on the present is extreme, and greatly helped by Tim Hatley's design: the play opens in the new Timon wing of the National Gallery – instantly recognisable by the typography – and closes in a cardboard citizens world. There are deft and welcome transpositions of parts from male to female: let's hope this is the beginning of a trail of such roles for the beautifully wary but candid Deborah Findlay. Nick Sampson transforms himself into the essence of sycophancy, his back bent into an "S". Tom Robertson puts in a full-on funny trustafarian turn. Hilton McRae becomes the Fool to Timon's Lear and weariness personified: he announces "Here comes mankind" as if the mere thought quenches his breath. Meanwhile the banquet to which Timon summons his former flatterers to reject them with anti-food is not subtly but suitably remade: Shakespeare specifies water and stones; Hytner gives them piss and poo. Right for our times.

It's 14 years since Deborah Warner introduced angels to Euston in her Tower Project. In Peace Camp she has set out to create "a halo" around the country. For those (such as me) who are allergic to haloes, she has pulled off something better: she's made a work of the imagination that from a distance suggests that a new aurora borealis has dropped to earth.

Produced by Artichoke, the inspired two-woman team who give theatre a gloriously free-wheeling aspect, Peace Camp was co-commissioned by the London 2012 festival and City of Culture 2013 and developed by Warner in collaboration with Fiona Shaw and composer Mel Mercier. From last Thursday to today, camps have been set up in eight places along the British coast, from Godrevy in Cornwall to Valtos on the Isle of Lewis.

Every approach is different and the way you get there is part of the point. The appearance of the camp constantly changes. Faraway at dusk in Sussex it looked like an orange grin painted on the hills. Sometimes it seemed to float. Later, during a half-hour walk through red mud, with the stars covered by clouds, it vanished altogether, then bobbed up as a faint light. Only close up, yards away, did the smear of colour separate and spring into focus as an encampment with orange and white tents like hives, or opened umbrellas, lit from within, sending out a murmur of human and other noises. And it's only when you're next to the tents that you hear the words rising out of them. Love poems, recorded by Eileen Atkins, Bill Paterson and that handy crew, "members of the public". There is a Welsh folk song and Donne's The Good-Morrow, and Stevie Smith's elegant and unexpected verse ("Do other enchanted people feel as nervous/ As I do?") about what it's like being the Frog Prince. Accompanied by fog horns and pipes the poems are the same in all the tents. Still, everyone – silhouettes milling silently – pauses in front of one or another tent as if it might have a different tale. It never does; unison is what's at stake here. Pause is what Peace Camp memorably makes you do.

Spurred on by Kate Kellaway's review and by two consecutive evenings of encomia from friends, I spent a night off in the theatre. I hadn't meant to write about sparky Southwark Playhouse but must. It's so exhilarating to look into the face (a female one) of the future.

I had expected Sebastian Barry's play to be luscious and it is: the news about The Only True History of Lizzie Finn is the director, Blanche McIntyre. The concentration of what she's created, with a lovely lead performance from Shereen Martin, is exceptional: frisky but unfussy. One idea alone, beautifully realised in James Perkins's design, shows her imagination. The set remains the same: scene changes and mood shifts are managed by different forms of light. Nightlights float on water, flame comes up from the stage floor and, to mark a move from exterior to interior, a lamp is quietly placed among the actors. All the action is lambent. Blanche McIntyre will soon be working in a bigger (not necessarily better) theatre. One day she will have a theatre of her own.


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March 25 2012

Artists, performers and politicians on the Guardian Open Weekend

Some of the speakers at the festival of ideas and open journalism share their highlights and reflections

India Knight, novelist

"The atmosphere here is very friendly: the crowd at my event, on gender equality, were really nice, really engaged. There was a great mix of angry older women and younger ones who I was convinced were going to ask me about vajazzling. I was a little disappointed when they didn't. But I'm going to stay for the rest of the day – just mill about and see as many other sessions as I can. I'm just about to dash in and see John Lanchester in the Question time: what is the future of capitalism? session. I'm a great admirer of his."

Grayson Perry, artist

"I'm wondering if I'm playing to the paper or the audience when I do the live G2 Interview with Decca Aitkenhead. It's different when you are on your on your own with an interviewer – you just have to worry about them. I just saw Jim Al-Khalili because I love him on the telly. I have to keep up with my daughter, who is a scientist. This is the nearest to a festival I'll get. I hate camping, mud, fancy dress, and circus skills bring me out in a rash. All of that spiritual-fucking-ality at Glastonbury. You'd have to get me in and out in a helicopter."

Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author

"I think print newspapers are going to die and if they want to succeed they need to feel more like a family. We're in the age of interactivity: people want to feel a part of it; the audience is not content to be passive any more. So this is the way forward. As a reader I'm thrilled to be here for the day, at the cutting edge of the media. I was particularly impressed by Gary Younge, who I have never seen speak before and was erudite, charming and funny. Admirably he was wearing a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin [the black teenager shot last month in Florida]."

Robert Harris, author

"The Guardian has always had the air of being more than just a paper. I started reading it when I was 15, which was the early 1970s when Heath was prime minister. I was living in the midlands and remember feeling at the time that there weren't many people who saw things the same way as me. So the Guardian was like a family. I went to visit the printers when I was at school and developed an affinity with it from then on. I have been forced to re-read Fatherland for my talk today. I never revisit my books but since this one is 20 years old it seemed the right time to do it. I felt quite a stranger to it – so much has changed since then. And it was a lose/lose situation: either it would be good and you can't do better, or bad and you feel like a failure. It was like looking at an old photograph and thinking, 'Was I really like that?'"

Steve McQueen, artist and filmmaker

"I'm happy to be here."

Jeffrey Sachs, economist

"I'm thrilled to be at such a grand event. I was in Chile and en route to Mozambique but didn't want to pass the opportunity to come to London for this. It's a wonderful idea for newspapers to do this kind of thing, but it's also important for society in a time when we absolutely need engagement. People feel alienated from the political system and this is a way to make them feel a part of the debates that are going on."

Jo Shapcott, poet

"I very much enjoyed my talk and hope that the audience did too. The questions were very sharp, particularly one from a gentleman who asked whether you could tell if a poem was by a man or a woman; that is something I have thought about a lot myself. It's buzzing here. I keep bumping into people who are saying how much they are loving it. One person even said it was intellectual heaven."

Tom Watson, Labour MP and member of the Commons culture committee

"The Open Weekend is a fantastic idea. It's giving the newspaper back to its readers. It's really enjoyable to see so many of them in the building and waiting around outside. It's a real explosion of colour and excitement. I've only just got here, though, as I've had surgeries this morning in my constituency, and I've been going door to door. There's a real fury about the budget, which is encouraging politically, but not so encouraging for my constituents who are bearing the brunt of it. I'm going to be talking about phone hacking on a panel chaired by Jon Snow, with Amelia Hill, Nick Davies - oh and Alan Rusbridger, so I'd better be on my best behaviour. It's only now that the people involved in uncovering the scandal can begin to come up for air and try to make sense of it all. I think the three issues I want to talk about today are ownership, regulation and ethics."

Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter

"I don't want to talk about phone hacking. I'm sure others on the panel will want to, but I'm sick of talking about phone hacking. What I really want to talk about is what it tells us about Britain. What is it about this country that makes us vulnerable to those kind of practices, ones that don't seem to have affected other countries? Is it the same thing that renders us a playground for the Russian mafia, if you think about the Russian man who was shot here the other day? And what is it about Britain that means we have such an appetite for this sort of tabloid journalism – ever since Jack the Ripper? I suspect that we live quite dull lives in this country, and we have an appetite for the kind of gossip that spices up our dull lives."

Linton Kwesi Johnson, poet

"I've been a Guardian reader for years – my favourite section is Obituaries. I've come along today with no expectations of what it's going to be like. Unfortunately I can't stick around after my session, I've got other places to be."

Ed Balls, shadow chancellor

"The atmosphere in the session was fine – it was a little dark and difficult to see the audience, but we had some interesting questions. I spoke about my love for Dolly Parton, and revealed the fact that I'm going to be the first cabinet minister ever to run the marathon."

Fiona Shaw, actor

"This is democracy in action: playful and unexpected, with no filters between us, the readers, and the media. It's a public conversation, which is really what the media today should be."


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November 06 2011

London 2012 festival: 'It's going to be amazing'

Two years ago the Cultural Olympiad was floundering. Has new boss Ruth Mackenzie turned it around? She talks mass bell-ringing, Barenboim and beaches with Charlotte Higgins

Last year, when Ruth Mackenzie was appointed director of the Cultural Olympiad, the very concept was at a low ebb. No one seemed to know exactly what it meant. The early planning seemed bogged down in impenetrable jargon about Olympic "themes" and dead phrases such as "celebrating youth and diversity". While worthy, these had the kind of committee-speak tang that is the enemy of good art. As one commentator put it, after attending the glossy, self-congratulatory launch in 2008, "it felt like we were all bathed in a warm vomit of inclusivity".

Mackenzie was the cavalry, brought in to give the Cultural Olympiad – which, should you still be in the dark, is the arts programme that will accompany the games, and which has been running, in various forms, since 2008 – a fresh start. She would have to be a sprinter: the opening ceremony might have been two years away, but that was still a hideously short time frame in which to pull together a coherent cultural programme for 2012. Mackenzie's appointment was greeted with relief, however: if anyone could pull it off, it was this former boss of Scottish Opera, Chichester Festival theatre and Manchester international festival. Like her or loathe her (and the arts world seems split, her nickname in some quarters being The Childcatcher, after the villain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), she is regarded as effective.

"Did I have time to spend two years doing research, which any director of any festival would expect?" she says crisply when we meet at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "No, I didn't. But there are merits in being decisive. There was no time to linger."

And in many ways – judging from the launch on Friday of her London 2012 festival – Mackenzie does seem to have pulled it off. The festival, running from 21 June to 9 September, will be the climax of the Cultural Olympiad. If all goes well, it will bring some much-needed focus to a rather inchoate programme that has risked lacking a binding identity.

To create the festival programme, Mackenzie and her team examined the work already in development, extracted the good stuff (such as Big Dance week, which saw 1.2 million people dancing in London last year) and quietly dropped the rest. She also opened her contacts book, inviting major international artists to make work that would form the high points of the festival; she cherrypicked projects being run by other institutions and drew them into the festival programme. For example, Tate Modern's regular Turbine Hall commission, which next year is by the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal, will be regarded as part of the festival.

The problem, perhaps, is that the definition is still somewhat baffling. The festival is not the same as the Cultural Olympiad – there are plenty of Cultural Olympiad events that will happen next summer that are not part of the festival. Nor is the festival, despite its title, a London thing: it will be UK-wide. Some events that are part of other festivals – such as the Southbank's festival of the world – will also be included in Mackenzie's London 2012 festival. Confused? Don't worry, says Mackenzie. London 2012 festival events will be identifiable through branding, a pink ribbon, that she says will give them the imprimatur of quality. "We encourage people to feel that if there is a pink ribbon on it, it's like a critics' pick: trust us, it's going to be amazing."

Wisely, she has ditched the idea of connecting the programme too closely to the sporting events. The only two Olympic "themes" she has dreamed up are the idea that the artists are "exceptional, gold-medal talents, capable of producing something that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity"; and the notion, as a loosely applied metaphor, of the Olympic truce, which in the ancient Greek Olympics was a downing of weapons between the frequently warring Hellenic nations for the duration of the games.

And so, bound together by Mackenzie's curatorship, the London 2012 festival does now have a certain coherence. It is recognisably her taste, whether originated by her or not. She has a bracing (and to my mind commendable) penchant for the European avant garde; there is serious work of all stripes; and contemporary music that is anything but lowest-common-denominator. So Birmingham will see the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey's new epic choral work Weltethos, under Simon Rattle; there will be a strand devoted to the work of composer George Benjamin; Daniel Barenboim will bring the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms; theatre-makers Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw will create a series of installations on Britain's beaches; and there is the already announced Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal retrospective planned for the Barbican in London.

Offsetting all that is more populist fare: David Hockney at London's Royal Academy, a celebration of Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough and Chichester; and, presumably, the pop and comedy elements of the festival, which are to be announced next year. Skirting between the two extremes are some intriguingly eccentric works, such as Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. (Yes, Creed wants everyone in Britain to ring something – church bell, bike bell, doorbell – simultaneously to celebrate the opening of the Games.) Mackenzie hesitates to sum up the "tone" of the festivities but, if anything, she says, they will have a certain humour and wit: "There's something about the surprise and quirkiness of them – about being funny as well as touching."

Will the London 2012 festival feel like a festival? As Mackenzie herself says: "Most festivals are in fields or cities; this one is in an entire country." Good festivals involve audiences sharing a stream of thought or experiencing a sense of place. They create a feeling of "festiveness" and a certain camaraderie between audiences and artists. Mackenzie has worked to disperse London 2012 into all parts of Britain, from Shetland to Cardiff, from Enniskillen to Gateshead to Margate. But that geographic generosity could cost her the coherence she wants, as most people are unlikely to get to any but a few events.

Mackenzie counters: "One of our offers is, we bring the events to you: we make sure there are amazing events all round the UK. You will feel a festive spirit in quite a few of our major cities. There is no doubt that there will be a critical mass of cultural events in London, and it's going to feel like it's absolutely at the centre of a festival – that goes for Edinburgh, Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, Birmingham, Stratford, too. What you can't do is have one festival club, you can't, and that's a sadness for us. Would it be easier if it was all in one city? Yes. But if we're to offer 10m free tickets or free places at events – well, you just couldn't do that in one city."

Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen

And what – to use a dreaded piece of Olympics jargon – does Mackenzie want the legacy to be? It's partly, she says, about using the strength and power of the Olympic brand to tempt audiences to take a punt on events they wouldn't normally go for. "I don't want to sound pious, but I believe in the quality of these artists. I believe that if you have the chance to see David Hockney or Robert Wilson's Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen, I think you will be amazed. I really do. I think you'll remember it; I think it will shape the way you think."

There are more tangible ends in view: the government, for example, has set targets for increasing cultural tourism to Britain once the games have finished. Mackenzie is also keen to raise the cultural stakes for subsequent Olympics, not least Rio in 2016. "If we are lucky, we will change the way future Olympics see their cultural festivals. I don't mind if Rio is better than us: I would like us to be the best yet, but I would be pleased if they were better than us."

The sheer scale of it all prompts more questions. At the latest count – and new projects are still being added – there were more than 1,000 events in the London 2012 festival, and many times that in the Cultural Olympiad as a whole from its 2008 inception. Will there be enough audiences to go round? And will 2013 be a terrible cultural letdown, arts organisations having exhausted their energy and budgets on big Olympic projects? One thing's for sure: far from there being nothing much to see next year, the UK is going to be awash with big ticket arts events. The danger, perhaps, is not cultural impoverishment – but cultural overdose.


guardian.co.uk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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