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August 04 2012

Edinburgh fringe theatre roundup

Peep; Still Life; Coalition; After the Rainfall; One Hour Only

On the first day of the Edinburgh festival fringe last week – "preview Wednesday", when venue staff are still wallpapering every flat surface with posters for the month's attractions, and early-up spectators wander around trying not to feel like unworldly partygoers who arrived at the exact hour written on the invitation – I was reminded how shockingly intimate fringe theatre can be.

Nudity did it. Unblinking, close-quarters nudity. Day one at Edinburgh had in previous years cast me as a reluctant hula dancer (that was 2011's Dance Marathon) and a ranging urban troublemaker (2010's En Route, asking of its participants trespass and minor acts of graffiti). This year, hardly off the train, only just done with the great annual question of whether to get a post-journey jacket potato from Tasty Tatties or a scotch pie from Auld Jock's, I was squatting down in a peep show-style booth trying to maintain a stern and professional expression while a candid play about sex unfolded six inches from my face.

Peep was an odd production, a triptych of 20-minute playlets for which the creative team had constructed a new makeshift venue outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Four actors performed in a room little bigger than a double bed, an equatorial line of one-way glass ringing the space at waist height. Behind this sat audience members, each in their own tiny compartment. We were supposed to feel sordid, peering in on performers from our cubicles, and I did. This was especially so during the short entitled "69", a montage about the pleasures and problems associated with sex in modern Britain. At one point, without warning, the semi-clothed actors spun to the glass and hovered close, glaring – giving the audience some idea of what it's like, perhaps, for the luckless who've worked in such booths in real life.

Costume, again, was an impermanent thing across town in the white-walled confines of the Whitespace gallery. Here I saw Still Life, a one-woman show about Henrietta Moraes, Francis Bacon's famous model and muse. Sue MacLaine played Moraes, clad, sometimes, in a burgundy robe, more often in nothing at all. The audience were asked to cluster around with handed-out paper to draw pencil sketches.

"I will hold this pose for one minute," said Moraes, interrupting the story of her life to stand straight-backed. "I will hold this pose for eight minutes," she said later, explaining that Bacon had once asked for her to be photographed in just such a reclining position. The resulting pictures inspired his A Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, which sold this year at Christie's for £21m. The original photographs of Moraes, meanwhile, were sold on as porn in a Soho pub. "Ten bob each."

Written by its gutsy performer MacLaine, Still Life interwove affectionate elements of biography with a more oblique sense of what it cost to be the human starting point for lasting art. Moraes was an alcoholic and heavy drug user. Bacon made her an immortal, but his close attention might have left behind trouble. At one point in the play Moraes begged her scribbling audience: "Draw me now and see if you can get beyond almost… Show it back to me. Show me myself."

Still with the sheaves of sketch paper in my pocket, I went on to the entirely different Coalition, a political comedy at the Pleasance Dome. It presented a near-future Britain, the alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats almost over, the Lib Dems in ruin. No Cameron, no Clegg, the key players here were fictional, the Lib Dems led by Matt Cooper (comedian Thom Tuck), a likable weakling so beaten down by "coalition chess" he can't really remember why there should be anything wrong with the idea of 48 new British nuclear plants. An enjoyable comic play, a little baggy at 90 minutes. Good but not great.

I still wanted great – that brilliant play, seen in its first few outings at the fringe, impressive enough to make you its missionary. Everybody! Everybody! Abandon your plans, get tickets! A single gem is enough, in week one, to make all the early-bird aimlessness and guesswork of the emergent festival worthwhile. On Thursday I saw two brilliant plays, back-to-back.

After the Rainfall told a woozily complex story that strung together ideas about colonialism, revolution, social media and, somehow, ant hills; a story of parallel lives (a scientist, a spy, a sister, a student) lived out over a span of more than 70 years. The group behind the play, Curious Directive, staged a fringe hit last year, Your Last Breath, that was similarly layered, jumping about in time to tell a story about extreme human endurance. Its high point was a memorable dance sequence involving coloured string that criss-crossed the stage.

After the Rainfall needed no similar centrepiece. Its flourishes were fainter: rolling landscape, seen from the window of a low-flying plane, summoned by a simple piece of canvas being manipulated under a spot. Such subtlety characterised script and performance, the unfairness of colonial Britain's artefact-pinching, for instance, inferred not in a lecture but in a believable conversation between strangers on a train. As well as vibrant design, a strength of this rising company is a talent for compactness. After the Rainfall achieved more in a single hour than would seem possible. I left heavy with its weight, eager to sit down and think it all through.

But no time. I was straight to the uppermost floor of the Underbelly venue on Cowgate to watch a third play in two days about sexual exposure. And One Hour Only threatened, for a minute or so, to be as intense as Peep, as solemn as Still Life. In fact it was neither; instead, a terrifically simple love story, a modern Brief Encounter, staged in a brothel with the ticking away of costly minutes threatening the growing liking between prostitute Marley (Nadia Clifford) and customer AJ (Faraz Ayub). Marley and AJ are Londoners, clever and studying to better themselves, but young and naive enough to assume that their knowing, 21st-century ease with paid-for sex will never trouble them intellectually. Of course it does – the worse, over their 60 minutes together, as they begin to fall for each other.

Written by performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz (who last year impressed with dramatic monologue Dry Ice) the play did not spend much time decrying the sex trade. That has been done well, and often, at fringes past. Instead, Mahfouz made quiet study of the strange and even hostile places like-minds can find each other out. Staged in the uppermost room of the Underbelly, a hangar-like auditorium that is arguably the least cosy at the festival, One Hour Only achieved an intimacy that surpassed even those productions put on in a mocked-up peep booth, a life drawing class. The story, not the setting, forced audience proximity here. Everyone kept leaning in closer and closer.


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December 03 2010

The great British art collection

Nick Clegg and Samantha Cameron among guest curators for exhibition of works normally housed in embassies and ministries

It has witnessed governments and empires collapse, heard the gossip of mandarins and seen the rise and fall of many a calculating politician. But, for the first time, the Government Art Collection is to face an entirely different audience – the public who paid for its acquisition.

The collection – which has decorated British embassies, consulates and ministerial buildings throughout the world for more than a century – is going to be displayed to the public.

Arch political operator Lord Mandelson, the prime minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, and the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, are among the guest curators choosing which of the 13,500 works will go on display.

Works from the collection, whose purpose is to promote the best of British art, will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London from June next year until September 2012. "The government art collection has been in existence since 1898, but this is the first time in its 113-year history that people will be able to walk in off the street to see it, we are thrilled to have it running for 15 months," said Penny Johnson, director of the collection.

The works serve an important diplomatic service, she said. "They can act as important icebreakers, or conversation starters. Of course the reason they are there is to promote British art but if they help make conversations flow a little easier, that's another positive."

The first of five displays will also include choices from the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the British high commissioner to South Africa, Lord Boateng, the British ambassador to Moscow, Dame Anne Pringle, and culture minister Ed Vaizey.

"The collection is a unique treasure," said Vaizey. "It's run on a shoestring and shown in a haphazard way in ministries and embassies, but what better way to open it to the public than at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, in one of the most diverse communities in the country."

Out of the thousands of paintings, prints and sculptures hanging on the walls of embassies around the world or kept at the collection's base off Tottenham Court Road in central London, Samantha Cameron chose a work by distinctly working class, unavoidably northern painter LS Lowry. Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, painted in 1946 and bought by the collection for £120 a year later, depicts mill workers enjoying one of their two statutory days' holiday a year at a bustling fair.

Mandelson has plumped for a shadowy historical portrait of the celebrated, but ruthless, Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, while Boateng has chosen Peas are the New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith.

The collection was established, in a typically British way, almost by accident, with parliament deciding that it was cheaper to buy large portraits to cover walls than redecorate Whitehall at the end of the 19th century. Since then the attention bestowed on the collection has depended in no small part on the political rough and tumble of the age, with the art in buildings such as Downing Street and the Treasury changed to suit the tastes of new inhabitants after each new government or cabinet reshuffle. And while David Cameron was too busy to chose the art for his new offices personally, both his deputy Nick Clegg and his right hand man George Osborne took a keen interest.

For the consulates and embassies around the world, the 14-strong team at the collection chose works that not only show off the best of British, but hold relevance for the countries they live in.

A dashingly romantic portrait of Lord George Gordon Byron, by Thomas Phillips, bought for £110 in 1952, resides in the Greek embassy in Athens, a nod to the poet's fateful decision to fight in the Greek war of independence, while there are no prizes for guessing where LA woman by Scottish artist Jim Lambie can be found.

Johnson and her team continue to scour small art galleries and emerging artists' studios to invest in the British art of the future with a £200,000 annual budget to add to the collection, which includes work by Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Constable, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Paul Nash,

Pushing in a rail of priceless works from the 16th century onwards, at the collection offices in central London, she suggested one reason why the public should be keen to visit the exhibition. "If these paintings had ears, imagine what they would they have heard, and known," she said. "They've had very interesting lives."


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October 20 2010

Cutting our losses

The art lobby has fought hard, and rightly so. But, as the poor prepare to be trampled on, we must keep a sense of perspective

So the arguments are over, and a nation kneels to the blade. O, executioner, do thy duty! But the visual art lobby has scarcely gone down like a helpless Lady Jane Grey. Instead it has fought back with everything it has got, from Mark Wallinger cutting 25% out of The Fighting Temeraire to Sir Nicholas Serota warning of a "blitzkrieg" on the arts.

Whatever the fate of museums and galleries this week, it would do us good to get a sense of proportion. By which I do not mean passively accepting unfair and destructive robbery of the relatively small public budget for the arts. Proportion in this case means seeing the part within the whole, the bigger picture.

It's disturbing how easily the coalition has played a game of divide and rule. Each sector of public-funded Britain has fought its own battle in isolation from the rest. This means that in effect, museums have competed with scientists, theatres with universities. Do I want Britain's museums to stay free and strong? Yes. But not at the expense of the destruction of scientific research or university teaching.

The picture gets bigger yet. The assaults on culture, science and higher education might be seen, in social terms, as attacks on the same "middle class" that howled its horror when the assault on child benefit for the relatively better-off was announced during the Conservative conference. This is where divide and rule gets nasty: not just playing off art against theatre or Serota against the army, but class against class. The real victims of these cuts will be among those who are already among the weakest and most voiceless in our society. Poverty will deepen, remedial benefits will be removed, and Britain will turn the clock back to a neo-Victorian social nightmare. The implications of swingeing treatment of benefit "cheats" and radical cuts to social housing mean more people will be homeless. This is ugly stuff, and the rich men now governing us plainly have no capacity to empathise with lives that are unprivileged.

What is really horrible about this coalition is the unhealthy blend of hardcore Tory instincts to cut and slash with the woolly Liberal heritage of middle class do-gooders. So assaults on the very concept of the welfare state are dressed up in talk of making people less passive, involving us in our society. Cameron's "big society" idea is the woolliest of all. This is why it really is valid to speak of a new Victorian age: it was in Victorian times that the "undeserving poor" were vilified while bountiful Cameronian types administered big society patronage to the deserving, that is deferential, poor. The point about the welfare state is that it got us away from such cant.

In comparison to measures that will increase unemployment while weakening the safety net, remove protection for children in poverty, and bring back the north-south divide with a vengeance, the impact of cuts on the arts will be negligible. Let's face it, art will survive. But people who have never visited a gallery in their lives are going to get trampled on.


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June 21 2010

Solstice setback at Stonehenge

Summer solstice revellers disappointed that coalition government will cut funding to new Stonehenge visitor centre

Sometimes the police come in for criticism, while at other times English Heritage attracts the ire of the druids, ravers, hippies and sun lovers who turn out for the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

At today's celebrations there was a political target – David Cameron and the coalition government – following the announcement that government funding for a visitor centre at the ancient monument was being cut.

The outcry from solstice revellers was led by the unmistakeable figure of Arthur Pendragon, a druid who believes he is an incarnation of the once and future king.

Pendragon, who rejoices in the title of battle chieftain of the council of British druid orders, said he was not surprised that the £10m funding was dropped.

"I knew the writing was on the wall. I knew the new government wouldn't stump up the money. It's no surprise but, still, it's a disgrace. This wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world."

Pendragon has campaigned for 20 years for a new visitor centre at the World Heritage site and to close at least one of the busy roads that surround the stones.

Tourists are often shocked at the state of the centre and amazed that traffic is allowed to roar past so close.

Last year Gordon Brown promised £10m towards a £25m scheme to build a glass and timber centre and to shut the nearby A344. The scheme was expected to win planning permission soon and the project was due to be completed in 2012 to coincide with the staging of the Olympics in the UK.

Last week the government announced the funding would be pulled. English Heritage, which manages the site, said it was "extremely disappointed", arguing that transforming Stonehenge was "vital to Britain's reputation and to our tourism industry". It said it would try to find the funding from elsewhere.

Pendragon said he was worried about how the shortfall would be met: "I don't want to see them making up any shortfall with a public-private partnership. I don't want to see Americans going home with T-shirts reading: 'I've been to McDonald's Stonehenge'.

"All they've got to do is go to an investment banker with a decent proposal. Nearly a million visitors come through here every year. Any investment bank will see that it's a money spinner.

"It's not as if they aren't good for the money. Being English Heritage, they've got a castle or three they can put up as collateral.

"We've been 20 years waiting for this visitor centre, faffing about. They can borrow the money and build the bloody visitor centre. That's what I intend to make sure they do."

Rollo Maughfling, archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, greeted the rising of the sun with a blast on his trumpet – which sounded not unlike a vuvuzela. "It's been a wonderful, warm night," he said.

Around 20,000 people turned up to mark the solstice and by dawn there had been 30 arrests for minor offences. It was also the first time the solstice sun had peeped from behind the clouds since 2003.

While campaigning tends to be left to Pendragon, Maughfling said it was a druid's duty to get involved in politics when the need arose – and it had now arisen.

"You have to tangle with politics to make sure that, for example, our national shrines and temples are looked after," he said.

"Look at any of the stories of druids in ancient British literature and ancient Irish literature, there have been times when the security of the land has been in the hands of druids as well as kings. Druids have taken sides in all kinds of matters. We can't stand apart from it all."

Peter Carson, head of Stonehenge for English Heritage, said he was pleased at how the solstice went but disappointed at the withdrawal of funding.

"But it's not over yet," he said. "Let's see what we can do. Maybe there is a way forward. The project has a great deal of support. It will ensure a suitable setting for Stonehenge and it will upgrade considerably the very poor facilities we currently have."

Sky, a pagan from Devon, broke off from a drumming session to explain how crucial it was that Stonehenge was improved. "It's the most wonderful place and it's a disgrace that we're still waiting for a new visitor centre and for improvements to the roads. I bring people here from abroad sometimes. They're amazed by the stones – but also amazed at how crummy the facilities are. I'd like that David Cameron to come down here and tell us why Stonehenge, our national treasure, is being treated so shabbily."


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June 09 2010

Arts cuts? Pah

Generous patrons have always been crucial to great art, so government belt-tightening can only be bad news

A few words in praise of generosity. As the coalition sharpens its axe and whispers its honeyed words, let us remember that most of the world's great works of art are the fruit of spendaholic patronage by magnificos who knew how to tell the accountants where to go.

Step forward Maecenas, munificent patron of the arts during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. In those days, there was no such thing as a literary market and writers were as dependent as artists on the wallets of the wealthy. The best argument in favour of generosity is that no one remembers a skinflint fondly. Maecenas assisted Virgil and reputedly gave Horace a farm; he went on to star in the latter's poetry and now his name lives on as a byword for patronage.

Lorenzo the Magnificent is another case in point. The Medici bank was built up by his ancestors, but Lorenzo let it go to pot: he only cared about how to spend money, not saving it. In his circle, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Poliziano and the young Michelangelo flourished. Medici patronage can be exaggerated as a factor in Renaissance Florentine culture, but the ambience around Lorenzo was genuinely special – and he was never left counting the cost.

Luxury spending flourished in Italian courts and cities even as the country's wealth subsequently declined. Even while Italy was being sidelined by the discovery of Atlantic trade routes in the 16th and 17th centuries, the later Medici supported Galileo and the baroque popes lavished cash on marble and invested in the genius of Bernini.

In England, Shakespeare rose from theatrical hack to the Ovid of his age through an aristocratic friendship with Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, while the debt-ridden Stuart monarchy spent freely to encourage everyone from Inigo Jones to Christopher Wren. In modern times, the experimental films of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel were supported by the de Noailles family, while abstract expressionism was bankrolled by Peggy Guggenheim.

More recently, genius has been supported by state patronage at the National Theatre, the RSC, the Tate Modern and through the Turner prize. Corporate generosity funds events such as the Turbine Hall installations, which rival the masques and operas of those lavish baroque courts. Art is not for the mean-minded, and tight-fisted times are dull times. This is not going to be a golden age.


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