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August 09 2012

Guardian Artangel Books podcast: Alain Mabanckou in A Room for London

A Room for London is a small living space in the shape of the Roi des Belges - the boat in Joseph Conrad's novella The Heart of Darkness, which has been moored on the top of the South Bank as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

For four days every month, as part of a year-long project by Artangel, a writer takes up residence, tasked only with writing an essay on the theme of London, rivers and/or Conrad. Join the seventh resident, Alain Mabanckou – award-winning novelist and professor of literature at UCLA – as he meditates on the bloody colonial history of Congo-Brazzaville, where he was born and Conrad's novel is set.

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. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The Tanks: Art in Action – review

Tate Modern, London

The Tanks at Tate Modern are a tremendous addition to that ever-growing metropolis of art. Three colossal new spaces beneath the ground, they are the first in the world to be permanently dedicated to the kind of art – to quote Claes Oldenburg – that doesn't just sit on its ass in a museum. This means art that moves, passes through time, comes alive even if only for a few dragonfly moments, that lives in one's memory rather than on the gallery wall or the floor.

The Tanks will present films, sound works, performances and happenings as well as ephemeral installations. If you are able to get there today, for instance, you will experience Anthony McCall's sublime solid-light films, including the great Line Describing a Cone in which an entire gallery is filled with nothing but a single spot of light that gradually grows into a beam and eventually a vast hollow cone picked out with swirling fog.

The white light feels by turns solid, as if you are walking through walls, then diaphanous, then floating like a butterfly that can be held for a second. It flickers with gigantic phantasmagoria. These films have become something of cult over the years, not least because they vanished from the 70s scene almost as soon as they appeared. McCall gave up making art while the going was good; fittingly, you can see his films only for a day.

I doubt they will ever have a better venue than the performance space at the Tanks – dark, circular, subterranean and with enough room for several hundred people. It's not an art gallery, nor a concert hall and definitely not a theatre, for the audience will always be eye to eye with (and frequently milling among) the performers.

The Tanks are adapted from the spectacularly vast cylinders that fuelled the former power station, originally designed to hold a million gallons of oil. The walls are raw concrete, still bearing traces of the industrial past in dark stains and hastily scribbled engineering measurements. There is a faint but pungent scent of oil the deeper you go and the further you get from the Turbine Hall entrance. You know you're right at the bottom of a tank when a staircase, like the steps of an empty swimming pool, rises high above your head.

Evidently the place is an event in itself, and redolent of those weird performance venues of the past – old factories, aircraft hangars, the sorting offices and chapels of Artangel productions. Performance art was outside the museum for half a century and more. Think of Yoko Ono having the clothes slowly snipped from her body, Anthony McCall lighting ceremonial fires, Chris Burden having himself shot in the arm by an assistant, John Latham's ritual destruction (by chewing and acid) of Clement Greenberg's influential book Art and Culture: seen by very few people and never inside a gallery.

The Tanks will reverse that tradition. A huge crowd gathered when I was there, for the Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's choreographed movements to the music of Steve Reich, originally conceived in the 80s and here performed quite suddenly among us like a flash mob. We crammed together in a scarlet chamber listening to the disembodied voices of centenarians lilting down from the roof, and spread out again for the creepy installations of the Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim.

One tank is reserved for works from the Tate collection, and the inaugural experience (until late October) is exhilarating: a pair of projectors spooling black-and-white celluloid across the room at each other to a soundtrack something like old biplanes buzzing and humming. Sound and vision are intimately connected – the op-art patterns read as audio – and the images zip and sizzle on the screen like cinematic Bridget Riley. But the best effect is of moving in throngs among the glamorous limelight.

It's startling to learn that Lis Rhodes made Light Music almost 40 years ago. Yet Tate Modern has only just purchased the piece, presumably with its Tanks in mind. I sometimes wonder if some of the art of that era has been suppressed, or at the very least sidestepped by museums to make today's art look better, brighter, more original. Lis Rhodes's piece knocks spots off the derivative film work of Elizabeth Price, for instance, who is on the shortlist for this year's Turner prize.

So much live art is there to be revived that the curators at the Tanks are unlikely to run out of programme events for years to come. But one question that hangs over this enterprise is whether they should be revived at all if they were only ever intended to be ephemeral in the first place. You had to be there, so to speak. And another question is whether the old spirit of performance art lives on in the business of global art.

Kim's multimedia installation, for instance, had only the barest semblance of vitality to me; a blacked-out gallery in which one could hardly tell if the show had yet arrived for its empty podiums and incomprehensible videos. Sometimes the urge to make drawings, paintings and – alas – diagrams alongside your videos is indivisible from the need to make objects for money and survive.

Everything is going to rest on the curators' live programme for the Tanks. The art from the collection looks excellent, and the schedule has strong names – Boris Charmatz, Ei Arakawa – but a revival of a dance work from the 80s doesn't quite cut it in terms of flair and daring. The issue is how to balance the artists of the future with those of the past.

But for the moment, the Tanks are the coolest part of the whole Tate enterprise. They have an air of freedom about them, as if anything might happen, and that comes from the ever-changing relationship between the raw building, the art and its audience. It feels good to turn right into the unexpected, instead of left into the permanent galleries as you enter. This is exactly what Tate Modern needed. © 2012 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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