The rise and fall of the King of the Mountains

Lance Armstrong, left, and Marco Pantani.

Lance Armstrong, left, and Marco Pantani.

When the Tour de France swept through Yorkshire earlier this summer it seemed that professional cycling had won the heart of the nation once again. Seeing the crowds of people lining the streets, and witnessing the almighty cheers as I did on Sheffield’s Jenkin Road, it is difficult to believe that just a few years the sport had been embroiled in doping scandals.

One of those lost generation of cyclists was Marco Pantani, whose life and untimely death at the age of 34 is the subject of a new film, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, which screened Nottingham’s Broadway cinema on Monday. Known for his almost ability to destroy his opponents on the most gruelling mountain climbs – not to mention his capacity to clock up speeds of up to 100km per hour on the descents – he made history when he claimed victory at both the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in 1998.

At its heart this documentary is about the purity of cycling and its solitary nature, as well as the human desire to tackle the most unforgiving terrain. It follows the a young Pantani rise through the ranks to become a professional cyclist with legions of adoring fans who referred to him affectionately as ‘The Pirate’. In the archive film footage of the great tours, the dramatic mountains provide the backdrop to Pantani’s feats of endurance. We also see him come back from a devastating cycling accident which almost left him unable to walk let alone cycle. These scenes are punctuated with poignant, funny and insightful interviews with his mother, journalists and fellow cyclists, including Sir Bradley Wiggins.

But of course the sport, and Pantani’s successes, were overshadowed by the practice of doping, the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells so that more oxygen reaches the muscles. In 1999, Pantani was disqualified from the Giro following an irregular blood test – and it was something he never truly got over. He descended into a spiral of cocaine abuse and eventually died alone in his hotel room in 2004.

Overall, this is a poetic film which offers a fascinating portrait of a super-human cyclist whose iron will was crushed by allegations of doping. The level of his involvement is left somewhat ambiguous and there is the suggestion that he was a victim of corrupt doctors, sponsors and the pressures faced by professional cyclists. Any idea of wrong-doing is glossed over by the interviewees – but ultimately, viewers are invited to make up their own minds about whether his achievements are diminished by the allegations.

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D. H. Lawrence Festival: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at Lakeside Arts Centre

lawrence2This year’s D. H. Lawrence Festival came to a close last week with a performance of his 1911 play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at Lakeside Arts Centre. Drawing on many of the autobiographical themes that would haunt his later work, Lawrence gives us a terse account family breakdown and death in a Nottinghamshire mining community.

The play draws heavily on his earlier work, Odour of Chrysanthemums, a beautifully descriptive short story full of potent symbolism. The play is set in a dismal, rat-infested pit cottage. Lizzie Holroyd is waiting for her husband to come home – she has been told that he has been drinking at the pub and sure enough he comes home inebriated with a couple of bawdy women in tow.

But the following day, Lizzie learns that her husband has been killed in a pit accident and in the final scene she and her mother-in-law receive his body, wash it and dress it while lamenting where everything went wrong. But there are no clear resolutions; Mr Holroyd’s behaviour is of course difficult to stomach yet there is the suggestion that he is not entirely to blame for the disintegration of their marriage.

Although this was a rehearsed reading, with all the actors appearing script-in-hand, it was it was a gut-wrenching piece of theatre and all the actors put on passionate performances. The Nottinghamshire dialect was delivered accurately by all the actors, particularly the one who played the feckless Mr Holroyd. Although Lawrence is not widely-known for his drama this piece proves that he was an accomplished playwright who was able to create vivid characters and dialogue. Let’s hope we see it on stage again in the near future.

For details on what’s on at D. H. Lawrence Heritage in Eastwood visit the website.

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Notes on Carol Rama’s exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary

c2A busy summer has meant that I didn’t manage to get to Nottingham Contemporary’s Carol Rama exhibition until Eanna O Ceallchain’s Wednesday walk-through earlier this week. The tour was an exploration of Italian artist Rama’s work, in particular her ideas around formalism and physicality, as well as the literary influence of her friend, the avant-garde writer Edoardo Sanguineti.

The Rama exhibition follows on very neatly from the Contemporary’s previous one, Somewhat Abstract, which examined different degrees of abstraction in art. Rama, who was born in Turin in 1918, experimented with these techniques in the post-War years but it is her bricolage – pieces made using found or everyday objects – which are particularly striking. As Eanna explained during the walk-through, the objects ‘reach out’ towards us, adding a sense of the corporeal to her work. Rama was fascinated by both purely formal ideas, such as mathematical formulae, language, shapes and colour, but she punctuates her pieces with physical and grotesque objects such as glass eyes and animal claws.

Another recurring motif is the use of inner tubes, a reference to her father’s failed bicycle business which precipitated his suicide. They are used in her pieces about so-called Mad Cow Disease in which they represent udders, although in their dismembered state they also resemble other body parts like intestines. The idea of a physical disease such as this breaking down mental faculties and changing the abstract notion of what a person (or animal) is.

Rama’s earlier works are also included in this exhibition. The figurative pastel illustrations, full of whimsical and sexually-charged creatures, are stylistically different to her later work yet many of the themes are present. The autobiographical references, such as her mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital and her uncle’s business of making prosthetic limbs (disembodied parts), also indicate how her early interest in mental illness and body parts would recur again and again.

The exhibition, which runs alongside one featuring the works of Danh Võ, is on until 28th September. Entry is free. 

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Review: Engaging performance on the streets of Nottingham

Jamie Lewis Hadley during the performance (c) Lamar Francois (

Jamie Lewis Hadley during the performance (c) Lamar Francois.

It was Friday night and a large crowd of people had gathered outside Twenty Eight barber’s shop in Hockley. The weekend had just begun and all around us revellers were strolling past, looking for a pub or bar to visit and occasionally stopping to see what was going on.

We were there to watch a show by performance artist Jamie Lewis Hadley called Blood on the Streets. Standing in the window at Twenty Eight, and with a pair of speakers to ensure that he could be heard, Jamie presented a lecture on the beliefs around blood letting through the ages. The window, which was put to good use as a blackboard during the show, also made the metaphorical ‘fourth wall’ of theatre something quite tangible, creating a barrier between the audience. It was almost as if the performer was encased in a glass box like the subject of a science experiment.

During the show we learned some of the facts behind blood letting in the past, such as why people would rather go to a barber’s shop than a doctor (it was cheaper) and how the first blood transfusion was administered. It all culminated in Dr Belinda Fenty taking a pint of blood from Jamie as he continued to deliver his lecture, despite seeming to be slightly uncomfortable at one point. Thanks to the glass window it was possible to see how the various audience reactions, which ranged from mild shock to gruesome fascination and reminded me on how surgical procedures were once seen as a form of entertainment. As a regular blood donor, however, I wasn’t particularly troubled by it – in fact it made me think how sanitised the process now is.

Ultimately, what made this performance so engaging was Jamie’s style. He managed to deliver it as a lecture but he also had the style of a street performer – which is perhaps why he attracted such a large crowd, many of whom were simply intrigued by what was going on.

Blood on the Streets was hosted in Nottingham by Little Wolf Parade. Photo reproduced with kind permission from Lamar Francois.

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There will be blood . . . performance piece set to chart the history of blood letting

Blood letting during the Middle Ages.

Blood letting has been a common medical practice throughout the ages.

We all know the story of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street who slit his customers’ throats with a razor blade. But throughout history and across different cultures blood letting has been highly prized because many people believed it had healing properties. Now the this ancient belief is the subject of a unique lecture/performance called Blood on the Streets which will take place, appropriately enough, at Twenty Eight barber’s shop on Friday evening.

The piece has been devised by performance artist Jamie Lewis Hadley and Dr Belinda Fenty who will be examining the history of bloodletting as a medical practice, tracing its roots in ancient medicine, the rise of the barber-surgeon and our current understanding of this incredible substance. Through a combination of live text, projected images and re-enactment, the key figures, instruments and often unbelievable techniques will be revealed.

Jamie, who has showcased his work in the UK, USA, Canada, South Africa, France, Lithuania and Croatia, uses his experience as a professional wrestler as a departure point to create live performances based on blood, deterioration, endurance, pain and violence. His current area of research and creative is based the history of bloodletting as a medical practice – and during this performance, he will have a pint of blood extracted from his arm by an experienced doctor.

Blood on the Streets will premiere in Nottingham on 27th June at 7.30pm and is hosted by the city-based performance art group Little Wolf Parade. To obtain your FREE ticket visit this website.


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Bolero at Nottingham Playhouse was a fitting finale to neat14

danceMichael Pinchbeck’s Bolero, a piece which deals with politics, history and art in almost equal measures, proved to be a poignant and fitting finale to Nottingham’s recent arts festival, neat14. Performed at the Playhouse on the closing night, it starred a small group English, Bosnian and German speakers, along with members of the local community, and charted some of the world-changing events of the 20th century, particularly those which happened around the Balkans.

But rather than it being a brisk amble through our recent history, Bolero layers the stories of people from different times and places on top of each other. It moves back and forward in time examining the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, the Winter Olympics in 1984 and the Bosnian War, as well as Pinchbeck’s own childhood memories of growing up in Nottingham. These events are knitted together by Maurice Ravel’s 1928 piece of music Bolero – which Torvill and Dean famously used for their routine at the 1984 Olympics. Music is also inextricably bound up with war and we find out, for instance, that after the First World War Ravel struggling to write in the way that he had done before.

The play is full of great dramatic flourishes. Different languages are spoken in an almost Babel-esque way, evoking the idea of different narratives existing at the same time. The black and red stage set is minimalist and on the brown paper backdrop, blood-like red paint is used to count down the days as the bombs fall in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. The institutional-looking chairs around the stage are used a props throughout but at the end they take on a new significance. In 2012, 11,541 red chairs were laid out to form the Red Line of Sarajevo, a memorial to all those who lost their lives during the seige. We are shown film footage of the memorial and as the camera follows the never-ending line of chairs, the audience sat in stunned silence. It was a powerful reminder of just how deadly this war was.

Bolero will be performed at the Sarajevo War Theatre on 29th June.

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neat14: Chilling performance weaves a web of intrigue around Litvinenko

Tea annyone?

Tea anyone?

I can remember all too clearly the footage of Alexander Litvinenko as he lay dying in a hospital bed in 2006 having apparently been poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210. In a speech, read out on his behalf, the former Russian security agent, who had been working for MI6 and the Spanish secret service, pointed the finger squarely at president Vladimir Putin and his cronies. Very little is known about the circumstances of his death. We know that he went for tea with two Russian men at a hotel in London but since then the trail has gone cold and an inquest is yet to open.

The scant facts about his life form the basis of 2Magpies’ latest production, The Litvinenko Project which I saw last week as part of neat14. Performed at Edin’s café, this is a piece of site-responsive theatre which made full use of its environment. We are shown to a table by Tom Barnes and Matt Wilks, the duo behind 2Magpies, and told to help ourselves to the pot of green tea on the table – something which that took on a sinister quality that Litvinenko had gone out for tea just before he was murdered.

We are then introduced to Litvinenko the man. We learn that he is a husband to Marina and a father to a young boy called Anatoli. He loves to dance the tango and having lived in London he is acutely aware of the differences between Russian and British cultures, not least the difference in tea drinking customs: the British brew theirs in teapots for a short period of time while the Russians allow theirs to stew in a samovar until it becomes highly concentrated. But his daily routine of eating breakfast with his family is interrupted by an ominous voice repeating over and over again one of things we truly know: “Alexander Litvinenko is going to die.”

What follows is a tremendously energetic yet chilling piece of theatre. Matt and Tom play every role but they draw the audience in, asking them to take on different parts and by the end we were all – quite literally –  bound up in this web of intrigue. There was no stage set but the props, which included a raw chicken, a mop and a samovar which doubled as a football trophy, were cleverly used and the dialogue, at times reminiscent of a court case or detective story, was superb. Meanwhile, the public setting also added to the strength of this performance and there was a real feeling that anything could happen. From downstairs I could hear the everyday conversations of the customers drift upwards which contrasted well with the dark nature of the play. Indeed, it made me think of all the people in London who had no idea that a Cold War-era style murder was being plotted until it was too late.

Just before the play started, Tom told us that The Litvinenko Project had been evolving over a period of around six months and during that time Russia had rarely been out of the news. From the arrest of the politically-charged band Pussy Riot, to the anti-homosexuality laws and the recent invasion of Ukraine, suspicion the West is growing increasingly suspicious of Russia – and The Litvinenko is becoming even more relevant. Let’s hope it is performed again in the near future.

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Nottingham gets ready to host neat14

boleroAfter a three-year hiatus, the Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival (neat14) is making a welcome return to the city this month. Taking place at a variety of artistic spaces, including Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Contemporary and Broadway, the 10-day festival showcases ground-breaking theatre, art, film and dance. This year’s event, which opens on 23rd May, draws inspiration from the centenary of the start of the First World War, a conflict which has shaped the landscape of Europe.

This idea is explored in Michael Pinchbeck’s Bolero, which opens at Nottingham Playhouse on 31st May. The play begins with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, which sparked the First World War, and takes the audience on a journey through to the Bosnian War of 1994 and the present day. One of the key events during this period was the Sarajevo Winter Olympics when Nottingham figure skaters Torvill and Dean beat the odds to win gold for their ‘perfect six’ Bolero routine. But there is no triumphant finale; we learn that eight years later the stadium in which they performed was destroyed during the Balkans conflict. Throughout the play, Bolero, the piece of music written by Ravel in 1928, acts as a leitmotif linking together these events.

The Litvinenko Project, which will be performed in various venues including Lee Rosy’s, Cast and Edin’s, is a piece of site-responsive theatre by Nottingham-based 2Magpies. It examines the fate of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent who died after being poisoned in 2006, claiming on his deathbed that Vladimir Putin was behind it. This production starts with three facts about Litvinenko:

  • He was a man.
  • He was a man who died.
  • He was a man who died of radiation poisoning.

It then invites the audience to speculate on his life – what he liked to drink, how he danced – because there are so few facts about the circumstances of his death. Indeed, his widow has campaigned for an inquest into his death – but this has been repeatedly delayed and she is now fighting for a public inquiry to be held. The Litvinenko Project promises to be a chilling piece of theatre, especially given the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine and the growing mistrust of Putin in the West.

Another highlight of the festival is Generation Jeans, a production by the critically-acclaimed Belarus Free Theatre which takes place at Nottingham Playhouse on 23rd and 24th May. Three years ago, the theatre group was prevented from attending neat11 because their passports and visas had been revoked by the Belarussian government (they eventually performed at the Playhouse a couple of months later). Belarus, despite bordering the EU, has been described as having ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’ and Generation Jeans, which is about jeans, rock music and freedom, highlights the similarity between the Soviet days and the current regime.

Elsewhere, Nottingham Contemporary is set to host Schrödinger, a performance piece about thought experiments, cats, René Magritte, love, time, mathematics, observations, truth, lies and alcohol while Broadway Cinema will pay tribute to French New Wave film-maker Alain Resnais, who died on 1st March this year, with a day-long course and a screening of Last Year at Marienbad.

Further details about what’s on during neat14 are available on website. You can also join in the conversation using the hashtag .

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True to form: Exploring Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares (1961).

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares.

Characterised by a departure from straightforward representations of reality and with an emphasis on formal attributes such as shapes, colour and dimensions, abstraction has arguably been the most dominant force in the art world for more than a century.

But of course there are varying degrees of abstraction and this idea is examined in Somewhat Abstract, an exhibition which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month. Drawn from the Art Council’s extensive collection, and spanning a period of 70 years, it showcases works by both modern masters such as Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Gilbert and George, along with less well-known artists.

Chilldren's Games, Heygate Estate.

Chilldren’s Games, Heygate Estate.

For me, the highlight of this exhibition was a series of artworks displayed in Gallery 1. Walk into the room and you are soon greeted by Bridget Riley’s 1962 painting, Movement in Squares in which she creates an optical illusion of movement using her trademark black and white geometric shapes. But there is the suggestion of something more sinister; the painting is followed by a number of pieces which examine post-War housing, including Mark Lewis’ 2002 film, Children’s Games, Heygate [a now demolished 1970s housing estate in the Elephant and Castle area of London]. In this piece, a camera glides almost hypnotically along the walkways and we see children playing against the backdrop of this concrete ghetto. The juxtaposition shows how the ideals of modernist art and functionalism, where architects designed ‘walkways in the skies’ to connect inhabitants living together harmoniously in perfectly planned communities, were never realised. Instead, the walkways, coupled with a lack of aesthetic beauty, created fractured communities which were blighted by crime and isolation: a far cry from the original utopian ideals.

Another remarkable piece in this exhibition is undoubtedly Francis Bacon’s Head VI. With echoes of Munch’s The Scream, the painting depicts a pope trapped inside a box with an agonised look on his face, evoking a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Yet while he is acutely aware of his circumstances, the children on the Heygate estate play on, seemingly unaware of their confinement inside this modern ghetto created by those in a position of power.

Somewhat Abstract is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 29th June. Entry is FREE. For further details, including information on talks, tours and other events, visit the website

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Review: Under The Skin is a superb piece of cinema

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

A desolate urban landscape, endless, dimly-lit roads and vast open spaces form the unnerving backdrop to Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi thriller Under the Skin.

Based on Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, it tells the story of a beautiful young woman with a cut-glass English accent, played by Scarlett Johansson, who drives around the mean streets of Glasgow in a white van picking up young men, seemingly for sex. The men, who can’t quite believe their luck, happily go along with her only to be lured into a strange Danse Macabre before disappearing without a trace.

It is unclear what the woman’s motives are; we assume she is some kind of alien with no capacity for human warmth or empathy. She is working alone, seemingly in control, but there is also a sense in there are other darker forces behind her. Half way through the film, the tide changes and the predatory woman suddenly becomes the hunted.

Perhaps what makes this film so startling is the mix of the mundane with something more other worldly and disturbing. Those around the woman speak with thick Glaswegian accents and we see her in a number of everyday settings – a shopping centre, a nightclub, a housing estate but the voices around her blur into a distant hum which bear little relevance to her world. On the news we hear talk of the upcoming Scottish referendum but once again this seems eerily distant. All of this is underlined by a jarring and discordant score which creates a sense of tension and discomfort throughout.

This beautifully shot film leaves you with many unanswered questions but this is also its main strength because it lets your imagination fill in the gaps. Those expecting a straightforward narrative may want to avoid it but they’d be missing out – it is enough to simply immerse yourself in this atmospheric piece of cinema.

Under the Skin was on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema.

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