Tributes to Jean Genet at Nottingham Contemporary

As a teenager, the rebellious Jean Genet was one of my favourite writers. The son of a prostitute, he grew up in poverty and ended up in jail for petty crimes. He turned to writing while in prison – and later became the darling of the French art world and the toast of well-known figures such as Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre.

But it is Genet’s association with social and political activism in the 1950s and 1960s that was the dominant theme at Nottingham Contemporary‘s new exhibition Act One & Two which opened on Friday. The break down of the exhibition into two acts was extremely effective. Act One is a solo exhibition by Marc Camille Chaimowicz (featuring five other artists) – and here we see an exploration of the personal realm. There are rooms strewn with personal objects and naked bodies which stand vulnerable yet defiant.

Act Two examines the political life of Genet, particularly his association with the Black Panther movement in America and his campaigns against colonialism. The pairing of the personal and the political is an apt reflection of Genet’s life. He was punished for something personal (his sexuality) – but the struggles he faced and the norms that he subverted in his literature came to represent the struggles faced by many other groups during this era and came at a time when the civil rights and the feminist movements were taking off.

This exhibition was launched alongside the Contemporary’s Summer Party which was a great night of music, dancing and drinks on the terrace.

This Thursday, I am also looking forward to a talk by art historian Sarah Wilson entitled Genet: From the Existential to the Post Colonial. For tickets, click here.

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Tyranny in Europe: Belarus Free Theatre put on a powerful show at Nottingham Playhouse

Belarus is a country that borders those in the EU – and yet it has been described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. Many people in western Europe know little about the former Soviet state nestled between Poland and Russia but it is a place where government agents threaten, kidnap, torture and murder citizens for daring to oppose it.

The Belarus Free Theatre is one of the cultural groups banned by the government and their performance of Discover Love at Nottingham Playhouse last night was a bold statement against this repressive regime. The cast members should have performed as part of the last month’s NEAT11, but had their passports and visas revoked.

On one level, this is a simple true-life love story. A young girl Irina (played by Maryna Yurevich) describes her almost idyllic childhood and she appears to unfazed by the fact that she is living under the Soviet regime. She eventually falls in love with a teacher, Anatoly (played by Oleg Sidorchik) and the tale is infused with a warm humour, with the iron grip of Moscow seemingly a world away from this small village in Belarus. Their relationship matures over the years and they build careers and have children after moving to the capital Minsk. Their story is incredibly human – they struggle financially and their relationship goes through some difficult patches, but they remain united.

Half way through the play, Anatoly utters five words which resonate like a death knell: “And then they killed me”. It sounds strange to hear him say it in the first person and it makes the audience gasp – these ordinary lives that we had been following are suddenly cut short by the disappearance of one and the grief of the other.  Anatoly is tortured and killed by the government and his story is mirrored by countless others who have faced human rights abuses in Belarus. In some ways, it reminded me of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, except these events are not fictional nor do they hark back to a bygone age.

There was a real sense of physicality in this production. The actors drove the narrative forward not just with their powerful words, but also with the way in which they used their bodies on stage, particularly in the scene where Anatoly is tortured. The lights are dimmed and he throws himself around, depicting the terrible beatings inflicted upon him.

Overall, this was an incredibly moving show – my only minor criticism would be that not all of the music fitted the action on stage. And as powerful as music is, sometimes silence – or nothingness – can evoke the mood more effectively.

For details on up coming shows, visit the Playhouse website.

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Lakeside Arts Centre: Sinister fairy tales in Into the Woods

The characters in this production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which opened at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre this evening, say that ‘the woods are just trees and the trees are just wood’ – which sounds harmless enough. But fairy tales, despite their happy endings, are known for being dark – and these woods are certainly sinister.

Based on the stories of the Brothers Grimm, the well-known narratives of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood are woven together as they all enter the woods which are full of danger and opportunity. In the woods, there are mythical dangers – the giant and the wolf – but there are also real traumas such as marital strife and a parent’s sense of loss when their child leaves home.

And while these themes simmer just below the surface, they do not detract from the humour of the musical, which was executed well by the characters. The cast used the space at Lakeside really well – there was no curtain separating them from the audience and characters were often lurking in different parts of the theatre. The overall effect was of a folk play which reflected both the sense of tradition and timeless nature of the themes.

Stand out performances came from the cast members, who all had strong singing voices and did not waver during the long show. A special mention should go to youngster Mahesh Parmar who played the narrator and tackled some difficult songs. The orchestra too was flawless – and perhaps the only thing that let the performance down was a problem with the sound which meant we couldn’t hear some of it clearly enough.

Into the Woods runs until Saturday. For tickets visit the website.

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Landscape of dreams and madness in Woyzeck at Nottingham Playhouse

Before the curtain had risen at last night’s performance of Georg Buchner’s unfinished work Woyzeck at Nottingham Playhouse, we were greeted by a long-haired, demonic-looking narrator, resembling a circus entertainer who set the tone for what was to come.

Performed by members of the Deutches Theater Berlin and directed by Jorinde Drose, it is a tale of poverty, the class system, adultery, jealousy and murder played out in a surreal, almost post-apocalyptic landscape. The play has a strange, dream-like atmosphere which makes it difficult to set it in any particular time or place. There are references to Russian Cossacks and Groschen (pennies), suggesting the action may be taking place in the 19th Century somewhere in central or eastern Europe – but the characters who inhabit this world, such as the Doctor and the Army Captain, are both abstract and absurd.

And yet this is a touchingly human play. It tells the tale of a poor soldier, Woyzeck who has to support his wife Marie and their child so he works for the Army Captain and lends his body to medical science to make enough money. But when Marie betrays him by having an affair with the dashing Drum Major, he descends into madness and finally murders her for what she has done.

The fact too that this play is performed in German – with its more concrete words – emphasises the physicality of relationships and the ways in which mental turmoil can be played out by real actions such as drunkenness and murder. In one memorable scene, the Drum Major – played by the comical and wildly brilliant Christoph Franken – drinks copious amounts of schnapps, pours it straight into a heartbroken Woyzeck’s mouth and throws it across the stage, giving the impression of each of the characters’ anguish spilling out uncontrollably.

The world of bar room brawls and lost love, is perfectly evoked by the songs of Tom Waits which sound track the play. Performed by the fantastic band, some of the pieces of music hang heavy with a sense of longing, while the experimental doodling jazz of others capture the characters’ unravelling mental states.

The play, with its echoes of Hamlet, Arthur Schnitzler’s Lieutnant Gustl and Werner Herzog’s 1979 film version of Woyzeck where the wild-eyed Klaus Klinski plays the part of lead character, is one of the best productions I have seen for a long time. It is what theatre should be – experimental, passionate and above all, not stuffy. Go and see it if you can.

Woyzeck was performed as part of the first ever NEAT11 (Nottingham European Arts Festival).

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Playful pictures: Cyril Blazo at The Moravian Gallery, Brno

cyrilI have just returned from the the Czech Republic’s second city Brno  – a beautiful, historic place where the streets are lined with grand central European buildings, theatres and churches and where the beer is as cheap as water. But unlike the country’s big sister Prague, there is not a stag do in sight and the warm Moravian climate brings a relaxed quality to the city as people while away the hours in one of the many pavement cafes and breweries.

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the Moravian Gallery (Moravska Galerie) with an exhibition by Czech artist Cyril Blazo. His collages look deceptively simple, even child-like. He takes pictures from magazines, newspapers and even colouring books and cuts out a shape in the picture. He then turns it over to place the picture on the reverse side onto the first picture creating humorous juxtapositions. Some of these work better than others. Some are simply playful while others make an implicit comment on the fact that we live in a world where we are surrounded by 2D images which can be deconstructed.

The Moravian Gallery itself is excellent. There are some outstanding works by early 20th Century Czech artists particularly from the expressionist and cubist movements. The mood of some of these paintings seems much darker than those produced by western European artists at this time and it was a good opportunity to see something not normally shown in the UK.

Other treats for art lovers in Brno include the beautifully painted Centre for Experimental Theatre and Cafe Falkwhich puts on live music and films in its basement. And not only does it do fantastic (and very cheap) coffee cocktails, it has some lovely vintage furniture and a really bohemian – sorry ‘Moravian’ – vibe.

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Powerful portrayal of Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop

The intimate surroundings of Derby’s Guildhall Theatre provided the perfect setting for a new production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, directed by Tom Attenborough.

The play is set in a dingy motel room in Memphis and as rain beats down on the windows, Martin Luther King Jnr – who was perhaps one of the 20th Century’s greatest orators – is struggling to write a speech.

The Martin Luther King we see, expertly played by Ariyon Bakare, is not the one that history remembers: he flirts with his chambermaid, he chain smokes and above all, he doubts his own ability. And separated from his wife and children, he even doubts his role in the Civil Rights movement.

For some audience members, this might make for uncomfortable viewing because the King they see is flawed and has moments of weakness. But the play also reveals something of the danger of mythologising historical figures who are ultimately human.

The action takes place on the eve of King’s assassination in Memphis and just before his death, he is given a glimpse into the America of the future. And despite the fact that the country eventually votes in a president of Afro-Caribbean descent, it is still one plagued by poverty and prejudice.

The play had just two characters and it is rare that you see such passionate performances in theatre. But Bakare and his co-star Ayesha Antoine, who played the motel chambermaid Camae, put every ounce of energy into the performance and looked visibly exhausted at the end.

Playing such an iconic figure as King could be problematic and there is a danger of the performance being too sentimental or weak in comparison to the man himself. But Bakare proved that he was able to deliver a powerful performance when he addressed the audience, as well as portray the vulnerable side of his character.

For more details on future performances at the Guildhall visit www.derbylive.co.uk.

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From the age of elegance . . . a glimpse into the Abraham Textilarchiv in Zurich

I was lucky enough to catch the last few days of the Soie Pirate exhibition at Zurich’s Landesmuseum,  a collection of pieces from the Abraham Textile Archive.

Throughout the softly-lit rooms there were some wonderful examples of colourful fabric patterns and swatches from the Zurich textile firm Abraham.

The opulent fabrics and timeless designs, most of which date back to the latter part of the 20th Century, perfectly evoked the elegance of the post-War era. The exhibition also draws together various aspects of the textile industry such as the craft of creating fabrics – shown by the printing table – as well as the firm’s links to the fashion world.

And forhigh-end vintage fashion lovers, there were some excellent examples of dresses by Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and many more using Abraham fabrics.

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The Trial: Another winner at The Lace Market Theatre

Last night, I went to see Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Kafka ‘s modern fable The Trial, performed by six talented actors at The Lace Market Theatre.

The cast, who apart from the lead actor, played multiple roles and used a variety of dramatic techniques, including mime, to bring this classic text to life and show that it is just as relevant today as when it was written in the early 20th Century.

For anyone who has not read the book, The Trial tells the tale of Josef K, a bank clerk who, for some inexplicable reason, is arrested one morning. Josef has to work through the labyrinthine legal world in his attempt to find justice – but his quest is futile as he realises that he does not know why he has been arrested and that seedy corruption exists at all levels.

In keeping with the dark of theme alienation in a modern, bureaucratic world, the characters – who were all grotesque caricatures – toy with Josef’s mind until he crumbles – and one of the most memorable scenes is when all the cast members are  on board a tram chanting ‘Josef K, Josef K’, echoing both the sound of the vehicle and his own paranoid existence.

All the actors put on a tremendous performance – particularly Neville Cann who played the lead role very convincingly – and despite its sinister subject matter, the play was also comic and at times quite racy.

For details on future performances visit www.lacemarkettheatre.co.uk or call (0115) 950 7201.

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The Sochi Project

Another highlight of my trip to the Berlinische Gallerie is a piece of photo journalism entitled The Sochi Project. The brainchild of photographer Rob Hornstra and writer and film maker Arnold van Bruggen, this project documents life in a small town in Russia, not far from Georgia and the troubled region of Chechnya. The town is called Sochi and in 2014, it will play host to one of the world’s most high-profile events: The Olympic Games.

The Sochi Project is a fascinating insight into what life is like for the town’s citizens before it is completely changed by the Olympics and its associated infrastructure. This is a town that in some ways has not changed for centuries. Many of its inhabitants face severe poverty but it is also a place where religion and traditions play a huge role in the life of its communities.

Perhaps what makes this project so interesting is that we do not know what will happen to the people of Sochi. The Olympic Games may regenerate the area and bring prosperity and opportunity to the town’s citizens. On the other hand, the rapid rate of non-organic growth may leave a few richer, but the majority no better off and communities ripped apart. It is certainly one to watch.

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Am I alone . . . strange goings-on at the Berlinische Gallerie

Walking through a ground floor room at the superb Berlinische Gallerie, I had a strange feeling that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was surrounded by figures, including children, a receptionist and other guests breathing like human beings and appreciating the art on the wall.

It took me a moment to realise that I was the only sentient being in the room and these ‘people’ that I was surrounded by were mannequins who all formed part of American artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s installation The Art Show. The figures were grotesque – ugly, empty, bored figures with car parts instead of mouths breathing loudly. The vast room was used to great effect and every detail perfectly conceived – and I got the distinct impression this was a scathing attack on the art world as money-driven and pretentious.

The gallery also had a fantastic collection of Modernist art including Dadaism, Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism and much more from both German and international artists. Some of the themes explored in this collection include the city, industrialisation, oppression under totalitarianism and war. Well worth a visit.

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