Identifying with the characters is a normal part of going to the theatre. With Stephen Sondheim, though, it goes further than that. You find yourself identifying with the composer, feeling that he is speaking directly to you as a friend or teacher or relative, almost, though never actually, bypassing the plot and the characters with an unending fusillade of brilliance.
I never met Stephen Sondheim but I did have the chance to watch him close up. My sister was a member of the original cast of Company and she snuck me into a few rehearsals.
When the Royal Court published an apology at the weekend for giving a Jewish name to an unscrupulous billionaire in a play, it was greeted with some derision. The theatre said the ‘mistake’ was a result of ‘unconscious bias’. But how could the name Hershel Fink not be instantly identifiable as Jewish? (There’s a Jewish joke that begins: ‘My name’s Fink, whaddya think?’) And why did it not occur to anyone that associating Jews with power, money and unprincipled behaviour is one of the oldest antisemitic clichés in the book?
Museum of Austerity is an immersive exhibition ‘that preserves memories of public and private events from the austerity era’. You could visit Room 1 at this year’s London Film Festival. It told the stories of disabled benefit claimants who died in the UK between 2010 and 2020. On my way in I was given an augmented reality headset and told to raise my hand if at any point I felt uncomfortable.
‘It’s really a good idea to live in houses and with furniture that are at least a hundred and twenty years old,’ Bertolt Brecht wrote to his publisher in 1953, after he and Helene Weigel had moved into their apartment on Chausseestraße, in the north-west corner of central East Berlin. ‘Let’s say, in early capitalist surroundings until later socialist surroundings are available.’
On 11 March, the Department for Culture and Europe of the Berlin senate announced a pilot project for ‘the opening of cultural and economic events for a tested audience’. It was conceived in a more hopeful moment than the one we are in now. A few weeks ago my amateur football team’s WhatsApp group was buzzing at the prospect of being able to play full-contact football again from as early as 5 April, if the seven-day incidence remained below 100 cases per 100,000 people. It was about 60 at the beginning of March. It’s now approaching 150.
In the BBC TV play Threads, broadcast on 23September 1984, the nuclear bomb that drops on Sheffield is something of a social leveller. Mr Kemp, an out-of-work steelworker, is badly burned in his terrace house and his young children are killed outright. But there’s little to envy in the extra few days endured by the steelworks manager Mr Beckett and his family in the sturdy cellar of their large suburban semi. Just before the bomb falls, CND activists are rounded up. Police muscle into a demonstration and snatch a trade unionist calling for a general strike. Barry Hines’s screenplay was a response to Thatcher and Reagan’s economic policies as well as their nuclear brinkmanship.
Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother.
'Will we be safe here?' asked a German man sitting next to me in the front row. We were about to see Leave. To Remain (An Aristophanic Brexit Tale), a Fringe production modelled on Aristophanes’ Acharnians, whose protagonist, Dikaiopolis, makes a private peace treaty with Sparta while the rest of Athens remains at war. My neighbour was worried we'd be expected to take part in the show. It's set in a not too distant, post-Brexit future, where the British equivalent of Athenian direct democracy is interactive TV programmes.
Lycée Jean Quarré is an abandoned cookery school in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, near the Place des Fêtes. In October 2015, a reported 1000 refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers squatting there were evicted by the police. The NGO Emmaüs Solidarité now manages the building as a Centre d'Hébergement d'Urgence, or CHU, for around 150 refugees and asylum-seekers. Most of the current residents are young men from Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya.
On a cold Sunday afternoon earlier this month, 800 people gathered at Hull Minster for a memorial service to mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘triple trawler tragedy’. In three weeks in January and February 1968, the trawlers St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland all sank in freezing North Atlantic waters. Fifty-eight men from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community died.
How many asylum seekers have returned to Calais since the Jungle was dismantled in the autumn of 2016? A year after the camp’s residents were dispersed across France, nearly half opted for asylum from the French authorities and got it. But there are still people mustering in Calais – perhaps one thousand – and Grande-Synthe (near Dunkirk), hoping to reach the UK, where they have relatives and networks that can help them resettle, after arduous journeys from points east and south. The Calais Jungle had a poor press in Britain, and the recent arrivals on the Channel coast are faring no better. They also have a local enemy in the mayor, Natacha Bouchart, who rose to prominence during Nicolas Sarkozy’s bling-and-markets presidency. Last month Bouchart announced to the Daily Express: ‘They have smartphones and nice clothes. They’ve been told that they have rights, but no duties. They drink themselves senseless – they down litres of vodka – and get into fights.’ Well prepped, you can’t help thinking, for rapid assimilation in their dream destination, Brexit Britain.
Her career began with a school drama project: words scrawled in green biro across the pages of an exercise book. In 1980, Andrea Dunbar, a pregnant teenager living in a refuge for ‘battered women’, entered a play she had written when she was 15 into a national writing competition organised by the Royal Court. Max Stafford-Clark, who had just joined the theatre as artistic director, asked her to send more, and together they put The Arbor on stage. The play was named after the street on which Dunbar grew up, on a rundown council estate in Bradford.
The best thing I saw at Edinburgh this year was The Sleeper, written and directed by Henry Krempels. (The play will be on for one night only in London, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre on Thursday.) Karina, played by Michelle Fahrenheim, is a Londoner travelling on an overnight train somewhere in Europe. She’s a writer, probably a Guardian reader, definitely a Remainer. Returning to her compartment after brushing her teeth, she finds someone else in her bunk. She rushes to the guard in a panic. The young woman hiding in her berth, Amena, is a Syrian refugee. She will be kicked off the train at the next stop.
In the queue for Flying Pig Theatre’s new production of Euripides’Bacchae, I overheard a man talking to his female companions about the prospect of sitting in the front row: ‘What if there’s audience participation?’ I was reminded of Dionysus in 69, Richard Schechner’s adaptation of the play.
The Belarus Free Theatre’s first performance was in 2005, when they staged Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in a café in Minsk. The café owner lost his licence after two performances. The cast and crew lost their jobs with the state theatre. Between 2006 and 2010, their performances of, among other pieces, documentary plays by political prisoners were staged in private apartments and in forests. They were often broken up by KGB operatives toting machine-guns. At a performance during the 2010 protests, everyone in the audience was arrested and beaten. The creative directors moved to London. But the theatre still performs in secret locations around Minsk. I went to one a couple of months ago. They called me on my mobile a few hours before the play and told to come to a bus stop by a supermarket. ‘Wait on the corner. We’ll come and collect you. You can try to guess who else is there for the play.’
‘Can you speak Russian? No? So why go to the theatre when you can’t understand a word?’ My challenger (English) was incredulous that I’d asked one of the Russian helpers on the British Council tour, whose mother had been a principal dancer with the Kirov, to find me, if at all possible, a ticket to a play. There was a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, she’d told me. The legendary Alla Demidova would be performing; the director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a daring force in the Russian avant-garde; and it would be taking place in the Gogol Centre, a former warehouse designed in industrial cool with gorgeous Constructivist lettering that makes the word Гоголь look like the limbs of an Alexandra Exter puppet.
‘One does not have to look for distress. It is screaming at you even in the taxis of London,’ Beckett once said. His plays are almost absent from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – strange, as he is usually given a lot of attention here – but his influence is everywhere.
In Granada late on Good Friday I watched a paso or float of the Mater Dolorosa making its ponderous way towards the cathedral. The life-size statue was dressed in a black and silver robe. She was swaying gently from side to side and looked like a beautiful beetle with the many legs of the men carrying her (the cuadrilla) sticking out from the black curtain underneath her. Their load was so heavy that they had to stop and swap out for a fresh crew every few hundred metres. The float was accompanied by a marching band, candle bearers, incense-bearers, the women wearing mantillas and black lace, the teenagers in chorister’s robes. Around the float were the nazarenos or penitentes who wear caperuzas – tall, tapering hooded masks – and often carry wooden crosses. The similarity to Klu Klux Klan garb is coincidental; the nazarenos’ hoods point symbolically towards the heavens.
Teatr.doc is – or was – a small theatre in a basement a short walk from Tverskaya Street in the centre of Moscow. Not funded by the government, it has always done as it pleased. Its productions have included One Hour Eighteen, about Sergei Magnitsky, the accountant and auditor whose death in detention continues to haunt Russia (disclosure: my husband was in the cast), and BerlusPutin, an adaptation of a satire by Dario Fo. You could see a play about the fall of Constantinople one day, and go back the next evening to see a short comedy about how much young men hate the draft.
Last week, the chairman of the Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette, the creative mastermind behind Big Brother (and descendant of the ‘sewer king’ Sir Joseph), unveiled ACE’s new strategy to increase diversity in the arts. ‘We are not doing well enough,’ he said at the launch of the ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ at Sadler Wells. The arts are not ‘reacting fast enough to the changes in society’: ‘we can and must do better’. From 2015, arts organisations will be ‘monitored’ as to whether they ‘better reflect’ minorities and local communities, and this will affect whether they continue to receive funding in 2018. In other words, diversify or die. What will define this ‘better’ reflection of diversity? In his speech, Bazalgette remained vague. ACE says it is ‘considering launching a consultation’.
‘Art is never finished, only altered,’ @therealbanksy tweeted to 130,000 followers last October. Tom Wainwright’s comedy Banksy: The Room in the Elephant opened at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston last week. Wainwright wrote the play in response to the story of Tachowa Covington, who lost his home in a disused water tank in LA after Banksy sprayed ‘This looks a bit like an elephant’ on it two years ago.
Whenever I go to the Edinburgh Fringe, I wish it was 1966 so I could watch the premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I've been going for over a decade, and although there have been some good shows, I haven't yet seen anything that made anyone instantly famous. This year I watched a less renowned Stoppard play, The Real Inspector Hound, a farce revolving around a dead body under a sofa. When he started writing it in 1960, Stoppard didn't know whose body it was; coming back to it in 1967, he made his main characters, Moon and Birdboot, theatre critics and immediately resolved the problem. In the production by the English College in Prague, Birdboot, a reviewer with 'some small name for the making of reputations', tries to kiss Moon (played by a woman); otherwise there are no surprises.
Sometimes the right play, or novel, or poem, comes along at exactly the right moment. Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’, published within days of the IRA’s 1994 ‘complete cessation of military operations’, springs to mind: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’ Quietly by Owen McCafferty, which has been playing for the past week in the Abbey Theatre, ahead of a month at London’s Soho Theatre, is a revival (it was first performed in Edinburgh in 2010), but it had never until last month been staged in McCafferty’s native Belfast, where it was received by audiences almost as a new play.
Justice is a toughie. It so often gets mangled in a slew of circumstance. The man who threw up beside me this week in Edinburgh at a production of A Theory of Justice: the Musical! as it revved towards climax may have not have been passing caustic comment on the show and its hymn to justice. But for me and others nearby it certainly gave the last ten minutes or so of the ‘all singing, all dancing romp through 2500 years of political philosophy’ an extra piquancy.
Not as dramatic as a production of King Lear in which the actor actually goes mad, but a nice instance of life taking over from art, or vice versa, when the Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas took over from John Tessier at the last minute in Jonathan Miller’s beguiling production of The Elixir of Love at the Coliseum last week. (The understudy was also unavailable.) Montvidas knows the part of the forlorn Nemorino in Italian: his rival, the bumptious sergeant Belcore, the object of his desire, Adina, and everyone else was singing in English. Poor Nemorino, sitting alone in his corner, as the entire neighbourhood bounced and swayed around him, had every reason to feel misunderstood. He didn’t even speak the same language as his inamorata.