Dr. Peter Lowe

Professional bookworm, supporter of blue and white sports teams, lecturer in 20th century literature

‘Bearing Reality’ – T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in 2019

Opportunities to see one of T. S. Eliot’s plays in performance come along rarely, and opportunities to see Murder in the Cathedral performed in a cathedral are rarer still, so Scena Mundi’s production of the play gives viewers a valuable chance to experience the tale of Becket’s martyrdom in a setting that infuses its lines with a thrilling sense of place. At the crossing beneath the tower of Southwark Cathedral, characters circulated between the pillars and up and down the nave, while Becket knelt at the altar and preached his Christmas Day sermon as though to an actual congregation made up of audience members. The acoustics of the building are not always forgiving, particularly when voices are speaking in chorus, but the blend of subject matter and setting made this an evening to remember.

Murder in the Cathedral was Eliot’s first foray into the theatre (four more plays were to follow between 1939 and 1959) and it shows him branching out into a new genre, testing the possibilities of what characters can be made to say and do before an audience. It is not a straight historical retelling of events so much as a probing of motivations, a study in the decisions taken, or not, and the consequences that ensue. Hearing Becket say that ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’ as his fellow priests look to usher him away from the murderous knights we are reminded that left-over lines from the play found themselves repurposed in 1936’s ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of what would, in time, become the Four Quartets and the capstone of Eliot’s poetic career. It is a play that requires close attention from its audience, not so much to the well-known events it covers – the 850th anniversary of which will be upon us in December 2020 – but the language in which a conflicted man wrestles with the prospect of death and his place in a divine order of things.

Jasper Britton’s performance as Becket is rich and complex: his politician turned priest has little problem in dismissing the Tempters’ suggestions that he seek either a rapprochement with the King or an alliance with the barons but is less secure when offered the “vision of eternal grandeur” of a self-sought martyrdom. Distinguishing between a death as part of a divine scheme and a death actively pursued by human will, albeit anticipating a divine plan, is the difference between resignation and presumption, and the Archbishop wrestles with them just as Eliot does in much of his poetry, from the ‘give, sympathise, control’ injunctions at the close of The Waste Land to the acceptance that “all manner of things shall be well” at the close of ‘Little Gidding’.

Around Becket, the Women of Canterbury provide the choral counterpoint to the events unfolding in the city and its cathedral. Simultaneously rejoicing in their Archbishop’s return from a seven-year exile and conscious that in so doing the routine of their lives (“living and partly living” as they have been) will be wrenched into disorder, they capture the mood of a society that fears confrontation and its effects, preferring a half-life without discord to a full measure of upheaval. They remind us that Becket’s very personal fate will have repercussions far beyond himself, and that while his martyrdom belongs in a divine order its temporal impact will be immense.

The agents of that martyrdom are, of course, the four knights who arrive at the Cathedral on 29th December and are first seen in angry exchanges with the Archbishop about his return and his relations with the King. The audience has seen them before, though, in so far as they function as the four Tempters in Act One, thereby setting up the sense that Becket’s rejection of the options offered previously leads inevitably to acceptance of the death that he sees as his place in a larger design. In a work that Eliot (a great fan of crime fiction) once considered calling ‘The Archbishop Murder Case’ they take us into the very modern realm of motives and alibis. Eliot’s master-stroke in the play, of course, was that having committed the murder the knights should appeal directly to the audience’s sympathies, taking turns to point out that they stood to gain little from the act, were following orders made necessary by Becket’s intransigence, were somewhat intoxicated, and were – in the final analysis – put in an impossible position by a man seeking his own end and more deserving of a verdict of ‘suicide while of unsound mind’.

These direct addresses turn audience members from spectators into witnesses – a dynamic that becomes particularly intense when we have sat in a cathedral and seen the play’s action unfold. The first knight’s injunction that, having heard their justifications, we “disperse quietly to [y]our homes … do[ing] nothing that might provoke any public outbreak” re-establishes the awkward relationship between the individual and the state that Becket has managed to transcend but which continues to trouble those still alive at the play’s conclusion. Is it possible to return to “living and partly living” after being witness to such things? The play offers no direct guidance, and the closing choral prayer that ‘Blessed Thomas’ will now intercede in Heaven for the people of Canterbury blurs History and the present (another theme that the Four Quartets would pursue much further) without necessarily showing how a good man or woman could reconcile a sense of divine will and a recognition of temporal authority without it costing their life to do so.

Written as it was the first half of the 1930s, when temporal authority (in Europe particularly) was assuming a disturbingly totalitarian guise, Eliot’s play has lost none of its power to unsettle. In its closing prayer, the Chorus admits that ‘we’ are all more likely to “shut the door and sit by the fire” than to do anything that might leave one open to “the blessing of God”, a blessing which comes in the form of privation as much as reward. Becket’s path to sainthood, like Eliot’s own definition of Christianity, is a demanding one, and as it sends its audience / congregation back into the modern world Murder in the Cathedral is a play that has lost none of its unsettling quality, particularly when staged and performed in so thoughtful and evocative a manner as this production.

For more information on Scena Mundi’s production see https://www.scenamundi.co.uk/boxoffice

The Variety of Things: Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

In September 1913 Natalia Goncharova had a one-woman exhibition at Moscow’s Mikhailova Art Salon. This was in itself a significant event for a woman artist, and all the more so as Goncharova was herself still in her early thirties. If the catalogue from that event is to be believed, close on 800 works were on display, and the third room of Tate Modern’s new exhibition tries to convey something of the profusion of images those Muscovite visitors would have seen. Here, around 30 paintings have been gathered for this re-imagining and even in reduced numbers the effect is remarkable. The sheer profusion of colours and styles threatens to disorient the viewer, showing what use Goncharova had made of the time spent (as many young artists in Moscow did) visiting and learning from the collections of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Schukin, where crates of modern art arrived from Paris bearing the latest innovations in modern art that the acquisitive Russians had authorized their dealers to acquire for them. From these influences were see Goncharova adopting the delicate Impressionism of ‘Mountain Ash’ (1908) before switching to the to the acid greens and yellows of Van Gogh-influenced ‘The Pond’ (1909) and the traces of Picasso in ‘The Deity of Fertility’ (1910). Goncharova’s partner Mikhail Larionov, who worked with Ilia Zdanevich on the catalogue to accompany this mammoth display, coined the term ‘Everythingism’ to Goncharova’s work. It is a fitting word for a room that overwhelms with its diversity.

The borrowings from Paris are one thing, though, and the paintings that sit alongside them in Room 3, as they did in Moscow over a century ago, are something else entirely. In a monumental installation called ‘Harvest’ seven canvases (out of an original nine, the other two missing presumed lost) are reunited from their usual homes in Paris and Moscow to hang alongside each other once again. The effect is stunning. In a riot of bright yellow, orange, blue, and purple the Christian Apocalypse (depicted here, as the Russian church often framed it, as a harvest scene) comes to life. Mythical birds and beasts look on while angels rain rocks down upon a city doomed for destruction. Nothing else in the room hints at the visual excess of these images – at once both daringly modern and ancient – where the centuries-old faith of Goncharova’s homeland collides with the neo-primitivism of Gauguin and Picasso.

Throughout the exhibition it is that interplay between Russia and the West that informs Goncharova’s art and sets it apart from both sides. An image like ‘Peasants Picking Apples’ (1911) owes as much to the Russian lubok tradition of wood-block prints as it does to developments in Montmartre, and in their quiet monumentality these men seem old and new at the same time. Elsewhere, the vivid colours of traditional Russian dress are reprised in designs for Parisian fashion houses (Goncharova having made visited the city several times before making it her home in 1919 when the Revolution made a return to Russia impossible) and the same angels seen in ‘Harvest’ hover above the advancing troops in the ‘Mystical Images of War’ series from 1914.

The religious element recurs, too, in the icons and religious works that caused such controversy when first displayed in 1912-13. Having made a claim to the role of an icon painter – traditionally an exclusively male vocation – Goncharova gives us images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Evangelists that are both traditional and modern. Removed from view by Tsarist censors, her Evangelists now line up alongside the prints in which Goncharova tried to frame her own response to the imminent horror of the war into which Nicholas II had led her Russia. Through a juxtaposition of modern warfare and traditional religious imagery (biplanes and angels in one image, Russian heroes like Alexander Nevsky elsewhere) the First World War is awkwardly framed as a just cause for Russian faith and nationalism. By the time the mechanised horrors of the conflict were fully understood the old regime in Russia had been swept away, and Goncharova watched from a distance as the Soviet state emerged. One might argue that in her own responses to new technology Goncharova saw all too clearly that the Futurist aesthetic was also a militarised one. In 1912’s ‘Factory’ the chimneys resemble gun barrels, while images like ‘Aeroplane over a Train’ (1913) look more like collisions between different forms of mechanised reality. The figure in her wonderful ‘Cyclist’ (1913) seems to shake before the viewer’s eyes, each line suggesting the vibration produced as he rides his bicycle over the cobbled street. Modernity is not a comfortable world.

In a retrospective exhibition we may usually find ourselves following the artist’s journey, chronologically and geographically, seeing how their style changed over time and tracing the links between early work and later development or recycling. Goncharova frustrates that approach because everything is already there from the outset, and just becomes more evident as time goes on. I say ‘just’ not to dismiss the body of work produced, but to suggest that her work contained within it the multitudinous possibilities of her career from its very earliest stages. An artist who can exhibit 800 works while in their thirties has deep reserves on which to draw. And Goncharova kept on drawing on those reserves throughout her life.

Like many émigrés, Russia was always there in Goncharova’s view from her Parisian apartment on the corner of rue Jacques-Callot and rue de Seine. The travels that she and Larionov undertook in the years before the Revolution were often linked to her work with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and in the final room of the exhibition we see her designs for costumes and stage sets for the company. Here, mythical figures from poems and folk tales are brought to life on stage, their costumes a riot of colour like those of the peasants depicted in Goncharova’s early work. It is a fitting close to the exhibition, a reminder that this most diverse of artists carried with her the traditions of her home and the sense of daring that enabled her to produce work of such variety that is celebrated in this justly deserved display. The work of Natalia Goncharova is, as this exhibition reminds us, as complex and as daring today as it was over a century ago. Head to Tate Modern and be dazzled by her, just like the Muscovites of 1913 were.

Natalia Goncharova runs at Tate Modern, London, until 8th September. For more details visit: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/natalia-goncharova

The Many Sides of Weimar

With the centennial anniversaries of the First World War’s events now themselves in the past, a good deal of historical attention has shifted to developments in the aftermath of the conflict, and their legacies for the world of today. Tellingly, in a time beset by economic instability and populist politics, the centenary of the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 provides a subject for commemorative attention, both in Germany and beyond.

Hamstrung as it was by the post-War order in which it came into being, the ruinous reparations imposed at Versailles, the ‘war guilt’ that Germany had to officially own, and the failure of the League of Nations to fully secure the peaceful order that its idealistic establishment had tried to promise, German government in the 1920s is too easily seen as a series of failures finding its historically inevitable denouement in the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933. ‘Weimar’ becomes a by-word for democratic inadequacy, cultural decadence, and the fragility of institutions that could not resist the rising voice of a demagogue who promised simplistic answers to the problems that it had failed to solve. A study of political posters from the period reveals a worrying similarity of visual language, whether promoting the ‘strength’ of right or left-wing parties as solutions to a worsening situation. When the only question facing a society is the direction from whence the remedy for its perceived problems will arrive its politics will inevitably become a battle of wills: in this case one that the Nazis were best able to plot their progress and take out their opponents until there were none left to oppose.

Hindsight makes this view inevitable, perhaps. But was that how it seemed at the time? As Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum’s current exhibition Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy explores, the Republic achieved a great deal in social, educational, and material terms and managed against the odds to oversee Germany’s transition from Prussian-led militarism to fragile but functioning democracy. Repeated elections, hung parliaments, and changes of government certainly made the task of German reconstruction harder, but even if the system eventually fell victim to the sheer volume of political parties within it it did provide a model of a parliamentary system. If it was a victim of events, those external forces were often of such a nature that its relatively shallow roots made German democracy particularly susceptible to them, but that does not necessarily mean that its failure was inherently its own fault.

Celebrations of the culture of the period also capture this tension. Tate Modern’s current display of Weimar-period art, under the title Magic Realism, often unsettles us with its subject matter and style, but also attests to the creative forces unleashed in post-War Germany and the sense of artistic liberation of the time. The BFI’s current season of Weimar-era film, whilst offering plenty of examples of the landmark horror and romantic (and daringly sexual) works associated with the time – from Nosferatu to The Blue Angel – also features a wealth of social commentary and reportage: films later banned because their ‘shocking’ nature lay in their unflinching view of the country around them. Such developments, like the establishment of the Bauhaus – the hugely influential art and technical school initially based in Weimar itself and celebrating its centenary this year as well – became possible within a state that was prepared to create room for them or, at the least, to permit them to continue even as it disapproved. This is arguably not a sign of ‘decadence’ or decline so much as an affirmation of possibility and licence. The ‘excesses’ of Weimar ceased in 1933, but so did a great many other things, and none of these cessations was to Germany’s, or the wider world’s advantage.

Ultimately, perhaps, Weimar’s lasting legacy is the fact that the Nazis felt obliged to denigrate and then dismantle it. Its ‘failure’ and its fate are, as the Deutsches Historisches Museum reminds its visitors, of immense importance in 2019, but so are its successes: not products of an age that saw itself as ‘doomed’ but rather expressions of one that believed in possibility, even against the odds. We should celebrate what was produced in and by it, and not allow its collapse to read as its unavoidable result. At the same time, though, Weimar’s collapse should be a salutary lesson to us in case we find our own societies turning towards the simplistic ‘alternatives’ to democracy that did not work then and will not work now.

For information on the Deutsches Historisches Museum Exhibition, visit https://www.dhm.de/en/ausstellungen/democracy-2019/weimar.html

For information on the BFI Weimar Film Season, visit: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam%3A%3AWScontent%3A%3AloadArticle%3A%3Apermalink=weimarcinema&BOparam%3A%3AWScontent%3A%3AloadArticle%3A%3Acontext_id

Books of the Year(s)

Thinking about a ‘Books of 2018’ list raises a tricky question. Is it a list of books published in the past twelve months, or the best books I’ve read in the period? Happily, as my list isn’t destined for a newspaper or magazine, and is unlikely to generate vastly increased sales for any of those titles I single out I feel comfortable with including in this year’s ‘Best of’ works that were certainly not published in 2018, but which have certainly made my year, reading-wise.

My first rule-bending exercise is to make room for Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. It’s impossible to single out one in particular (and I’ve only read a fraction this year out of the immense seventy-plus that he wrote) but thanks to my local lending library I’ve come to love these spare, psychologically intense dramas and the morally compromised demi-monde in which they play out. Recently re-translated and re-issued by Penguin in the UK, each novel is complete in itself but also part of a remarkable body of work, with a detective weary but decent, and a milieu that, even in its darker aspects, makes mid-20th century France feel like a welcome escape from Brexit Britain.

Elsewhere in fiction the year has had three highlights. Madeline Miller’s Circe is, in the same vein as her first novel The Shield of Achilles, a rich and complex reworking of classical myth into a narrative of great power and contemporary resonance. In a year when gender issues were never far from the news headlines, she gave the ‘witch’ of Homer’s Odyssey a compelling voice. Elsewhere, C. J. Sansom’s Tombland continued his series of murder mysteries set in Tudor England, with his lawyer-detective Matthew Shardlake once again endeavouring to see justice done amidst political conflicts and personal tests of loyalty. The historical context (the rebellions that marked Edward VI’s reign) was constructed with the care and attention to detail that Sansom’s readers have come to know well, and although Shardlake is an ageing protagonist I hope his adventures are not over quite yet.

If I had to single out one novel for the year, though, it would be Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, a work that, like The English Patient, deals in slowly-revealed secrets and half-truths as its characters navigate their lives and try to make sense of them. With its setting in the still-ruined cityscape of post-World War Two London and its cast of characters whose backgrounds remain opaque to the end, it is a rich and complex reading experience. Warlight is a study in the world of espionage, an exploration of the human heart, and a reminder of what fiction can do.

In non-fiction Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express and Adventures in the Post-Soviet Space are both great examples of his gift for writing about our built surroundings and the political and economic forces that shape them. Whether discussing town planning in central Europe or the decaying ruins of the Soviet empire in its more remote outposts Hatherley remains one of the most perceptive and thoughtful analysts of the spaces in which we live and the people into which they can sometimes transform us.

My book of the year (although published at the end of 2017) is both ‘new’ and at the same time as old as its possible to be. It is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. In the time of MeToo much has been made in the media of this being the first significant translation of the epic by a woman, and there are certainly many instances where the problematic gender roles of the ancient poem are probed in her work. In a world where the topics of immigration and ‘movement’ are so politically volatile, though, and where notions of ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ can prove divisive Wilson thoughtfully makes the tale of Odysseus seem more relevant than ever. In her Introduction she expresses the hope that in its translation Homer’s ‘alien’ poem can find new homes and readers, reminding us that in Greek culture welcoming the stranger, the refugee, or the exile was often a social and religious obligation. The mysterious guest in your home might prove to be a god in disguise, so your kindness towards them would be much more than a matter of simple charity: it would be the measure of the person that you are and would like the gods to believe you to be. In a year shaped by talk of a border wall, a ‘hostile environment’, and a worldwide turning away from the idea that immigration could be anything other than a problem, Wilson has given us an ancient text that feels utterly necessary and relevant today.  Happily, too, in picking her Odyssey as my book of the year I also don’t have to bend my ‘2018’ rule that far at all!

A Question of Timing: Macbeth in 2018

Shaped as it is by the murder of a king and the consequences (both personal and national) that follow, Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare’s most chilling warnings about the pursuit of power and its effects. Visually, it is a play steeped in blood, described by its title character at one point as a river into which he has waded so far that he may as well carry on rather than go back to the bank from which he set out. At the same time, though, some of its worst horrors remain unseen and exist only so far as characters describe them: we never see Duncan’s body after the murder, any more than we are shown the fate of his horses, turning on themselves and eating each other in the terrible confusion that ensues when the man who kept the kingdom together is dead.

What we do see, in frightening detail, is the psychological collapse of the title character and his wife: a couple united by the desire for power and undone by the price they pay for securing it. Duncan’s murder, so easily planned and carried out, proves to be not the end of a process so much as its beginning. “Naught’s had, all’s spent,” as Lady Macbeth reflects later, “where our desire is got without content.” Her husband, having killed once, sees security only in killing again, always looking for the next threat to his insecure position and thinking that one more victim – Banquo, Fleance, Macduff – will be enough to make things safe. At the end of the play, the cycle of violence is closed when Macduff kills the usurper and (in the text if not in every production) presents his head to Malcolm prior to acclaiming Duncan’s oldest son as the new and rightful king. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, has met her end in an off-stage suicide that denies her at the last any of the play’s attention beyond a third-party incident report. So much for ambition, Shakespeare tells his audience: legitimate power is not to be seized by those who should not have it, and if they try and circumvent this rule then they are not allowed to prosper for long.

Polly Findlay’s excellent production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (now in its London residency after a season in Stratford) sets a clear time limit on the Macbeths’ reign by starting a digital countdown clock on stage once the plan to murder Duncan is in motion. The clock reaches zero at the moment Macbeth dies when, as Macduff announces, “the time is free” once again. In between those two moments the play proceeds with the pace of a thriller, as conspiracies are hatched and rivals killed. At the same time, though, the speed with which the loyal and noble soldier of the first Act descends into murderous paranoia makes you appreciate that Macbeth’s tragic fall is so vertiginous because he was already in such high status when the play began. Here, at the moment when Duncan announces that Malcolm is to be his heir, Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth takes a step forward as though in anticipation of his promotion only to stand back, abashed, once the other name is mentioned. He already had the King’s trust and gratitude, but didn’t find them to be enough once the issue of succession set blood above loyalty. As such, he plans to shed the royal blood and make his own rules, with consequences no less horrific for their being so well known.

Eccleston and Niamh Cusack are compelling as the Macbeths, by turns intoxicated by their ambition and horrified by the depths into which it plunges them. As the death toll rises in this production the Porter keeps a chalk tally on a wall at the back of the stage, only to abandon the task as the play nears its conclusion, endlessly replicating the numbers of dead not only as a result of Macbeth’s own plotting but the wider wave of terror that his reign has unleashed on Scotland, the “poor country, almost afraid to know itself.” The top-down use of violence as a political tool impacts not only those on stage, Shakespeare reminds us, but those over whom they claim to rule, the deaths we don’t see and the victims who don’t have voices.

Capturing the febrile mood of a post-Gunpowder Plot country, Macbeth has always been a play that warns of the consequences when rightful power is usurped and the state collapses without its divinely-appointed leader. Duncan’s murder is not just the extinction of a life but a rejection of a whole scheme of order. Nothing less that the Macbeths’ eradication will satisfy the play’s need for restored harmony, and Shakespeare’s deft means of having Macbeth killed by Macduff (arguably English Literature’s most famous Cesarean-section birth) allows Malcolm to assume his throne without having had to kill to get it. The cycle of violence, the audience hopes, is closed.

Findlay recognises, though, that in many respects we are living in times as troubled as Shakespeare’s original audience, disturbed by authoritarian leanings and state-sponsored terror, and as fearful for the integrity of the nation state and its populace as any 17th century playgoer. In the play’s final scene – with the clock at zero and Malcolm crowned – she raises one of the play’s unanswered questions: how will Fleance fulfill the Witches’ prophecy to Banquo, “thou shalt get kings / Though thou be none”? Here, in what should be a resolution to the turmoil of the previous two hours Fleance enters and circles the new King as the witches reappear on the balcony above the stage. “When shall we three meet again?” the trio asks, as the countdown clock accelerates back into life before stopping again at the two-hour mark. The play’s conclusion has rarely felt less secure, and perhaps more timely.

 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production runs at the Barbican Theatre, London, until 18th January 2019. For more details see https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building a New World

‘Aftermath’, an information panel in the first room of Tate Britain’s new exhibition informs us, is an agricultural term for the new growth that follows a harvest. It is a very fitting title for a thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition on the artistic responses to the trauma of 1914-18 and, as the four-year cycle of centenary commemorations prepare to reach the anniversary of the 11th November Armistice, a reminder that the First World War shaped the artistic, political, and cultural landscape of Europe long after the guns fell silent on the Western Front.

I say ‘Europe’ here because the Tate has focused its exhibition on Britain, France, and Germany, acknowledging that other countries were certainly involved but that constraints of space and time necessitate a narrowing of focus. This approach works well. In each room a defeated combatant nation and two ostensibly victorious ones are seen to be wrestling with the legacy of a conflict that lasted longer than anyone foresaw and challenged its survivors to respond to its enormity once the fighting had ceased. Among the first exhibits the visitor sees are landscapes of near-total devastation: film footage of Ypres (or what was left of it) seen from a dirigible, photographs of Reims and its cathedral shelled almost into rubble. Alongside these landscapes, the human form is similarly ravaged. Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s 1916 bronze Fallen Man reduces the human form to one poised between a crawling figure and an utterly prostrate one, head on the ground as though unable to go forward any further. Abandoned helmets recur in paintings as representatives of dead soldiers while a display case nearby contains actual examples from British, French, and German troops. The top of the German helmet has been sliced open. One can only ponder the fate of its former owner.

In the second room official remembrance codifies the ways in which nations honour and mourn their dead. The human body now appears either in the form of heroic resolution – as in Charles Jaggers’ figures for the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner – or is absent altogether in the cenotaphs (empty tombs) that are included in victory parades in London and Paris and later complemented by the burial of unknown soldiers in places of national honour. Elsewhere, the burial of hundreds of thousands of corpses in state-designed cemeteries turns individual loss into national grief. The war dead are, in an aesthetic sense, accorded all the dignity that their countries can give to them.

The awkward truth, as the exhibition goes on to remind us, is that the war-wounded were still alive, even if they were finding ‘life’ near-impossible on account of wounds both physical and psychological. In France (where the mutilated survivors were accorded a place of honour in the victory procession) and Britain (where they were not) the state claimed – with varying degrees of success – to be caring for those whose war did not end in 1918. In Germany, ravaged by economic, political, and social collapse after defeat, the war-wounded were reminders of all that had wrong and seen all too often as a living impediment to any return to ‘normality’. In the works of George Grosz the wounded veterans function as the national subconscious, seen (in images like 1919’s ‘Are We Not Fit for the League of Nations?’) as blind, one-legged beggars while suspiciously rich businessmen saunter past on the streets of Berlin.

Artistic reactions to the War’s longer-term effects took two main paths: the rise of Dada and its exploration of psyches so ravaged that the most surreal images seemed coherent, and the equally intense desire to affirm and restore some kind of artistic ‘order’ in a world that no longer seemed to have any. After everything that has come before, the idea of ‘order’ in the latter stages of the exhibition seems less convincing. John Nash’s The Cornfield and his brother Paul’s Landscape at Iden may well be images of rural tranquility, but after all the dead bodies left behind in France and Belgium is it possible to think that those sheaves of corn and piles of logs are really just what they look to be? Like the religious works of Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights displayed elsewhere in the room, they seem to be the products of a world revalued by the War, more acutely aware of how thin the veneer of ‘normality’ is.

The final examples of ‘new growth’, then, have a frenetic element to them, reflecting an age newly conscious of the forces that had, in some cases, lain dormant under the pre-War order. The hedonism of the jazz age is seen as a reaction against the weight of guilt and grief of which the post-War world found itself in possession, and the rise of new political movements in response to changing patterns of work and life lead the viewer out of the 1920s. The pace of life in the modern city fascinates these artists, from Fernand Leger’s film Mechanical Ballet to the photomontages of Paul Citroen and El Lissitzky and their futuristic cityscapes. The machine ceases to be the means of dispensing death more efficiently and becomes the agent of improved living conditions, freeing the worker for more leisure or for unemployment, depending on your point of view. In the final room of the exhibition, a copy of Otto Griebel’s The International (1930) shows the massed ranks of men now not in uniform but bound together in a collective need to resist the economic forces destabilising their world as it slipped into the Depression that would itself help to fuel the rise of a toxic political extremism.

There was indeed ‘new growth’ after the trauma of the First World War, but by the time this exhibition concludes the viewer can anticipate where many of the complex emotions seen on its walls are going to find – one way or another – their next stage of resolution. In Germany, in particular, the war veteran would not be ignored so much as elevated to the status of victim; a victim not of enemy action but of national betrayal. Barely suppressed feelings of injustice would be channeled by a party adept at manipulating the popular will, and turning the nation’s gaze outwards again onto those ‘enemies’ who had defeated it in war and punished it in peace. There is no direct mention of the rise of Nazism in the exhibition, but there doesn’t really need to be: we know who many of Grosz’s war veterans would support when asked to do so, and how dangerous the German war experience would prove in the hands of Nazi propagandists.

The nature of ‘memorialising’ the War was more complex in Germany than in France or Britain, largely on account of feelings of guilt that the other powers did not really need to address. In the second room of the exhibition Ernst Barlach’s 1927 bronze The Floating One is suspended over the viewer, as it was designed to hang in Gustrow Cathedral. This angle-like figure, its eyes closed, has the facial features of Barlach’s friend Kathe Kollwitz, whose designs for other memorial sculptures are displayed nearby. Projecting an image of calm at odds with the context in which it was produced, it has a timeless quality, a memorial not to any specific war casualty but to all. The telling detail, though, is that the Tate’s exhibition features a 1987 casting of the bronze, made from moulds smuggled out of Germany after the Nazi regime declared the original a work of ‘degenerate’ art and melted it down. The aftermath of the ‘Great War’ was soon caught up in the rush towards another conflict that would, as the exhibition’s subtitle remind us, necessitate referring to the 1914-18 cataclysm as ‘World War One’.

‘Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One’ is at Tate Britain, London, until 23rd September 2018. For details visit:http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/aftermath

The Classical Now

An exhibition organised by King’s College, London in partnership with the Musee de l’Art Classique de Mougins, The Classical Now challenges its visitors to think about the status and role of the art of Greece and Rome in the contemporary cultural imagination. It is an insightful and ambitious show, thoughtfully organised and thought-provoking.

Spread over two of King’s locations on the Strand, the exhibition is best entered by the displays dubbed its ‘overture’ in Bush House. Here, you find etchings from Picasso’s ‘Vollard Suite’, sculptures by Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, and Edward Allington’s 1987 work ‘Victory Boxed’ – in which the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ is reduced in size and replicated multiple times in ranks of blue and yellow figurines. Taken outside of its setting in the Louvre and looking more like a trinket found in a museum gift shop, we are reminded both of how recongisable Classical art is, and how our culture has sometimes tended towards a packaging of its complexity to serve our own needs. The success of the exhibition, though, is in its capacity to make the viewer think through this process again, and in doing so to open up new areas for discussion. If we affirm the continued relevance of the Classical, we may need to question what we want it to mean.

Alongside those works in Bush House the visitor can pull up a chair and enter into the video installation ‘Liquid Antiquity’: a series of video interviews with artists discussing their own usage of Classicism as a resource for the present. The consensus view, one might say, is that artists today are as intrigued by the Classical past as artists have always been: far from being a sign of a backwards glance in their own work, it is more often a way of unlocking ideas for future innovation, a near-limitless repository of ideas and narratives that can be re-imagined for other ages than their original ones and lose nothing in the process. Damien Hirst’s 2013 golden head of Medusa startles the viewer with its blend of aesthetic beauty and horror, but as readers of Mary Beard’s recent book Women and Power may recall, Medusa herself is a Classical figure more recently recycled by supporters of Donald Trump to represent the ‘danger’ posed by the ostensibly Gorgon-like Hillary Clinton. Hirst’s work predates the rancourous 2016 US election campaign, but the echoes seem to bounce back off his shining artwork, reminding us that the Classical is never wholly free from what our own age seeks to make of and with it.

Across the Strand, in the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House, thematic displays on the nature of ‘place’, on the importance of ‘myth’ and, in the final room, on the idea of a Classical ‘pose’ and a corresponding view of the human body, guide the viewer through a series of interactions and engagements between antiquity and the present. Statue heads, mosaics, and funerary urns are complemented by modern sculptures, paintings, and video work. Whether pushing the material into areas wholly modern (Mark Wallinger’s video piece Prometheus, for example, recasts the titan’s eternal punishment as a man forever strapped in an electric chair and undergoing repeated ‘executions’) or simply responding in kind to the issues posed by the originals, we see modern artists probing their Classical indebtedness and, at the same, time, looking closely at themselves and the times in which they are working.

In an exhibition so carefully curated it might seem counter-productive to single out a representative work or artist, but for me the most thought-provoking content was from Christodoulos Panayiotou whose work looks, at first glance, to have come down from Antiquity only, upon closer inspection, to reveal its contemporary essence. In his 2015 fragments (the works displayed in the exhibition are called ‘74.51.2474’ and ‘74.51.25870’ respectively) we are scrutinising blocks of limestone, the broken appearance of which suggests pieces from long-destroyed statues or buildings. They are, it transpires, nothing of the sort: blocks, rather, selected and worked specifically to look like the pieces of the past that they themselves are not. Their numeric titles employ the cataloguing system in use at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to label antiquities, but they only become part of a Classical past if our imagination assumes that their current state is indicative of their having once been something else. In another part of the exhibition, though, there is something even more unsettling. The 2013 work Untitled sees Panayiotou constructing a wall mosaic from brown, black, white, and gold tesserae. There is no discernible pattern, although within the exhibition the design finds a correlative in a 1st century Roman design in an adjacent room, but we learn that these modern tesserae are themselves copies of ancient originals found in Syria before the outbreak of the civil war there. It doesn’t come from Palmyra, but it could easily have done and if it did its survival in a museum would be interwoven with the story of how its original location is ruined again by the recent fighting over its remains. Thus, the ancient past – and its fragmentary survival in the face of destruction – confronts the visitor of 21st century London with a reminder of why we can never escape our fascination with it. Its survival and/or ruin is, uncomfortably, a reminder of our own.

‘The Classical Now’ is at King’s College, London, until 28th April. For more information visit: http://modernclassicisms.com/exhibition-2/

Standing up for Rome

Before the first lines of Julius Caesar have been delivered in the production currently running at London’s Bridge Theatre, you know that the play has been transposed to a very contemporary setting. The Roman feast of Lupercal here becomes a political rally, as Caesar baseball caps and t-shirts are offered for sale while a band storms through ‘Seven Nation Army’ and the populace (in this case comprised of audience members with ‘mob’ tickets) sing along. When the tribunes Flavius and Marullus silence the band and tell the crowd to go home the mood of discontent is a palpable warning of things to come. A crowd inclined to celebrate its hero’s return can swiftly become a lynch mob seeking vengeance for his assassination.

With the rest of the audience seated in the round, looking down on the Roman mob, this production reminds you how volatile that crowd can be. It parts like a sea to allow characters to pass through and take the central stage, closing back in to better see and hear what is being said. In the crucial scene where Brutus gives the assembled people his reasons for Caesar’s death only to give the microphone (literally, in this case) to Mark Antony for the funeral oration, the shift in sympathy and support is seen and heard. As his speech progresses, David Morrissey’s Antony dispenses with the PA system of the Roman forum, speaking plainly and emotionally of his friend’s virtues while skewering the reputations of the ‘honourable men’ who killed him. By the time he produces Caesar’s will and tells the crowd that he “must not read it” for fear that knowing the dead Caesar’s love for them would make the ordinary Roman people ‘mad’ their ‘ears’ are not lent to him, as his famous line asks, but are wholly his, for whatever end he wishes to use them and their owners.

Julius Caesar has always been a play about the exercise of power, but in this production’s post-truth age of ‘alternative facts’ its relevance seems undoubted. At the Bridge, modernisation opens up new areas of emphasis. The baseball caps, “Do This!” t-shirts, and badges sported by the supporters of David Calder’s Caesar are on sale in the theatre lobby, ready to be worn on the streets outside. Ben Whishaw’s bookish Brutus ponders the case for assassination sitting at a desk piled high with volumes on more modern dictators. We never see Caesar with a phone (although other aspects of his wardrobe may look familiar) but it’s hard not to think that in this Rome ‘social media’ means more than simply meeting the crowds in the forum. At times these modern transpositions are a little strained. When Caesar meets his bloody end it comes not with daggers but with handguns: undoubtedly a modern death but lacking, perhaps, the terrible physical closeness of the killing that the conspirators turn into a sign of their courage and that Antony convinces the crowd is the measure of their betrayal.

Running for two hours without an interval, this production gives the play the momentum of a thriller, but also makes clear how swiftly in Shakespeare’s version of the events the assassination paves the way for the civil war that follows. The nature of Shakespeare’s history plays is often their ability to compress time for dramatic advantage, but in removing the interval the audience sees even more clearly that the inevitable consequence of Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is the ‘flight’ of the conspirators from Rome, the establishment of rival armies, and the decisive showdown of the war that ends at Philippi.

Whereas the opening scenes of the play use the ‘mob’ as the citizens of Rome, the later ones require them to stand uneasily around in a series of bunkers and battlefields. Whishaw’s Brutus and Michelle Fairley’s Cassius argue while explosions are heard outside their command post. Plaster falls from the ceiling with each shell that goes off as wounded soldiers are hastily triaged around them. It is a long way from the study/lounge in which Brutus met the conspirators and joined them, and a measure of how ill-adapted the ‘honourable men’ are for the reality that their actions have induced.

In contrast, Antony and Octavius – their rivalry contained for the time being as the pretence of a Triumvirate with the inconsequential Lepidus obscures the real scope of their ambition – appear at the head of a well-drilled, well-equipped army. The ending is not in doubt and the people who gathered to cheer Caesar and stayed to mourn him and swear vengeance on his killers now stand around to survey a tableau of dead bodies. As Antony stands and delivers his final lines on Brutus, able to distinguish between Brutus’ misled patriotism and the ambition of all those around him now that his opponent is safely dead, Kit Young’s Octavius climbs on to plinth and salutes the crowd below. Balloons fall from the ceiling as the play ends in the transition from a threatened (if flawed) democracy to the incipient autocracy that Caesar’s death was supposed to prevent and ended up accelerating. Make Rome Great Again.

Julius Caesar runs at the Bridge Theatre, London, until 15th April. For more information see: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar/

A Year of Reading

Once again, newspapers, websites, and booksellers are showcasing their ‘Books of the Year’ and looking back on the past 12 months and some of the best work to have appeared in them. I don’t always keep quite the same pace with contemporary publications – often because I’m still reading my way through the previous year’s list and/or tackling books written a century or more ago – but, for what it’s worth, here’s my 2017 list of the books that have said the most to me this year.

In fiction, Ali Smith’s Winter continued the seasonal quartet begun with 2016’s Autumn and showed Smith once again to be one of the keenest and most thought-provoking commentators on our modern lives. Picking her way through the material, social, and emotional landscape of Brexit Britain, she has once again woven a tale as “rich and strange” as anything in Shakespeare and yet at the same perfectly rooted in the trials of everyday life. The thought that there are two more seasons still to come is comfort indeed.

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair was a masterly tour of the artistic and emotional changes of the past century, and proof that in his analysis of the subtleties of social life Hollinghurst is perhaps the Henry James of our time, without the nearly-impenetrable prose. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land was another superb survey of British life, revisiting the ‘state of the nation’ novels of the late-Victorian period and infusing the genre with Brexit-era ambiguity.

In a year when ‘reality’ often seemed stranger than fiction it was reassuring to have astute chroniclers and commentators on events that often tested the limits of what was credible. Luke Harding’s Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump win the White House summarised and contextualised the events still unfolding and which will surely continue to dominate 2018’s headlines. Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia reminded us that there is far more to ponder in terms of Russian policy than the saga of Trump’s election, and that what happens inside Russia itself as Putin stands for another 6-year term as president may yet be the largest global concern of all.

2017 was, of course, the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s) and amidst a host of art exhibitions and film screenings there were excellent new additions to the canon of writing on those events and their aftermath. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government was as monumental as the Moscow apartment complex that provided it with its setting and its cast of characters, all rising and falling within the vortex of 20th century Soviet power. As ambitious as a Tolstoyan novel, and as disturbing as a thriller, it charted the life and death of a ruling class and a nation through an era that still reverberates in the present. In the same vein, the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s immense biography of Josef Stalin (Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941) showed the man at the heart of Russian’s century at his most murderous and enigmatic, dictatorial in power even as he made himself the living embodiment of the Revolution in whose name millions were urged to sacrifice their lives or had those lives taken from them anyway.

My book of the year, however, is a Russian text of a different kind. Recognised by a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, the historical works of Svetlana Alexievich have only recently become available for English readers and constitute perhaps the most important recent additions to the canon of Russian writing. Her poly-vocal histories weave together the voices of witnesses and survivors, often captured after years of silence (self-imposed or state-enforced) and setting down on the record their own roles in the seismic events of their time. Whether discussing nuclear catastrophe (Chernobyl Prayer), war in Afghanistan (Boys in Zinc) or the freefall of post-Soviet society (Second-Hand Time) the reader in her works is surrounded by a multitude of thoughts, emotions, and griefs, each carefully woven into a text that reads like the collective memory of a community or a nation.

My book of the year is the English publication this year of The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics) – a book originally written in the 1980s and comprising the testimonies of a few of those millions of Soviet women who served in the armed forces between 1941 and 1945. In its pages the reader meets a generation of women whose heroism was crucial to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ that defined 20th century Soviet life (and is still extensively invoked by Putin’s regime today as a rallying point for national loyalty and sentiment) but whose stories were officially erased from the national narrative of masculine triumph. Only after decades of silence did anyone ask them to speak, and when Alexievich transcribes their words their stories assume a cathartic nature. Collating the details often lost in the broad sweep of history, the book gives us an experience of war (and peace) by turns surreal and disturbing but illuminated by moments of joy and relief as welcome as they are unexpected. That many of the voices Alexievich recorded are now silent makes her work all the more vital and the greater cause for our gratitude and recognition. In a year when we have often been deafened by what the poet Osip Mandelstam (writing amidst the Purges of Stalin’s rule) called ‘the noise of time’ The Unwomanly Face of War – like all of Alexievich’s works – demands our attention and affirms our faith in the human ability to endure all things.

The Suppliant Women of Contemporary London

At the start of the Young Vic’s current production of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women (in association with the Actors Touring Company and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh) the Chorus stands and affirms its readiness to perform the play while the names of financial supporters are read. This, as far as we know, was common practice in Athens, when such works first went before a viewing public in the 5th century BCE. Those things done, a libation is poured for Dionysus – god of wine and theatre – and the play begins.

The revival of these ritual steps reminds us both of how the Greeks saw theatre in a societal and religious sense and also of how those ideas are still carried into the world of today. The financial backers are not thanked individually this time: all those who have purchased tickets are too numerous to name along with the funding bodies whose institutional support echoes the benevolence of the wealthy Athenians. The Chorus, too, made up of women from the local area, takes on the parts that would have been played by young Athenian males, working alongside professional actors to realise the play. The libation is poured from a bottle of wine rather than a ceremonial bowl, but as the red liquid stains the front of the stage it is still possible to feel, amidst the incense and the authentic music provided by Callum Armstrong and Ben Burton, that something of the ancient original persists on a November afternoon in 2017.

Of all the ancient Greek plays, though, this revival feels the most urgent and vital. Its plot, the tale of fifty women fleeing forced marriage in Egypt and seeking asylum in Greece, brings into focus issues that preoccupied the ancient world every bit as much as that of today. What are the obligations of the country to which refugees flee? What do we mean when we talk of ‘safety’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘understanding’? How far will we be asked to go on the behalf of those who are strangers to us until they arrive on our doorstep? The play is staged in contemporary dress, so the women could well have fled their homes in the clothes they are wearing, while King Pelasgos in his business suit could just as easily be the minister delegated the task of resolving their asylum claim. It all looks and sounds ritualised, but with a real trace of the bureaucratic and the political.

In the tense exchanges of the opening hour of the play pleas are submitted, promises made, arguments offered and, finally, a decision reached. The women will be offered the protection of Argos: a course of action proposed by the King but crucially approved by the populace. When the Egyptians arrive and try to claim what they consider ‘theirs’ the Greeks stand firm. When the issue was still in the balance Pelasgos had pondered that “to bar you brings horror, but welcome brings war.” The decision to help, even at the risk of incurring consequences, is arguably the play’s great lesson: from this stems much of the Greek awareness of why they were to be considered superior to other nations. A sense of justice prevails, a belief that there is a ‘right’ course of action and a duty to pursue it. The play creates tension while the women’s fate is in the balance, but the resolution of that anxiety is the affirmation of the Greek world-view.

At a time when the beaches of Greece are frequently filled with incoming boats from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean this play feels incredibly timely. At a time when issues of gender discrimination and sexual abuse are so widespread the women’s pleas for equality and understanding carry a powerful charge. In this production the Chorus is been made up of women from the local community who have rehearsed their parts in the evenings and weekends of the past two months. Alongside the other actors, their collective speech and movement foregrounds the suppliant women’s plight: by turns fearful and optimistic, putting their lives in the hands of strangers but knowing that doing so represents their best hope. The overall effect is remarkable, and a testament to the work of everyone involved. For the play’s original Athenian audience this work, along with other (now sadly lost) parts of the tetralogy from which it alone has survived, was a ritual affirmation of the values that made them who they were. For London in this age of Brexit, fake news, and immigration bans it challenges us to ask whether what the Chorus call “this thing called democracy” matters as much to us as it did two and a half millennia ago.

The Suppliant Women is at the Young Vic Theatre, London, until 25th November. For details see: https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/the-suppliant-women