(Sixteen year old MercIury is the narrator)
I’ve never seen a non-mutant humanoid. Not in the flesh. Only in filmograms made before 2020. Until today that is. I suspect the other students here in Headculturedome are as amazed as I am to see him. There he stands on a raised plinth in the conference hall staring down at us and we stare back at him. A humanoid with two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two arms and two legs. Dressed in a silver grey suit, neatly pressed trousers, jacket to match and a pristine white shirt and purple tie, he reminds me of Daniel Craig as James Bond or a smooth-faced chat show host. Not a politician. The latter are usually tie-less, shirtsleeves turned up a bit to show that they are of the people and therefore for the people. Though no one is fooled. Think of Cameron or Obama. But this man – let’s call him Mr. Suit – makes no pretence of being one of us. No dumbing-down for this smoothie with his sleeked-back hair and chin held high. He’s a cut above us and makes sure we know it. Yet, I can’t help wondering. Is he the throwback or are we?
We’ve been instructed by auto-put to assemble here. A spccial visitor is to address us. And here he is. Mr Suit. His slate-coloured eyes scrutinise each one of us in turn as they sweep in a wide arc reminiscent of that long one camera shot of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain. Maybe his eyes are mini-cameras. Implants. Recording our every expression, noting our body language. Even here in Headculturedome we are not privy to every new technological advance, so I have no idea if it is possible for humanoids to have camera implants in their eyes or not.
I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I sense that as those steely eyes retrace their route, anti-clockwise, they linger a little longer on my face than on the others. The mini-cameras move on and swing back for another look. No doubt about it. Mr Suit is focusing on me, little Mercury. A shiver runs through my body. Sweat breaks out on my forehead. That reaction will no doubt be recorded too. Or at least noted. Why is he so interested in me?
After digging deep into the recesses of my mind and pouring out of ideas on a blank page or screen, what next?
The gestation period is not completely over. I continue to create characters and plot as I write. That continual creative experience is vital to the way I work.
For many writers, after this initial period of gestation and free writing comes the time to plan, to plot the novel in note-form, chapter by chapter. It seems a sensible strategy but it doesn’t work for me. It’s too soon for me to do that. I need to start writing immediately before any formalised planning takes place. I do plan in my mind, but if I do a detailed written plan at this stage I feel trapped and don’t want to write.
Instead, I skim through my notes and a couple of characters emerge. I put them in specific place just before “the inciting incident” as most creative writing tutors suggest. I sit at my computer in front of a blank screen (I prefer to type rather than write), ready to start the first chapter. I intend to “drip feed” the reader, letting her know enough to make her curious about the characters and about what is going to happen.
Here is the opening of my novel, After:
On a day when the sky was bluer than blue and the sun scorched everything it touched, two angels appeared on our doorstep.
I hope that the strangeness of “bluer than blue” and “scorched” and the appearance of the “angels” show that something unusual is about to happen. A little later we discover that the angels are illusions, mortal not heavenly beings; but the narrator’s perception of them as angels lingers. That teenage twins could be mistaken for angels is ironic in the light of what happens next.
Did I think all this out at the time – or am I analysing it with hindsight? Both. I do like to write a strong first chapter before any formal planning is done; but that doesn’t mean I won’t scrutinise it and re-write it later. What is important for me is to feel I have the right opening for the novel before I proceed.
In my dystopia, Ascension, the first book in The Oasis Series, I have to introduce the concept of mutant humanoids living in enclosed communities in a future world. I begin with two characters, Odysseus, a one-eyed academic, and Isis, his three-armed assistant. The inciting incident, the proposed visit of a new CEO with a bent for sacking people, is indicated through dialogue. Here is the opening of the novel:
Isis bursts into the histo-lab, her three arms thrashing about like a crazed puppet on a string. ‘He’s at it again! Sacked half the workforce of Compound 33 today. Our turn next, for sure.’
I look up from the research I’m doing on art forms as political satire from Honoré Daumier to George Grosz. I must try to calm down my young assistant. She’s just returned from the compu-centre where rumour is rife and panic spreads like the plague.
I had a lot to present here: the difference between the characters, an indication of the confined world they live in and the tension generated by the fear of the expected visit. Note too the imagery of the plague, a hint of why they live in windowless compounds.
To start cold like this, I do have to make certain decisions first. Who is telling the story? Should it be a first, second or third person narrator? A first person narrator was my choice for the start of both these novels. But the tense of the verbs differs. In After, Sarah tells her story in the past tense, remembering the events that changed her life. InAscension, Odysseus uses the present tense. In his confined world the humanoids live in a present that promises little chance of change. The live from day to day.
Of course these writing decisions I make could change if I feel they don’t work, but the important thing is to begin and construct a first chapter I’m happy with. This gives me confidence to continue.
I would be interested to know if my openings intrigue you and make you want to read on. Please feel free to leave a comment!
Award-winning author, Jeannie van Rompaey, MA in Modern Literature, has enjoyed a varied career as; lecturer, theatre-director, actress and performance poet. As Jeannie Russell, she is a senior member of the Guild of Drama Adjudicators and adjudicates at drama festivals in Britain and Europe. Originally from London, she has lived in various countries including America and Spain. She has written eight novels as well as a number of short stories, two books of poetry.
The first two books in The Oasis Series; ASCENSION and EVOLUTION have been re-published by Clink Street Publishing 1st March 2016 (RRP £8.99 paperback and RRP £2.99 ebook) and are available to purchase from online retailers including amazon.co.uk and to order from all good bookstores.
This is the blog about me on Bookworm for Kids. http://bookwormforkids.blogspot.com.es/
As you can see at the end there is a space for comments on their website. If you leave a comment about the article, you have the chance of winning a Giveaway of my book, ASCENSION. There are no comments so far so you stand a good chance of being the winner! Good luck!
Blogival for me and other Clink Street writers due in June. Watch this space!
Once again, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a trip to London and see three West End productions. Here are my personal comments about them.
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company was formed in 2013 and “Plays at the Garrick” is the company’s inaugural season. Seven plays, of which five have already been presented, will have been produced by November 2016. To come are Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and The Entertainer by John Osborne. I can’t wait to see them both.
This is not Branagh’s first foray into the sphere of producer/manager of a company. Remember the wonderful teamwork he achieved with The Renaissance Company. His aim this time is the same: to capitalise on long-term creative relationships. Who can forget how Richard Briers, originally considered an actor of light comedy, blossomed under this approach and produced moving dramatic performances including King Lear.
This adaptation of Francis Verber’s French farce fulfils the accepted definitions of this genre of theatre. Farce is broad comedy based on the exploitation of improbable situations, rather than upon development of character. Precisely choreographed confusion. But, in the best examples of this genre, farce can be said to be tragedy plus faultless timing. In this play, amidst doors slamming in the actors’ faces and trousers falling down, there is a dark undertone that underlies the comic mayhem.
In The Painkiller, one of the main characters, Ralph (Kenneth Branagh) is a contract killer determined to fulfil his task, gun in hand at the window looking over the street. The other, Dudley (Rob Brydon) is a deserted husband just as determined on his agenda – to commit suicide. Both are desperate men. They are lodged in adjacent hotel rooms with double adjoining doors. This is a set that acts, as so often in farce, as a third protagonist, the adjacent rooms being reverse copies of each other. The adjoining doors are deliberately designed to create sudden, unexpected entrances and exits. The inevitable meeting of these two very different men, each with their own dark intentions is the basis of the humour. This is dangerous, ambitious comedy indeed.
Branagh is not generally associated as an actor who specializes in farce but with classical roles. This play gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of his acting skills. At one point in the play, his character, Ralph, is injected with a drug, which should send him to sleep. Instead he attempts to both speak and move. His speech is blurred and gruff, hilariously funny, yet perfectly understandable, and, as he shuffles around, his attempts to control his movements appear to be hampered by rubber-jointed limbs. The flexibility of the actor’s awkward bodily movements combined with impeccable timing make for a brilliant performance.
Rob Bryden, the comedic Welsh actor, is very much at home in his role. He and Branagh work well together to produce the timing for the necessary laughs. As well as excelling in the comedy, Bryden manages to engage our sympathy for his plight. We do laugh at him for his pathetic attempts to hang himself and his naïve attempts to win back his wife, but we also laugh with him and grow fond of him, so when the two men, desperate in different ways, find a kind of odd camaraderie towards the end of the play, we can accept it.
Of the supporting cast, Mark Hadfield gives an amusing camp performance as the Porter. He extracts every bit of humour from his delivery of lines and perfect timing of gestures and entrances and exits. Michelle (Claudie Blakley) seems the kind of person Dudley would have married (ordinary) and her exasperation with him was quite clear. Less clear was her attraction to her supposed new lover, Doctor Dent (Alex Macqueen). The actor did a lot of shouting, standing around facing the audience and I sensed little chemistry between him and Michelle. His frustration with Dudley is expressed too loudly to ring true. The other member of the cast, Marcus Fraser, as the Policeman, plays with great aplomb. Marcus, a tall, good-looking black actor, has recently graduated from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and The Painkiller is his professional debut. Lucky man to land a part in a West end play. I’m sure we are going to see more of him soon.
I will now admit that farce is not my favourite genre and if you had been at The Garrick on the 14th April you would not have seen me rolling doubled up in the aisles with laughter. Physical humour is not really my thing. I prefer witty exchanges and satire. But I did enjoy this production. I appreciated the expertise of these actors, their energy and timing, and admired the clever set that worked so well for them.
The Maids was written in 1947 and deals with the ever present problem of the gap between the super rich and the poor, the privileged and the under-privileged. In this play the maids are virtually prisoners, trapped in their subservient lives. With Mistress away, the maids dress up in her clothes and play at Mistress and Maid, the only game they know. The danger is that the line between fantasy and reality is very finely drawn and the murderous feelings the maid has for her employer could transfer to the ersatz Mistress.
I have seen the play before but this production approaches the play somewhat differently. For one thing the maids are played by black actresses and Mistress is played by one of the “upstairs” daughters from Downton Abbey. This casting gives the production a particular resonance. The setting is highly original. A square platform represents Mistress’s bedroom. It’s covered in red petals but there is no furniture, no bed and no wardrobes or dressing table. When clothes or props are required, traps in the floor pop up and Mistress’s clothes or jewels extracted. The petal-strewn floor can be seen as both floor and bed. When the maids realise that Mistress is due home, brooms are found from the floor cupboards and the carpet of petals are swept up, only for another red shower to be released from above on her arrival. It is left to the audience to interpret the metaphor of the red flowers. Blood, passion, anger? Or is it the sweet-smelling perfume Mistress covers herself in – an ironic sweetness that belies her nature. This was a galley presentation with audience seated in front and behind the stage, perhaps suggesting we are all complicit with the way the maids are treated.
As the play opens one of the maids is already dressed in Mistress’s red dress, but is prancing around like a drag queen. Her gestures and movements suggest a kind of vulgarity, which either signifies that she can never aspire to be like the woman she emulates. On reflection, maybe it is an imitation of the vulgar behaviour of Mistress. Food for thought.
Zawe Ashton as Claire pretending to be Mistress, like a female drag gives an animated performance, but she shouts out her lines in the opening scenes. Vocally she needs more light and shade to keep our attention. For English tastes the French play is wordy and repetitious and the lines need to be handled more subtly. Ashton works well with Uzo Aduba as Solange pretending to Claire. The interpretation of this role is carefully thought through and her voice controlled. Solange’s final speech as she approaches Claire with the poisoned cup is particularly well-judged and makes a chilling end to the play.
Laura Carmichael as Mistress is suitably terrifying as she gives presents to the maids with one hand and takes them back with the other. She shows her own vulnerability in dealing with her love life, but is too selfish to realise that the maids need to be treated with compassion.
A fascinating production that jerks us into thinking about inequality and the way human beings treat each other.
A new play by Duncan Macmillan, People, Places and Things will surely be remembered for its tightly written script which deals with the all too relevant subject of addiction with compassion and humour. The wit of the asides were a joy, relieving the tension. Macmillan is not afraid to incorporate the importance of religion into the equation when tackling the problems of rehabilitation, but not in a moralistic way. The play suggests that even an atheist needs to replace addiction with something else to believe in. What leads addicts to drink or take drugs are people, places or things. These same three options can also save them.
The play follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Emma (Denise Gough) as she goes through rehab, fails, returns and finally goes back in to the world to try again. Emma is an actor, an appropriate choice of career as she continually lies about who she is, something she does in her job. The audition she attends at the end of the play along with a long line of other hopefuls suggests that she has to start again from square one.
This was another galley production with audience facing audience and the stage in between. In this case the audience behind the stage is revealed with the help of lighting as a dramatic device near the start of the play, a shock to us and the protagonist, giving the effect that she is being exposed to everyone. This is an appropriate symbol as she is being encouraged to expose her true self in rehabilitation. The set is very simple with furniture suitable for doctor’s office and the inevitable circle of chairs for group therapy. A raised platform that delineates her home towards the end of the play is also effective.
The central performance of Denise Gough as Emma has been rightly lauded. She produces a realistic, uncompromising performance that never slips into theatrical cliché: it grips from start to finish. It must be a gruelling role, because of the subject matter and because she is on stage for the entire two hours twenty minutes of the piece. Denise won the Olivier award for best female actor in a London play, 2016.
The other members of the cast do not disappoint. It is easy to believe that they are participants or therapists in the rehabilitation unit. Special mention must be made of Barbara Marten who played Doctor/Therapist/Mum. The triple casting works well demonstrating that the doctor and therapist have virtually the same script, both sure of the programme needed for addicts to recover and both slightly patronising in their approach. Emma keeps saying that the doctor reminds her of her mother. When at last we see her mother and realise the role is played by the same actress the point becomes clear. But Mum is hard and bitter and this is quite a shock. She makes it clear that she has been through so much and is not prepared to put up with any more selfish lapses or she will turn her daughter out. This is very telling. It makes us imagine what she has been through before. The fact she calls her daughter Lucy causes a ripple of uneasy laughter in the audience. Calling herself Emma, which the therapists believe to be her real name, turns out to be yet another lie. Is she ready to leave therapy? Nathaniel Martello-White as Mark brought warmth, commonsense and humour to his role, first as an addict in rehab and then as therapist. Other members of the cast work well both as an ensemble and as individuals to tell the story of addicts’ experiences in rehab.
What would readers be surprised to find out about you?
I’ve always thought I might have an identical twin sister. From time to time I feel as if we are exchanging thoughts and feelings. This could be true as I was adopted soon after birth.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you start with an idea or a character?
I start with two characters and a blank page on the computer. I put them in a situation and allow them to speak and act for themselves. The theme, something that concerns me, seems to emerge naturally.
Who gave you the one piece of writing advice that sticks with you to this day?
The first time I read Dianne Doubtfire’s seminal book, The Craft of Novel-Writing (1978) I was impressed by the first sentence of the Introduction: “Writing a successful novel demands not only talent and determination but also a high degree of craftsmanship.” I agree with this and would recommend reading this book to any budding novelist.
Is there one thing you have to have when writing?
Chocolate plus a glass of water to wash it down. Once I’m writing I often forget to eat. That’s my excuse anyway.
When was the moment that you knew you had to be a writer?
Not one moment. Lots of moments. Every time I browsed in a bookshop or library I knew I wanted my books to be on the shelf beside the books of the writers I admired.
What book is on your nightstand?
I don’t read in bed, but almost everywhere else. I’m currently reading The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was born in Peru in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. I’ve only read three or four chapters but am already gripped by it. He has a talent for making history come alive through fiction,
What’s your favourite scene from your books?
Three-legged, power crazy mutant humanoid, Heracles, transports himself to Planet Oasis, where only completes are allowed. He’s arrested and put in a cube with a transparent wall. School children arrive and point, make faces at him and laugh at and mock him. Heracles gives as good as he gets, He roars at them, beats his chest, walks about on all fours (fives) and bares his teeth as if he’s an animal in a zoo. The teacher reprimands the children and moves them on. It seems that Heracles has become an exhibit in a museum.
If your book was being made into a movie, who would you include in your dream cast?
My protagonist, Mercury aka Michael Court must be played by Ben Wishaw. Please let it happen.
Snake woman, Kali, Mercury’s adoptive mother, should be Whoopie Goldberg.
Heracles, Henri Cavill, and his sidekick, the thug with two mouths, Ray Stevenson.
Warrior Queen Durga could be Indira Varma.
The two headed Mata Kbula, Idris Elba, and his faithful deputy, Sophie Okonedo.
How’s that for diversity? I could go on, but read the book and you might have some ideas yourselves. Do let me know, just in case….
Do you have any hobbies or activities that you enjoy outside of writing?
I’m passionate about reading, art and the theatre. I live on the subtropical island of Gran Canaria and run a poetry and play-reading group at The British Club in Las Palmas. I’m interested in current affairs and politics, although often disillusioned by politicians. I also paint – mainly abstracts and faces. Not realistic portraits – I only wish I could do that. The character of three-headed Ra in Ascension was inspired by one of my paintings. This picture still hangs above my desk as I write.
If utopian literature depicts an alternate ideal world, the dystopian offers a negative view, that of an alternate, unpleasant, often repressive society. Both genres come from the same literary tradition and many works combine elements of both the utopia and the dystopia. My novels in The Oasis series are no exception as idealists and power-seeking characters vie with each other in a possible future world.
It’s fun to write in this genre. Think about it. You have an empty page, a new world to create and new characters to inhabit it. No one can say that the world you’ve invented is impossible because this place, this situation and these quirky characters are set in a future that no one else knows. Yet.
I like to think I’m a part of a group of inventive visionary writers. I love the idea that my writing is a continuation of this tradition of speculative literature. The genre of utopian literature has a long history. More than 400 utopian works were published prior to the year 1900 and well over a thousand more during the twentieth century and the twenty-first century so far. Here are a few examples of the work of writers who have written in this genre, spanning several centuries. Plato’s The Republic ( 370-360) is an example of a utopian work from antiquity in which he outlines what he believes would be the ideal society and its political system. The word utopia was first coined by Sir Thomas More in Utopia (1516) in which he sets out his vision of an ideal society. As the word utopia resembles the Greek words for “no place” and “good place” it is not surprising that this work presents an ambiguous and ironic projection of an ideal state, a trend that has been taken up by other writers. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is preoccupied with ideas of good and bad society. A later work, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1812) actually uses an anagram of “nowhere” as its title and is more dystopia than utopia. In 1915 came the feminist utopia, Herland, but from the 1900s onwards literature appears to have been more interested in providing representations of dystopian states rather than utopian ones, a reflection on writers’ growing disillusion with Western contemporary society, perhaps. Consider the irony implicit in the title and content of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and H.G Wells’s gloomy prognosis in 1984, published in 1948. In the 1960s and 70s came a plethora of dystopias, many of which were made into films, including Logan’s Run (1967) Make Room! Make Room! (1966), renamed Soylent Green, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Elecitric Sheep? J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975) has recently been made into a film and has kept the seventies setting. More up to date examples of novels in this genre include the chilling The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) and her later thought-provoking trilogy, Onyx and Crake (2003) The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never let Me Go (2005) gives us another terrifying possible future world. Add to this the popular Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (2008- 2010) and you have some idea of the popularity of this genre. My choices, a few from each decade show the scope of the genre. (A more complete list of utopian and dystopian literature can be found on Wikipedia). No wonder I want to add my name and work to this prestigious group.
One definition of utopian and dystopian fiction is that it explores social and political structures I read the newspapers, watch the news on TV and think – what sort of world am I living in? The activist in me seeks change. What can I possibly achieve? And how? Not by being a politician but by using my skills as a writer. The time-old power of words. I’ll invent my own perfect state. Or an imperfect one. That would be more realistic. A dystopian story can highlight what is wrong with our society and create a desire for change in the reader. Whether we really have the answers to the present problems in our society is a different matter. But I can explore the possibilities through writing and this excites me.
It’s good to look at our world from a different perspective. By placing my imaginary world in the future I can look at our current world from a different perspective. As Keith M. Booker notes, “ dystopian fiction is used to provide fresh perspectives on problematic and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable.” For example, when my novel, Ascension, begins, it describes an Earth two hundred years into the future. Some of its inhabitants, mutant humanoids, have developed extra limbs or heads or only have one eye. They tend to move awkwardly and speak jerkily. They are shut up in windowless compounds and don’t venture outside for fear of further contamination from the plague that caused the mutations. But what is this plague that has caused these mutations and the Earth to be barren? Did it occur because we didn’t take enough care of our planet? Instead of writing a political non-fiction book, I can weave these ideas into a story and let my readers make the connection themselves. The last thing I want to be is didactic and preachy. Oh, the power of fiction.
Creating a different world is a freeing activity. It stretches my powers of invention, allowing me to use my imagination to the full. As well as Earth there is another world in my novels: a manmade satellite called Oasis. It was created as a utopian state by privileged people without mutations called completes. It quite quickly falls short of its ideals because its benefits are restricted to this elite class of humans. Those who fail to conform are confined to the projects and subjected to harsh rules, suggesting a police state. Sounds familiar? When some mutant humanoids are imported to do the jobs the completes do not care to do, guess where they end up? Yes, in the projects along with other so-called failures. I hope the parallel with our world is clear without spelling it out.
I find it stimulating that there is a connection between writing, painting and dreams. Writing in this genre overlaps with other creative work, in my case painting. The character of three-headed Ra in Ascension was inspired by my painting of a man with three heads that hangs over my desk. Where did he come from? From my dreams no doubt where so many fantasy images emerge. How exciting it is that characters can come from dreams, through the paintbrush to people my novels. This connection of two medias, art and writing often inform each other especially when writing speculative fiction..
My work is character led rather than plot led. Writing in this genre gives me the opportunity to produce some eccentric characters, but they do respond to change and develop as their way of living changes. When the mutant humanoids find that it is safe to leave their compounds each responds differently. Ambitious Heracles, wants to build a city and a tower to demonstrate his power; some crave a more rural life, while others prefer to stay in the compound and continue living in a community. These odd, endearing characters are the mainstay of the books and the genre of the dystopia has given me the freedom to create them.
I believe in optimistic but realistic outcomes Many dystopias are gloomy and pessimistic and although setbacks and even tragedies do occur in The Oasis Series – every story needs conflict – I keep my characters resilient, upbeat and amusing. It’s important to me to make the ending of each novel an optimistic one. The way I manage this is by having a protagonist, Mercury, who is an idealist. He’s determined to create a world as utopian as possible. Mercury’s a positive character. Although he gets angry sometimes and suffers disappointments, his hope for a better future never flags. The third novel in the series, in the process of being written, is to be called Renaissance which should indicate that this optimism for the future continues. .
Metaphor and symbol are features of dystopian novels that are fascinating to employ. Theses images ensure that situations can be explored as part of the plot. Earth and the compounds can be viewed as a prison, Oasis a symbol of success and the projects can be seen as a metaphor for the way we treat each other. The plague that is mentioned could be seen as a metaphor for the lack of care we have taken with our planet. The irony implicit in these rather simplistic interpretations I’ve given here demonstrates the danger of spelling out the meaning of literary devices. Try to explain what a metaphor signifies and it will disintegrate. Better to let the images remain ambiguous and allow the reader to interpret these images. I believe that the use of metaphors and symbols as integral parts of the story enriches the text and the imagination of both writer and reader.
Writing is a product of the society we live in. I believe, like Karl Marx, that both the content and the form in which books are written are products of the world we live in. But that doesn’t mean that we have to write a realistic story that reflects our day-to-day habits and thoughts. How much more exhilarating to write in a genre in which we can use our powers of invention to the full and bring to life characters and images that distance us from the mundane and yet comment on it. Let’s raise a glass and drink to dystopian fiction.
Available from 12th April 2016
It’s difficult not to have heard of Ai Weiwei the activist and political dissident but this was my chance to view the skill and artistry of Ai Weiwei, the artist, at his first major survey exhibition in the UK.
It soon became apparent as we walked through the nine rooms that displayed his sculptures that it would be impossible to separate the man from his work. From small-scale ceramics to large-scale sculptures and installations, from photographs and videos to wallpaper and furniture his subject matter and the resources he uses are indivisible from his country, his culture and his politic views.
As an activist he has been outspoken about The Chinese government’s suppression of human rights, state censorship curtailing artists’ freedom of expression, the lack of transparency after the Sichuan earthquake and the treatment of workers during the building of the Olympic stadium. For daring to be critical, he has had his blogs shut down, has been beaten and imprisoned. His right to travel has been forfeited, his phones have been tapped. He’s been followed and photographed and his studios have been subjected to surveillance cameras. Despite the manner in which he has been treated Ai Weiwei has remained focused on his art.
Many of the materials he works with are typically Chinese such as marble, jade and porcelain. We see a pair of white marble handcuffs, a marble security camera, both evocative of how he has been treated by the authorities. White marble is also the chosen material for Cao 2015, a sculpture of grass that relates to Caochangdi (green field) the village on the outskirts of Beijing where Ai built his elegant brick studio. The word cao or grass is often used in Chinese literature to refer to the common people, the masses. The irony of using imperial marble for this sculpture is implicit.
Ai salvaged and used the historic fabric of Beijing, the thousands of rods that once held up the buildings before they were twisted and mangled in the force of the Sichuan earthquake. They were reclaimed, straightened by the artist and his assistants and made into the installation entitled, Straight, which takes up one whole room in the gallery, a floor sculpture made out of “history, stories, blood, tears and labour” according to Ai.
Treasure Box, 2014 is a cube sculpture made from honey-coloured hauli wood from which luxury Chinese furniture has been made since the Ming period. The sides are crafted in wood in different shades and shapes. When you walk round the cube the interior is exposed, revealing shelves at different levels, a Chinese puzzle waiting to be solved. It is like a giant Rubik’s cube but can also be seen as a piece of furniture. Tradition and modernity are combined in this work. The seamless joinery, emblematic of Chinese craft, highlights this combination of past and present.
So many images from this exhibition remain with me, signifiers of Ai Weiwei’s take on Chinese history and his own experience: the fond humour of the twisted coat hanger, The Hanging Man, the profile of fellow artist, Duchamp: the installation comprised of 3,000 porcelain crabs, He Xie 2014, – the homonym for crabs in Chinese is “harmony,” a word often used by the government so more than a touch of irony here: the two million-year-old, repainted ceramic pots in bright garish colours, yellow, pink, purple and red named Coloured Pots.
One of the most compelling installations has to be S.A.C.R.E.D (2011-13) which depicts Ai Weiwei’s experiences of being incarcerated in 2011. A series of six shoulder height iron cuboids with apertures in the walls and roof reveal fibreglass half size replicas of Ai and two guards inside each cube. He never saw the outside of the room in which he was imprisoned so the outsides are stark, minimal cubes in an empty space. The interior of the room in which Ai was detained for 81 days and the nature of his time spent there are shown graphically. The limited space, the lack of privacy, the basic facilities, the absence of books or art materials meant that he was able to catalogue in his mind every detail about his life there. Ai does not consider himself a martyr, but an everyman, representing all those who suffer injustice. We look through the apertures or stand on a step to look through the roof, voyeurs of his imprisonment. We watch him perform his ablutions, sit on the lavatory or sleep, watched by the ever-present guards. We are outsiders, eager to share and understand what he had to endure.
His imprisonment may have been intended to clip Ai’s wings, but the publicity it brought had the opposite effect. He continues to make art to show abroad and this summer has taken part in several exhibitions in Beijing. He believes his art can help to represent those who do not have a voice. His art has been criticised for being too calculating in its political intentions. Seeing this exhibition, has made me realise that, although Ai Weiwei’s work is political, driven by a compulsion to fight for a fairer world, he is also focused on creating new art forms. If those new forms are powered by his political passion for change they are all the stronger for that.
If you have a chance, do go and see this exhibition. If your reaction is anything like mine it will stimulate your intellect and your emotions and fill you with wonder. What more can we expect from art?
I’ve been lucky enough to continue my London theatre visits this year. Several regular readers of my blogs have mentioned that they’re missed my play reviews. Because I’ve not written them up straightaway, the following offerings are likely to be short, a list of what I’ve seen and some short comments about what I thought about each production.
The Oresteia by Aeschylus at the Almeida Theatre, updated and directed by Robert Icke. This production has now moved to The Trafalgar Theatre in London’s West End so can still be seen. Warning. It’s a trilogy so it does run for over three hours. Maybe three and a half. But well worth it. Don’t miss it. The theme is still relevant after all these years.
My opinion. During the first part of the trilogy the tension on stage and in the audience is unyielding. We hold our communal breath during the lead up to the first act of violence that will form the basis on which the others depend. Agamemnon faces a terrible dilemma. Should he sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, for the sake of the State? Should one life be forfeited to prevent the deaths of hundreds others? During the quiet scene in which the trusting little girl sits on her father’s knee and drinks the poison, a new meaning is given to the term, dramatic tension. There’s a huge lump in my throat – and everyone else’s I imagine. I can scarcely breathe. I have never felt such oneness with other members of the audience during a performance of any play in any theatre at any time.
When the promised wind arrives, sweeping across the stage like a gush of dry leaves, we realise that Agamemnon’s sacrifice has reaped its reward. But is it justified? The repercussions of that first act of violence are frightening. To quote Aeschylus, it’s ‘an eternal law: blood that is spilled demands more blood.’ Klytemnestra, Agmemnon’s wife, murders her husband, Agamemnon (and his concubine, Cassandra) in revenge for the murder of her child. Orestes avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother. The play asks if there is ever justification for violence. This is the premise of the play as it examines how far the action of an individual is connected to family and the community. How does one family’s strife relate to the social order? Who or what is responsible for acts of violence? In a time of intense social disquiet such as in our current world this play, written in the 5th Century BC about violence and the search for justice in society, continues to resonate.
Robert Icke’s production gives us an old story updated with modern dialogue, costumes and setting. Designed by Hildegarde Bechtler, the set is stark in its whiteness. A transparent division between the upstage and downstage areas suggests the intimacy of inner rooms, including a bathroom, a place where intimate family secrets take place including murder. Once this transparent curtain is raised, for example in the trial scene, it could signify that there are no private, familial areas left and therefore no secrets that do not concern the state.
At the Almeida, for me, the second half of the play lost a lot of tension. Orestes’s procrastination became tedious as did the eternal retelling of the same events. The trial scene was repetitious, drumming home the different sides of the argument. Whether this was due to the original play by Aeschylus or whether it was the fault of the updated version by Robert Icke, or whether three and a half hours is just too long for modern audiences to concentrate I’m not sure. I would like to see this production again at The Trafalgar Studios to see if my reservations still hold. I wonder if I’ll have the stamina to stay to the end….
Three days in the Country by Patrick Marber, a version of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, at The National Theatre,.
My opinion: Do try to see this one. Why? For Marber’s stylish writing and directing, for the ambience of long sunny afternoons, for the innovative simple staging that encourages us to think in stage metaphors, for the humour and compassion with which the interlinked stories of love and unrequited love are told. And for the high standard of acting which showed animation and lassitude, passion and acceptance.
Postscript: John Simm I love you!
Everyman, a new adaptation of the medieval morality play by Carol Ann Duffy, directed by Rufus Norris at The National Theatre
My opinion: Ensemble playing at its best, the cast headed by Chiwetel Ejiofor so that can’t be bad. Kate Duchene as God was outspoken and down-to-earth. The script was both lyrical and coarse, a good combination, as the storyline reflected contemporary life in all its squalor and the dangers of living only for today. Lighting, sound and special effects gave us glitz and squalor.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller at The Noel Coward Theatre
My opinion: An opportunity to see this classic American play again but the reason I went was to see the two actors, Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter, in the leading roles and they certainly did not disappoint. The layered set worked well to suggest the layout of the house – convenient for eavesdropping. This family drama about a salesman who has not reached his targets and his son who refuses to follow the path his father has chosen for him, could be seen as the loss of the American dream. Somehow in this production at least, the idea is planted that there is more than one way to keep faith with your own integrity.
Constellations by Nick Payne at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Michael Longhurst
My opinion: Slick, clever script, based on the vagaries of time as a forking path. It embraces the different possibilities of the lives of two people. In some versions they are partners, in others passing strangers. The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics proposed by physicist, Hugh Everett, forms the basis of Nick Payne’s play. The intricate changes of position and the still moments, are almost like watching a mechanical dance with predestined movements. Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey play Roland and Marianne with precision. See it, if you’re up for something a bit different. It’s quite short – plays straight through in 90 minutes.
Hayfever by Noel Coward at the Duke of York’s, directed by Lindsay Posner
My opinion: I’m afraid this production didn’t do it for me. The tone wasn’t light and frothy enough, the dialogue often forced. The worst thing about it was that it wasn’t funny. There was hardly any laughter from the audience. Maybe the play is too dated for us to appreciate now. Or maybe, as I suspect, the cast and director hadn’t quite caught the style, tone and pace of the piece. Sorry, I was not amused.
Photograph 51, a new play by Anna Zeigler, directed by Michael Grandage
My opinion: the main attraction for many members of the audience was to see Nicole Kidman’s return to the London stage. She certainly gave an impressive performance in the unglamorous role of Rosalind Franklin, the physicist who played her part in the discovery of the secret of life, DNA. The play traces her work from the time of her arrival at Kings College London to the taking of the seminal Photograph 51. At first she is under-appreciated by her male colleagues. Her dedication to her work and her lack of social skills reveal her as an isolated person but there are signs that she has human qualities when a famous American scientist arrives. The style of the play itself is an interesting combination of formalised narrative to the audience and naturalistic dialogue. The dark and gloomy two-layered set portrays the basement of the bio-physics laboratory at Kings College where these discoveries were made in 1957. The worldly ambition of the male scientists is contrasted with Franklin’s more pure motives as she looks for scientifically proved answers. She will not jump to conclusions in order to court fame or win a prize. How difficult it must have been for a woman at this time to work in such a male-dominated field. That the other five actors on the stage with her are male makes this point theatrically.
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh directed by Mathew Dunster at The Royal Court
My opinion: A strong piece of theatre, the first play McDonagh has written for ten years. He hasn’t lost his touch for bold, witty yet subtle dialogue, nor for tackling controversial subjects. Although set in the sixties just after hanging in England has been abolished, the fallibility of the British justice system is still relevant today. But this play is not an intellectual discussion about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. It’s a black comedy that shocks us into recognition of the flaws in human nature and the danger of provocative behaviour.
The opening scene is set in a prison cell in 1963 where James Hennessy (a thinly disguised James Henratty, hanged in 1961 and later found innocent) is about to be hanged. The condemned man is terrified and protests his innocence. The hangman and his team just want to get the job done and have their breakfast. The scene is written and played in heightened comedic vein, with dark one-liners, crass violence and verbal abuse that highlights the difference between northerners and southerners, all themes and styles that continue to be explored throughout the play. The scene ends with the actual hanging. Dramatic, terrifying, heart-stopping stuff.
Most of the rest of the play takes place two years later in a pub in Oldham. Harry, the hangman-landlord (David Morrissey), pulls pints the same way he pulled the lever for the hangings. His main clientele consists of his cronies and a plainclothes police inspector who props up the bar. These regulars are all northern and the dialogue comes quick and fast, something I as a southerner had to tune into as did Mooney (Johnny Flynn), the stranger from the south who becomes the trigger that sparks off the plot. I won’t give the story away but suffice it to say that if you find yourself with a spare corpse on your hands I recommend going to the professionals, Harry and Syd to dispose of it. They will know what to do.
If you like your comedy like your coffee, black without sugar, laced with a tinge of fear, don’t miss this one.