We begin with a tomb – a woman’s body lies in a crypt, shrouded. Juliet comes to mind. Three men come in, one by one, and find with shock that there’s no sign of life.
They then step up into the classic monuments that surround this scene, becoming part of the stream of history as they place their faces into the slots provided – just like at novelty photographers at the seaside.
But soon, the “corpse” wakes up, cooly removes her paper shroud, and has the men dancing for her, like marionettes at that very same seaside.
If you like to know “what’s happening”, “why are they doing that?” then Irreversible, the new production at the Camden People’s Theatre, by Song Theatre, is going to leave you seriously puzzled.
Historical memory is a fickle thing. Look at London. The Roman city has always loomed large, but Anglo-Saxon London – or rather Lundenwic (c. 600-886) – was forgotten. For centuries, scholars scoffed at Bede’s description of a thriving trading centre. It has only been in the past two decades that archaeologists have found what he described, a large, rich settlement in the area that is now Soho and Charing Cross.
It is thus apt that the Museum of London should decide to revamp its medieval gallery now, when some sense has been made of the glorious finds. The new display – which contrary to its name covers more than a thousand years, nearly half the city’s history – was opened last week, and was worth the wait.
The Museum is well known for its accessible presentations, and the new gallery fits the mould, although with fewer reconstructions than its justly celebrated Roman displays. In presenting the newly rediscovered Ludenwic in particular, for which there is so little other information, the history has to be “read” from the objects found. These might have been what were once called the “Dark Ages”, but beautiful things were still celebrated and sought after.
“What do women WANT?” It is a classic question asked by an anti-feminist bloke, usually with a stagey layer of overlaid sarcasm, implying that half of the human race is unreasonable and impossible to satisfy. And if they are unhappy, it is neither this man’s fault, nor any other man’s.
The Women’s Library has the perfect answer, in its exhibition titled simply What Do Women Want?” Drawn entirely from its collections, covering a span of around 150 years, it comes to the conclusion that women over that time have wanted broadly the same things – access to decisionmaking in public and private spheres, safety, opportunity, respect …. and they’ve had to keep fighting for them, because they have often not been delivered until decades of campaigning, and even when delivered, they’ve been continually under threat.
Imagine you’ve had a really, really, really bad day. After immense emotional turmoil, you, a sophisticated Londoner – and proud of it, have gone to a pub in a little Welsh town that feels like a foreign country. You’ve got rolling drunk, and only escaped from the local Lothario – chief characteristic that he spits when he talks – when scooped up by a strange woman, perhaps a madwoman. She misunderstands you, you misunderstand her, and she ends up chasing you around her living room with a cross and a knife, trying, perhaps, to kill you.
These are the rib-rattlingly funny opening scenes of Cariad, by the first-time playwright Sophie Stanton, who also plays the meaty role of the fey, rambling Blodwen, left. She’s stayed in the town she was born in but, it emerges, her drunken visitor Jayne (also beautifully played by Rachel Sanders, who manages an entirely controlled drunken stagger with great vermisilitude), was here until the age of nine. She’s come back only to spread the ashes of her mother.
The introduction to Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape describes the artist as “one of Britain’s greatest painters”. Certainly a couple of his works are among of the nation’s most reproduced. And this exhibition, which traces his entire career, suggests that “one of the most talented” would be a fair label. Overall, however, what is on display is a talent dissipated by the pressures of Victorian life.
The British Museum exhibition traces in detail not just his work, but his curiously modern life. A self-portrait at the age of about 19 shows a soulful young man, far too serious for his age. A Romantic, destined to die young, you would think. Yet his work at this time is conventional, picturesque landscape – one watercolors closely resembling a painting manual’s model. (Echoes of the Vettriano controversy.)
But soon he was to find a mentor. He credited the artist John Lunnell with his transformation, describing him as “a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art”. A sketchbook from 1824 shows a study of “The Bad Thief”, a powerful, contorted figure menaced by a shark-mouthed Satan.
That a play written in 1920 should still feel entirely fresh and relevant 85 years later is either the sign of a fine drama, or of a failure of the human race to progress. In the case of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, both statements are true.
When Brutus Jones (Paterson Joseph) swaggers muscularly into the Gate Theatre, revealing within seconds the nature of his regime, built entirely on brutality and bombast, recent parallels are obvious. Robert Mugabe sweeps into mind, then Ceascescu, Mobutu … the list could go on and on.
And as America struggles to find “leadership material” in Iraq, O’Neill’s play presents a society entirely corrupted by the exercise of absolute, violent power. There are no heroes here – it is the power of the Emperor’s own conscience that will really get to him.