Doris Lessing’s blogger bashing

Doris Lessing has a pop at the world wide web, Stephen Fry does panto and the Beijing Eunuch Museum

Oh, the irony. Just weeks after this blog praised Doris Lessing for her strong web presence, she’s gone and slated the internet in her Noble Prize acceptance speech. She argued that the net “has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.”

Cue much uncomfortable shuffling at NS Arts Blog HQ. But, Lessing’s comments, which seem to view blogging as an activity roughly akin to opium addiction, are part of a broader debate that’s been going on all year.

On the one hand, at the end of 2006 Time Magazine celebrated the arrival of the interactive age by whacking a reflective(ish) panel on their cover and naming “you” (yes, that means you) as their Person of the Year, and Salman Rushdie has also been making complimentary noises about the growth of new media. Conversely, the rise of user-generated content was lambasted by Andrew Keen in his book “The Cult of the Amateur” (which he somewhat ironically blogs about here), and Jeremy Paxman announced that Newsnight was open to viewer submissions in a tone which made it sound like you’d have to be an incorrigible moron to take him up on the offer. So is the blogging community usefully democratising the media or just offering so much ill-informed blather?

At the risk of being accused of vested interests, surely “user-generated” content on the net is diverse and interesting enough to resist any glib generalisations or totalising theories. Moreover, on the literary side of things, the internet has the capacity to make great writing more readily accessible then ever before. Even if some of us spend more time on sites like this than browsing the complete works of Shakespeare, you can now, provided you have web access, view both from anywhere in the world.

It might also be worth noting that you get many more hits Googling “Doris Lessing” than you do Googling “inanities” but, of course, that’s a fairly inane point in itself.

Related:

A handy blog directory
An article on Google’s plans to digitise 32 million books
Online alternative news sources from around the world

Christmas Arts Round-Up

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, the billboards are crammed with tinselly exhortations to prop up the flagging economy in a frenzy of consumerist excess and, of course, the theatres are wheeling out their big festive shows.

Stephen Fry’s “Cinderella” leads a crowded, star-studded field of pantomimes, while writer-director Anthony Neilson offers an alternative Christmas show with his “Gods In Ruins”. Our bumper Christmas issue includes all the tips you need on the best theatre to catch this yuletide.

However, if you’re a crotchety Scrooge looking to rise above the seasonal cheer, the Guardian was keeping things intellectual with a Freudian reading of Jack and the Beanstalk and Wired offered a decidedly sarcastic list of “10 Christmas Movies You’ll Never See.”

Meanwhile, a series of outdoor light installations reflecting the lives of families living on an estate in Oxford promises to be one of the most interesting displays of festive art on offer.

Of Pogues and Eunuchs

In other news this week, Lily Allen was announced as one of the judges for the Orange Prize, Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane Oscar failed to sell at auction and 37 African musicians have recorded a UN sponsored record to boost awareness of HIV/AIDS across the continent.

Meanwhile, the Russian government instructed the British Council to close its two offices outside Moscow (you can read our take on a BC sponsored project in the country here) and the erstwhile Pogues musician and NS diarist Jem Finer won the British Composer Awards 2007 with his “Score for a Hole in the Ground”, an acclaimed installation paid for by the PRS New Music Award.

Happily, the Beijing Eunuch Museum looks set to reopen in time for the 2008 Olympics, but there was bad news for the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg as they discovered that the terracotta warriors they have been exhibiting are apparently faked.

Equally bizarrely the British Press picked up on the story of Barry Cox, a Merseyside shelf-stacker turned Chinese Pop Sensation. There’s hope for us all…even the bloggers.

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.