Outrage all round

Cuts, encouraging excellence and Anne Frank the musical

This week the Arts have been dominated by an increasingly boisterous response to those financial cuts first outlined in April last year. Messrs Spacey and McKellen led fellow actors and directors in the heckling as Arts Council chief executive, Peter Hewitt, was confronted at the Young Vic. Patrons of smaller theatres such as the Bush, which is threatened with cuts of £180,000 on the grounds of only having 81 seats, have been demonstrating their incredulity with equal vim – Victoria Wood and Julie Walters have been diligently stomping all week.

And yet, wading through all the vitriol came Sir Brian McMaster (on a horse?), earnestly brandishing his long-awaited assessment of how to encourage excellence in the arts and interrupting Spacey’s calls for ‘Revolution!’ with his own cry of ‘Renaissance! Renaissance!’. Already heralded as the Road Map for British arts, his was/is a bold manifesto based on the concept that arts groups should be assessed by their peers in the pursuit of excellence. Quite how he’ll create this culture of distinction when nobody actually trusts funding bodies to adequately dispense the spoils remains to be seen but theatres, galleries and opera houses alike will/must take heart from many of his innovative proposals.

The same cannot be said for those small independent publishers who, in the wake of their own drastic reductions, do not have an angry mob of articulate prima-donnas on hand to act as a media-friendly mouthpiece. Both Dedalus and Arcadia, two of the worst hit literary outlets, set up petitions this week in a bid to rouse support.

FRANK-LY OUTRAGED...

Unlikely as it sounds, in February, Anne Frank the Musical, set in the teenager’s attic hideout in Amsterdam during Nazi occupation, will be performed at Madrid’s Calderon Theatre. Despite obtaining the backing of the Anne Frank Foundation, which guards the rights to the diary, to say the international response has been mixed is a little understated. Whilst its musical director, Rafael Alvero, has argued it is a means ‘to understanding the story better’, others have been less forthcoming, branding the production ‘outstandingly emetic’ and crying foul exploitation, claiming the ‘Holocaust is not for sale’. If only Mel Brooks was still in the game.

Unsettling theatre is also to be found closer to home. Opening at the Arcola Theatre in east London, NS contributor Craig Murray has run his hand over The British Ambassador's Belly Dancer, an autobiographical piece by his partner Nadira Alieva, the former Uzbek drugs mule, teacher and lap-dancer.

Whilst neither of these propositions may immediately entice, surely even they are not as distasteful as this week’s much mooted McCann Movie.

ELSEWHERE...

The arts got terribly political. Cannes appointed the feverishly green Sean Penn as their president for this years festival, the power of the picket line derailed the Golden Globes and Putin and the Royal Academy managed to reach a détente: the cancelled From Russia exhibition is back on after all looked lost in the wake of diplomatic frostiness.

In France, the overwhelming success of the rather concupiscent Eros au Secret exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale, may appear to reinforce the stereotype of a lustful nation. But Britain's own sex-themed exhibition, Seduced, at the Barbican is still gathering superlatives into its final weeks. So too is Nicholas Hytner’s Much Ado About Nothing at the National. Any doubts raised at the idea of the vintage Zoe Wanamaker and Russell Beale playing roles intended for a pair of oversexed teenagers, are seemingly proved wrong. Just ask NS theatre critic Andrew Billen, who reviewed the production in this week’s issue.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution