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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear