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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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