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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism