In the Doherty

In the words of new director Roger Wright this year’s proms promise to “juxtapose the familiar and the unfamiliar”. Alongside Elgar’s gushing sentiment the eclectic sounds of Stockhausen, Dr Who and Vaughan Williams will be heard. Abandoning Nicholas Kenyon’s practice of adopting a theme for each programme Roger Wright has chosen to structure the season around the anniversaries of a series of significant composers.

The centenaries of Elliot Carter, Messiaen, and the late Stockhausen’s eightieth birthday are all celebrated and the fifty years since Vaughan Williams death is marked by an unprecedented free concert of folk songs. Besides showcasing established musicians plenty of space is made for new composers. The Torino Scale by Mark Anthony Turnage and the Dr Who theme tune will feature and the BBC has commissioned eleven new compositions (the Scottish composer Anna Meredith will have her work premiered on the last night.) Writing for The New Statesman last year Tory London Assembly member Brian Coleman confessed his dislike of such ‘ghastly modern’ music. His article went on to argue that the proms are responsible for cultivating ‘cultural apartheid’ in the land of hope and glory. This idea has had significant press in the last month following Margaret Hodge’s widely criticised call for diversity. Admittedly Stockhausen’s compositions are by no means easy listening. However, with the introduction this year of contextual pre-concert events at the Royal College of Music and concerts that cost as little as £2.20 accusations of elitism look set to be undermined.

British artist David Hockney made headlines this week when he donated his monumental painting "Bigger Trees near Wharton" to the Tate. Sprawling over fifty adjoining canvases the image clocks in at twelve metres long and five metres tall. It depicts a coppice near Bridlington in Yorkshire, and was completed for the Royal Academy exhibition last summer. Hockney’s generous gesture prompted Jonathan Jones (writing for the Guardian) to describe the artist as "a national treasure". The painter, however, explained his donation in terms of gratitude, saying: “I think it is the duty of the artist, once they have become successful, to give.” The Tate was one of the first institutions to buy Hockney’s work when he was an emerging talent in the sixties. His gift (which would cost millions on the open market) comes at a good time, as the value of paintings continues to rise. Last year, the NS commented on the unfortunate growth of private art collections in the UK – hopefully Hockney’s manoeuvre will help to keep more of our treasures national.

The Tate Modern also attracted interest this week. Following on the heels of Banksy’s recent book launch street art is once again in the public eye. Next month the gallery’s external wall will display graffiti from around the world, including artwork by Barcelona’s Sixeart and the Italian artist Blu. It is hoped that the high profile venue will help graffiti shed its association with antisocial vandalism, and the event is expected to prove very popular. The Tate Modern describes street art as an “important aspect of current art practise.” However, as we reported last year street art is continually evolving and graffiti is by no means its only form. Artists such as Slink have found new ways to surprise the unsuspecting pedestrian. Slink, who sees his work as a social experiment has commented that: “Adults pay no attention to their surrounding. We walk around as if we were blind.”

Other artists in the news this week include Damien Hirst and Pete Doherty - both managed to successfully upset uniformed officials. Hirst’s infamous sculpture ‘Mother and Child, divided’ ran into trouble at the Japanese customs. The artwork, which won the Turner Prize in 1995, consists of a dead cow and calf, sliced in half and preserved in formaldehyde. Due to be exhibited at the Mori Art museum in Japan the piece was stopped by customs as a result of the Japanese ban on British Beef. After the gallery confirmed that the cow was not for eating the curators managed to guide it safely to the exhibition. Doherty’s collision with authority was less benevolent: the Babyshambles singer and ex-boyfriend of Kate Moss has been jailed for fourteen weeks after breaching a probation order. It is rumoured that he will still perform at Glastonbury this summer.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

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