Letching at the theatre

Rothko vs. Warhol

Hadrian? Sorry mate, you’re only the warm-up act; the real contenders for this year’s "must-see" exhibition are Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. First up is the Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern. The gallery, which already has a Rothko room, is hosting the first significant exhibition of the artist’s work for two decades. Warhol, being celebrated at the Hayward, is a little more familiar. The Tate held a major retrospective of his work six years ago and last summer Edinburgh’s Royal Scottish Academy held their own show. Though arguably the best-known American artists of the 20th century, the two weren’t friends; Rothko viewed the pop artists as "charlatans and young opportunists"". Despite their fame and influence, the work of both artists has been reduced to lazy and inaccurate stereotypes, one the purveyor of enormous splashes of colour, the other obsessed with cans of soup. Hopefully these exhibitions will illuminate the extent of their talents and output.

Nothing like a Dane

This week the feverishly-anticipated RSC production of Hamlet opened, with David Tennant playing the lead. The critics have lain prostrate in their gratitude and praise. “This is a Hamlet of quicksilver intelligence, mimetic vigour and wild humour” wrote Michael Billington while Paul Taylor admired the “thrillingly risky display of barbed levity and flippant sarcasm”. Quentin Letts, writing for the Daily Mail was more restrained. “The awkward truth, however, is that for all the stage door excitement and box office success, this is not the greatest Dane.” Still, he’s got more out of Letts than his Doctor Who sidekick Billie Piper did. Reviewing her turn in Treats last year, Quentin Letch, sorry Letts, observed that she “turned up… she remembered her lines, moved fluently, took off her shirt at one point and looked jolly pretty”.

All eyes on Bush

Having tackled JFK and Nixon, Oliver Stone is about to release a biopic of George Bush. Simply entitled W, film fans are busy trying to decipher the tone of the film from the new teaser trailer. What is known is that Josh Brolin plays "W" and the film examines his earlier, wilder days. One scene shows George Bush Senior (James Cromwell, last seen as Prince Philip in The Queen) scolding his son for his behaviour: “Who do you think you are? A Kennedy?”. Meanwhile Curtis Sittenfeld takes on Laura Bush, or at least someone remarkably like her, in her forthcoming novel American Wife. All the details match (librarian, responsible for killing a classmate while driving, marrying the prodigal son of an influential Republican family), along with saucier details that have kept the blogosphere buzzing.

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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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