New hope for the West End?

The success of <a href="http://www.donmarwestend.com/ivanov/">Ivanov</a> this week is a beacon of ho

Tom Stoppard’s version of the Chekhov play is part of the Donmar's residency at Wyndham's theatre, an ambitious project that aims, says director Michael Grandage, to bring about a return to straight theatre in the West End and make it accessible to all.

Tickets will be sold at Donmar rather than West End prices, with 130 tickets per performance going for £10, which means that each show will need to sell a formidable 80% of the 750 seats to break even. However, the success of Grandage’s Othello last autumn, which sold out so quickly it left many disappointed, suggests that this is by no means unlikely.

Ivanov has been rapturously received, with critics enthusiastically relating to Kenneth Brannagh’s debt-ridden and crumbling lead, a moody, self-loathing, comic Russian Hamlet with [the mother of all midlife crises]. A slight improvement, then, on the play’s 1897 premiere, after which a disgusted Chekhov complained of his actors: "They don’t know their parts, make mistakes, talk nonsense. Every word cuts me like a knife in my back."

Video games and Bodysnatchers

In the wake of this spring's disconcerting news that video games are the most lucrative media products around these days, this year’s Cambridge Film Festival
will show a series of Machinima films, made using techniques and tools more commonly used in games than cinema. The Festival’s Machinima series will show film from recognised genres translated into CGI worlds, along with a discussion of the place of Machinima films in the world of film today.

Matt Kelland, co-curator of the series, explains the popularity of this surreal and often surprising new branch of cinema: ‘As young people become more enaged with internet culture and home-produced content, they are becoming more interested in user-created movies like machinima, and less interested in broadcast content.’

Co-curator Saint John Walker, however, interprets it in terms of ‘the spectacular/fantasy versus documentation/realism. Games and CGI/VFX cinema are growing; film realism is shrinking.’ He is optimistic about the future: "In five years time we'll see the Machinima era as a watershed, like the talkies!"

Films showing in the series will include Lainy Voom’s Black Swan, Tony Bannan's Folie à Deux (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4G0L8eepoXk) and the video made by Phil Rice for the Radiohead song "Bodysnatchers".

Plugged in festival

The festival season is now over (which is, I suspect, why the weather has improved so suspiciously suddenly), but if you’re not quite ready to let go, swap your wellies for a pair of headphones and head to Dalston's Café Oto this weekend. The London Placard Headphone Festival takes place this Saturday, with banks of headphone splitters taking the place of PAs to provide a concentrated yet strangely isolating listening experience. The audience will bring their own headphones, and plug into electronica from the likes of Hamster Ate My Garage Band and Leafcutter John, and the "medieval drum robot and synth array" of Bavin. Which, all in all, sounds like a far wiser way of seeking sound quality this weekend than the alternative – joining Metallica fans petitioning for a rerecorded and remastered Death Magnetic, having decided that its current version sounds better on Guitar Hero.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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