Voice recognition

Introducing the Writers at Warwick Audio Archive

Last week, Warwick University's Writers at Warwick Audio Archive went live. Containing more than 200 recordings of poets, critics, playwrights, journalists, novelists, academics and musicians reading from, and answering questions about, their work, it represents the digital realisation of over 30 years of collaboration and conversation. Researchers will be able to listen to, say, a 1979 recording of Allen Ginsberg (reading with Peter Orlovsky and Tom Pickard at the young Warwick Arts Centre), or a 1975 recording of Seamus Heaney, a mere ten years into his career.

All but a very small number of the archive recordings can be accessed by anybody free of charge (provided they are used for educational or research purposes only). And more than a few of them will be of particular interest to New Statesman readers. Take the list of "Red Reads: 50 Books That Will Change Your Life" that we compiled over the summer: recordings (in some cases, multiple) of Linton Kwesi Johnson (number 11 on the list), Tony Harrison (number 22) and Jonathan Coe (number 49) reading and in conversation are all available for listening.

Some of their comments are, inevitably, as entertaining as they are illuminating. Here's Harrison, for example, talking in 1999 about reconciling Greek myth with his own dialect:

You'll find in Prometheus the central character is an ex-miner, an ex-shop steward, an inveterate smoker who has emphysema but still smokes 70 a day -- you'll find that he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. He has big speeches -- becomes identified with the great Promethean hero -- but he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. Whereas the representative of the gods, who's like a Peter Mandelson of Zeus, speaks very RP.

And here's Coe discussing the extent to which some of the odious Winshaws in his novel What a Carve Up! are based on real-life individuals:

One of my favourite characters -- although I hate all of these figures and have them killed off in various unpleasant ways towards the end -- one of my favourite characters is the tabloid journalist, whose name is Hilary. People often ask me who she's based on -- it's very dangerous to give an answer to that question really. There's no disclaimer at the beginning of this book saying that "all the characters in this book are fictitious" and that "any resemblance to any person living or dead is coincidental" -- but she's a compound, really, of people who will be familiar to you if, for some perverse reason of your own, you take the Sunday Express or the Sun or something like this. She's also a novelist, Hilary, because of course no tabloid columnist these days' career is complete unless they've knocked off some novel and sold it for a six-figure sum to some cynical publisher.

What else will New Statesman readers be especially drawn to? Germaine Greer interviewing her namesake, Griffin-slaying Bonnie, reveals a great deal about a figure not many people were too familiar with before that Question Time (not least Greer's and Greer's occasionally slightly sickening admiration for one another and the "great deal" they see themselves as having in common). Potentially most recommendable of all, though, are the performances (and that really is the only way to describe them) of the New Statesman columnist Will Self in 2002 and 2007. Here he is responding to a question about, of all things, the perineum:

Perineum? What, the area between the base of the testicles and the anus? Or between the vagina and the anus of a woman. Aren't we all fascinated with that? I mean, it's just that some people don't know the name for it. And more fool them. It seems to me that -- well, you could just as well as saying the "perennial issue" say the "perineum issue" is, well, really at the base of it all. I mean, when Eliot writes, "Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,/Sweeney knows the temperament of women/And wipes the suds around his face," I think that Eliot is thinking: perineum. I think Alain de Botton, the contemporary popular philosopher, I can never hear his name without thinking: perineum. But that's just me. Or maybe it isn't.

 

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Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.