Richard Thomas's mastery of the mock-heroic

The librettist finds a kind of poetry in footwear.

"You can never have enough hats, bags and shoes" according to Ab Fab's Patsy, and recently Hilary Clinton has seemed inclined to agree, with her comments on handbags as some sort of lingua franca amongst women (heaven forefend that we should have anything more important to discuss).

Richard Thomas is no stranger to controversy, having written the peerless - and deeply divisive - Jerry Springer: the Opera. (And see Alexandra Coghlan's review of his return to scabrous form, Anna Nicole). When the BBC screened Jerry Springer in 2005 it received a record 50,000 complaints, and right-thinking Christian evangelists played merry havoc with the national tour. With his new song and dance show, Shoes- The Musical, which just opened at Sadler's Wells, it's almost as though, having had his fingers so scorched by the experience, Thomas looked through the librettist's list of deeply uncontroversial topics, and hey presto, got it, shoes.

"Shoes have become a female obsession," twitter the programme notes. Really? I, for one, am shoe-blind, a Manolo Refusenik, a Vivienne West-wouldn't, and always thought they were made by a load of old cobblers trying to part you from your cash. So I wasn't exactly the most rapture-ready of Sadler's Wells punters, some of whom had clearly worn their extra special shoes for the occasion.

Act one didn't give a determined old shoe-sceptic too much cause to change their mind. The choreography by Stephen Mears and his team is vivacious and witty, and we quickly establish that their highly versatile dancers can dance in any footwear: even flippers. And yes, we also got it that shoes are performative: they make you move in different ways. But it did feel like an overplayed parade of brands - Uggs, Crocs, Hush Puppies, Birkenstocks (worn by the Nazarene, natch).

I'm a big fan of Thomas's deliberate collisions - or car-crashes, depending on your point of view - of high and low art: he mashed the sacred and the profane to great effect in Jerry Springer, with its incantatory, aria-singing "crack whores", and its blend of things eschatological with things scatological (Jesus in a nappy). But when bathos is the only trick it starts to wear a little threadbare (more pathetic than bathetic). It's not, apparently, enough to name shoes to make a song-and-dance hilarious. Or so I thought, until about half way through the show when the fortuitous sounds of Italian designer names are twisted into a piece of hymnal music: Miuccia Prada, Oscar de la Renta, and, even better, in a later number, "Salva, salva, salva-tore Ferragamo!"

But generally the whole of the second act seemed to move with more swagger once the knowing name-check had been bounced into something altogether more anarchic, in which footwear is the start, but not the end of the proceedings. We are shown a pregnant, pram-face Cinderella, a few years after the business with the slipper, her Prince Charming having long since become a Prince Char-minger, and a great cameo of Imelda Marcos, who makes like Eva Peron in front of the microphones. Here the choreographers quote the gestures of Evita as she raises her arms in benediction to the masses, explaining the ziggurat of shoes found in the presidential palace with "I did it for tourism!" ("She did it for tourism!")
Thomas has a knack of making demotic language into either light opera or liturgical refrains, so when one character threatens to "put a toilet on your grave" it is taken up like a choral antiphon. Just as the music, from Jonathan Williams and his nifty band, rips about from musical theatre to Bartok, so the dance direction, in the same spirit of hybrid vigour, quotes an alphabet soup of dance styles, from ballroom to hip hop. There's exuberant looting from latin, tap, folk, contemporary and even the silent movies.

My very favourite skit is about the handing of down of wedding shoes. The dancers pose for the happy family album in a huge pewter photo-frame, designed to snap and freeze the moment for posterity. But it gets repeatedly rotated and tumbled round as successive generations trip up, cock up, come out of the closet and fall out, all the while to ripe operatic accompaniment from sassy contralto Gemma O'Duffy.

Thomas is perhaps a natural heir to Alexander Pope as arch exponent of the mock-heroic: the grand form subverted by its subject matter. It seems that when he puts his banal cordwainers to one side - and eschews the Jimmy Choos - he hits on endemic frailties that are really worth making a song and dance about.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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