The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead, from Hitchcock to Heatherwick at the V&A.

Film

The British Film Institute, London, SE1: The Genius of Hitchcock, 1 June – 1 October

He is perhaps Britain’s most iconic filmmaker, and from June until October the BFI will be paying homage to the visionary director who left an indelible stamp on the world of cinema, art and popular culture. Two years ago, efforts began to restore Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films. Thanks to serious dedication from the BFI and its patrons, the restored films will be screened at world premiere events in June and July, hosted by iconic London venues including the British Museum and Wilton’s Music Hall. From August until October the BFI Southbank will also be screening the entire retrospective of the Hitchcock’s cinematic career.

Dance

Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican Centre, London, EC1 and EC2: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch — World Cities, 6 June – 9 July

Pina Bausch has stood the test of time as a seminal influence on modern dance, a performer and choreographer with an experimental viewpoint and an “unmatched ability to combine the poetic and the everyday”. Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the Barbican Centre team up for a marathon series of performances: ten works inspired by ten global cities – each one lived in by Bausch and her dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal for a period of time – staged over four weeks. Sadler’s Wells artistic director and Pina Bausch devotee Michael Morris calls the season an endurance test dreamt up “over a dinner filled with red wine.” Sure to be an extraordinary dance spectacle of the first order.

Ideas

Hay-on-Wye, Wales: How the Light Gets In Festival, 31 May - 10 June

How the Light Gets In can proudly call itself the largest philosophy and music festival in the world. Hosted in the lovely Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, the festival features ten days of debates on a host of philosophical topics ranging from art to ethics, politics to science. Here is a place where provocative ideas can mingle with a fine array of alternative music and comedy. Our own culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, will be chairing a debate on Uncharted Territory: Progress for the New Era, as well as speaking in discussions titled Hawking v. Philosophy and The World in Our Hands (featuring Nigel Lawson and Polly Higgins).

Exhibition

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, SW7: Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, 31 May - 30 September

This will be the first major exhibition of the work of Thomas Heatherwick and his design team at Heatherwick Studio. Hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum, who have called Heatherwick “one of the most inventive and experimental British design studios practising today,” this is a thrilling opportunity to see some of the more infamous (a redesigned Routemaster) and lesser-known gems (the Longchamp zipper bags) from Heatherwicks’ oeuvre. Thames and Hudson have also published a very beautiful book to coincide with the show’s opening.

Art

Various Venues, London: London Festival of Photography, 1 - 31 June

Formally known as the London Street Photography Festival, this month-long series of exhibitions is back for its second year with a new name but the same agenda – to provide a platform for photography as a means of “visual storytelling”. This year’s exhibitions will be grouped around the common theme of Inside Out: Reflections on the Public and Private. With work from established and emerging artists, contemporary practitioners and historic entrepreneurs, the scope of work is broad and forward thinking. Highlights will include The Gaddafi Archive, an exclusive series excavated from the Human Rights Watch photography collection, and the Great British Public - contemporary images from across Britain shot by range of talented photographers.

Alfred Hitchcock in Cambridge, 1966 (Photo: Peter Dunne/Express/Getty Images)
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder