Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Raindance Film Festival, Apollo Piccadilly Circus, 26 Sept – 7 Oct

Notable for having repeatedly premiered next year’s most talked about films (cf. The Blair Witch Project, Memento, Old Boy), Raindance returns this week with its signature array of new movies from across continents, provocative new documentaries and live events. The Piccadilly Apollo and Haymarket Cineworld will lay on everything from a far-Eastern adaptation of The Tempest set in near-future Japan to an Irish horror mockumentary: Portrait of a Zombie. There will be a new Mexican Cinema strand, and as ever, short films will form an essential element of the line-up which debuts over 200 shorts on average each year. This year’s festival winner will be automatically shortlisted in the Best Short Film category at the 2013 Academy Awards. The full programme can be downloaded by clicking here.

 

Literature

The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, 5 – 14 Oct

Cheltenham’s Imperial Square will hold more marquees and Times readers than usual next weekend as the town’s annual literary festival gets under way. Big names involved in talks and debates include the world’s best-known “left-leaning demagogue” J. K. Rowling, recent memoirists Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster, screen stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul O’Grady and Clare Balding, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, talking about his new book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. The festival’s theme is apparently People: Power, and even if it barely needs the word “literature” in its title, the line-up is broad enough for everyone to find something of interest.

 

Music

Darbar Festival, Southbank Centre, 27 – 30 September

Darbar is a festival of Indian classical music which brings concerts, talks, food and yoga to the Southbank’s Centre’s Pucell Room once a year. At fourteen concerts across four days the programme boasts a selection of India’s best musicians, many of whom are sixth or seventh-generation instrumentalists, appearing in the UK for the first time. Ones to watch include the tabla master Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and sitarist Ustad Shujaat Khan. Music is drawn from both the Hindustani (north Indian) and Carnatic (southern) traditions and for those who want to know more, the curators run an Indian Classical Music Appreciation Course, enabling newcomers to get their heads around the subcontinent’s ancient musical forms. After London, many of the concerts will tour to the rest of the UK.

 

Theatre

Our Country’s Good, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2 – 6 October

In 1789 a young lieutenant named Ralph Clark was charged with directing inmates interred at the (new) New South Wales penal colony in a performance of the Restoration comedy the Recruiting Officer, commissioned to celebrate the king’s birthday. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally (of Schindler’s Ark/List fame), Timberlake Wetenbaker’s play sees the lieutenant struggle with a morose cast, critical fellow officers, two damaged script books and a leading lady threatened with the gallows, to find out what theatre is really made of. First directed by Max Stafford-Clark in the late 80s and revived this year by the same director for his Out of Joint Theatre Company, the play will tour nationally before joining the opening season at London’s new St James Theatre early next year. This Tuesday’s performance will be followed by a post-show talk with the cast and crew.

 

Art

Open Studio Weekend, Gasworks, Vauxhall SE11 5RH, 28 – 29 September

A south London contemporary art organisation, Gasworks has studio space for eleven resident artists, three of whom have arranged a series of events for an Open Studio Weekend. Starting tonight Cécile B. Evans will premiere new works generated by an open call for rejection letters from artists and curators between 6-9pm, including a full studio tour at 7pm. The weekend continues on Saturday with Sunoj D., who will discuss his research for a commission by the National History Museum about the experiences and values of modern farmers (2pm, bring a plant pot), ending on Sunday (12pm) with a walk through London, exploring sights of protest and conflict from through the city’s history with Francisca Benítez.

The "left-leaning demagogue" J. K. Rowling will appear at the Cheltenham Literary Festival next week. Photograph: Getty Images.
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism