Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Hook, Ali Smith and Sylvie Simmons.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

This new Joy Division biography by the band’s bassist “isn’t just Peter Hook collecting some already exhausted stories for a quick pay out,” Michelle Kambasha writes in Clash. “It provides a kind of personal insight that most of us haven’t been privy to until now.” The Joy Division story is steeped in layer upon layer of myth. “Hook’s mission,” writes Dorian Lynskey in the Observer, “is to relate the chaotic day-to-day existence of four young men – kids, really – before it was smoothed into legend.” This is accomplished, according to Lynskey, through the author’s characteristic straightforwardness and lack of pretension: “The demystification process starts with Hook's portrayal of himself as a laddish delinquent who, thunderstruck by punk rock, spontaneously decides to form a band with Salford schoolfriend Bernard Sumner.” What makes Hook’s book so refreshing is the lack of linguistic and intellectual showboating, and its simple laying of facts on the line,” notes Tony Clayton-Lea in the Irish Times, admiring Hook’s unaffected style. The book emphasises the band’s focus on music, fun and friendship – famously at the expense of even a semblance of business-mindedness: it was only in 2008 that Hook “discovered neither Joy Division nor New Order had trademarked or registered their names.” But hanging over every youthful anecdote is Hook’s knowledge, shared with the reader, of Ian Curtis’ impending suicide. As Lynskey writes: “So the tragedy infects the farce, as Curtis's ultimate fate casts ostensibly amusing on-the-road antics as symptoms of denial: never mind the worsening fits and self-harming, let's pelt the support band with eggs.”

 

Artful by Ali Smith

“It's true, I think I am love with Ali Smith,” admits the Independent’s David Hahn halfway through his review of Artful. The inherent bias of the lovestruck reviewer aside, there’s no disputing his boundless enthusiasm for Smith’s latest book: “Inspired, inspiring, exhausting” is how he summarises the work; a genre mish-mash which weaves in and out of fiction as it takes on “the big questions about art”. Although the book consists of “a quartet of lectures on literary-critical themes”, Hahn is emphatic that Smith manages to invest the notoriously dry shores of acedemia with readability through her “smart, allusive, informal, playful” voice; “dense with ideas but sustaining always a heady pace.” Publisher’s Weekly similarly falls over itself in the quest for a higher hyperbole, praising Smith’s “contemplative, electrifying, and transformative book.” Her dexterity as a writer to navigate seamlessly between the academic and the poetic is praised, as are her “riveting reflections” which successfully transform a series of lecture notes into a rich, rewarding testament to the “immutable necessity for art”.

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Whilst conceding that Sylvia Simmons’s new biography on Leonard Cohen is let down by the “inherent difficulty of telling the story of a storyteller”, A M Homes, writing in the New York Times, finds much to praise in this "exhaustive" biography. Homes is most approving of Simmons’s ability to direct her writing to creating an enriching experience of Cohen’s music, successful enough to make even seasoned fans fall think different about Cohen’s famed poetics: “Crucially, her book helps you add more detail and understanding to his lyrics”. Despite noting a slight lack of “historical context or counterpoint” in Cohen’s early life, Holmes avers that “as soon as you finish reading it you feel an overwhelming impulse to go back and begin again, revisiting the story with what you’ve learned along the way”. Fiona Sturges, writing in the Independent, is equally approving of the even-handed manner in which Simmons takes on this “serious artist who demands serious, if not too reverent, treatment”. She praises her extensive research, original interviews with Cohen himself, which “she elegantly splices … into the narrative”, as well as her uncovering of “delicious morsels that even dedicated Cohenites might find surprising”. And – crucially – Simmons has succeeded in investing a biography with a high level of readability. Tackling the book is like reading a “beautifully plotted piece of fiction”.

Leonard Cohen on stage at the Olympia, Paris. Photo: Getty Images
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.