The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Dance

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, Sadler's Wells, 4 December - 26 January 2013

Matthew Bourne is now renowned for his endlessly (re)inventive approach to classical ballet. By melding classical scores with supernatural storylines and nineteenth-century characters with twenty-first century problems, his sell-out shows are unlike anything else on the current dance scene.

Sleeping Beauty is his attempt at tackling the third and final of Tchaikovsky’s trio of ballets. In previous years he has staged delightfully atypical versions of Swan Lake, transforming it into a gay romance with an all-male cast, and re-written Cinderella into a wartime love story.

Sleeping Beauty is having a similarly semi-iconoclastic revival at the hands of Bourne. The story has been altered to suit his over-active imagination into a  gothic, time-travelling tale. Now Sleeping Beauty falls asleep in the Edwardian era and wakes up in our digital one.

The production has everything you’d come to expect from a Matthew Bourne dance show: costumes so fantastical they could have come from a Tim Burton film, a sexed-up narrative and – why not? - a few added vampires for good measure.

Luckily, the one thing Bourne hasn’t tampered with is Tchaikovsky’s original music. He remains resolutely faithful to the classic score, proving that he knows just when to stop messing with a winning formula.

Film

London Underground Film Festival, The Horse Hospital, 6 - 9 December

If Hollywood blockbuster’s aren’t quite your cup of tea, make sure you head along to the London Underground Film Festival this weekend. Billed as a celebrations of "obscure, no budget, low budget, genre and genreless, new and recycled films", this is a hugely valuable showcasing opportunity for young, up-and-coming filmmakers as well as a great chance to diversify your cinema trips.

Hosted at the Horse Hospital – a three-tiered art venue striving to serve London’s need for underground and avant-garde media, the film festival will show a wealth of new shorts, international films and even has a full-day screening on Saturday. As well as a truly global representative of filmmaking talent, there is even a secret ballot where audience members can vote for their favourite short of 2012.

Highlights include the new British feature Savage Witches as well as a rare screening of Bruce La Bruce’s LA Zombie

Art

Despite- Sixteen Palestinian artists under one roof, Rich Mix, London, until 28 December

Amongst the cultural mix in east London lies Despite, an exhibition, featuring the work of contemporary artists from Palestine. Work comes from artists from the West Bank and Gaza including Mohammed Joha, Hani Zurob, Majed Shala, Mohammed Abusal, Nidal Abu Oun and Raed Issa. The exhibition is curated by Arts Canteen, a group which brings the work of visual artists and musicians from the Middle East/Arab world to create dialogue between the region and the UK.

The artwork featured explores the different “real” environments we live in with the artistic imagination, and it is hoped it will challenge preconceptions and fire curiosity.

 

Music

Gary Numan, The Forum, London, 7 December

The godfather of techno and one of the best electro-pop artists of the 1980s will be performing at the Forum tonight as part of his latest Machine Music tour.Numan will also be performing on Saturday at Rock City in Nottingham

 

Theatre

The Changeling, Young Vic, London, until 22 Dec 

This production of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 tragedy is set in the modern day. Joel Hill-Gibbins’s revival has received rave reviews from the critics. In this slightly longer production, Sinead Matthews plays Beatrice-Joanna, who hopes to fix her love life to be the way she wants it through murderous actions. The subplot involves mad doctors in a madhouse controlling those who just might be saner than they are.

Dancers performing Matthew Bourne's reinvention of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Paul McConnell/Getty Images)
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era