Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Les Misérables, released 11 January

After its extreme success on the stage – having been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries, and in 21 languages across the globe - Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables finally hits our cinema screens this Friday.

With an impressive cast list including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Helena Bonham Carter, the film will deliver the epic story of ex-prisoner Jean Valijean in 19th century Paris, as he meets factory worker Fantine and agrees to care for her daughter whilst being tracked down by policeman Javert for breaking his parole. The film is released in cinemas on January 11th.

Circus

Kooza, Cirque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP, Jan 5 - Feb 10 2013

Cirque du Soleil brings their show Kooza to the UK for the first time this week at the Royal Albert Hall. The spectacle taps into their origins, combining a mix of the traditional acrobatics and clowning. The visuals have been described as ‘electrifying’ and ‘exotic’, while the show itself is to depict the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner who strives to belong. All culminating in a spectacular display of contortionism, high wire and a rather ominous-sounding ‘Wheel of Death’.

Theatre

Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, 6 Panton Street SW1Y 4DN, Jan 12 – 6April 2013

This is the first Pinter play to be performed in the freshly-named Harold Pinter Theatre, previously known as the old Comedy Theatre. Actress Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson join forces in the “seductive and compelling” drama, Old Times. The pair had previously collaborated in Betrayal, also written by the late playwrite.

Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell complete the minimal cast, with the two female actresses swapping between the roles of Anna and Kate from show to show. The play tells the story of three friends reminiscing over past times, which results in conflicting recollections and the reawakening of sexual tensions.

Opera

La Bohème, Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD, 5 Jan – 12March 2013

The Royal Opera House opens its doors for John Copley’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème. The tear-jerker set in Paris in the 19th century sees Rodolfo, a meagre poet, meet Mimì, a seamstress, and fall passionately in love. Their happiness, however, is threatened when Rodolfo learns that Mimì is gravely ill. Reviews have deemed the Opera as “fresh and natural", and describe the singing as “beautifully shaped”.

Ballet

Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4ES , 9-19 January 

The English National Ballet begin their tour of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty in London this week; with choreography from Kenneth Macmillan alongside Tchaikovsky’s best-loved ballet music, including the Rose Adagio, and the music that was used as the melody for Once Upon a Dream as featured in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Extravagant costumes and detailed set design help to tell the legendary fairytale of Princess Aurora who must endure the curse of sleeping for a hundred years, after pricking her finger on a needle on her sixteenth birthday. The ballet has been described as a “triumph” that would “inspire not one but two generations”.

A previous performance of opera La Bohème. Photograph: Getty Images
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times