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
MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad