Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film and discussion

Made in Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12 May

A special screening of Made in Birmingham: Reggae, Punk, Bhangra followed by a discussion. Professor Roger Shannon, of dge Hill University, will introduce a Q&A session with the film’s director Deborah Aston and executive producer Jez Collins. Famous names from influential Birmingham bands, such as UB40, Musical Youth and many more, talk about their distinctive musical styles in this fascinating documentary.

 

Theatre

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, Northern Stage, Newcastle, from 14 May

This new production of the Chekhov classic is a collaboration between Headlong, “the country’s most exciting touring company” (Daily Telegraph), renowned for their innovative, accessible re-imaginings of classic texts, and the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, this production has been widely praised for its innovative staging.

 

Exhibition

Houghton Revisited, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, opens 17 May

The art collection of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, sold to Catherine the Great to adorn the Hermitage in St Petersburg, will be reassembled in its spectacular original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time in over 200 years. "Houghton Revisited" runs from 17 May-29 September and is a unique opportunity to view one of the most celebrated art collections assembled in 18th-century Europe. The display will include paintings from the English, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish schools, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Murillo.

 

Concert

A SCREAM AND AN OUTRAGE 1: Oceanic Verses, Barbican Centre, London, 10 May

The "A Scream and an Outrage" weekend kicks off with two world premieres of specially-commissioned new pieces by Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. The BBC Singers open the evening with Muhly’s latest composition, An Outrage; followed by Lang’s new percussion concerto entitled Man Made, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Brooklyn-based innovators So Percussion. The second half features the European premiere concert performance of Italian-American composer Paola Prestini’s new multimedia opera, Oceanic Verses - in a new version for the Barbican stage. It is a multi media opera, a collage of found folk music reworked into a single, contemporary classical music score by the prolific American composer Paola Prestini.
 

Festival

Scratch festival, Battersea Arts Centre, from 17 May

The Scratch festival provides the opportunity to invent the future of theatre, placing the artist and audience in a creative dialogue to develop new ideas. Audiences will be invited to work-in-progress showings from Adrian Howells, Made In China, RashDash and Sleepwalk Collective and others. Past shows to have emerged from this method include Jerry Springer the Opera and The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey.

Bands such as UB40 feature in the documentary Made in Birmingham (Photo: Getty Images)
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear