Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Opera

Eugene Onegin, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and selected cinemas. 20 February.

Tchaikovsky adapted Pushkin’s great novel in verse into what he described as ‘lyrical scenes’, in which a young girl is rejected by Onegin, and eventually chooses honour over true love. The opera has an intimacy rare in the Russian tradition, and explores themes of maturity and sexual awakening. This production is directed by first-timer Kasper Holten and stars Simon Keenlyside, and is part of The Royal Opera House’s cinema initiative, in which performances are streamed live to a rage of Vue cinemas. Opening is Wednesay 20. The Royal Opera House reminds fans that screenings are updated and added on a daily basis, so they ought to check back regularly to see at which cinema’s this production is showing.

 

Exhibition

Poster Art 150: London Underground's Greatest Designs, London Transport Museums, Covent Garden Piazza. From 15 February 2013 to 1 October 2013

London Underground has developed a reputation, since a graphic poster competition in 1908, for commissioning exciting poster art. This exhibition, in commemoration of the tube’s anniversary, collates 150 of the most remarkable. There are posters by renowned artists and photographer such as Man Ray, alongside work from lesser known artists. This exhibition presents a vibrant pictorial history of the underground and the art works which have animated the world’s oldest subway system.

 

Film

Montgomery Clift Season, BFI Southbank. 19 - 28 February

As Trevor Johnstone of the BFI writes, “when he burst on the scene in the late 1940s, Montgomery Clift brought a new kind of masculinity to the screen. Listening, caring, intelligent, but no wilting flower either – behind everything lay a stony determination”. “Wrongly, he’s often lumped in with those icons of the Method, Brando and Dean, but while their performances were often founded on expressive self-revelation, Monty did his utmost to disappear inside his characters”. This retrospective overviews key films, such as Wild River, directed by Elia Kazan, and The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe.

 

Theatre

Our Country’s Good, St James Theatre, running until 23 March

This acclaimed play is based on the true story of a cast of convicts who put on a play under the enthusiasm of a young marine officer. Both behind the scenes and onstage their positions break down and intermingle, opening up a compendium of self-discovery in Australia. The play achieved many awards in Britain and American during its first run, and this production represents a welcome re-invention of a classic. Max Stafford-Clark, who recently revived Top Girls to 5 star acclaim, returns to Our Country’s Good after directing the play 25 years ago.

 

Comedy

Alan Davies: Life is Pain, Hammersmith Apollo, 18 - 19 February

The star of QI returns to stand-up after a ten year vacation with this jovially cynical set. Davies looks back to the 80s in this at times autobiographical routine, comparing his behavior then with the middle-aged outlook with which he now wrestles. Ripples of seriousness (the death of his motehr whenhe was six) remain ripples, as Davies focuses much more intently on his mild worries about the end of the world.

 

Montgomery Clift in A Place in The Sun (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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