In the Critics this Week

Birds, an exclusive short story by Hanif Kureishi, Mexican art and Elizabeth Taylor.

The first extensive review in this week’s Critics section comes from John Burnside, who looks at the “gorgeously produced” Birds and People, a book by Mark Cocker and David Tipling. Burnside notes how topical this 600-page compendium is, as it focuses on our exploitation of birds, as well as celebrating birdlife.

Burnside uses the review to discuss the danger birds face in the UK, and asks, what can we do to ensure that in future, a book that “avowedly “explores and celebrates” our relationship with birds need not refer so frequently to habitat loss, deforestation and various forms of direct persecution?”.

...Emmanuel Levinas created a philosophy in which each of us is confronted with what he calls “the face” of the other, which implores and challenge us not to do it harm, but to respond to it from a position that goes beyond mere respect, or even compassion- a position that, because it understands the necessity of the other to our own continued being approaches the deeply unfashionable condition of reverence. That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, a solipsistic mode of thinking that takes such absurd indicators as GDP or the Dow Jones as measures of prosperity.

Burnside produces an infectiously passionate review, critiquing our treatment of birds and our society more broadly.

The Critics section this week also features a short story by Hanif Kureishi on the end of a marriage. Entitled The Racer, the story follows a man and his wife, “in the week of their divorce, before they moved out of the house they shared with the children and stepchildren for twelve years”. The fraught couple agree to race each other around their neighbourhood.

Outside on the street, he bent forwards and backwards and jiggled on his toes, churning his arms. She stood next to him impatiently. He couldn’t bear to look at her. She had said that she was eager to get on with her life. For that he was glad. Surely, then, he couldn’t take this ridiculous bout seriously? The two must have looked idiotic, standing there glaring, seething and stamping. Where was his wisdom and maturity? Yet nothing had been as important as this before.

He concentrated on his breathing and began to jog on the spot. He would run to the edge of himself. He would run because he’d made another mistake. He would run because they could not be in the same room, and because the worst of her was inside him.

Kureishi's story is gripping from the very first sentence.

The Critics art section this week includes Michael Prodger’s review of Mexico: a Revolution in Art currently exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts. Prodger lambasts the fact that the review misses the most obvious, most unique feature of Mexican art, the “public murals and especially ... the nationalist, socialist and historical wall paintings of 'los tres grandes'”.

Unsurprisingly, in an exhibition held five and a half thousand miles from Mexico and in the small rooms of the RA’s Sackler Galleries, there are no murals to be seen.

What there is instead is a selection of paintings and photographs by both Mexicans and foreigners that illustrate something of the countries turbulent social and artistic progress during the three formative decades from the outbreak of the revolution in 1910 to the end of the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, the last revolutionary office holder, in 1940. While there is a single painting by each of the big three- and a tiny, Nicholas Hilliardesque miniature by Rivera’s wife, the overrated darling of Mexican painting, Frida Kahlo- the rest of the show, sans murals, is a curious artistic sampling that tries to ignore the elephant in the room.

Prodger offers insightful criticism of an exhibition that only succeeds in documenting what happened in the Mexican revolution, “an unusual exhibition in that it contains few pictures of the highest quality and no indisputable masterpieces.”

This week’s television section features Rachel Cooke’s critique of BBC 4’s Burton and Taylor. Cooke gives a brief history of other BBC 4 biopics before analysing the performances of Helen Bonham Carter as Taylor, and Dominic West as Burton.

Wow. I didn’t entirely buy Bonham Carter as Taylor, though her acting was superlative (film-star spoilt is harder to play than you think). But West, I totally bought. It was like watching Burton, only...better. West is a more accomplished actor than Burton, or at any rate, a less hammy one, and he is twice as sexy, if you ask me. The voice- coal wrapped in velvet- was perfect (”the theatrical equivalent of a big cock,” said this version of Burton, when Taylor praised it), and the manner was suitably retro: Terry: Thomas meets Dylan Thomas. I cant believe there is a man alive who looks better in a camel pea coat than west.

Cooke goes on to praise the writer, William Ivory, in her rich and entertaining review.

This week’s extended critics section also features:

  • A host of summer reading recommendations from our contributors
  • A review of Ben Wilson’s Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy by Stephen Taylor
  • The Best Art Noveau Restaurant in Europe, a poem by Tim Liardet
  • Jane Shilling’s review of A Long Walk Home: One Women’s Story of Kidnap, Hostage, Loss- and Survival by Judith Tebbutt
  • Tom Fort’s critique of End of Night, a book by Paul Bogard
  • Sarah Churchwell’s review of Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Stuart Burrows analyses What Maisie Knew the new film adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel
  • An investigation of the enduring appeal of crime fiction by Ian Sansom
  • Ryan Gilbey’s review of the film Frances Ha
  • Antonia Quirke offers her opinions on Talk Sport Radio’s Fisherman’s Blues
  • Geoffrey Wheatcroft attends the Schubertiade festival in Austria
Michael Prodger is less than impressed with the exhibition of Mexican art at the Royal Academy of Arts. Picture: Getty Images.
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution