He's a runner

Tom Ravenscroft tries to find the perfect songs to soundtrack a jog.

Due to me slightly overestimating how romantic it would be to spend the spring sofa-surfing at friends' houses, I am staying at my mum's a fair bit at the moment. Which means that I'm eating too much and not getting any exercise. So this week I decided to be a goddam man and go for my first ever run on a public road, taking an MP3 player with me, like in an advert. I now have a greater understanding of what makes good and bad running music, so here are my findings.

Feeling a little self-conscious, I set off with the oft-mentioned Burial and his new single "NYC" (Hyperdub) slowly building in my ears. It's not just beautiful but also a rather elegant thing; the beat sounds very much like the ticking of an old grandfather clock, with sparse female vocals over the top which feel like they may be coaxing you towards running to the end of time and ultimately death, albeit rather majestically. Listened to while on a run, it creates a strangely comforting sense of being alone. I suspect this also applies when standing still. Either way, I strongly advise that you try it.

After a brief stroll in order to catch my breath I put on Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers and the track "Hallelujah", which features on the box set Roots n' Blues: the Retrospective 1925-1950 (Columbia). It at once transpires that this might be one of my favourite records of all time. Going back to my earlier point, it almost makes you look forward to an untimely death, just so you can have it played at your funeral. The song takes the form of a musical round, most of the sound, due to the age of the recording, is a not entirely unpleasant hiss. But the selection of voices in the song is mind-bogglingly moving, with a main chorus quiet in the background, overlaid with various elderly men at different pitches and a solitary, slightly shaken female voice sitting above them all. It is other-worldly and at the end of it I found myself standing still with my mouth open, staring at the sky. Not a great form of exercise but a nice way to pass the time.

Finally, a therapeutic mile or two later, as I had been travelling at an astonishingly slow speed, it was time to play some rock. I went for a track called "Like a French Assassin" by the Cosmonauts, who hail from California, and here's what happened: immediately, two US military helicopters starting flying above me at an unusually low level. I wasn't sure whether they were escorting me or weighing me up, but it did, I am fairly certain, hasten my pace. The first two minutes of the track are just guitars rocking out, building slowly in anticipation of the vocals. On the next bend, the words came in and I was met by two snakes bathing in the sun. On the following corner, a posse of five or six deer ran along with me briefly before bursting off into a nearby wood. I think one of them winked at me. Despite the lazy-sounding singer, the guitar kept me going as two men flew past on motorbikes and then a group of attractive girls in a convertible pulled over to make way for me. This, people, is the power of rock: great to run along to, but if you don't respect it, it will tear your arm off.

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is broadcast on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm

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This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.