theater: macbeth at the globe

25 September 2016 by

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Cloth wrappings are integral to Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth; the witches, four of them, perform a body-part puppet show with a black curtain while a PA system speaks their speech over ghostly music. At intervals through the action, characters appear draped in tents, encased in overcoats, swaddled in bedding, smothered and screaming. Out of these depths emerges a memorable production that has placed Khan with Josie Rourke on my list of directors to keep track of.

The beauty of the Globe tends to overwhelm the plays it was meant to showcase. It’s the opposite of the immersive cinema experience and actors have to work extra hard to draw attention. Khan uses the thrust stage to advantage, pushing the speakers forward for their star turns and sometimes even bringing them in through the audience [1]. The early scenes were handsome if somewhat bloodless. Then Macbeth and Banquo (Ray Fearon and Jermaine Dominique) exploded on the stage and kicked up the action several notches. Dominique brought wonderful warm turns to his lines, making the early loss of Banquo especially harsh. Fearon and Tara Fitzgerald, as Lady Macbeth, seemed to be mugging for the crowds in their love scene (as one does in a Globe production), but then gave off sparks as they plotted. His soliloquys were splendid and her sleepwalking scene was unexpectedly fresh.

The rest of the cast was strong, actor for actor, and that meant even the most cryptic speeches were always delivered with some kind of local sense. Nadia Albina showed wonderful talent as the Porter, marred by topical deviations (Trump? Not disputing that he’s the devil, but it was more mugging). Elizabeth Andrewartha was not merely credible but constructive in her soldier role, and Kerry Gooderson showed great shape-shifting ability. The three youngish men with beards or stubble who were difficult for the face-blind person to distinguish since they were only on stage together at the end; but that means their performances were also of equivalent quality. Sam Cox’s Duncan was a lordly-looking place holder, which made the idea to remove him more logical; he was also the only greybeard in the thirtysomething-looking cast. He was present in the final tableau in another role (uncredited) together with Freddie Stewart as Malcolm and the youngest actor (also uncredited, and unexplained – he seemed almost to become communal property). Together they created a wordless commentary on succession in this very late Elizabethan moment. This production was long for Shakespeare’s shortest play [2], and yet it managed to end with a bang rather than the usual relief.

The Globe’s Macbeth runs through early October. Thanks to Nely and the Helsinki Shakespeare fans for their choice of production and their company.

[1] I was a groundling which probably boosted the impact of stage-edge acting further. I wholeheartedly recommend standing at the theater if you have the stamina. It concentrates the attention.

[2] There was one intermission, quite late. When the Globe opened, the idea was to have short intermissions after each act, and it might be good to return to that. It would keep the audience awake, distribute the bathroom queue, and make the structure of the play more evident.

year of the pigs

1 September 2016 by

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It was a hot, bright summer the year the pigs invaded Ipswich. They did so stealthily, under cover of one of the endless social media campaigns that were taking the place of government. Walkathons for medicine, ice bucket challenges to outfit submarines, the Prime Minister’s Ask Me Anything subreddit, Blue Nose Week to raise money for GSCE tests, children making murals on castle walls for the National Trust, teenagers being Special for a Day to fill out the police – and finally, the pigs. Three dozen full-grown pigs and almost as many piglets, painted and polished and buffed to a hard gloss, standing in front of every seat of power in Ipswich through the months of high sun. Their run was not intended to last forever. They were due to be rounded up and auctioned off a few days hence when they finally took matters into their own trotters.

The alarm went off at 17 minutes past 4 in the morning, in the form of a loud snuffling heard in the forecourt of the Cycle Cafe, following the bells of St Mary’s at quarter past. From plinth to plinth the snuffling and grunting and oinking spread, gathering consensus until the pigs were of one mind what to do – for since the war, pigs have operated peer to peer, none more equal than others -Orwell’s text was historical. At seven they carefully detached themselves from their platforms and advanced from all quarters toward the Cornmarket: Major Henry Wigglesworth from the banking district, Piggy Stardust from the bohemian precincts of the Saints, the Piñata Pig from the Cargo Cult cafe complex on the Waterfront, Pig-Geswyk from the Willis Building where she had been peering through its Darth Vader mirrorglass at the frog pond inside, Pepper Pig departing the Co-op Education Center courtyard through the iron gates where a spider had woven in admiration SOME PIG.

By the time the early churchgoers, including the town grandees, reached the Cornmarket, they were confronted with a multicolored, seething swine army. Read the rest of this entry »

treasurehouse of language

10 August 2016 by

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If you want the definitive word on the meanings of “pretty” in Jane Austen’s time, the tricky etymology of “bank,” the earliest attested use of “bromance,” or almost any other philological matter in English, you need to consult The Oxford English Dictionary. Now, definitive may not mean infallible in every case, but it does mean surveyed, over 130 years, by thousands of readers reading millions of sources and sending citations to editors who curate the world’s oldest tagged database of words and linked corpus of assorted sentences.

Every town and city library used to have a copy of the twelve-volume edition and its occasional update volumes. [1]  Now the OED, like everything else, is continuously maintained online with direct help from the public [2], and distributed online as well. The second and last full print edition began rolling off the presses in 1989. It was replaced first with CD-ROMs, and then with Web-based subscriptions. According to the OED website, subscribers include “nearly all public libraries in England, Scotland and Wales – and all in Northern Ireland,” and most of these provide home access to their own members with library cards.

This past year, Suffolk Libraries quietly cut its subscription to the OED. This caused me some inconvenience because I train students in linguistics modules to consult it as part of any background research on words and meanings, out of due diligence. All of a sudden it was not there. I spoke to the librarians and confirmed the cut. I checked the budgets and reports, which were not very detailed – Suffolk Libraries is an independent charity contracted by the local council. The cut did not seem to be mentioned but there were other things about the living wage, which is good, and yes, I get that we are in austerity Britain. We’ll be trialling the OED at the university in the fall.

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museums: portrait of the artist as a young lion

15 July 2016 by

Before its 1981 renovation, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had an indoor Japanese garden as part of its Far Eastern galleries. Grey sand raked in patterns. The slurp and purr of a stream over rocks. A stone shrine meticulously placed under the evergreen branches. The Worcester Art Museum is currently displaying a tray of sand raked in patterns, but its purpose is more practical. It serves four live felines who are “in residence” as part of the museum’s summer show, inhabiting a galleryscape of miniature cargo containers, Pompidou pipes, scratching posts and pedestals. The museum texts treat both the artists who designed the equipment and the cats themselves as creative producers.

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On our visit, an Ed Sheeran-colored tabby affably performed pleasure in exchange for affection. A mottled tortie and what I will call a greyscale simulated slumber in cubbyholes, tolerating touch but not seeking it in a moving demonstration of passive emotional labor. A fourth cat remained unseen, in retreat from the demands of public practice.

All are seeking permanent positions. The gallery is staffed by curators from a local animal shelter. “When we’re not there, we play NPR for the dogs because it’s human conversation,” one of them says in my hearing. Dogs apparently really like NPR.

The remark raised the point that one element this otherwise imaginative assemblage missed out was sound; a record of birdsong, paw-activated app, or piano keyboard might have produced some interesting work. Nor are there plans for gallery talks or structured “in conversation with” events. Perhaps thankfully, smell was also an unused channel in this tame collaboration with the not entirely tamed.

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The installation is part of the Meow! exhibition which also includes feline-themed artwork by Piranesi, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Will Barnet (but not Alex Katz, with whom I often confuse him) and others, and a scavenger trail of cats to find in the permanent exhibitions. Through September 4.  You can’t get there from here but there is a webcam.

theatre: red shed

30 June 2016 by

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The Ipswich performance of Mark Thomas’s monologue play The Red Shed took place the week after the Brexit vote. This made it a bit of a period piece, though Thomas did insert some dog-whistle references to the referendum. The Red Shed is presented as the third act of a trilogy with Bravo Figaro and Cuckooed, but logically comes between them as it traces the roots of Thomas’s political activism to his student years in the North. His textual trademark is a double voicing of direct demotic speech and an erudite gloss of what the speaker is actually thinking. Basil Bernstein would love it. His stagecraft trademarks include calling attention to themes to follow, like a magician, as well as light use of props and heavy use of eye contact. In the 88-seat Avenue Theatre, he managed to address several lines to each audience member in rotation, and also employed half a dozen of them to occupy places as club members for him to address and ventriloquize. It was a simple, low-stress involvement device and the whole audience respectfully joined him in singing a socialist song at the climax.

The Red Shed in question is a socialist club in Wakefield which Thomas said “is like a Tardis for me except it only travels backward in time.” During the period that he was hanging around the Red Shed, Thomas attended a miners’ strike protest march and the spine of the play is his return to the region to investigate the verifiable facts of the day that gave rise to his memory. As usual, there is some divergence between the narrative polished by retelling and the unvarnished facts, and he alerts his audience to this, even asking them if they would prefer the truth or the good story. At the same time as Mark Thomas the actor wants the satisfying story, Mark Thomas the political animal finds facts more productive, saying that “If we want our stories to be better than the other side’s, they should be true.”  I believe at this performance we voted for the story, but we won’t know if our vote changed what we saw until he publishes the script. 

Thomas is an industrial nostalgic; in a previous play, he declared, “We used to have industry, we made stuff, it was fucking great.” He presents an attractive version under the topical circumstances: a bit about immigrants and workers uniting to oppose racism, a statement that “we used to own the railways. We used to not have to take the country back because we owned it.” A good line to hold against privatization of the NHS and – actually, it’s difficult to think of what else hasn’t been privatized already. But from another angle, the average worker in the engine age controlled very little, except in his own house, where, at least in stereotype, he overcompensated with autocracy. It is not only the Leave side that romanticizes the past.

Two pieces at this year’s Pulse Festival, held in May, showed common style with Thomas or even influence from him: Byron Vincent’s Live Before You Die was about young men finding a language, again double-voiced between laddishness and theory, to talk about their feelings. Andy Smith’s The Preston Bill was a narrated life story of a Northern working-class man, aggregated from many. He used a chair as prop, interlocutor, and even stand-in for Bill the narrator; and like Thomas, he made frequent use of cataphoria (“and what happens is this,” “and he says something like this”). Smith played the ukulele for his audience-participation solidarity song, which I think we had to sing several times. He was a skillful performer but the piece was somehow generic, perhaps better suited to schools or museums. It’s hard to be interested in an abstracted person from the past when there are individuals from the past, like Thomas, putting on shows.

Disclaimer: All line quotations are from memory and memory, as we know, plays tricks.

Addendum: The Red Shed apparently killed it at the Edinburgh Festival and will tour in the autumn. It may be a different show from the one I saw. 

covering Brexit

24 June 2016 by

Earlier I reflected on covering terror, which is crime plus catastrophe plus trauma. We have now gone through the referendum to remove Britain from EU. While the result may not be a crime or catastrophe, in fact technically it is the plain workings of democracy, my social media is pretty traumatized by it. So am I. The financial and leadership chaos compounded the trauma; as was widely noted, the Prime Minister’s resignation was only the third biggest news story of the day.

Despite the use of #independenceday hashtags by Leave supporters, the coverage pattern for this kind of secession story is far from obvious. Should we refer to Kosovo in 2008 to see what kind of stories to expect? How about India in 1947? South Carolina in 1860? That will have to wait for longer hindsight. For coverage on the day, however, there were some threads in common with the close 2000 US presidential election which also took us to an untested place in the rulebook, requiring a month of recounts and a Supreme Court decision to resolve.

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1. What next? Explaining the next steps seemed to be a morning-after story – it’s almost as if the press feared talking about Article 50 and related exit procedures too much in advance because that might influence the outcome. There were some future stories before the exit, but they either weren’t very dispassionate or weren’t very certain of themselves and either way didn’t get much play. The same lack of advance roadmaps was noticeable in the Scottish referendum. Another reason the press didn’t spend much time on models and mechanisms might be that they didn’t know what was coming next because the law gives so much discretion to the Prime Minister. Indeed we still don’t know what is going to happen.
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covering terror

12 June 2016 by

World Trade Center. Dubrovka. Beslan. Kings Cross. Oslo. Boston. Peshawar. Paris. Brussels. Orlando. If you work in daily news, every so often you will find yourself covering a breaking terror story that requires all hands on deck. When I worked for a newswire, it fell to me to write up the 2007 Finnish school shooting (Jokela), and update it over two days of rolling rewrites. My colleagues who supervised me on that story had worked on the Finnish suicide bomber story in 2002 – a chemistry student who blew himself up in the middle of a crowd of kids in a shopping mall as they watched a clown blow up balloons. I know, really sick. They always are. The next year we had the 2008 Finnish school shooting (Kauhajoki), which I did not work on because I was out of town at a company investor meeting. Though Kauhajoki was quite remote and nobody seemed to be from there, everyone spent the coffee break calling home. And I was on duty the evening of the 2011 Norwegian terror attacks when every reporter in the Nordic countries helped chase up bits and pieces by phone and send them back to Oslo.

After these I developed a model for the terror news cycle. Broadly, terror stories in places that are not accustomed to this kind of violence seem to move through four stages:

1. WTF? The first news is likely to be vague (gunshots were heard) or unbelievable (a plane has flown into the World Trade Center).

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retiring an element

3 June 2016 by

As our university rebrands for independence as the University of Suffolk, it is time to thank the UCS logo for its service. A square emblem bearing large sans serif characters, the old logo seemed to belong to a class of homages to the periodic table [1]:

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That concept carried attractive entailments for a research based enterprise. It suggested we were real, pure, basic, verified, perhaps precious, part of a limited set, possessing group affiliations and other properties that could be measured and used as dimensions for ordering. All reasonably true if you think about league tables. Units in this metaphor are not only tiled for easy viewing, sorting and ordering, but can also be combined into compounds. We were that with our parent institutions, UEA and the University of Essex, albeit in the role of a minority element with loose ionic bonds.

Playing cards work on the same principles of isolation, ordering, and recombination. The isolation and vision of order is what makes the Tarot appealing: the reduction of the chancy mess of life to hand-sized chunks. Each card shows an open allegorical image, but it is contained by a boundary. The Canadian literary magazine Alphabet, an early publisher of Margaret Atwood‘s work, used a classical myth as a unifying theme for each issue, which is not that different from a Tarot [2]. For text-centric applications too – business cards, baseball cards, note cards, PowerPoint – the card deck is the listicle of information shape and the card a key structuralist token, even when used in Oblique Strategies.

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The UCS logo also made use of non-typographic elements. It showed a network of threads with small squares at the points where they intersected. These could be interpreted to show a mythical Suffolk road scheme with the positions of the universities in our network, not to scale of course. It resembled a spiderweb, which was also a good metaphor for a university (intricate, purposeful, beautiful, creative, connected, sticky). Nobody seemed to exploit this other than me in my staff picture, which I got Helga to take specially in the Tomás Saraceno installation in Taidehalli. Another shot from that visit, postprocessed to the point of blur, became the logo for my draft School of Arts and Humanities newsletter.

The old logo was somewhat diluted by the color scheme: we were provided a choice of colors, but none seemed to be primary, and come to think of it, the individual colors were mostly not primary either. Hail to thee, Alma Mater! Three cheers for the mustard and mauve! Or the grass-green and turquoise, if you looked at a different prospectus. [3] There was also some confusion with the other UCS, which is a prep school in London.

There are good things about our new branding, not least the clear color scheme – three cheers for the graphite and gold! – and its compatibility with the deep slate grey display walls made by Tom Owens and the other photography students a few years ago, which instantly upgraded our spaces to galleries. We need to think about what metaphors it suggests and how we can relate it to our theme of change and adaptability. So far, I’m thinking of it as turning a new page.

[1] The first one I came across was a Texas Gulf logo that was just Tg in Helvetica or similar, designed by George Tscherny. No oblong box around the Tg but the analogy was clear. Can’t find an image online.

[2] And indeed, what is an alphabet, syllabary or other writing system? Paradigm and syntagm, on multiple scales.

[3] Colors are difficult, so it’s perhaps good to try out a lot of them. Those of my own alma mater, MIT, founded during the Civil War, are cardinal and grey: cardinal for the red blood of engineers and grey for steel. This was close enough to Harvard’s crimson and white to permit the Coop to buy bulk lots of dark red and off-white gear to sell on both campuses. I am fond of silver and grey but not looking forward to the 50th reunion cardinal jackets which make the alumni look like old-fashioned bellhops at Radio City and also highlight gin-blossom skin. The color of Columbia University, home of my J-school, is sky blue, which made the graduates look as if they were wrapped in bedsheets when they were robed for graduation. UCS has a very attractive cyan-yellow-magenta graduation gown trim, which would be worth keeping if we could fit it into the symbol narrative.

view from the balcony

30 April 2016 by

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Senior House, 1983

the opposite of the cloud

31 March 2016 by

Data of mine that has been lost and hence is in the anti-cloud, or is on its way there (for Pop My Mind):

  • Music and recorded Ipswich Community Radio Friday Breakfast shows on a thumb drive that stopped working one morning at the radio station, September 2016. All the tracks and most of the shows were backed up (hi, Izzy), and interviews are also available on Listen Again at the station, but there are a few solo shows that only I had.
  • Whatever was on that other thumb drive in the shape of a panda that I lost in Hamburg after staying up all night to make the early morning Gatwick flight to the Language in the Media conference, September 2015. Probably it was just old class materials copied off my 2004 Powerbook, half unreadable with bit rot. Or the missing Friday Breakfasts may have been on that one instead.
  • A paragraph for one of my never-ending projects. I know I wrote it in one of my several cloud accounts sometime in the last four months. I have reconstructed the main work that paragraph did, but the residue that I can’t find and can’t recall nags at me.

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exhibition: cosmonauts

12 March 2016 by

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, at Science Museum, London, 18 September 2015-13 March 2016. Replica spaceships, relics and conceptual art, early speculative works. Some takeaways:

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1. The lines of force that extend from satellites like Sputnik in pictures are actual antennas.

2. The Soviet space program relied on individuals (whereas NASA was always presented to us as communitarian). There was a Chief Designer and if that guy died, which he did, it set everything back ten years. That’s why the Soviets lost the race to put a human on the moon.

3. Although the actual engineering, including the Chief Designer, was secret, there was huge popular support for space exploration, going back to the 19th century Cosmists. I’m guessing some of the appeal was that it allowed people to be patriotic while dreaming of a new start in the far, far abroad at the same time.

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film: star wars talk (spoilers)

29 December 2015 by

“Can we talk about it first without spoilers?”
“We can try. Okay, it is not the movie you thought you were going to see. It’s not a brand new chapter. It goes back to the first one and does it again but the stuff that you would do differently today, it does differently. It reboots the franchise.”
“The director is J.J. Abrams. That probably means the central conceit is, There’s this girl … and when she smiles, everything is okay.

“No, actually it’s, There’s this girl … and she doesn’t smile.”

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