CULTURAL ROUND UP: PAT BARKER, AGNES VARDA &JR, ALAN BENNETT AND THE OCEANIA EXHIBITION

A book, a film, a play and an exhibition.

First off a book…

silence of the girls

Barker is one of my all time favourite writers and she has a new book out called THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS. It is new territory for her, that of classical history and is the story of Briseis a Trojan Queen who is given as a sex slave to Achilles. She appears in the early chapters of The Iliad, the story of the Trojan war, by Homer. I’ve read all of Pat Barker’s books and I love her more than any other contemporary writer. I’m amazed that this wasn’t nominated for the Booker and doubt there’s a better book on that list. Doubt there’s a better opening than this:

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

All I can say is read it and you won’t be disappointed. An off-shoot of reading it is that I’m re-reading The Iliad. Heavy, I hear you say. Well, it’s a book I’ve always struggled with in the past but am now scything through with relative ease since Barker’s book has left a vivid template in my mind to read it against. So instead of constantly thinking, Who is Trojan? Who is Greek? Whose side is that god on etc all that was more or less sorted out in my mind before I started. It also got me thinking of Alice Oswald’s poem, Memorial, a book she described as ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere’. That atmosphere is a very bloody one. I’ve been re-reading her wonderful poem, Dart, because I’ve been looking for ‘watery’ writing recently due to my current work in progress.

Second a film …

FACES, PLACES with Agnes Varda and JR. She’s a 90 year old film maker and he’s a street artist. It’s a wonderful film, completely life affirming and celebratory. They are so completely sweet together and it was a joy. Put simply, Agnes Varda and JR travel round France with JR’s photo booth which produces huge black and white photos of the people they meet which are then pasted up in all kinds of different places. The film is playful, compassionate and has great humanity. So go and see it immediately. Now. Here’s the trailer.

Third a play …

ALLELUJHA  by Alan Bennett.

Under no circumstances ever, ever go and see this play. Unless your idea of fun is seeing a load of ‘old dears’ singing sentimental songs in a geriatric ward. It’s abysmal. I’m now going to put out a pointless *Spoiler Alert* because taking my advice you are never going to see it anyway, are you? If it’s supposed to be a paeon to the NHS please explain why at the end the first act Bennett turns a nurse, who has up to this point seemed perfectly OK, albeit somewhat dour, into a morphine-filled-syringe-wielding killer. Why? The only reason I can think of is that it was so tonally weird he thought it might make the audience stay for the second half to discover who she kills next. It was simply dreadful. Mind you, I think it’s no longer on and frankly only a lunatic would ever revive it so you’re probably safe.

Sitting through that got me thinking about how much I love theatre but how bad theatre is a particularly agony. I haven’t been going much recently because of a few ghastly experiences both involving very long plays. First off The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. How I hated that. The critics showered it with universal 5* praise but I have never felt so out of sorts with an audience. I actually felt embarrassed to be English because the play was filled with every kind of cliche about the Irish that ever existed and the predominantly English audience lapped it up. I know Jez Butterworth has Irish grandparents but that just means he should have known better. All I can say is never, ever go and see a play in which there’s a character called Granny Faraway. I mean, how could you? Agnes Varda would have put him straight on that. It was a long time before I read anything that equated with my feelings about the play and then Sean O’Hagan wrote this…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/16/jez-butterworth-the-ferryman-irish-stereotypes-sam-mendes

Excuse this digression/rant but before The Ferryman there was a play by Tony Kushner called the Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism … Also very long and also staggeringly bad. I actually walked out of that at the second interval without a qualm and generally speaking I’m not a walker out of anything much. That play involved a lot of discordant shouting by vile characters to no good effect with a bit of Marx thrown in. The worst play I ever saw was The Illustrious Corpse, by Tariq Ali (yes him) at the Soho Theatre in London. By the end of that I felt like a thoroughly Disaffected Corpse myself. That was so bad I’ve never been back to that particular theatre and that was in 2003. Which I suppose shows my ability to hold a grudge. My thinking was if they consider that’s a play, as opposed to a political diatribe, (no plot, no character, absolutely no bloody point) what fresh hell might I be exposed to in the future?

Finally, an exhibition – Oceania, at the Royal Academy.  Beautiful. Go.  All the cultural sensitivities have been complied with but even so I was left wondering if we should be looking at the items on display. There’s a brooding black basalt monument, a god, that sits in the middle of it all. The fiction writer in me wonders what he thinks about it all. What he might stir up… But oh, I felt sad at the end and I’m not quite sure why – something to do with lost gods, lost cultures, perhaps. And on the subject of the gods –  they are behaving really badly in The Iliad, absolute rotters every one. Incidentally if you are a New Zealand and Pacific Island passport holder you get into the exhibition for free.

One of the things that infuriated me about Bennett’s play and also The Ferryman was the depiction of older women – patronizing and cliched. One of the delights of Faces, Places was Agnes Varda – vital, creative, opinionated, engaged with the world. Of course! More of that please.

Tell me what you’re reading, watching, visiting in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “CULTURAL ROUND UP: PAT BARKER, AGNES VARDA &JR, ALAN BENNETT AND THE OCEANIA EXHIBITION

  1. The Ferryman – yes! My friend and I thought we were the only ones who hated it. All those stunning reviews, and at the end amidst a rapturous audience we turned to each other with looks of utter incredulity. Awful.

    Faces Places on the other hand looks an utter delight. I’m going to find a screening near me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was so awful, Madame Bibi, wasn’t it? the last bit where Granny Faraway gets out of the wheelchair and staggers across stage saying ‘the fairies are coming …’ I mean even typing that I feel I must have dreamed it. It’s amazing what you can get away with if bring a live duck or was it a goose? onto the stage. Really hope you love Faces, Places as much as I did.

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  2. God, I wish we had London’s theatre scene so I could walk out of things! It’s a funny thing when one finds something awful by someone you’ve previously thought rather good. I remember walking out of a play by Jonathan Harvey at the Donmar – everything before it I had adored but this was so terrible and hackneyed. Such a let down, I can’t even remember what it was called… Just started “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer and liking it a lot. And thanks, will take note of your Barker nomination – never read a dud by her, although a bit iffy about Greek mythology, to be honest. Thank you for sharing!

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    • Ha, ha … I absolutely loved Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and saw the recent revival at the National again and thought it’s fantastic … and I loved the Madness of King George by Bennett. I have a theory that plays are amongst the toughest of art forms to do well. Seeing Allelujha was a bit like going to a funeral to the extent that one funeral tends to bring to mind all the others I’ve been to, so one bad play etc…Thanks for the tip about Less I just read some reviews prompted by you and it looks great. I’ll definitely get it.

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  3. I haven’t read a Pat Barker for a while, I loved her earlier books but I think I lost touch when she started writing about the war, which didn’t attract me at the time, but maybe it’s time to revisit her. I don’t ever go to the theatre, so there’s no danger of me seeing any bad plays! I’m watching a documentary series about Pacific art at the moment. And as for books, I’ve gone back to the past, I’m currently reading my way through Agatha Christie…

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    • Thanks Andrea – I think Regeneration is brilliant better than The Ghost Road which won the Booker. The documentary series sounds excellent I might check that out since my interest was definitely pricked by the exhibition I went to.

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