Sunday, 25 September 2011

Theatrical Questions

I hear that audiences in Beijing and Shanghai are currently flocking to theatres to see a stage version of Mama Mia! sung in Mandarin. Given that musicals are not part of the Chinese cultural tradition this is a curious phenomenon and one which raises questions about the globalisation of culture. Does, for example, globalisation inevitably involve cultural dilution or can it – more positively ­– be instrumental in cultural cross-fertilisation which leads us to rich veins of new creativity? The question is more likely to end in a discussion than a conclusion.

I was recently asked a question: “Do you go to the theatre often?” to which I replied “No, not really” before going on to roll out my rehearsed excuse for this cultural blind-spot which asserts that there are too many productions of the same old plays. Who needs yet another version of The Cherry Orchard or of Hamlet ? I’ve seen them before. Can’t we have something new so that I might be persuaded to buy into the concept of theatre more readily? But I was told that my response is typical of one who presumes that theatres are where you go to watch plays; and that plays comprise scripted dialogue, spoken by actors and visually enhanced by scenery, props and the occasional special effect – all neatly packaged into periods of time known as ‘acts’, some of which are separated by ice-cream breaks and the whole of which commences at just the time when you might like to be settling down to dinner.

Over the past few months, therefore, I have challenged my assumptions by making an effort to see more theatrical performances (I deliberately refrain from using the word ‘play’) than usual. I have seen them in a variety of venues: a cinema, a room over a pub, a converted industrial space, an un-converted industrial space, an old music-hall, a modern provincial theatre and yes, a more traditional West End theatre! Not one of the performances I saw could be described as fitting the stereotype of my prejudice. Each one of them challenged some aspect or other of that stereotype and compelled me to reconsider.

Reconsidering prejudices can be an uncomfortable process, as in this case, which required that I buy tickets in order to subject myself, voluntarily, to whatever proposition was being presented. I can only guess at their motives but I assume that, when they are writing a play or devising a performance, the creators do not do so aimlessly. They must have a positive intention to appeal to their audience; perhaps to inform, to entertain, to stimulate or to shock. In some cases I find the intention is clear; in others it is less so and I, their audience, am entitled to make up my own mind as to the point, or pointlessness, of the piece. I have come across at least one suspected instance of “the emperor’s new clothes” but, set against this, many positive experiences of pleasure and enlightenment.

I have emerged with a resolve to “go to the theatre” more often but; how do I decide which performances to attend and which to shun? As a rule of thumb I would opt for the novel and against the repeat performance. The Cherry Orchard and Hamlet  are undoubtedly classics of their genres but to see them performed yet again, albeit by different companies and in different ways, would encourage habitual behaviour patterns just when I am trying to shake them off. My inner critic is telling me to search instead for the future classics of the theatre and I am not about to rule out Mama Mia! sung in Mandarin until I have seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears and engaged fully with the cultural globalisation debate that it generates.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Roaming Ticket

I took a bus the other day, around the Isle of Dogs in East London. It’s a regular, scheduled bus which takes people about their daily business but, since I had no particular daily business and I am not familiar with the route, I was able to enjoy the journey for the simple pleasure of discovery. The history of this area is probably familiar - it contains many of the docks of London which were once so important to the trade of an empire. But they became redundant and unloved when the empire collapsed and cargoes became containerised. Now they have been revived as marinas and ‘water features’ for the enhancement of housing and office developments.

I would have appreciated a knowledgeable guide to give me a spoken commentary on the journey but had to make do with picking up the clues and piecing them together with the help of an A-Z street map. Names, like Westferry Road and Eastferry Road, have very obvious origins, as do the many others with seafaring references to wharfs, cargoes and overseas destinations. Other streets are named after people of presumed importance to the area and there is, intriguingly, a major route called Manchester Road. Best of all is a place called Mudchute, so named because it was the destination of all the mud and silt excavated during the creation of Millwall docks then deposited there by conveyor belt.

The topography of the Isle of Dogs is dominated by the huge rectangular tracts of water chopped into the land which, although they may disorientate the casual visitor, have dictated the geography of the place since their conception so that even Canary Wharf- that self-contained, commercially sustained private estate- is, despite its massive scale, built around those old dock excavations. The bus diverts through security gates into the guarded territory of Canary Wharf so that passengers may access its immaculately tended buildings and open spaces. The power of money is manifest here in a harmony and order which contrasts sharply with the visual jumble of the public environment surrounding it.

Back in Manchester another, less epic, bus journey also transported me through history - although this time it was my own past that I encountered. The bus passed a house I had once lived in and wound its way through old stamping grounds I had long since forsaken. On this route I should not have needed clues to help with the story; my own, silent commentary was running. But, after a while, a question emerged: “Had I really lived here?”  I tried winding back the tape and pressing replay but the picture was rather blurred. All those years later and, with no remaining connections to the place, the focus had become indistinct. It could have been another person’s life that I was contemplating, set in a familiar-looking suburb on a typical bus route. Some memories emerged, like brief sequences of a dream, but I could detect no real trace of me in the passing landscape. At my destination I stepped off the bus and into the present day wondering what had really happened back then.

Getting from A to B is straightforward and easy to achieve if that’s what you want: take stock of where you are, decide where you want to go and when you want to arrive, buy yourself a ticket and get on board. For some this serves as an effective strategy for life itself– a focused progression towards a predetermined outcome. But not knowing where you want to go can be a more interesting proposition; it contains the potential of open horizons and adventures beyond everyday experience. The scenic route, the roamer ticket, the speculative journey: these are not to be dismissed as mere whimsy, for they may be used as the means to an end – one which is deliberately not predetermined. Getting on a bus is a great way to get you to places you didn’t know you wanted to go.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Interior Motives

The Geffrye Museum of the Home contains a series of replicated, domestic room-sets chronologically displayed. The first is from circa 1600 and the last is from the present day- a typical, so called ‘loft’ apartment converted from an industrial building. Despite the fact that the Geffrye, a former alms house, is a very linear building, which dictates the layout of the display, there is a perceptibly circular trend to the history of the interiors depicted: from the minimal content and decoration of the Elizabethan room, through the clutter and over-decoration of the late Victorian and back again to the bare bones of the contemporary loft. It was while viewing this last exhibit that a fellow visitor turned to me and said “I couldn’t live in that!” When I pressed him he did not offer a rational explanation but I concluded that such an interior would not fit in with his habitual way of living.

My preferred style of living might be described, in current terminology, as ‘minimal’ but I have had my preconceptions on this point challenged just lately; most notably by Junya Ishigami, an architect who “works between the spheres of architecture and art” and strives to “dissolve the boundaries between inside and outside”. He takes minimalism very seriously, as can be seen in his gallery pieces, which are structures on a very large scale yet so delicately made, of gossamer-like fibres, that they are almost invisible. Actually this transcends minimalism- I would call it etherialism and wonder how that might translate into a style of living.

Outside of museums I have had an opportunity to consider other peoples’ modes of living in a very practical way: I have been ‘apartment-sitting’. For us apartment-sitters the domestic circumstances of the absent occupants inevitably present a variety of vicarious experiences but, regardless of whether it’s a comfortable place in a desirable location or a gloomy dwelling in a desolate spot, there is always another dimension - one from which we may draw imaginings. Sooner or later the observation of some small detail- such as the positioning of a chair, a plant or a picture- will begin to suggest what is of importance in the lives of the absent occupants and this is the moment when we begin to reflect on our own priorities. Living in someone else’s place presents an opportunity to awake from our complacency, see things from another’s perspective and learn that apparently innocent,  everyday objects can obstruct the inventiveness of our minds simply by their habitual presence.

During my recent sitting I tried to balance the urge to re-arrange the place to my own liking with the need to respect the preferences of my absent hosts. The process resulted first in contemplation of a new career as an interior designer, then a brief flirtation with Feng Shui, but progressed, eventually, to the higher plane of questioning how and why I acquired my own habitual routines and rituals, my own physical and mental clutter. I concluded that clutter creeps up, unnoticed, and accumulates in whatever space is available. After a while routines, rituals and clutter all become inter-dependent and start to dictate my life-patterns. The cycle needs to be broken, the desk cleared and the job started afresh.

Apartment-sitting is good therapy for this condition because different or unfamiliar environments will engender random connections- and random connections are fuel for the imaginative, creative processes. If we stay at home we remain in an environment which has been honed to preserve habitual behaviour patterns and makes us feel too comfortable to be bothered with adventure.

I have it in mind to contact the Geffrye Museum soon with a proposition for a creative art installation/performance/experiment. It will take the form of me living, one week at a time, in each of their period room-sets without changing or moving any object. I should also like to propose to Junya Ishigami that I live in his place on similar terms, although I would be very disappointed if it turned out that he lives in a Tokyo suburb in a cosy bungalow full of bric-a-brac and surfaces printed with floral patterns.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Mental Mapping

Whenever I travel I have a map of the world in my mind’s eye: so, if I were travelling northwards of my start point, I would be moving up the map; if southwards I would be moving down; and, if east or west, across it. I don’t think this is unusual (apart from the fact that I have recently started to worry about whether I should be using the Mercator or the Peters projection).

I came down from Manchester to London to stay for a few weeks, during which time my sister visited, insisting that she had come up to London from Lincolnshire; those who are familiar with England’s geography will soon spot the anomaly. I happen to know that she is not geographically challenged, that she came by car and was guided by a sat-nav map. So what is going on in her mind’s eye? Does she perceive London to be in a different direction or, perhaps, a different dimension? Has our capital city come to rest on the same elevated plane as Oxford and Cambridge universities which, according to their convention, are always up no matter what your direction of approach?

Those who have lived in London (and I am one) will be familiar with the notion that its inhabitants believe themselves to be at the centre of all that matters and that every other place in the U.K. is provincial - in the most demeaning sense of the word. But I have now lived long enough in Manchester to have acquired a Northerly perspective which makes me keen to subvert such a view and to promote Manchester to the premier league of British cultural achievements other than football. I take my opportunities whenever I can: as in, for example, an after-dinner discussion on the outbreak of rioting which, a few weeks ago, was big news. One of the Londoners present recalled hearing that there had been a similar (but minor) disturbance in one of the provinces – was it Manchester? “Yes”, I said “but it was a mere shadow of the real outbreak back in 1819 when 80,000 Mancunians turned out to demand the reform of parliamentary representation”. There was, of course, no riposte to this famous illustration of Northerners’ advanced political views and zealous pursuit of social reform for the benefit of the majority of citizens in England.

Flushed with success and confident of having earned some respect for the prowess of lowly provincials- I was brought back down to earth later when, in a packed Tube-station elevator, I took the initiative to act as operator (having read the instruction posted on the wall) but pressed the ‘alarm’ button instead of the ‘ascend’ button. A bell sounded, the door froze in the open position and a collective sigh of despair went up around me. My public admission of guilt and my bluff, Northern apology did nothing to advance my cause.

Maybe it’s a hopeless cause anyway. Locating Manchester on a map is a simple question of reading the grid reference. Putting Manchester on the map proves to be more difficult. The first Londoner I ever knew was from Brick Lane and he told me that, for him, ‘up North’ meant Hackney. Some years later, in Portsmouth, I met a bloke who referred to the Isle of Wight as being ‘down South’.

Up, down or sideways everyone’s reading of the map centres on their own location: everywhere else is of secondary importance. Grid references and sat-nav can help you get to them physically but cartography is only one tool in the box when it comes to going places.