I was fortunate to see this production at the Royal National Theatre in 2008. I was long a fan of Lloyd Newson and DV8 before I saw ‘To Be Straight With You’. I like his work which stretches from dance into physical theatre. DV8 are thought of as a dance company, though, so it was a surprise to see the National stage this production. However, my admiration for Lloyd Newson and this company grew after seeing this production.
It was a stunning piece of verbatim theatre, based on 85 interviews. Everything spoken or broadcast from the stage was actually spoken by somebody in one of the interviews conducted in Britain. Themes of tolerance, religious faith and sexuality were explored through the voices of gay people and those with strong views about gay people. It provided a powerful picture of what it is like to live in Britain at the start of the 21st century if you are gay.
Lloyd Newson does not shy away from large issues. He wants to know why so many religions have a problem with homosexuality. He is keen to confront us with the uncomfortable expression of this homophobia; acts of violence that are often condoned by, if not actively encouraged, in the name of a god. He also wants to know why homophobia is a feature of communities that have themselves experienced hate and abuse in the form of racism.
Unlike other verbatim pieces I have seen, in ‘To Be Straight with You’ the actors/dancers are on the move the whole time. Sometimes the moves make sense given what is being spoken and sometimes sequences of quick, light moves seem at odds with the words.
The most affecting story was that of a 15 year old muslim boy told by a dancer skipping around the stage. This carefree childhood activity does not distract us from the story he is telling: his dad regularly beat him up for being a ‘poof’.
‘To Be Straight with You’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Strolling through London, on my way to the Curzon cinema, I came across sculptures in Soho Square. They are the work of Bruce Denny, a contemporary figurative sculptor. At one end of the square is a work entitled ‘The Conversion of St. Paul’. This is a large work of St. Paul on a horse rearing on its back legs. It is impressive.
Of more interest to me, though, were the smaller works on the grass. One group of four figures is from his series, ‘Intrigue’. Having looked on his site, the figures are individual and can be arranged however you like. As all works of art are for sale, whoever buys them can arrange them however and wherever they like. Here, they are lounging about on the grass. This is what Londoners do in this square in the summer. When I visited, the grass was disappearing and the sun was hidden.
The second work was called ‘Ascension’ from his series ‘Humanity’.
This is what Bruce Denny says about this work: “As children, we look forward to growing up as quickly as we can. Each birthday takes us a step closer to independence and makes us bigger and more powerful than our younger contemporaries. As we grow older, we benefit from experience, knowledge and understanding, but there comes a turning point however when the continuing mental and emotional improvements are counterbalanced by the inevitable deterioration of the physical form, and we look back with envy on our youth and innocence.”
I did not know about Bruce Denny before coming across these sculptures but they sent me off to find out more and I discovered his website.
Public art such as ‘Intrigue’ and ‘Ascension’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I returned to the British Museum last weekend. I particularly wanted to see the head of Augustus but was told it is on loan in Paris! One item missing from the British Museum is hardly a problem (as long as they know where it is) as I always have other items on my list. Instead, I went to see two other works.
The Hoa Hakananai’a Easter Island statue is impressive if not beautiful. It is carved in stone and dates from around about 1000 AD. When Neil MacGregor presented the BBC Radio series, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, this statue was number 70.
I like it because, although it is clearly human, it is also a stylised sculpture and one that towers over you when you come across it in the museum. It is mounted on a stone platform of about a metre so you have to look up at it to take it in.
Easter Island is famous for stone statues. They are known as ‘moai’ which means ‘statue’. It is believed that they were created to commemorate important ancestors. This work of art radiates a certain sense of importance.
The second item I searched out, given that Augustus was in Paris, was the head of Hadrian. Although not on Neil MacGregor’s list of 100 items, it is an interesting piece, mostly because Hadrian was an interesting person. The information at the museum states that this head was probably part of a statue from roman London. It may have been put up to celebrate a visit by the emperor to Britain.
Hadrian met a young man when he was in his 40s and the two became lovers. Antinous, the love of his life, died in what may have been an accident leaving Hadrian in grief. Whenever I look at this figure, I think about the fact that he was an emperor but he, too, was subject to such highs and lows of life.
The British Museum is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
On display at the National Portrait Gallery is the portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. This was the second painting I wanted to see when in the National Portrait Gallery recently.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was a Muslim from West Africa who was sold into slavery. From 1731 to 1733 he was a slave on a plantation in Maryland, United States of America. He managed to travel to London where, because of his educated background, he became a favourite of the intellectuals of the city. He was even presented at court and then freed from slavery by subscriptions raised by the public.
The portrait by William Hoare dates from 1733. It is the earliest known British portrait of a freed slave. It was seen in public in 2010 having previously been seen only as a print. It was believed that the original was lost.
Ben Okri was commissioned to write a poem to be displayed alongside the portrait in the gallery. It was a delight to sit in front of picture and poem and consider the effect of one upon the other.
Who can read the riddle of life
In this portrait of mine?
I am one on whom providence
Has worked its magic reversals.
Behind me are silent stories
Like a storm. I have worn
History round my neck like chains.
Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn.
I have tasted the language of death
Till it became the water of life.
I have shaped a little my canvas of time.
I have crossed seas of fires
And seen with these African eyes
The one light which neither empires
Nor all the might of men obscure.
Man is the sickness, God the cure.
The National Portrait Gallery is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
At this time of year, I head to London to see the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery. I have been going every year since I first discovered this annual exhibition in 2008. I am not an expert on photography but there is always a good range of images, some striking and some disturbing.
I used the visit to do what I always now do in London museums and galleries: I went to see two pieces that I admire. This time I spent time in front of the portrait of Edward VI, by an unknown English artist, painted around about 1547. I first saw it in the 80s when I became interested in the story of his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. The picture of her execution by Delaroche is in the National Gallery, next door. The story of a boy king caught between competing factions is a sad one, especially as he died at such a young age. The story of his cousin is, perhaps, more tragic but Edward is often just a footnote in Tudor history. The attention is most often on Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth. Edward might have been a great monarch but, as he became King at age 9, he was always a pawn in somebody else’s game. Portraits of young people always show such promise. Edward VI only lived until he was 15.
In this portrait, Edward adopts a pose also used by his father, Henry VIII, in various portraits. In May 2013, BBC Radio Four broadcast a play by Abigail Docherty called ‘Edward, Edward’. The play explored Edward’s relationship with Lady Jane Grey and how the two struggled to be children while family members played politics around them.
The National Portrait Gallery is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Passing through Paddington Station this weekend, I made sure I visited this statue of a refugee. Although fictional, it is worth remembering that this bear came to Britain from Peru. He first appeared in print in 1958 when author Michael Bond based his character on his memories of children, with labels around their necks, being evacuated at the start of the Second World War. Paddington, too, had a suitcase and a label, ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’
I read the Paddington stories in the 1960s. The references to world travellers finding a home in London were lost on me at the time even though, all around me, there was the evidence of settlers from so many countries making a home in Britain. To me, these stories were of a person out of place, trying to fit in, trying to understand how things worked and how to behave; this is exactly the experience many immigrants have.
Another significant character in the books is Mr Gruber. He offers tea and sympathy to the young bear because, as a refugee from Hungary, he understands what Paddington is going through. Michael Bond worked at the BBC’s monitoring centre at Caversham Park where many eastern Europeans were employed just after the war.
In an age when any migrant is treated with suspicion, it is worth remembering times when Britain welcomed people who needed a home in a new country. Paddington is associated with all things British but in his early life he was a refugee. This is the reason I like to stop at his statue in the station.
Marcus Cornish created the bronze statue. It was based on the drawings by Peggy Fortnum that illustrated the original books.
Paddington is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Jake Wallis Simons tells the story of Rosa, the fifteen year old daughter of parents who send her to England on the kindertransport from a Berlin in the grip of Nazis. She undertakes the journey, convinced that her safety is necessary to ensure her parents’ safety, too. Determined to do all she can from England to rescue them, she is devastated when the beginning of war breaks off contact and destroys her peace of mind.
This is a novel which explores the impact on a change of country on the identity of the child who has to grow up without her parents. She finds that the offer of sanctuary has limits so, when the feelings of the son of the family, which has taken her in, become clear, she finds her presence has upset the plans others had mapped out for her.
The brutality of war is made clear by the way it affects different characters but the biggest impact is felt by displaced Rosa, whose happiness in England is always limited by the knowledge that her parents did not benefit from the asylum she was offered.
‘The English German Girl’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?