5 x 5 No 3: Louise’s list

30th December 2016

For the end of the annus horribilis of 2016, here is our third list of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations has chosen five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. This third selection is Louise Machin’s.

City Stories: Tales of Love and Magic in London, Wilton’s Music Hall

At the beautifully restored Wilton’s Music Hall near Whitechapel, City Stories is a cabaret love-letter to London, a sequence of interwoven love stories written by award-winning playwright James Phillips. The portfolio of six short plays are linked and punctuated by the heart-stoppingly beautiful original music composed and performed live on piano by singer-songwriter Rosabella Gregory. All the stories are set in and evoke London’s spirit of place and in different ways show the joys, pains and challenges of being in love, also the chances we have every day in the city to embrace or reject life. A simply wonderful and seductive experience.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, National Theatre

This is a all-singing and dancing musical about cancer – which is brave because no one wants to talk about cancer (see image above). Witten by Bryony Kimmings (whose young daughter is still being treated) and Brian Lobel, it sets out to demystify the disease by following the highs and lows through stories of a group of cancer patients, which are all based on real life cases. The aim is to sabotage the cliché responses to cancer including the vocabulary of “struggle” that surrounds it.

The advantage of the musical format is that it gives each patient their moment in the spotlight whilst highlighting the collective attitudes. The clever use of fabric that gradually enlarges with air as it slowly and stealthily emerges through the hospital doorways to show the silent spread of the disease, and the garbled, distorted sound of a consultant’s voice as she delivers bad news about a baby with cancer, were particularly affecting. I found it an unusual but heartbreaking celebration of ordinary life and death. 

Jesus Christ Superstar, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre


The is the first decent revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s ’70s rock opera telling the story of Christ’s last days, in a very long time. And what a show! Choreographed by Drew McOnie, it is both ruggedly masculine and brilliantly flamboyant at the same time. Despite the austere set (stark industrial cross-shaped girders and a horizontal crucifix that doubles as a catwalk) plus a buff cast in grey tracksuits and hoodies, the show becomes progressively more spangly: Judas stains his hands in a pool of molten silver; Herod is a huge, camp drag queen in gold cloth; red glitter is hurled at the blood-drenched body of Jesus each time he receives his 39 lashes. It is exhilarating, pulsing and very moving. Go and see it in summer 2017 when it makes a short comeback.

Wild Geese: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver


Whilst at a low point during my treatment this year, someone gave me Mary Oliver’s wonderful book. With fresh, stark prose and unerring insight, her writing conveys the connection with nature that Wordsworth writes about experiencing as a child. Except you get the sense that the feeling stays with her always. She writes with a haunting brilliance and this poem is one of my favourites:

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

And here is Mary reading the poem:

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

As part of a snatched first visit to Berlin in late March, I visited this stunning and beautiful memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, which opened in 2005. It’s in the heart of Berlin between the Brandenburg Gate and the bunker where Hitler eventually committed suicide and covers an area of 19,000 square metres. There are 2711 concrete pillars – known as stelae – of varying heights and these are set out in a grid-like formation on an uneven incline. Which is profoundly disconcerting and unsettling, as it was intended to be, ‘to create a feeling of instability in an apparent system of order’, according to its designer.

I experienced the memorial differently depending on where we entered the site but each time the blocks become higher as we moved into the centre and with little light it was easy to become lost and disorientated. There’s also an underground visitors’ centre with a very moving exhibition detailing the horrors of the national-socialism policies, the lives of deceased Jews in concentration camps and all the struggles they went through.


5 x 5 No 2: Todd’s list

29th December 2016

For the end of the annus horribilis of 2016, here is our second list of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations has chosen five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. This second selection is Todd Macdonald’s.

Play On for the Almeida Theatre

I have been involved with some really exciting projects this year with Illuminations but working on Play On with the Almeida has to have been my favourite and most fulfilling. In partnership with Arsenal in the Community, this was an initiative in which four writers collaborated with forty young people who hadn’t previously been involved in theatre to create new plays and monologues based on their stories and experiences. These texts were then performed by both professional actors and some of the young people themselves on the Almeida stage. I worked as a filmmaker documenting the process, and I was blown away by the enthusiasm and engagement that the project cultivated. The work the Almeida are doing in the community to open up access to the theatre is inspiring on so many levels, and the resulting film from this project is one that I feel very privileged to have been able to make.

Play On | Almeida Theatre from Todd MacDonald on Vimeo. read more »

5 x 5 No 1: Linda’s list

28th December 2016

For the end of the annus horribilis of 2016, when once again this blog has been less than it should have been, we offer five short lists of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations has chosen five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. Up first is Linda Zuck’s choice, offered in no particular order.

O.J.: Made in America, ESPN

A completely compelling epic 5-part, nearly 8-hour, series directed by Ezra Edelman, who is the son of the towering rights activist and lawyer Marian Wright Edelman. Chronicling the O.J. Simpson story and using it to reflect American society in the last 50 years, this is an extraordinary and thought-provoking masterpiece of journalism about race, domestic abuse, celebrity, civil rights, the LAPD, the legal process and murder.

Certain Women

Three short stories of intersecting lives in small town Montana with superb performances from Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, directed by Kelly Reichardt. Normal women with mundane lives whose stories nonetheless powerfully transcend the everyday. The third story is so achingly poignant and poetic that you are left quietly devastated.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate

Tate Modern’s major retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work was a terrific show. Her work was pioneering and her output was prolific. Her achievements made it possible for women to envisage a career as an artist. The New Mexican landscape paintings were mesmerising.

Here indeed are five reasons why this exhibition was not to be missed.

Horace and Pete

Created as a web series, directed, written and financed by Louis C.K. so as to avoid any interference with his artistic vision, and with powerful performances from the main ensemble cast Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange, Horace and Pete is set in a bar run by a dysfunctional family in Brooklyn. It is by turns funny, shocking and extremely dark with lingering silences and Masterpiece Theatre moments — for example, a completely riveting 9-minute monologue in Episode 3 from a woman whose identity you’re not sure of until the reveal.  It is deliberately shot like filmed plays from the 1950s.  As Ian Crouch asked in The New Yorker, was it even really television?

Sadly there won’t be a second season, and here’s why

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

Chronicled by his friend and college room mate, this is the true story of the life of a remarkable young man who escaped crime-ridden Newark to attend Yale. As a stellar student and much-liked by everyone, his trajectory should have been ever upward. But once he returned to the hood, his life spiralled downwards, leaving a host of unanswered questions. A haunting and tragic story, beautifully written.

Reading ‘Radio Times’ for Christmas 1941

21st December 2016

One reason to be cheerful during this endlessly unnerving Brexit+Trump interregnum is a little seasonal gift from BBC Genome and its blog. BBC Genome is the invaluable and all-round essential website featuring all of the BBC’s radio and television listings between 1923 and 2009. And its blog is a treasure trove of trivia and broadcasting history. As one entry in this year’s advent calendar it has made available a .pdf of the 1941 Christmas Radio Times, complete with editorial matter, programme details and advertisements. And what a rich, resonant document this is, conjuring up the traces of Christmas past from 75 years ago. Download it now and dive in with me – I’m going to pick out bits and pieces through the rest of this afternoon and into the evening. read more »

Sunday links

11th December 2016

I failed to post the past two Sunday links, and nor have I contributed general entries across the past three weeks. Although it’s no excuse it has been an exceptionally busy time for the company, mostly because we have been preparing a new performance recording which will be announced shortly. We got the first part of that in the digital “can” yesterday, and can now start to breathe again. I also spent a few days in Paris and I go to Munich tomorrow.

But it’s back to the blog today, with notes on my travels to come next week, together with exciting news of our latest DVD release, Richard II. For now, here is an extended edition of Sunday links (to be created through today), accompanied by the usual apology for not crediting those who brought many of these great articles and videos to my attention. And I don’t see how I can avoid starting with a handful of Trump-related pieces; if nothing else the crisis in the States is prompting some exceptional writing (and I make no excuses for including several pieces from New York Review of Books).

Trump – the choice we face: a fascinatingly personal NYRB piece by Masha Gessen about compromise and resistance and the way forward.

Donald Trump is gaslighting America: a brilliantly coruscating analysis by Lauren Duca for Teen Vogue:

Civil rights are now on trial, though before we can fight to reassert the march toward equality, we must regain control of the truth. If that seems melodramatic, I would encourage you to dump a bucket of ice over your head while listening to ‘Duel of the Fates’. Donald Trump is our President now; it’s time to wake up.

The real Trump: for NYRB Mark Danner reviews Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power.

• The dangerous myth that Hillary Clinton ignored the working class: Derek Thompson for The Atlantic.

• Why Time’s Trump cover is a subversive work of political art: a brilliant close reading by Jake Romm for Forward.

On optimism and despair: Zadie Smith’s talk given in Berlin on November 10 on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.

… and trigger warning: more Trump-related articles follow.

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Sunday links

21st November 2016

The weekly round-up of links to things that I’ve found interesting and stimulating over the past few days, with apologies to those who I failed to credit for bringing them to my attention.

Obama reckons with a Trump presidency: remarkable reporting by editor David Remnick for The New Yorker.

Shirtless Trump saves drowning kitten: one of the best analyses of ‘fake news’, from Brian Phillips at mtv.com.

How fake news goes viral – a case study: a fascinating New York Times piece by Sapna Maheshwari.

• Donald Trump isn’t just benefitting from ‘fake news’ websites — he is one: Max Read for New York magazine:

…“fake news sites” aren’t a vestigial artifact of an awkward transition from print to digital — they’re the very future of politics itself.

How tech and media can fight fake news: Ben Smith for Columbia Journalism Review.

Is this how democracy ends?: David Runciman for London Review of Books is not optimistic.

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18th November 2016

Last night, for the London opening of the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Half a Sixpence, the production’s publicists employed an up-to-the-minute medium in a manner that mimicked the early years of television. Working with Facebook Live, Half a Sixpence first of all streamed a half-hour or so of red carpet intro before curtain up. And then from late on in the performance itself, the closing minutes were shown live online, from ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ to the curtain calls.

Rights restrictions, I assume, account for why there’s no available recording of the second part of the stream, but you can see here Michael Underwood valiantly trying to whip up some excitement in front of the Noel Coward Theatre. All of which is pretty much exactly what the BBC television service did from the Palace Theatre nearly 80 years ago. read more »

Sunday links

13th November 2016

I was going start by committing to a boycott this week of Trump and Brexit. After all, and especially after this week, what is there to say? But I have included a couple of exceptional pieces, before I get to links to other things that I’ve found interesting and stimulating over the past truly hideous few days.

• Autocracy – rules for survival: Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books – essential.

• The forces that drove this election’s media failure are likely to get worse: Joshua Benton for NiemanLab is also good on what we might do next.

The nightmare begins: Adam Shatz, London Review of Books, a really good analysis – and do also read Joan Scott’s response in the Comments.

And then there’s this, from Saturday Night Live, with Kate McKinnon as Hillary performing the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. You’ll have seen it already, but watch it again – and weep.

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Raoul Coutard, R.I.P.

10th November 2016

Raoul Coutard, the cinematographer best-known for his radical work on many of the key features films of the French new wave, has died at the age of 92. Coutard shot many of the films (including the heart-breakingly beautiful Pierrot le fou, 1965, above) that meant the most to me as I was discovering cinema in the 1970s and ’80s; below I have embedded a dozen of these. The Guardian obituary by James S Williams is here. ‘Light of day: Raoul Coutard on shooting film for Jean-Luc Godard’, a 1965 text by Coutard edited Michel Cournot, has been republished as a tribute on the Sight & Sound website. And Film Comment here has a 2012 interview with the cinematographer.

A Bout de souffle, 1959

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