Following is my contribution to the week of top tens, and the last of this half-dozen offerings. Again – apart from the first – this in no particular order. Many thanks to Keith, Linda, Todd, Simon and Louise for the earlier posts – and to you for reading; these blogs have proved pleasingly popular through the week. Happy New Year – and very best wishes for a stimulating and productive 2013.
1. Olympics opening ceremony
So much has been written about this spectacular – and I have no doubt that there is much more analysis to come. We linked to thirty of the best articles that appeared in the immediate aftermath (here, here and here), and each conveyed an aspect of its unique combination of poetry and politics, of history and the present, of spectacle and awe, of thought and emotion, all on the grandest scale and the biggest stage. Bravo, Dabby Boyle and all your colleagues, bravo, bravo.
For all sorts of reasons, both private and professional, theatre has played a far more significant part in my life than has, say, the visual arts. Indeed, as I was compiling this list, no single exhibition made a compelling case for its inclusion, although I was tempted by Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War which I caught at the Imperial War Museum just before Christmas (and which is on view only until 1 January). It’s a thoughtful and constantly surprising presentation of Beaton’s photographs from the home front and from the near east, India, Burma and China. I was disappointed, however, that the accompanying book simply offers fine reproductions of the photographs with only a minimal text, when it seemed to me that there was a wonderful opportunity for analysis and scholarship.
In the theatre I have seen a string of exceptional productions, in addition of course to Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company from which we made a BBC Four film (and which is newly available on DVD). Among the highlights has been Lucy Bailey’s ferociously intelligent and intimate Uncle Vanya for The Print Room (which we tried hard to bring to television, but to no avail); the National Theatre Wales Coriolan/us, brilliantly staged in a hangar on an RAF base (and about which I blogged here); and a revelatory, ridiculously enjoyable King John, directed by Maria Aberg, again for the RSC.
Globe to Globe, however, was an achievement of a different order: 37 productions of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 different ‘languages’ by 37 companies from around the world – and all presented in six weeks in comparatively minimal stagings at Shakespeare’s Globe. Because of filming commitments I managed to see only a handful ‘live’ but I saw a good number more thanks to the wonderful, albeit penny-plain presentation on The Space, itself a contender for inclusion in this list of 2012 highlights.
For a while the Arts Council England/BBC collaboration on an online arts channel was showing video documentation of each production, but rights restrictions meant that most disappeared at the end of October. Still on view, however, are Cymbeline, performed by by the South Sudan Theatre Company in Juba Arabic; The Two Gentlemen of Verona, played in Shona by Two Gents Productions; and Pericles, performed in Greek by the National Theatre of Greece. And let’s hope that the rest reappear again soon, perhaps on DVDs or in other media from Shakespeare’s Globe.
3. Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik
Andrew Dominik made one of the best American films of the past decade, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and like many others I was eagerly looking forward to this hitman movie that again paired him with Brad Pitt. It seems that almost everyone else was disappointed, both among the critics and on the strength of its miserable showing at the box office – see ‘Killing Them Softly box office – what went wrong?’ by Steven Zeitchik for The L A Times for a really interesting analysis. But I loved the film, which is a taut (just 97 minutes) and endlessly inventive (listen carefully) black comedy that manages to land a few political punches as well. But given this terrible trailer, which has nothing of the quirky pleasure of the film, perhaps it’s not surprising that it did so badly…
The idea is simple – and simply wonderful. Artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare have co-ordinated a project for Peninsula Arts with Plymouth University in which 135 different people – some famous, many not – each records a chapter of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick. These are being released as free daily podcasts, and you can sign up via iTunes and in other ways. I have them downloaded to my iPad and I have beeb relishing them throughout the holidays. Tilda Swinton reads the first chapter, ‘Loomings’, and the latest offering has Sir David Attenborough reading ‘Chapter 105: Does the whale’s magnitude diminish?’ All of the recordings remain online, so it’s not too late to catch up.
Staying with the iPad, Illuminations has been privileged this year to collaborate with the publishers Touch Press and with Faber and Faber, The Arden Shakespeare and Egmont, on two remarkable apps, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and War Horse. Which you might think should disqualify me from choosing another Touch Press title from inclusion here. But The Orchestra is so remarkable – and seems to me to represent such a leap forward for the app form – that I can’t resist. And don’t take my word for it, read Shane Richmond’s column for the Daily Telegraph where he names the title as his ‘iOS app of the year’ (and gives an honourable mention to Shakespeare’s Sonnets as well).
There was no finer hour of television this year than this penultimate episode of the political comedy in which the cast of characters (including Malcom Tucker, in the header) are called before The Goolding Inquiry. None. Rare indeed is television this close-to-the-edge, this innovative, this acute, this accurate, this of-the-moment, this dangerous – and this funny.
So judged across its run this one was a toss-up with The Bridge, which I also thought was truly exceptional serial drama. This year I have also hugely enjoyed The Good Wife and Homeland – especially the remarkable episode from series 1 titled The Weekend – and I thought that the hugely enjoyable second run of The Hour was rather better than the first. But nothing came close to the astonishing final moments of The Killing’s last-ever (really?) episode. Surprising – well, make that astounding, ambiguous, bold and yes, deeply moral, Sarah Lund’s final actions closed out five immensely satisfying evenings of exceptional entertainment.
8. Portrait of a novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece
Michael Gorra’s exceptional (and supremely elegant) close reading of Henry James’ great novel Portrait of a Lady is a book that shifted my sense of the possibilities of criticism. I blogged about it in October.
9. Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, Festival del Cinema Muto, Pordenone
I count myself exceptionally fortunate to have been present in Pordenone at the premiere screening of this reconstruction of an attraction from the Paris Exposition of 1900. This was a sequence of short films – some with synchronised sound, and some with hand-coloured images – of the stage stars of the day, and it was brought to life again with a thrilling piano accompaniment by John Sweeney. Among the attractions was – and is – dancer Cléo de Mérode (above), and this is how I enthused on the blog:
How we laughed and cheered and clapped! Yet here too before us was something uncanny and unsettling. For the moments they were on the screen, despite – and because of – the rescued sound and the emulsion scrapes and scratches of more than one hundred years and the hand-colouring, these performers felt vividly, vitally present. It was as if part of me was back in Paris in the summer of 1900. But I understood too – of course I did – that I was watching people who were long since dead, great artistes who decades ago had joined another kingdom of shadows. If you only knew how strange it was to be there.
10. Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes
I have little doubt that when cultural theorists a hundred years hence want to make some kind of sense of Britain in 2012 that this is the other key text (along with no. 1 above) to which they will return time and again. Here is a Britain mired in a post-colonial melancholy, battered and bleeding, and struggling to make sense of itself in a world in which we are all nostalgic for the certainties once inseparable from James Bond. Brilliant.
Previous 2012 top tens:
1: Keith Griffiths, from the Tour de France to The Real Housewives of New York City.
2: Linda Zuck, with much that came out of Africa but also Rust and Bone, Argo and Breaking Bad.
3: Todd MacDonald, including Thomas Heatherwick, Secret Cinema, a screening of London: The Modern Babylon and a band called Thrice.
4. Simon Field: a floating cinema and Raymond Roussel, Killing Them Softly and The Killing III, and new films from Song Fang and Wang Bing.
5. Louise Machin: highlights of a west coast tour, plus a trip to Kosovo and Jeanette Winterson’s memoir.