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:
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:
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.