Tag Archives: literature

Plusgood

There is a dissonance to the doublethink of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which is reflected beautifully in the occasional musical excursions taken in Tahsin Gemikonaklı and Imogen Lewis’s stage adaptation at the Bloomsbury Theatre. This multimedia-enhanced production, masterminded by the rising star Alex Rodin, is heavy on chilling found footage, but it is the music that lingers in the memory. At times it recalls the delicate orchestral leanings of late-period Radiohead; at others, the haunting woodwind that characterises These New Puritans’ second album, Hidden.

Rodin, an LSE graduate who took the original production How To Catch A Rabbit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, now plies his trade at the more culture-friendly UCL, a fact best demonstrated by the diverse, artsy and sell-out crowd gathered when your correspondent went along to catch Nineteen Eighty-Four last Friday. Three Weeks gave How To Catch A Rabbit, a tale of urban gypsies, a four-star review, and it’s interesting to see how Rodin’s latest creation depicts a more famous urban environment. The London of Airstrip One, Oceania, is a brutal factory of skeletal structures, desensitised factotums, and a looming telescreen which oversees everything on stage.

This adaptation sensibly doesn’t mess too much with the formula: Orwell’s beautiful economy with language is brought to the fore (and then butchered by the paradoxical Newspeak), and the plot is pruned a little, perhaps in order to heighten the audience’s confusion. Orwell’s vision left little room for aural affairs (beyond “Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree“); here, there is a new sonic assault everywhere you look. First, the lessor of Winston and Julia’s squalid love-nest (here transformed into a toothless, Cockney, prole landlady) breaks out into similarly camp fare every time we encounter her. Second, a variety of unusual sound effects pepper the performance, from the French railway announcement jingle which precedes all of Big Brother’s communiqués (prompting Francophiliac me to do a double-take on first hearing), to the mechanised human beatbox which soundtracks the office at the Ministry of Truth.

Third, and most memorably, there is a sparse but effective score by Max Wilson, performed by a small off-stage ensemble and led by first violinist Shou Jie Eng. Shou was the musical director for How To Catch A Rabbit; his score for that play was described as “terrific” by the Scotsman. Here, the music is a more subtle beast, cued to perfection and overwhelming the on-stage drama where necessary, as in the frequently-uncomfortable second half, with its grimly portentous torture scene. Wilson has approached the text like a great proof-reader, adding colour and tempering the occasional mis-step in the staging.

I’m no theatre critic, but this was not a flawless production. Undoubtedly audience-pleasing (in particular the cameo from UCL Provost Malcolm Grant, as Big Brother—a nod to the many similar performances by Sir Howard Davies in LSE Drama Society productions) though it was, there were a few jarring shifts in mood which lessened the impact compared with Orwell’s original. I don’t feel qualified to read too much into this, but what I can tell you is that, stylistically, it was an engaging and thoughtful production which made great use of the cultural capital cleverly predicted by Orwell back in 1948. The movements on stage may not always have been “joined up”, but the intermeshing of direction, sound and vision certainly was.


Nineteen Eighty Four was brought into existence by the UCLU Drama Society and Stage Crew Society, directed by Tahsin Gemikonaklı and Imogen Lewis, and produced by Alex Rodin.

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My novel of the decade

In considering my favourite novel of the noughties, it was perhaps inevitable that my mind should alight immediately upon a weighty work that captures the inescapable sense of disappointment that has epitomised this decade. I am, to those who know me, an arch miserablist, especially when it comes to cultural matters, and what really impresses me about my chosen piece of fiction is that, despite it being released back in 2001, it succeeded in foretelling much of the misery and broken dreams that would go on to characterise this period of time. Technology has made islands of us all; consumerist demands have ruptured families like only civil wars previously could; our ageing population gets away with bad decisions; an increasingly strained youth must pick up the inevitable cost. For me, only one novel has dealt with these issues in a compelling manner.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, as endorsed by New Yorker readers and Oprah Winfrey viewers alike, takes a group of people with a vague semblance to the traditional family unit, drags them into the twenty-first century, and catalogues the ensuing multi-generational, globe-spanning saga in a vibrant, sparky style that veers into the surreal but never escapes from its grounding in black comedy, tinged with sadness and regret. The Corrections follows the Lamberts – a Midwestern family spanning three generations, blighted by Parkinson’s and dementia (Alfred, the father of the family), marital constraints (Edith, Alfred’s long-suffering wife), consumerist demands (Gary, the eldest son, a successful banker), and failed romance (both Denise and Chip, the other two children, suffer from this). Though their lives are plotted along increasingly disparate vectors, Edith is determined to re-unite the family for what may be their final Christmas together – Alfred’s ailments seeming increasingly terminal.

Franzen doesn’t make it easy for us to like his characters. He doesn’t even make it easy to like his style of writing – numerous friends of mine have given up after the opening chapter, which refers to a silent alarm bell signalling the ever-present state of panic at the heart of the dying couples that inhabit small Midwestern towns. All of the Lamberts are blessed with loveable qualities, but each worsens their situation by dint of their more screwed-up character flaws, making it tough to sympathise with them. At the same time, we see that they are, at heart, good people, screwed over by modern society which, for one reason or another, they cannot adapt to. It is there in Denise’s bizarre relationships which challenge our perceptions of sexuality and the ease with which we can just fall in love. It is present too in Alfred’s undoubted intelligence, which is kept at bay by an inability to express modern values. The Corrections is a deeply unhappy novel about our insatiable desire to correct parts of our life – whether through food, people, money, or possessions – and yet it does not posit the strong family as the solution to this unhappiness either.

Franzen’s masterpiece is my novel of the decade not only because of its prescience and thematic weightiness, but also because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, written in a hyperthyroid style that flits between made-up science, wry perceptions and social commentary, political discourse, and frequently fascinating, clipped dialogue. If this new decade is to bring us any hope at all, we should endeavour to make it nothing like the world of The Corrections. Which is exactly why everyone should read it.

Scary monsters

People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.

Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.

Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.