Little Britain

20 August 2012

Is something rotten in the state of Britain? In this cultural round-up, I review the National Theatre’s revival of London Road and artist Damien Hirst’s retrospective show at the Tate.

Britain is currently on a collective high, due to the mostly successful delivery of the 2012 Olympics in London, and the unusually strong medals haul by British athletes. For a culture that prides itself on modesty, self-deprecation, ingrained pessimism and perenially low expectations, Britain is suddenly experiencing a collective endorphine rush of the kind it isn’t used to. Even if we all know that the Olympics was a giant, extravagently over-priced folly that the country couldn’t afford and which won’t deliver any of the regeneration and public health benefits that organisers promised, it seems to have been worth it, if only to allow locals to feel Great to be British again. New York Times columnist David Segal neatly encapsulated the mood in his review of the Closing Ceremony, commenting:

Triumphalism does not come naturally to this country, where the cultural stock in trade has long been dignity in defeat. This, let’s not forget, is a nation where one of the most beloved poems is Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade…. The Games have hit this country like an extra-strength dose of a mood-enhancing drug. The question being asked here now is whether this national euphoria can last or, better yet, lead the country out of its recent economically driven malaise.

Segal concludes that relying on the successes of the Games to lift Britain out of the economic doldrums “may be a lot to ask of any event, even one as heady and unifying as the Olympics”. And yet for those of us who stayed around for the last fortnight, it’s been a fortifying experience to see Britain – and particularly London, a big lumbering and often inefficient old beast – get things right, and feel unironically and undefensively proud of its achievements. There also appear to be some sensible decisions being made about sports funding, to counter Britain’s often fanciful beliefs that gold medals are a combination of good luck and innate cultural superiority rather than hard work and years worth of government funding. The Conservative government this week announced an extension of current levels of Games-specific funding to extend to 2016, in the hope that Team GB’s success will continue in Rio – and no doubt also to do damage control on last week’s embarrassingly-timed revelations that the education department has been approving local councils selling off school sports fields to raise quick cash.

Amid all this good cheer and optimism for our future, it seems somehow appropriately British to return to the dark side. During the Olympics fortnight, I took advantage of the relative emptiness of the city to check out two grim explorations of the national psyche: London Road, the National Theatre’s upgraded version of a musical it workshopped last year about a community in Ipswich struggling to redefine itself in the wake of a serial murderer of local prostitutes; and Brit Pop artist Damien Hirst’s much anticipated and heavily criticised retrospective at the Tate Modern, featuring vivisected cattle, live flies feasting on a bloodied bullock’s skull, more cigarette butts than Princess Margaret’s ashtray, a makeshift hothouse of specially-bred butterflies, and a generously stocked gift shop.

The story behind London Road is possibly the least likely premise for a musical ever devised. The libretto is based on two years of interviews made by playwright Alecky Blythe with Ipswich residents between 2008-10, during and after the arrest and trial of Steve Wright, an Ipswich resident who was found guilty in 2008 of the murders of five prostitutes. Blythe then met musician Adam Cork at a workshop run by the National Theatre to encourage collaboration between artists in different media, and the two slowly and somewhat painfully found a way to create a musical piece out of the interviews.

I say “painfully”, because Blythe is a devoted practitioner of “verbatim theatre”, a nobly-intentioned but rather earnest form of theatre where actors replicate the actual words of real-life interviewees on stage. The words and speech patterns of the interviews are retained exactly as spoken, with every umm and aaah, every cough, pause, repetition and verbal inanity left intact. As might be expected, verbatim theatre tends to focus on grim, socially worthy topics like refugees, racism or human trafficking. The titles of Blythe’s earlier plays are enough to have you reaching for the gin bottle and razor blades: Come Out Eli, The Girlfriend Experience and Do We Look Like Refugees? You can picture the scene: a tiny theatre above a pub, no air-conditioning, painful middle-class hand-wringing, angry hectoring neo-Brechtian lecturing disguised as dialogue, and 3-star reviews from left-wing newspapers using adjectives like “relevant” and “thought-provoking”.

London Road had a particularly long and torturous birth, as the National struggled with the constrains of Blythe’s method and attempted to turn it into something that might just be bearable to watch. In early workshops, the actors were fed recordings of the interview subjects through earpieces and had to sing the lines near-simultaneously – a process designed to limit the interpretative spin of actorly technique and have as near-uninterrupted a rendition as possible. Though pleasing to Blythe, who sounds evangelical about the importance of retaining the integrity of her interview subjects’ words, the earpiece thing sounded like a nightmare for the performers. Before hitting the stage, Blythe was persuaded to remove the earpieces and allow the actors to deliver the text from memory, to create a less distracting performance style. Blythe was still on hand, vigilantly checking the performances and insisting on every line being delivered exactly as spoken.

Although Blythe sounds like a joyless pedant who needs a good slapping, her persistence shows an impressive commitment to the democratic principles of verbatim theatre, which aims to give ordinary people a voice, who might otherwise not be presented as authentically onstage otherwise. London Road takes the unusual step of focusing not on Bthe protagonists of the murders – Wright and his victims – but the “ordinary” inhabitants of London Road in Ipswich, where Wright lived, who found their lives affected by an event they had no control over. The interviews reveal the local residents to be caught between irritation that their neighbourhood has been labelled “a red light district” and that their streets are invaded with intrusive press and police blocks, but can’t quite help but betray their excitement at the temporary celebrity brought to their otherwise non-descript town: as some of the characters repeat several times, to comic effect, “Nothing much ever happens in Ipswich”. The residents, lead by a few cardigan-wearing local do-gooders, set up a “London In Bloom” competition to encourage households to plant hanging baskets of flowers and beautify the neighbourhood, and by the play’s end, the competition has formed the basis for a stronger sense of community.

It all sounds terribly earnest and left-wing and good-for-you without being very entertaining – or at least so I thought before I went to see it. It turned out to be one of the most interesting and engrossing pieces of work I’ve seen in ages, with a genuine capacity to haunt the mind for days afterwards. This is largely due to Cork’s amazing musical score, which sets every word of the interviews into song. It sound sound rambling, atonal and incoherent: instead, in a feat of near-genius, he creates wondrously beautiful Bach-like cantatas out of seemingly banal comments like “I’ve got nearly 17 hanging baskets in this back garden”, “Begonias, petunias, um, impatiens and things” and “Everyone is very very nervous and very uncertain of everything”. The music and repetition of phrases lends a surprising depth and emotional resonance to the cliche-laden text, revealing more about the characters than they possibly know themselves. Through the music, we register the fear and excitement of the residents as they think about a killer being in their midst; we hear how rumour and speculation gets repeated and circulated in the community until it becomes a mantra; and the incessant repetition of certain phrases makes us wonder what isn’t being said and what is being hidden under the barrage of pleasantries and innocuous sayings.

What’s most impressive about the piece, fearlessly performed by a splendid cast, is its revealing of the grim underside to all the community high spirits. Though the residents seem mostly decent and well-meaning, almost all of them harbour a mean-spirited and judgmental view of the prostitutes, and a persistent unwillingness to recognise the realities of prostitution in their community. The prostitutes are mostly referred to as “slags”, only one resident seems aware of the problems with drug addiction which drive prostitutes to work on the streets, and in one chilling eleventh-hour moment, another (female) resident says she wants to shake Wright by the hand and thank him for getting rid of these social pests. As is usual in most discussions of prostitution, no consideration is given to who the prostitutes’ clients might be – the so-called “normal” men with jobs and steady relationships, like Wright himself, who aren’t as content with the cosy domestic world of hanging garden plants and neighbourhood watch meetings as they may seem.

In a brief but devastating moment at the end of the piece, Blythe reveals her trump card: three prostitutes shuffle onto the stage and stare at the audience in silence. It’s only for a minute, but it feels like an hour, an age, an eternity: finally these are the invisible women who’ve been referred to so contemptuously by the other characters, the source of the social ill against which the community is trying to defend itself. When they finally speak, it’s clear that they’re the victims of the piece: mostly drug addicts who work to feed their addiction, and doubly marginalised by clients who exploit them and by a community who doesn’t want to know or help. At the end of the piece, as the residents celebrate their London in Bloom competition, we hear a voiceover of the prostitutes’ dialogue repeating in a ghostly echo. The community’s happiness only seems possible through Olympian levels of denial and refusal to confront difficult truths. As one resident comments proudly that “we’re reaping the benefits of what happened”, we realise that this is true, but isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Somehow, London Road pulls off the impressive feat of letting us see all that hypocrisy and self-serving blindness while still allowing us to care about the characters. It’s something that only seems possible through the combination of the authenticity of verbatim dialogue coupled with the emotional elevation and intensity of the music. I never knew it was possible to care this much about suburban Britain, or hanging baskets, or neighbourhood watch groups, while completely dreading them at the same time. London Road presents a difficult, unsettling view of modern Britain, but one that seems utterly necessary. It also manages, apparently single-handedly to reinvigorate the musical genre as an art form that’s as capable of provoking as it usually is of entertaining. I wish we had more theatre like it.

I had similarly low expectations of Damien Hirst’s retrospective show, after 20 years of contemptuous eye-rolling at his status as the Wonderkid of modern British art. Like most of his contemporaries who formed the Young British Artists (Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sarah Lucas), Hirst’s art has always seemed to me to have the depth and profundity of striking a match: there’s an initial shock effect which is initially exciting, which almost immediately fades, leaving nothing of interest for repeated viewings. The farm animals and sharks vivisected and suspended in vitrines, the 22 feet high painted bronze statue of the now kitsch Spastics Society mascot, the diamond-encrusted skulls – they’re all visually striking and technically well-executed, but they seem shallow and childishly exhibitionistic. Since his early success, Hirst has moved proudly and unapologetically into full scale Andy Warhol mode, setting up a new wave Factory where his art is produced by others and signed by him, and branding his coloured dots pictures into endless varieties of tourist tat – much of it on sale at the Tate giftshop for this exhibition. In my mind, he’s not without talent, but his work is cynical and heartlessly materialistic – and in that sense, the perfect artist for his cynical and heartlessly materialistic age.

The Tate’s retrospective show didn’t change much in my perception of Hirst’s artistry or perspective, but the experience of seeing his works in a public and heavily attended space gave me new insight into just what a definitively British artist he is. The vivisected cows and bleeding bullock’s head are on display, proving the most popular and grisly attractions. They make interesting companion pieces to his “Pharmacy” series of white mirrored cabinets displaying immaculately shiny and grim looking surgical equipment and kitschy 1960s era plaster anatomy models. Like the proprietors of 19th century circus freak shows, Hirst seems to delight in displaying the abject and grotesque remnants of nature and culture for public viewing, and in doing so calls us out on our nasty and secretive voyeuristic impulses. For about half an hour, I watched fellow visitors drawn like magnets to the vivisected animals, getting up close (and much closer than is usually possible in life), simultaneously attracted and repelled by what they saw. Other exhibits are less comfortable viewing experiences: a massive ashtray filled with hundreds of stubbed out cigarette butts (into which, to my delight, several middle-class toddlers tried to climb and nearly fell into), and mirrored cabinets of thousands of backlit and eerily beautiful multi-coloured prescription medicines. One cabinet was fabulously backlit with golden light, which screams Valley of the Dolls-era Hollywood decadence, though Hirst undercuts the fun by placing it opposite an identically sized cabinet on the far wall, filled with cigarette butts. As you caught sight of yourself in the mirrored backs of the cabinets, apparently covered with pills, it was difficult not to think about our vapid Western dependency on prescription and over-the-counter medication to live “happy” lives. Hirst’s is a crudely made point, admittedly, but nonetheless powerfully evoked. Hirst is giving his sneering, repressed audience what they want, then stopping to rub our noses into a few unpleasant truths about our deeply unsustainable culture.

The major new work for the exhibition is a gallery-cum-hothouse where visitors can watch live butterfly moths hatching, fly around the room, feed on fruit and eventually die. (Attendants are on guard at either door to ensure that butterflies are removed from your hair and bag before you leave). It’s drawn the expected round of criticism from animal rights groups that it’s based on cruelty, though no more so than the headless bullock surrounded by flies in the vitrine in the next room. Like most of Hirst’s work on display, it’s a stunt, but one that almost manages to reach its lofty artistic aspirations. Although the scene is just as much the product of human control as the vivisected animals, there’s something charming and relieving about Hirst allowing the butterflies’ lifespan from life and death to play out mostly uninterrupted. He seems just smart enough (or just gimmicky enough) to realise that real butterflies will inspire more awe and horror than his own works will ever manage to achieve. For a (I’m guessing) mostly urban audience who’ve had limited access to the glories and horrors of nature up close, Hirst’s work provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with our co-inhabitants – albeit in an entirely artificial setting – and confront some of their own cultural prejudices and fears about how we use and abuse the natural world.

The exhibition ends, fittingly enough, with the massive gift shop, which contains almost everything from the exhibition – the live butterflies aren’t available to take home but you can buy limited edition Damien Hirst butterfly wallpaper for £500 a roll. Some of the other fun memorabilia for sale are shark fridge magnets (£3.50), a jigsaw puzzle of one of Hirst’s anatomical figures (£14.95), decorated “anamorphic” espresso cups and saucers (£15 per set), diamond skull paperweights (£24.95), fishy PVC shopping bags (£25), silk scarves illustrated with pills (£125) and silver pill cufflinks (£250) or even butterfly decorated deck chairs (£310).

I’m not sure whether Hirst is to be applauded or derided for making so much noise about the merchandising of his own work. He can’t claim any originality for the idea, as it was done by Warhol before him years ago – but what he can perhaps lay claim to is a smartarse honesty about the conversion of his “art” into disposable and mostly unnecessary tourist tat. Every exhibition I’ve ever seen at the Tate and most other galleries in London has a gift shop that sells exhibition catalogues, posters, stationery, calendars, fridge magnets, jewellery, crockery and giftware “inspired” by the art on display. Despite art purists wrinkling their noses disdainfully at the kitschifying of great art into fridge magnets, gift shop merchandise is as an important income generator for art galleries as ticket sales, and is now an integral part of any marketing campaign for an exhibition. Since this is Britain, gift shops are mostly presented quietly, tastefully and inobtrusively, like someone disguising a fart in an elevator. Only Hirst puts his gift shop centre stage and boasts to the press about how he’s made a pure form of art as product. Part of me suspects that this is just Hirst’s obnoxiousness masquerading as artistic insight, and like most of his work, it’s a gimmick with a very short use-by date, but again it’s an irritatingly effective way to show Britain’s gift store obsession to itself.

Walking though the Hirst gift shop was like wanting a chocolate bar but being forcefed gallons of the stuff from Willy Wonka’s chocolate waterfall: I felt embarrassed, morally corrupt and rather silly (all of them very British virtues). Why, Why, WHY did I think I needed a paperweight or an espresso cup with a skull on it? Was my life so devoid of purpose and my disposable income so disposable that I thought my life wouldn’t be complete without a set of novelty cufflinks or a t-shirt? I meekly bought a couple of postcards which I promptly mailed to art-loving friends around the world, and slunk away, chastened, rather alarmed that it took a Damien Hirst exhibition for me to embrace financial and moral sobriety, and even more horrified at my realisation of my own Britishness.

So while Britain’s fortnight of optimism has been wonderful, it seems more important that artists continue to encourage locals to look under the mantle of Uncool Britannia at all the cultural garbage and nasty little secrets festering beneath.

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