Dec 4, 2006

That was the year that was

A confession: I love lists. So its a Christmas treat as much for me as for anyone who may read this to offer up my favourites of the year, some of which I hope may serve as present suggestions to the desperate. Who am I kidding, this is pretty much all about me wanting to tell you what I liked, in glorious, wonderful List Form. So without further ado...


Beirut - Gulag Orkestar
A magnificent odyssey of an album that finds its 20 year-old creator burying himself in history and the sounds of Eastern Europe like a young boy wrapped up in his grandmother's musty fur coat. It is a gorgeous, sentimental, nostalgic and ethereal exploration of an imaginary European landscape that haunts from the first note to the last.

The Islands - Return to the Sea

A boyant, clever little album from the most self-destructive band of the 21st century. Formerly the Unicorns (and now also, sadly, formerly The Islands), Nick Diamonds and J'aime Tambeur come together to create complex but infectious pop songs that seem to encompass (and in some ways surpass) all the best things in Canadian music at the moment, from Broken Social Scene to Wolf Parade.

The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America

A glorious, anarchic, self-destructive romp through the underside of American teenagerdom - drugs and sex and drugs and sex and suicide and apathy and vomit. The opening lines of the album tell you everything you need to know:

there are nights when i think that sal paradise was right. boys and girls in america have such a sad time together.
sucking off each other at the demonstrations.
making sure their makeup's straight.
crushing one another with collossal expectations.
dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late.

The best album of the year.

Particularly in the Heartland (The TEAM) - Traverse/BAC
An heartbreaking little play that engulfs you in a beautiful kaleidoscope of Americana. A gentle but intruiging exploration of the mythology of the American heartland by an exciting, challenging young company and possible the only time I've felt myself choking up in the theatre.

Roam (Gridiron) - Edinburgh Airport
In the top three almost on the grounds of ambition alone - Gridiron didn't so much take over edinburgh airport as slip into it, surrounded by genuine travellers too-ing and fro-ing, to explore the transitory otherness of air travel. The beautiful, subtle glimpses of angel-winged cleaners wandering across the terminal almost made the show on their own.

Faust (Punchdrunk) - Wapping

A very different non-theatrical experience to that of Gridiron, more site-sympathetic than site-specific, punchdrunk took over a disused warehouse in East London to transport you to another reality. A breathtaking, life-changing absorbsion in the intoxication and temptation of Goethe's fable. The most startling, ambitious visual spectacle I have ever seen. It has now extended through to March '07 so make sure you catch it before then.


The Squid and the Whale
A whimsical but achingly sad little film from the Wes Anderson stable about the break up of a marriage from the perspective of the children. Best performance of the year from Jeff Daniels as the arrogant academic father struggling with his wife's success and his relative failure.

A gorgeously shot high-school film noir that is about as cinematic a film as you will see, fiddling with genre to joyous effect.

Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog's film on Bear lover/attack victim Timoth Treadwell is about the most perfectly balanced documentary you'll see. He slowly and carefully explores in a highly personal but never egotistical fashion this most bizare of stories, peeling away the comic absurdity of Treadwell to reveal the aching sadness buried in the reels and reels of hand-recorded grizzly bear film he left behind after his death. The kind of intimate, beautiful true story cinema so rarely achieves.


Hello Americans - Simon Callow
How do you tell the real story of someone as large (in every sense) and mythical as Orson Welles? In three volumes apparently, this being the second, charting the chaotic, fascinating and in the end disasterous period from Kane to Macebeth in which he went from boy wonder to Hollywood joke. Callow's feat is to make so much research and mythbusting so endlessly entertaining, and even, frequently, tragic.

District and Circle - Seamus Heaney
A simply beautiful collection of poetry - dark and haunting with a scope that spans the ages.

Black Swan Green - David Mitchell

I may be sucker for this book in that it seems to have been written entirely for me - so much if it everything that I never knew I felt when I was 13. But then, maybe that's its power, its a genuinely grown-up, thoughtful and intimate novel about being a teenager by someone accomplished enough to deliver that but young enough to still remember. There is something undoubtedly magical about it all.

So now its over to you, whoever you may be (I'm looking at you Tsquared)... any favourites from the last 12 months?

Dec 1, 2006

The sound of music (no not that one...)

In a Hamlet workshop today the director asserted the importance of feeling the metre in Shakespeare. Nor merely of being aware of it or utilizing it but of feeling it in a very physical sense. When an actor speaks Shakespeare well, he said, it will chime somewhere inside them.

Whereas language touches the mind it seems music touches the body in a very real sense. Last week we spoke to a performance artist who works with materials and the most startling and interesting thing she suggested was that there were only really two senses, seeing and touching. Smell is the product of particles of a material touching the insides of our noses and, more interestingly, hearing is the result of the waves of sound buffeting our ear in a very literal sense. Hence when we hear a piece of music it quite literally touches us. It is pre-cognitive. It moves our body first and the feeling it produces in the body (sadness, joy, pity, fear) is then translated into something the mind can comprehend. When language and music are combined then, there is the potential for the most powerful of experiences – in which the mind and the body are both simultaneously transformed.

The most obvious example of such an effect would seem to be opera. However, I feel that in this medium the balance between language and music is almost always tipped towards the latter – indeed even the frequency of a split between language and music in terms of a composer and librettist attests to an uneasy relationship between the two. The Rake’s Progress for example is always Brittan’s Opera, Auden and his words, regardless of their stature elsewhere, are required to hide somewhere in the shadows.

And this brings us back to Shakespeare and the chiming of his language. Ezra Pound suggested that ‘all good poetry aspires to the condition of music’. That it is in poetry, with its rhythm and metre, that you find the most perfect synthesis of thought and feeling. Shakespeare’s verse has the potential to physically transform an audience through its musicality. Othello’s rage, or Romeo’s love or Hamlet’s frustration are experienced by the audience physically – when performed well they should be chiming in the spectator’s gut almost before they have considered what is actually being said.

Thus the physical experience of Shakespeare onstage transforms the audience from spectator to participator. In a very literal sense they feel the characters, they do not merely watch them. This is why, for me, it is important that Shakespearean rhythm and metre are honoured. I have been taught how to speak verse since I was eleven years old and I love it. I adore this powerful transformative quality that it has. I recently played Romeo in the echoing grandeur of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. I found that the very musicality of the verse was the most powerful tool allowing me to really experience Romeo rather than simply imitate him.