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Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearance as Hamlet has reached unbelievable levels of hype. It has become the fastest selling play in British history, and fans have flown from overseas and queued for days outside the Barbican on the off chance of securing tickets. Critics have responded with no less hysteria than audiences, with Hamlet remaining front-page news in recent weeks. Both denounced as ‘Shakespeare for kids’ and hailed as ‘surprisingly challenging’, it seemed that this production was doomed to be subsumed by the furore that surrounded it. How could it possibly live up to the expectations placed upon it?

I needn’t have worried. The entire cast and production team rose to the challenge, delivering a Hamlet of such surprising depth and subtlety that I was too lost in the performance to consider anybody else’s opinion of it. Director Lyndsey Turner has navigated deftly through one of the most intricate scripts in the theatrical oeuvre, proving that complaints about altering the order of the text say more about the critics’ prejudices than the final effect of the production itself. I had rather hoped, after Kate Maltby’s outrage at the previews, that the play would open in complete darkness with Cumberbatch’s eminently recognisable voice declaiming ‘To be or not to be’. Alas, it was not to be, but the opening nonetheless received thoughtful tailoring. Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ provides the soundtrack for Hamlet asking ‘Who’s there?’, taking the abridged lines usually assigned to a soldier, with the entire first appearance of the ghost now edited out.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes & Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes & Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

This opening sets the surreal, disorienting atmosphere that characterises the rest of the show. It also, however, makes it quite clear that this is a production streamlined to focus on Hamlet himself. On the one hand, Cumberbatch is the star of this show, and his performance justifies his reputation as one of Britain’s leading actors. His Hamlet is characterised by chimerical changes of mood — by turns truculent, tender, whimsical, despicable, resigned — a great example of the intelligently nuanced performances that have made Cumberbatch so famous. On the other hand, this close focus led to some peculiar directorial decisions that marred an otherwise phenomenal production. In the play scene, the primary focus is on Hamlet and Claudius’s reactions to the scene of treachery, presenting the opportunity for mesmerising performances from both actors. Bizarrely, therefore, in this production Claudius’s back is placed to the audience, and the player’s lines of murder given to Hamlet, rendering the scene somewhat nonsensical and undermining this pivotal moment in the play.

This is a rare moment of discontent, however. The production sparkles at its new, abridged pace, taking full advantage of the ample stage space in the Barbican. Es Devlin’s extraordinarily decadent set design is spectacular, enhanced by striking video (Luke Halls) and lighting (Jane Cox). Some of the most exciting Shakespeare productions I have seen in the last year have used video innovatively, and this is no exception. New physical and psychological possibilities are opened up in Shakespeare’s scripts when the traditional confines of the stage are technologically expanded, and here palace walls become forests and the backdrop for projections of Hamlet’s mental state. Most compelling, however, is the sound design (Christopher Shutt) and incidental music (Jon Hopkins). The first half concludes with a heart-stopping thunder that shakes the entire theatre, the sound, set, and light design rendering the stage momentarily cinematic. Jon Hopkins’ score is sensitive and astute, achieving a particularly heart-rending effect for Ophelia’s final appearance. She is associated with the piano throughout the play, and in her final moments on stage her feverish piano-playing melts into a non-diegetic score before she exits. Just as with her mind and, eventually, her body, her music is subsumed, overwhelmed by forces greater than herself.

barbican

Thanks to the unerring focus on Cumberbatch, the balance of power on the stage is a little more unequal than might be desirable. But there are some stellar supporting performances from Ciarán Hinds as Claudius and Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, as well as an excellent comic turn from Karl Johnson as the gravedigger (although Siân Brooke’s Ophelia is a little grating and overwrought). Initially, the cast seem to exist only for their relation to Hamlet, and it is only in the second half that the other characters take on a more independent existence. In doing so we see the events through the eyes of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, whose outlook develops over the three hours of the play from childlike self-obsession (reflected in the adolescents who adorn the cover of the programme, sold at an eye-watering £8.50) to mature self-reflection, realising the consequences of his actions as he stands by Ophelia’s grave.

This Hamlet certainly presents a spectacle, but it doesn’t detract from the substance that lies behind it. The production has become a moment of British theatrical history, and Cumberbatch offers a Hamlet to stand among the greats.

Leah Broad

‘Hamlet’ runs at the Barbican until 31st October. More information about the production and ticket purchase can be obtained at the website.

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Conor Collins is a Manchester-based artist, whose direct and daring portraits of popular icons using unexpected materials have propelled him to fame. His portrait of swimmer Tom Daley, composed of homophobic abuse hurled against him, was featured in the Huffington Post, Independent, Buzzfeed, Jezebel and TIME (amongst others) after going viral. He also has a hilarious, very followable Twitter. Leo Mercer has a conversation with him.

What are you working on at the moment? Can you tell me a bit about how you work?

Normally, I start a painting on a Friday, and won’t stop till the next day. It’s not enjoyable whilst doing it, because for ages, it’s just lines (or in other cases, just dots), on a page. But it’s enjoyable when finished. One of my current pieces is a self-portrait. It’s made up of a lot of the Twitter authentication ticks. I’ve spent ages on it, trying to get the Twitter blue right, and that’s a nightmare because it’s different colours on different screens, and on different materials. Authenticity is a big thing at the moment. People want real food, real music. It’s a bit of a nonsense word, but what makes someone ‘authentic’ on Twitter is the blue tick.

As opposed to the aspect of authenticity as connected with sincerity, being true to some elusive you.

I think that’s much more valid. And that’s why I dumped my YouTube videos – because they weren’t the real me. I was interested in Youtube, and the fandoms, and I wanted to immerse myself in it using art; but the further I got into it, the less my pieces were art, they were just pictures. I distinguish between craft and art: sometimes works have a deeper meaning which make them art. When I made Troye Sivan out of Nutella, it was skill, but it’s not art. It worked, because it went from 0 subscribers to 2000, but it wasn’t art. So I stopped that.

How would you define what is art and what isn’t?

Art is… produced by an artist. It has to have a sort of rhetoric: social, political, whatever. It has to have its own style – I keep coming back to sincerity. In the case of the Troye Sivan portrait, it was produced by an artist, and it had a style, but it wasn’t expressing anything, so it was missing something.

How did that vlogger-based work come about?

For me it began as an experiment in marketing. I didn’t have a fanbase, so I thought: who does have subscribers? Vloggers. Troye spotted it, shared it, and I got a thousand of his fans.

There’s something very internet-based about lots of your art, but you haven’t (correct me if I’m wrong) done art made digitally. Is that in principle – and if so, what is the principle? – or just something you haven’t got round to yet?

I suppose there’s a self mythologising element which may or may not have influenced my pieces, which gave them their cyber appearance. Growing up as a child my family used to have a chunky building-block of a TV, with those stiff metal buttons which had numbers that never actually correlated to the channel. With these old TVs you could sit far too close and see the individual lights of each colour that would, when put together, form an overall image. I think on some level that has influenced my dot paintings.

However I think the biggest influence on my art is my overall incompetence. The reason I don’t use oils is because I can’t. The reason I don’t work in a hyper realist aesthetic is that I can’t. I also can’t get ears to match, so I never paint any of my models with more than one. My lack of skill has been my driving force and also I think might be what has given me a bit of an edge in the art world. You can train as much as you want, but you can’t teach incompetence.

I am not against using computers. However I have always loved the haptic quality of paintings. From a distance they can look like digital prints, but up close they are blobs of paint and ink strung with mistakes and smudges. There is a big rise in digital art, but computers and I have never really got on. Plus computers are crap at making mistakes with images. Mistakes are very important and are often a more distinctive indication of who’s painting a piece than any signature can give.

To me your work looks like pointillism meets Andy Warhol meets social media.

I didn’t realise a lot of my influences until recently. I used to love watching TV, and going close up, and then stepping back, and thinking: I’m seeing an image, but these colours are all it is. When you see my paintings at a distance, they’re clear: my Alan Turing one is clearly Alan Turing, but when you get up close, it’s just pink triangles.

I was definitely inspired by Dali and his Abraham Lincoln portrait. He was interested in pixels: in one pixel, it is Lincoln, but the rest are just squares, and you can only see that it is Lincoln from far away.

Salvador Dali's portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Salvador Dali’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln

The brain likes to see faces: if the circles are too big for example, it will just see a mess of circles. I did one portrait where you can only work out what it is if you take a photo of it, or you look at it reflected in a black mirror (your phone when it’s off). I also do word paintings: this is the product of 13 months of thoughts, feelings, etc. When you’re up close you think it’s just lines – some funny, some dark, all sincere – but you have to get far away to see it’s a face.

I like that, because I want to get away from galleries: I want to produce paintings that when hung in a gallery you can’t see them, because you’re too close – you only see the portrait online when everything is shrunk. Also, the internet’s still in its baby stages, but because of the internet, as an artist you don’t need a gallery any more. 90% of my sales come from social media.

Can you say a bit more about what you think about galleries?

Well, the gallery has become an antique home for art. It served its purpose, but hasn’t evolved alongside the pieces it holds. I’m not saying exhibitions are dead, in fact there are more exhibitions going today than there have ever been. But when you consider how art has moved from painting, to video art, to performance art, and so on, galleries have remained almost unchanged from Paris in 1800. There are large expanses of white walls, wine in glasses, fashionable middle-class people wandering around, and an awkward sense that your hands should remain near you at all times, preferably one hand on your face. That’s why I prefer the internet, as the observer can observe it by whatever means they wish. However I do want to have a good few exhibits in galleries over the next few years, I just think I might do them a little bit differently.

Do you have a sense of how “Art” is publicly perceived at the moment, and whether you’d want it to be perceived differently?

As we’re in an age of instantaneous gratification (fast food for when you’re hungry, cheap booze for when you’re sad, and free porn for when you’re horny) people don’t like to wait long for an response, especially from art. That said, you wouldn’t go to an opera, hear the opening line and proclaim that it’s just rubbish and leave. You give it time. The same goes for art. People looking at art seem to want something that instantly makes you think, whilst also inducing some sort of large emotional response. Like a log flume with a socio-political message. So people don’t look two seconds at a bowl of fruit anymore. How often have people said they love Banksy because he/she is political? They see the instant political message, they aren’t really seeing the whole piece. Instead, they are liking the artists’ rhetoric. Rhetoric is part of art, but isn’t the whole of it. If you only like a piece because of its instant (and often obvious) political statement, then you might as well put a budget reform in the Tate too. If you love an art piece only because of its political message, then compare it to Stalin, or Blair, or John Lennon, not art.

Are there other contemporary artists whose work bubbles you with excitement?

Grayson Perry. I like his art because he works in the most difficult medium, because it’s seen as similar to mainstream art. In the art world there are 2 factions – the insiders and the outsiders  – and both are accepted as artists. Insiders produce hyperrealist art, or angry expressionist paintings, and the art world lap it up. Outsiders produce self destructive art pieces, and performances of refugees trying to sell you handbags in the gallery (both real pieces) and again, the art world love it. However if you live in the middle, such as pottery, the art world doesn’t like that. They like all or nothing. I like how Perry plays with that.

© Conor Collins

© Conor Collins

You’ve lived in Manchester for a while now. What is it like as an artistic environment?

There are emerging art scenes here in Manchester, but contemporary art, in the sense of painting and sculpture, isn’t one of them. The drag scene, both drag king and queens and all in-between is booming and reinventing itself. I would actually say that it is currently leading the world in contemporary drag. Music is ever changing, fashion is way ahead, but painters seem a little…safe. However I hope that may change soon.

Can you say a bit more about Manchester’s drag scene?

The way Manchester is leading drag is through its use of colour, in a metaphorical sense. A lot of drag is about being the manliest man, or the fishiest (most feminine) woman. The Manchester queens rewrite that, and instead paint both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. Their drag pushes it so far that it is beyond even gender, or human. They become walking pieces of modern art, with fishnet stockings filled with garish balloons or antlers glistening in gold against the neon lights of a kebab shop, or even politically infused with DC Joker makeup and a UKIP badge. They aren’t just dressing up. They highlight the myths we believe about clothing an image, about gender and beauty – and I must say, it’s wonderful. I wouldn’t want to name my favourites, however I would like to think they know I admire them.

Is there a sort of art community in Manchester?

There might be, but I have never really been the joining in type. There could be a ghetto of brilliant poets, painters and progressive individuals right on my doorstep. However I haven’t ever really found myself welcomed in. So far I haven’t found a community I fit in, which ironically works rather nicely. In some ways to be an artist you need to see the world not from within, but from without.

Your paintings tend to be portraits. Have you thought about doing a landscape?

I’ll do a landscape soon – I want to do one landscape, a sort of nod to cellists and pianists. Often a performance is not about the musicality, it’s about the virtuosity – but they don’t get to show that, they have to do beauty. But I want to do virtuosic. When people spend hundreds, thousands on a painting, and you wonder why – it’s because they’re not just paying for that painting, they’re also paying for every other painting that led up to that painting. A concert pianist might be £300 an hour, which might be extortionate, but before that hour they’ve been working for 15 years. So I thought I want to do one indescribably delicate and complex – with the dots – in my style. That’s the only one I’ll ever do.

Do you have any big art plans in the pipeline? I saw something on Twitter about a Heineken-advert-inspired daringness!

I like to try and do more and more every season. I suppose I never grew up from that child who would rush his class work in year one just to give it to the teacher to say “DONE, what’s next?”. So this year I am planning a Manchester show in collaborations with Superbia, and two London shows, one in Central London and one going on tour and finishing in Buckingham Palace. All three of these are still in their early days of planning, but I already want to plan another – perhaps in Oxford?

Your Twitter account is continually humorous – is humour something that you try to put into your art?

I think humour and art are very similar, they simply say and show things as they appear to their observer. If you show things better than they are you are called a romantic. If you show them worse that they are then you are called a pessimist. However if you say things and show things exactly how they are, then you are an Artist.

Leo Mercer

More of Conor’s art can be found at his website.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Theatre critic Aleks Sierz and cultural geographer Lia Ghilardi have combined forces to write ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre‘, a creative mapping of British theatre and its audiences from 1558 to 1954. I spoke to them about navigating the mammoth task of documenting nearly 400 years of dramatic history, approaches to non-fiction writing, and possibilities for future theatre audiences.

Where did the idea for ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre’ come from?

Aleks: I have written a number of books about British theatre, both in a journalistic format and in an academic format, but I was looking for a more inspiring way of talking about the subject. History and current historians becoming media stars is a contemporary phenomenon: history is everywhere these days. You can’t switch on your TV without seeing a talking head, an actor playing a historical figure, a recreation of time past… So Lia and I discussed the idea of introducing an element of story telling into our own historical survey, to make it much more enjoyable for the reader, and to reach out beyond the normally small number of people who regularly read theatre books. I believe that the history of British theatre is an exciting one and I wanted to reach out as much as possible.

Lia: That’s right. From the start, my idea was to bring into the dusty field of British theatre history books a more acute sense of stepping into another world, to convey the experience of being there, of feeling the past. I was also keen to make the experience of reading a bit more immersive, by developing the narrative as if it is a storyboard. So that’s how the idea of introducing each episode by setting it in a particular time and place came about. After all, theatre is about using imaginative ways to tell stories so it felt right to be more creative.

Why did you choose narrators for each section?

Lia: Originally, Aleks thought that we should have one guide, a bit like Doctor Who, for the whole book, and then, talking about it, I suggested having a different guide for each of the eight chapters. These are fictional figures who take the reader by the hand and lead them through each historical era. Of course, each character is in some ways emblematic of their time — they embody the traits of their era. And they are audience members rather than theatre people — they are ordinary people rather specialists. They represent the wider public. For example, our character Constance — who is our Edwardian guide — is a typical New Woman of pre-first world war times.

Aleks: Yes, we had a lot of fun creating these characters, and giving them their idiosyncrasies and their opinions and attitudes. In short, their individuality. One of my favourites is Gabriel, who is the guide for the chapter on the Regency era. He is a young black former-slave who is keen on reforming both the theatre and society, and his energetic personality felt just right for this age of revolutions.

Why did you focus on London?

Aleks: Well, the history of British theatre is mainly a metropolitan phenomenon. As you know, first the English and then the British state achieved a high degree of centralisation quite early on, from the Tudors onwards, and culturally London led the way for many decades. Certainly, since the Restoration, London theatre set the repertoire and tastes for much of the rest of the country.

Lia: However, we did make an effort, within the constraints of space that we set ourselves, to make brief forays outside of the capital. We not only time travel, but we also travel out of London, to Stratford-upon-Avon, to Brighton, to Manchester. Dublin and Edinburgh are often mentioned, and so are places such as Bristol and Bath. But, in the end, ‘All roads lead to London!’

Globe Theatre, London

Globe Theatre, London

How did you go about choosing what got included — and omitted — from the history?

Aleks: The method that we chose to use, setting up scenes and imaginary conversations, did have implications for the writing of this particular history. For example, in a standard history book, you can have a phrase such as ‘No one knows for sure who the first female actor was.’ In our book, to convey this piece of information we first had to set up a scene, then describe the setting and explain what was at stake, and then invent a conversation about it. So instead of one sentence you have to write one paragraph. And whereas in most standard history books it is normal to discuss those facts that are uncertain, or disputed, we aimed for much more certainty, so in every instance in which there was a dispute, we read the evidence, weighed up the balance of probabilities, and made a choice. In other words, we offer an interpretation as well as a story.

Lia: Yes. The original draft was about half as long again as the 300 pages that our book eventually came in at. It was full of detail about arcane theatre practices and forgotten plays. So we set ourselves a target of about 10,000 words per chapter and started to cut, always asking ourselves: is this really interesting? Is it important? Do we need it for the story? And, sometimes, how would our guide know? What would they include? So our defence against anyone who complains that there is a play or a venue missing from our book is: our guide has forgotten about it — we haven’t. For me, the main criteria for inclusion was interest for the general public, not for the theatre specialist.

What have been the biggest advantages and disadvantages of co-authorship?

Lia: The advantages and disadvantages can be summed up in one phrase: massive disagreements about all aspects of the book — form, content, level of detail. Often it turned into a struggle between male and female attitudes, between the anorak and the flaneur, between pedantic comprehensiveness and sticking to the point, between detail and the big picture. In every case, dispute educated both of us.

Aleks: That’s right. And one of the pleasures of authorship is that two heads are better than one. We were each other’s external critical eye. I reminded Lia that some facts were essential in telling the story and she reminded me that too many facts bogged down the narrative. Crudely, I contributed the facts, Lia the imaginative vision, and the questioning attitude.

Which was your favourite period to write about?

Lia: The Elizabethan era and the Victorian period.

Aleks: The Regency and the Modern chapters.

There are some extraordinary statistics in the book — for example that 20,000 Londoners visited the theatre every week in the Jacobean period. What was your most surprising or exciting discovery whilst researching for the book?

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Lia: The sheer amount of creativity in the theatre culture of this country. Time and time again, we wanted to cut something. But time and time again, we bowed to the inevitable: there was so much to include because the subject was so rich. I was extremely interested in the role of the audience, especially when it was vocal in its support of a particular play, or riotous in order to keep admission prices low.

Aleks: I was most impressed by the number of anecdotes and gossipy stories. My favourites are the origin of the term ‘box office’, the story about Shakespeare’s sexual adventure and the one about Richard Brinsley Sheridan taking a glass of wine while his theatre burnt down. But I’m not going to tell you the punchlines of these stories — for that you have to read the book.

‘The Time Traveller’s Guide’ is focused on theatre audiences — how do you see the demographic of future British audiences evolving?

Lia: My guess is that audiences will get younger as technology continues to influence performance, and that the visual elements of the show will become more important than the verbal. During the 19th century, new theatre technologies enabled theatres to create huge visual spectacles, typically melodramas, and their working-class audiences expanded. I would expect something similar to happen again in the future. The latest star phenomenon is also worth a mention: at the moment, Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in Hamlet at the Barbican and the media are talking about the ‘Cumberbitches’, female fans who have never seen a Shakespeare play, never been to the theatre, but are going because he’s on stage. This is an example of theatre as a unique one-off event, that will probably widen the audience.

Aleks: As well as these kinds of changes, I also predict a lot of continuity. Compared to film or radio, theatre is quite a difficult medium to enjoy. I mean, where are the different camera angles, where are the jump cuts, where’s the music? To get into theatre you need to concentrate a lot, and go often. And that’s quite expensive. So I believe that the older, university-educated audiences of today will continue to be the backbone of future theatre audiences.

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi

Do you view the introduction of the EBacc into schools as a positive or negative move, and why?

Aleks: I’m not an expert on secondary education, but the concentration on a core of some six subjects will inevitably mean that what the government perceives as ‘soft’ subjects such as drama, music and the arts will be neglected and that will surely impact on the overall education of young people across the country. Already, theatres outside London are noticing that the number of school parties has fallen, and this has a negative effect on their box office. Gradually, this might contribute to a crisis in the repertoires of theatres outside London, and thus to a shrinking of available theatre experiences for everyone.

Lia: Teaching and learning about culture and the arts is key to forming fully rounded human beings, and future citizens. If we concentrate on a narrow curriculum without aesthetic and moral values then it will not only be difficult to nurture new audiences but also to achieve a more harmonious society. Personally, I think that subjects such as music, history of art or philosophy are a must.

How do you think academic writing about theatre could be more accessible?

Lia: We don’t want to attack academics — we both work in universities after all! And many television dons such as David Starkey, Simon Schama, and in the field of theatre James Shapiro, do a very good job in broadening the audience for history. And their work inspired ours. When we were writing our book we relied a lot on big fat tomes whose impeccable research, meticulous reasoning and clarity of writing were an enormous help. But as well as in-depth research, we also wanted to convey our own joy in discovery to the widest number of people. And isn’t that the definition of accessibility?

Aleks: Yes, our slogan was: we read the boring books so that you don’t have to. In the future, the results of academic study will be more widely available in user-friendly platforms by means of digital technologies. Already theatres such as Shakespeare’s Globe and companies such as Digital Theatre are developing new methods of disseminating research, making it more interesting, especially for young people, so that’s an optimistic note to end on!

Leah Broad

‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre’ is available to buy now from Oberon Books, RRP £14.99. More information about Aleks and Lia can be found at their respective websites.

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In 1996, Stephen Hawking pointed out to his readers that one in 750 people on this planet owns a copy of A Brief History of Time. Sadly, this does not mean that millions of people have actually read the work. Hawking’s 1988 popularization, which was an overnight smash hit in the US and then hastily scrambled for by publishers around the world, is infamous for being one of those works most often left unfinished, sharing the list with monumental works such as Ulysses and Moby-Dick, a surprising achievement for a 200-page popular science book. Hawking’s problem, it was soon pointed out, is that his book too rigorously condenses the extremely ambitious topic, a brief history of the 13.7 million years since the Big Bang, and the science behind it. Hawking rushes through topics most readers will be unfamiliar with, making readers struggle to keep up.

Hawking became one of the world’s most famous science popularizers for a work very few people managed to read through to the end. What is less known, however, is that he wrote another series of popular science books that reflect a perhaps even more ambitious effort: together with his daughter, Lucy Hawking, he wrote a series of children’s books.

Stephen & Lucy Hawking

Stephen & Lucy Hawking

In 2007, the Hawkings published George and the Secret Key to the Universe, the first book about a boy named George who is introduced to the amazing and apparently limitless possibilities of science. Three more books about George have appeared since: George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009), George and the Big Bang (2011) and George and the Unbreakable Code (2014). A fifth instalment, George and the Blue Planets, is expected for 2016.

It is hard to tell to what extent each author contributed, although the marked difference in style and accessibility suggests that either Stephen Hawking has improved his writing a lot, or Lucy Hawking has contributed most of the storyline. Indeed, Lucy Hawking is a professional author with two standalone novels to her name, Jaded (2003) and The Accidental Marathon (2006), although neither work was well received.

The George books are educational and fun to read, although their plots are a little contrived, and in the case of the first book, actually quite questionable. George is the only child of the worst sort of eco-warrior parents: they have electricity for an hour a day or so, George is always given inedible home-grown food, and science and technology are utterly evil. George has a pig, though, and when this pig one day escapes through a hole in the fence, he meets Annie, whose scientist father Eric (clearly based on Stephen Hawking) just moved in next door. Eric turns out to have an amazing supercomputer, Cosmos, which can open portals to anywhere in the universe. Soon, George’s evil schoolteacher finds out about Cosmos and tries to steal him, in the meantime causing Eric to fall into a black hole. Oops.

This is where the book gets very interesting. Explaining to children what black holes are is commendable in itself: most educated adults struggle to wrap their minds around the concept. However, the Hawkings take it a step further, and also throw in an explanation of Hawking radiation.

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Stephen Hawking’s fame as a scientist is based on two topics he revolutionised: the Big Bang and black holes. Regarding black holes, Hawking discovered that these slowly radiate everything they have swallowed back out again: black holes slowly shrink and will eventually disappear, long after everything else in the universe has dissipated and died. The radiation black holes emit has been named Hawking radiation, and it is this radiation that George and Annie use to get Eric back from the black hole. They simply build him back up, atom by atom, from this radiation.

When Eric is saved, unfortunately the weak plot takes over again. Eric teaches George’s parents that there are two ways to save the world: by being eco-friendly, and through science. Sure. But his next suggestion is less appetizing: science can save humankind by looking for a new exoplanet to go and live on. George’s parents happily gobble this up, but the rest of us might wonder how soon Hawking expects us to a) find a suitable exoplanet, b) invent interstellar travel, and c) transport 7 billion people over there when on Earth we need to reduce our impact on the environment within years to stand a chance of surviving.

In the following books, the plot is not much stronger, but at least it is less controversial. Still, by far the best aspect of the series is the way in which it manages to communicate cutting-edge science to children, touching on topics that have not appeared in children’s books before. These children’s books are perhaps less well known, but they are a lot more readable than that first book that made Stephen Hawking a best-selling author.

Kanta Dihal

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The first thing that struck me entering the Burton-Taylor Studio for Yesterday, a new musical written by students Stephen Hyde and Katie Hale, is how at home it felt within its often maligned venue. The 50 seat black box theatre is repeatedly praised for its versatility, with shows spoken of as having ‘transformed’ the space, as if its bareness were an embarrassment to be obscured. Yesterday, however, didn’t so much transform the space as inhabit it. With the addition of just a couple of hanging filament bulbs and a touch of red curtain, not to mention a three-piece band, you might be forgiven for mistaking the Burton-Taylor Studio for a smoky club in the basement of a chic London bar. The music greeting the assembling audience may have been jazz, but the atmosphere was electric.

If the design could be described as stripped-back, the same might be said of the production itself. Here the choice of venue again was particularly apt — playing next door to the Oxford Playhouse, which this year has hosted a bevy of blockbuster musicals featuring full orchestra pits, heightened the stark contrast offered by Yesterday’s combination of keyboard, cello, drumkit and unamplified voices. The excess of the former suddenly seemed needless in comparison to the perfect simplicity of the latter. Jazz drummer Ben Varnham deserves especial recognition; his evocation of the rush of an oncoming train through an extended drum solo was exhilarating.

Georgia Figgis, Jemimah Taylor, and Joanna Connolly

Georgia Figgis, Jemimah Taylor, and Joanna Connolly

Whilst outshining beleaguered productions of more traditional student fare (such as Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown), Yesterday admittedly does have the benefit of having been written in a post-Sondheim world, and the musical wears its influences on its sleeve in its style and structural experimentation. The latter was particularly effectively employed to deal with the same themes of time, memory and relationships addressed in Merrily We Roll Along and The Last Five Years, with surprising originality. The score and libretto are both excellent, and certainly unparalleled amongst student writing.

Three actresses played three women all connected to one man who never appears onstage. Instead, across their three different timelines (which all converge despite beginning at different stages of his and their lives) ‘Alex’ gains the substance of any of those depicted onstage, yet remains elusive and fluid in a way that enables Hale and Hyde to create a complex and believable (if not always understandable) human being. The stand-out performance came from Jemimah Taylor as Anna, the girl who Alex turns to after the deterioration of his marriage to Sally (Joanna Connolly). Perfectly cast, though somewhat predictably dressed in white, this charismatic actress carried the most compelling of the three stories with a truly infectious energy. Her quiet and touching delivery of the line “I would spend my life with you” particularly sticks in the mind long after the actual melody has faded.

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Georgia Figgis

The narrative structure, unfortunately, does somewhat short-change the character of the wife, leaving Connolly with the difficult task of making a compelling character of someone whose storyline is effectively resolved by the mere inclusion of Anna. However, this problem did not seem to affect Alex’s mother, Julia (played by Georgia Figgis), a character whose storyline began even further in the past. Instead, it was refreshing to see writing that explores a mother-figure whose life extends both before and beyond the mere fact of birth.

Despite uneven performances, Yesterday was undoubtedly the best production of any musical, student-written or otherwise, that I have seen produced by students in my three years here. An appropriate end to the Trinity season of student theatre, I sincerely hope to see it performed beyond the student environment that Hale, Hyde and their team have clearly outgrown.

Luke Rollason

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Iain Pears’ intricately plotted, highly intelligent and very enjoyable novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, explores the troubling and problematic side of the historical movement labelled with the smug term ‘The Enlightenment’.

Set largely in Oxford, the main fascination and brilliance of the novel is its supremely confident structure and plot. The book is actually a single story told four times, by four different narrators. Each of them has their own reasons for not telling the truth: they have a desire to obscure or hide from their actions; their perception is coloured by religious or political preconceptions; or they are — quite simply — mad. The end result is that you simply don’t know the real nature of the plot’s events once you have finished.

Aninstanceofthefingerpost

Described in this way, the novel sounds quite dispiriting, but Pears is deft at teasing and enchanting the reader. Innocuous and, to the narrator, unimportant revelations completely overturn the earlier version of the tale. The result is at times confusing and exasperating, but always nail-biting and exciting. For a reviewer, however, it is hard to discuss the plot in detail without revealing things better left for the reader to uncover, so I will tread carefully with a wariness for spoilers.

This tangle-thicket of a plot would, of course, be undone by bad writing. Fortunately, Pears writes superbly well. He is able to use the trope of a foreigner in a strange land to introduce us deftly to Oxford of the 1660s. True, he cannot resist the old joke about continental attitudes to British food and Shakespeare, but, to be fair, who could? His protagonists explore our city at the dawn of an intellectual revolution, rubbing shoulders with Boyle and Locke, but also at a time of stifling, smug religious orthodoxy; of secret, suppressed heresies and of political tension. This is a world where a man can jump in one sentence from being a highly analytical and insightful mathematician to a paranoid bigot thinking that all papists can be nothing other than duplicitous and sinister ne’er-do-wells scheming to bring down the kingdom. Pears portrays the unease of this society expertly. For all that the aristocrats are bullying and convinced of their superiority, for all that pompous priests feather their nests, we are always aware of the cataclysm of the wars fought a generation before and the threatened ‘world turned upside-down’. The cynical but unhinged paranoia of the seventeenth-century police state looms over the narrative to chilling effect.

Iain Pears

Iain Pears

Pears’ characters are deliberately a ‘mixed bag’. The first narrator is an intelligent, curious and interesting fellow, anticipating the forthcoming enlightenment. The following two narrators are, however, unsympathetic to the point of being insufferable. Sometimes you follow these unpleasant men to uncover their motivations and find the light they shed on the plot. At other times, however, you follow them only because the writing is excellent, and from whatever morbid amusement can be gleaned from their misfortune, stupidity and blinkered inanity. This to a degree more, I fear, than Pears intended. The reader can only take so much of this, however, and I was certainly relieved when the baton was handed on to the historian Anthony à Wood, the fourth narrator. Wood comes across as the most sympathetic of them, but also the most problematic. He is given the task of wrapping up the narrative and, if he can be believed, gives information that neatly solves the many threads of the plot. By the time we come to his section, however, we are disinclined to take anything at face value, let alone Mr Wood’s rather peculiar account.

A review of a novel that barely mentions its central plot, or many of its important features or themes, is perhaps a little unorthodox — but this is precisely in keeping with the novel itself. All I can say is that it is a very clever, confident, well-written book which I would recommend heartily.

Christopher Finn

‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £9.99.

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Sorana Santos is a composer, writer, and multi-instrumentalist. She is currently touring her self-produced album Our Lady of Stars and its corresponding book of poetry, Books of Hours. John Wadsworth talked to Sorana ahead of her concert in Oxford on Thursday July 30th, part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series.

How do Our Lady of Stars and Books of Hours overlap?

I wanted to make a multimedia work that explored the relationship between music and language; they always felt like very similar things. When we look into this relationship at a deeper level we find that they are related at evolutionary, developmental, and neuroscientific levels, and so therefore they are linked at creative levels too.

When I came to explore this relationship in the making of Our Lady of Stars / Books of Hours, I wanted to do so in a less obvious way than just having the poems of the book be the lyrics of the album. I had wondered for a long time whether the techniques used to create either song or poetry could be imposed upon the other medium and began to experiment with this back in 2006. From then on this was largely how I built both my literary and musical works.

Eventually, what I decided to do in this instance was to link both the music and the poetry at a structural level instead of at a purely aesthetic level. Both the book and the album apply contemporary music techniques to traditional structures in songwriting and poetry. This transforms the material into something altogether different from its starting point.

Thematically, they’re not devotional works in and of themselves, as I am not a practitioner of the Christian faith, but they are intended to be a commentary on the similarities between devotional worship and romantic love. I decided to present the works based on the beautiful geometry found in the devotional rituals of The Book of Hours, The Seven Sorrows and The Stations of the Cross. Using these structures as frameworks for the pieces enabled me to build in even more links between the book and the album, such as illustrations in the book corresponding with sound design elements in the album.

Sorana Santos

Do you take different creative approaches to poetry and lyric writing, and if so, why?

I think we’re sensitive to the feel of words differing between text and speech, which is why we’re so careful with the wording of emails and text messages compared to how easily we get someone’s gist when we’re talking face-to-face. Since music shares so much with language it has that same inherent difference built into it too.

I first came across this phenomenon when I was growing up. I ritualistically bought an inordinate amount of music. One of my favourite things to do was to open album inlays on the bus home from the record shop to see which lyrics read well as poetry on the page. Then when I got home I would listen to the song I felt had the most poetic lyrics to see how they felt when lifted off the page and coupled with music. I was often disappointed to find that the lyrics that scanned so well as poetry lost some of their verve when sung, while lyrics I’d overlooked as they didn’t seem so strong on the page could suddenly stand out. I slowly began to realise that lyrics and poetry were not necessarily the same thing and I became mindful of using a different approach to each one.

It’s easy to think poetry and lyrics are almost the same medium as they both deal with rhythm, tempo, tone, structure, expression, and so on – as does music – but bringing music into the equation definitely alters the feel and quality of the words as there are suddenly two mediums at play and it can be hard to strike a balance. Lyrics can be more direct than poetry, for me, and have other considerations that poetry doesn’t, such as how it is placed inside the voice so that it sounds natural when sung, how certain vowels come across better in certain parts of the voice than others, and how to gracefully place lyrics so that they sound like the same ‘ending’ or ‘beginning’ the music is suggesting.

That said, I think Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell are two excellent examples of songwriters whose lyrics can look as strong on the page as they are when sung. Another great example of this is found in Portuguese Fado (also known as Poemas Cantadas, or ‘sung poems’) and in other Hispanic songs, for example, Violeta Parra’s ‘Gracias A La Vida’. The successes of these types of songs and songwriters really inspire me, and were very much my focus when I was writing ‘Ruth’.

I think where my lyric-writing and poems find each other is in the subject matter. I love reading about archetypes in psychoanalysis and consequently have delved a little into researching the occult. I also have a fascination with what Clarissa Pinokla Estés calls the life-death-life cycle. Much of my lyrical and poetic content is structured around the symbology of these archetypes, and how in or out-of-touch each song’s character is with their own medial nature.

You studied Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Do you think that this classical training is reflected in your music?

Definitely, and in quite an obvious way too, especially in Our Lady of Stars where every song in the album is based on the essence, structure, or technique of a Contemporary Music work. For example, every musical element of ‘Mary’ has its own isorhythm, ‘Salome’ is derived from a Stockhausen tone row, ‘Sophia’ (sorry for the spoiler – this is the hidden track!) magnifies Reich’s phase shifting technique as, and the form and chord progression of ‘Sarah’ was constructed using the Fibonacci series. I don’t think I would’ve developed a deep enough understanding of Contemporary Music, or creativity itself for that matter, without Diana Burrell’s input. It was pivotal.

Because I’ve always loved singing and piano-playing so much I’ve often berated myself for keeping voice and piano as second studies during my time at Guildhall. Everyone who knew me in my school days was really surprised that I had taken this route, but I felt that while a good voice or a strong piano technique is always nice thing to hear, in the long term the quality of a song or composition is what stands the test of time – I think this is true whether someone is a trained musician or not. I wanted to be the best possible composer I could be and I’m glad I stuck with it. What I learned most was that all the music I loved most struck a balance between heart and mind.

Sorana Santos

How has session singing and your voiceover work informed your own music?

Doing session and voiceover work can make me find areas of my voice I’ve not explored yet. When I first stood in for Florence Welch [after replacing Welch as the lead vocalist of the band Ashok] it was some of the hardest vocal work I’d ever done – constantly belting notes right on my break gave me great stamina and forced me to expand the range of tones I could make with these pitches. When I came back to my own material it definitely changed my outlook towards writing for my own voice and I was prepared to play it less safe.

I studied the Estill Method with Lynda Richardson for over a decade and it completely transformed the way I sang, giving me lots of choices vocally. In the Estill Method you learn the techniques of different singing styles and it means that whether I want to sing as more of a rock singer in ‘Sarah’, the church choir in ‘Jezebel’, or the more Classical plainchant in ‘Hannah’, I can alter a few positions here and there to allude to the sounds I want to make while still hopefully sounding like myself.

As for voiceovers, that happened completely by chance but it seemed to tie in with my studying Estill Method and also the bank of impressions, voices, and characters I’d built over the years with my friends and siblings.  I used to feel very nervous about talking – a remnant of English not being my first language – and consequently had an uncomfortable speaking voice that never quite sat right in my body. Then one day I realised that must have changed because I was put forward to audition for ITV by Fiona Neeranjohn – I believe this was due to my work with Lynda and the Estill Method. This led me to getting a foreign voiceover agent, which keeps me on my toes linguistically and feeds back into my creative practice. I have Hispanic heritage and enjoy singing Portuguese Fado and various Hispanic Folk Songs; at the moment I am thinking about writing in my original languages.

When it came to making Our Lady of Stars / Books of Hours, I made an audiobook component to Books of Hours as a further comment on the differences between written and spoken poetry. My work in voiceover enabled me to find the characters, tones, moods and voices for reading both the traditional poems and the more contemporary ones, which were a challenge to voice.

Our Lady of Stars

You have written for The Guardian and elsewhere about the costs involved with being a professional musician. Why do you feel this is such an important issue to discuss?

How we measure value and where we place value in our society fascinates me. Personally, something is of value to me based on whether it divides or unites people, whether it creates a win-win situation for both the giver and the provider, and whether it has the potential to bring joy to the individual and/or society. Music definitely fulfils those criteria, and is more beyond: music is an art but it is also a language, performed with a sportsman’s mentality, based on the laws of physics, and when analysed mathematically, the balance and geometry are simply astonishing. It has numerous proven benefits in both developing and improving cognition, co-ordination, communication, and as if that weren’t enough it also brings people joy. So by my reckoning (and bias) it is greatly undervalued.

Given the amount of value music brings to those learning, performing, and listening to it, I would argue that its value proposition was high. However, this is at odds with how it is viewed in our society where the true benefits of the arts aren’t seen in quite the same way on the whole, and seem to be viewed almost as an appendage luxury item. Consequently the level to which musicians train is not necessarily reflected in their career progression or salary, which isn’t standard practice in most professions.

I also think that there’s something around the subject of music and money at the moment, particularly since the music industry’s model has changed so much in the past decade or so. I have a few connections to the creative startup scene here, and while there are many companies and academics researching how to monetise the music industry, the general advice is to run a mile from trying to solve the problem of monetising music in the digital age. I’m convinced it can be done, though; music has gone through many other such shifts in its time: the shift from printed to recorded music and the introduction of radio playing music for ‘free’ to name but two. I think human problems have human solutions. We just haven’t hit on a good enough solution yet.

What can the audience expect to hear at your Warneford Chapel concert?

We’re playing trio at Warneford Chapel; just Joe Wright [saxes/flute], James Maddren [drums] and I. Joe has done some unbelievable things with this project. For one, he made a vocal microphone out of a tin can and processes the sound that comes out of it.  This not only makes a few of the songs come alive, but actually enables us to play them live! As well as playing his saxophones and a couple of other homemade instruments he’ll also working with Max MSP patches and doing some sound processing too. You’ll also hear James being the genius we all know him to be. And then there’ll be me, being the most me I can possibly be at my magic piano!

John Wadsworth

For more information about OCM’s forthcoming events, please visit their website. You can listen to Sorana’s music on Bandcamp here.

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