At the entrance to Painting the Modern Garden, a Monet quotation reads: ‘Perhaps I owe it to flowers that I became a painter’. Using Monet as a springboard, the Royal Academy of Arts’ current exhibition explores and expands on the concept and aesthetics of gardens. The outcome is a triumph of joyfulness and colour, and an investigation into the fascinating relationship between man, nature, and beauty.

Curator Ann Dumas has chosen to group works both historically and conceptually, an approach that I found particularly successful. From a chronological perspective, the exhibition encompasses works from the early 1860s through to the 1920s. In the first rooms, we are presented with Impressionists such as Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro, for whom painting en plein air was inherent to their artistic practice. The exhibition moves on to later Impressionists and Expressionists, including some of the best-known painters working at the turn of the century: Van Gogh, Matisse, Nolde, Kandinsky, Klee, and Klimt, to name only a few.

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Auguste Renoir, Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 Photo © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Alongside the assortment of artistic movements represented, there are plenty of thematic recurrences. As Dumas explains of the artists exhibited, ‘gardens ignited their imaginations, sharpened their response to colour, and provided a fertile space in which to explore a broad range of painterly and thematic ideas’. Thus we see patterns of cultivated and wild gardens, inhabited and deserted, vibrant and mysterious.

Renoir’s Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873), for instance, depicts the artist himself busy at work, afforded a prominent position in the painting. By contrast, in The Garden in the Rue Cortot (1876), Renoir relegates the work’s two male figures to the background, while the centre of the painting is dominated by red, yellow, and white dahlias. The exhibition blossoms with this phenomenal variety of perspective, inspired by nature’s own masterpieces.

As the undisputed star of the exhibition, Monet’s works are granted several rooms. His fascination for natural scenes started at Argenteuil, a village near Paris depicted in many of his earlier works, where he moved in 1871. In 1883, he purchased a property in Giverny and turned it into a landscaping project, with over 70 species of trees and flowers. He made no secret of his passion for nature and gardening; he allegedly once remarked, ‘I love compost as one loves a woman.’

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Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1904 Le Havre, Musée d’Art moderne André Malraux. Photo © MuMa Le Havre

At the heart of the exhibition, three of his Water Lilies paintings are displayed next to one other. In these works, Monet demonstrates an unprecedented control over his palette. The water consists of blue, purple, and green, with notes of yellow, coexisting in tension, without blending completely. As we admire the chromatic harmony, deep, boundless spaces open up. There is a tension here between the subtlest shifts of light from one moment to the next in the lilies, and the seemingly infinite transcendence of time and space beyond. This is the Impressionistic garden at its finest, immersing us in a world of meditation and calm.

Alongside the works of Monet and other famous Impressionists, we admire the works of less-known artists, including Joaquín Sorolla and Max Liebermann. A hidden gem awaits the visitor towards the end of the visit: two canvases by Jean-Édouard Vuillard. The Garden of Les Relais at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne (1898) condenses recurrent themes of the exhibition: a decorative approach to flowers; the presence of human figures in harmony with nature; and the chromatic enhancement of red and green, a pair of complementary colours.

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Jean-Édouard Vuillard, The Garden of Les Relais at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, Detail, 1898 Private collection

Not only is Painting the Modern Garden a feast for the eyes and spirit, but it is also cleverly assembled. Visitors can enjoy the paintings whilst sitting on garden benches, and halfway through the exhibition a little greenhouse displays live plants and gardening magazines. Quotations are scattered across the walls, capturing the essence of the exhibition. The titles of the individual sections are witty and light-hearted in tone (‘Avant-Gardens’ was a personal favourite). At the end of the exhibition, after a series of photographs of the artists themselves portrayed as horticulturists, Monet’s later works are displayed as a sort of ‘coda’. This gives us a final moment of peace in the garden of Giverny, which the artist – and this exhibition – have so effectively managed to recreate.

Anna Zanetti

Painting the Modern Garden runs at the Royal Academy of Arts until 8 April. Tickets can be booked online here. More information about the exhibition can be found here.


The man was noble but with his last attempt he wiped it out; destroy’d his country, and his name remains to the ensuing age abhorr’d.

Lucy Clarke has taken on a monumental task in staging Coriolanus. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most unsympathetic of protagonists to begin with, the director has stripped Coriolanus’ character down to the bare elements of personal honour and ambition. From this emerges a parable of the contemporary struggles of a citizen commonwealth pitted against ring-master politicians. With the addition of some gender bending, accommodating both a modern audience and casting call, the stage is set for a truly original interpretation of this underappreciated Shakespearean tragedy.

Thought to have been written between 1605 and 1608, the original play would have resonated with popular audiences for its portrayal of an overlooked and overtly manipulated plebeian class. For Britons of the time, coming fresh from the Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604) and Tyrone’s Rebellion (1594-1603), where press-ganging for military service was common among London’s slums, theatre punters would likely have seen Coriolanus as a rampant critique of their self-appointed ‘representatives’. The play provided a forum for the ever present debate in British politics of the time on constitutional monarchy and the power of the nobility over the mobility.

For the modern audience, and for Clarke, Coriolanus is prototypical of an especially hair-raising episode of Prime Minister’s Questions, whereby one is left physically sickened by the ethical black-whole that is parliament. It speaks of the cuts to Britain’s welfare state, and the increasing divides in British society based on the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. In Rome’s enemy, the Volscians, we see the workings of minority discourses on gender and race, Clarke cleverly casting an all-female Volscian hoard, that has been given a strong lead in Annie von Chacha Hayter, playing Tullus Aufidius.


Perhaps ironically for a piece with such fascistic undertones, the sneak peek I was privy to last Sunday proved to be a triumph of the feminine. Volumnia’s chastisement of her son, Coriolanus (one of the best speeches for a female character in Shakespeare) was delivered flawlessly. This was matched by the quiet contempt of Tullus Aufidius, and perfectly juxtaposed with the ever-changeable nature of the plebeian mob.

Learned and illiterate alike will be pleased to know that almost 1000 lines have been cut from the original script, which does in parts wax quite un-lyrical on the posturing of politics. This adaptation is snappy and succinct, unmasking the intrigue within so-called democracy and the self-aggrandising manipulations of a political class determined to master the game, sparing none in the process.

With a stunning outdoor setting in the quad of Regents Park, Coriolanus (running from 16-18 February) is not to be missed.

Louise Hemfrey

‘Coriolanus’ runs at Regent’s Park from 16-18 February. For more information and to book tickets, please visit their Facebook page.

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As I walk up the stairs from the hustle and bustle of Modern Art Oxford’s café at lunch time to their current exhibition, The Indivisible Present, I am transported to an entirely different world. The busy chatter and clinking of coffee cups fades away to eerie music, reminiscent of a horror movie soundtrack. The first room of the exhibition is blacked out, with a large screen dominating the space, showing Pierre Huyghe’s installation film, De-extinction. The attendant hands me a programme, and I stumble off through the darkness.

The Indivisible Present is the first exhibition of Modern Art Oxford’s new Kaleidoscope programme. To celebrate the gallery’s 50th year of presenting contemporary art and performance, they will open year round with a series of shows that aptly share the theme of ‘time’. Over 700 artists have exhibited at MAO since its opening, and some highlights of their work will be shown alongside newly commissioned pieces. It is truly a celebration of all the gallery has done in the past fifty years, and all it sets out to do in the future. As one exhibition is dismantled and the next assembled, the gallery will remain open, allowing visitors a sneak peek into the process.

The Indivisible Present advertises its theme as ‘temporality’, specifically our experience of time. Huyghe’s opening piece, for instance, presents ‘a moment of reproduction’ between two insects, frozen forever in amber, depicting just one moment in a vast history of time. In the following room, Viola Yeşiltaç’s photography series, I Really Must Congratulate You on Your Attention to Detail (2016), also captures otherwise fleeting moments. Here, precariously balanced paper sculptures are captured on film just at the moment before they fall.

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Pierre Huyghe, De-extinction, 2014, video still. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London and Anna Lena Films, Paris

The pieces on display also confront the ways in which our perception can be flawed. Douglas Gordon’s film installation 24 hour Psycho (1993) shows the classic Hitchcock film stretched out to a day-long duration. At this slow pace, details from the individual frames are revealed, highlighting what we may miss in real-time. This is not the only way in which our perception of objects or events is biased. The show encourages the viewer to see artworks as events, bound up both within their own temporal context and with that of the viewer. As the curator Ciara Moloney explains, “as we ourselves change, so too do our perceptions of the artworks”. By bringing back previously exhibited pieces, the show raises questions concerning the importance of an artwork’s context, both original and new, in creating or influencing meaning. John Latham’s Drawer with Charred Material sparked debate when he first showed it in 1963, featuring as it does multiple books burned for the purpose of making the artwork, which many protested as ‘immoral’. He continued this controversy in his The Moral High Ground (1988), featuring a damaged Bible. The exhibition encourages us to consider the pieces’ history as part of their current manifestation and as an influential factor in understanding them. In this way, the meaning of an artwork can grow as a result of its past appearances.

Although the individual pieces are brought together by an exploration of time and perception, they also have their own diverse agendas. The exhibition can feel disjointed at times, as different works provoke debate on unrelated issues. Huyghe’s piece, for example, does explore the magnitude of geological time and humanity’s place within it, but also examines extinction and humanity’s relationship with nature. Yoko Ono’s Eye-Blink (1966), on the other hand, features a close-up of the artist’s eye, exploring issues of objectification and the viewer’s gaze. Elizabeth Price’s video installation, SLEEP (2013) focuses on fast-paced modern life and the threat to rest in the digital age, making prominent use of speed-reading technology.

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Elizabeth Price, SLEEP, 2014, video still. Courtesy of the artist and MOT International London & Brussels

The exhibition features Turner Prize winning artists Douglas Gordon and Elizabeth Price as well as other exciting and controversial works. It is a great look back at the variety of artists Modern Art Oxford has shown in the past, and a thought-provoking start to the year’s programme.

Alicia Eames

The Indivisible Present runs at Modern Art Oxford until 16 April 2016. The exhibition is free. More information can be found on the gallery’s website.

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The aftermath of the First World War is most often discussed as a way to divine the causes of the Second, particularly in terms of creating the conditions for the rise of Nazism in defeated Germany. In the current TORCH Graduate Seminar series, ‘Globalising and Localising the Great War,’ students and researchers are coming together to expand the frame of reference for this period; pushing back against the incessant examination of the Treaty of Versailles, and looking further afield at lesser known areas of the conflict. The lecture provided by Dr Jakub Beneš (University College, Oxford) regarding revolutionary peasant groups in Eastern Europe, which arose during 1918, was an exhilarating example of this diversification of focus in action.

Though there were many more informed members of the audience at this seminar, I for one knew nothing of ‘Green Cadres’, nor much about the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was to his credit, then, that Beneš managed to satisfy the intellectual demands of the eminent historians in attendance, whilst also providing the ignorant with a clear and deeply fascinating overview of a now almost forgotten movement. ‘Movement’ might actually be a descriptive leap for the motley and disparate collection of bandits, deserters and peasant factions which spread across vast swathes of the former Yugoslavia and Central Europe between 1918 and 1920, policing and pillaging in equal measure. In fact the Green Cadres gained a quasi-mythic reputation for being groups which eschewed the bureaucracy and organisation befitting a ‘movement.’ As such, their nature and impact on wider events during the break-up of Austria-Hungary seemed difficult to ascertain.

Beneš’ solution to this difficulty was to begin by focusing on the lives of three very different members of Green Cadre factions, in order to elucidate their broader collective identity. In Andrej Zlobec, Jozef Ferančik and Jovo Stanisavljevic, the audience were introduced to a tenacious peasant soldier, an anti-Semitic socialist revolutionary, and a glorified highwayman who all traded under the same banner in very different ways, and for very different ends. What linked these figures was their local status as Robin Hood-style folk heroes, who stood up for the rural peasantry against the exploitation of the aristocrats and Jews who they perceived had enslaved them. This status became a major force in the culture of the region, with at least eight major novels being written in the 1920s regarding the exploits of such individuals.

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Jovo Stanisavljevic

The view of Green Cadres as Romantic heroes resisting the onset of modernity and the chaos of war must be tempered by the concession that these were not pleasant people. Indeed, they divided communities as much as they unified them, with many urban populations fearing and hating them in equal measure. However, their important role in shaping the emerging nationalisms of Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia among others is apparent in the appropriation of their image by nationalist parties and revolutionary groups across the stricken empire.

As Beneš noted, the Green Cadres could not be said to possess a rational or cohesive political ideology. They mixed disturbingly popular anti-Semitic sentiments with vague policies regarding the redistribution of wealth, and the celebration of US President Woodrow Wilson as a minor deity. Instead of an ideological identity then, these groups assumed five different roles depending on the local context they found themselves in. As deserters, bandits, avengers, national heroes, or social revolutionaries, peasants from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire were able to seize agency in a political context of decentralisation and confusion.

That significant evidence remains of these partisan armies calling themselves Green Cadres during the Second World War (on both sides of the conflict) is testament to the previous cultural significance of figures such as Zlobec, Ferančik, and Stanisavljevic. It also points to the relevance of this kind of increasingly diverse research. As was pointed out during the Q&A session following the lecture, one can identify the involvement of similar factions in the Russian Revolution, and subsequent Civil War, as well as in Italy and France during the Second World War. Examining the impact of such groups brings a new dimension to the post-Great War narrative, showing how people with seemingly little or no political power could seize agency on a regional basis, affecting national developments as they did so. This surely indicates the rich vein of untapped understanding that historical enquiry on a local level (away from high political or diplomatic decision-making) can access. The rest of the seminar series promises to continue this insightful and exciting change of direction, although Beneš and his lecture will take some beating.

Ben Horton

For more information about the ‘Globalising and Localising the Great War’ network, and for their future events, please visit their website.

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Noah Hawley’s TV series Fargo (2014-) is about big crimes happening in small towns, set in and around the snow covered American Midwest. One of the key features of both seasons (and the 1996 Coen brothers’ film on which they are based) involves everyday people confronting evils which defy control and understanding. In each season, viewers are shown characters who are overwhelmed by the events that unfold. Caught up in the gang wars of out of town mobs, faced with intimidating strangers who don’t seem quite human, Fargo‘s more sympathetic characters struggle to make sense of their lives in the face of excessive violence.

Each episode reminds us that ‘this is a true story.’ This appears to be misdirection: while Fargo is set in real locations, the stories told are fictional. However, there is a sense in which the stories told by Fargo are true. Film theorist Richard Gilmore claims that ‘Philosophy is full of stories that may not be literally true but are meant to be understood as pointing to deeper truths,’ and that this is precisely what is so powerful in the movies of the Coen Brothers generally. These ‘are in their own way true stories, stories that reveal true things about the way the world is.’

One of the most compelling aspects of Fargo is its villains. They are not just well written, unsettling characters. They provide a springboard for revealing truths about the problems of modern communication and identity. The key to Fargo’s presentation of its antagonists is how their motivations and behaviours appear to lie beyond comprehension. The most obvious example of this ‘incomprehensible villain’ is found in Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) of season one. Malvo creates chaos wherever he goes. He carries tape recordings of men who have, because of Malvo’s influence, killed or otherwise injured their families. As well as being a ruthless murderer, Malvo toys with people. In several exchanges we see him unnerving, threatening and intimidating others with his peculiar mannerisms.

Malvo is constantly associated with wild animals and the hunt. In fact, Malvo prefigures his own death in two stories. One, where he talks about a bear whose leg is mauled by a bear trap and dies, and another about a dog who had to be shot in the head in order to stop it raping a woman. In the end, Malvo is incapacitated by a bear trap, and dies soon after from two shots to the head. What the audience is meant to gather from this is that Malvo is a kind of wild animal, but one that stands above, rather than below, ordinary people on the food chain. His motivations are as impenetrable to us as our motivations are to the animals we hunt and kill. We can conceive of Malvo as a monster in the traditional Latin sense: ‘a warning or omen,’ a ‘force of nature in human guise.’

If Malvo is an omen, then what does he represent? There is a strong case for Malvo as a reaction to the destruction of the American wilderness, understood through the values of the American ‘Wild West’ as a cultural ideal. These values are centred around the optimism and potential of an America whose national identity has not taken solid form.


The ‘American wilderness’ is most overtly present in Fargo’s second season — which occurs eight years before the film is set, and twenty-eight years before the first season. One of the most striking portrayals of this is the difference in landscape in season two. In the film and season one, we see snowstorms, an ever-present whiteness that Jerold J Abrams links to the notion of instability, and a static whiting out of communication.

In season two we see a landscape where the snow’s march is incomplete. While it covers some areas, it creeps at the edges of other sceneries, only partially overlaying landscapes which underneath show hints of the more traditional images of the ‘great plains’ of the American Midwest. Compounding this, in the opening scenes of the second season we see the set of a black and white (fabricated) Western film: ‘The Massacre at Sioux Falls’. This references an actual battle between Native Americans and the American state, where nearly 300 Native American fighters were killed.


Opening scene from Fargo Season 2. CR: FX

The central conflict of Fargo’s second season is between the Gerhardts, a large criminal family operating from a farm house, and the Kansas City mob, a highly organized crime syndicate whose structures mirror those of the modern American corporation. 

Ultimately, the Gerhardts are killed and Kansas City take over their operations. This is depicted as a  turning point: the Gerhardts, at least figuratively, are a final resistance to the pragmatic, money oriented logic of Kansas City. While the Gerhardts were interested in money, it seemed that they were just as, if not more, invested in their familial ties, and preserving their way of life as a point of dignity and principle.

There are parallels between the Gerhardt’s fixation on honour and dignity and the classical Western gunfighter, a man who ‘defends… the purity of his own image… his honour.‘ This contrasts with the Kansas City operation — the logic of which is summed up by one of its ‘middle managers’. ‘The sooner you realise there’s only one business left in the world, the money business, just ones and zeros, the better off you’re gonna be.’

Theorist Edward Recchia notes that ‘underlying the Western is an indefatigable sense of optimism’; there is a feeling of potential in the image of the ‘frontier [which] is still to be conquered.’ Expanding on this, we might say the untamed frontiers of the American wilderness represented — at least to colonial settlers — a blank slate on which new meanings and identities could be forged. As the American state had not fully spread the rule of law throughout these territories, it was possible for settlers to create meanings and ways of living which lay far outside dominant cultural ideas and norms.

This is why the opening scene, which links the events of Fargo’s second season to the Great Sioux War of 1876, is important. It seems to be saying that, if at first the ‘Wild West’ suffered a literal death at the hands of the strengthening American state, it now suffers a spiritual death, a death of values, at the hands of the American corporation. The values destroyed include a sense of national optimism, as well as the ability of groups to forge their own meanings.

While the Gerhardts and Kansas City both are crime organizations, the latter is distinct in that it is almost indistinguishable from any other large business. The focus is on ‘[optimizing] revenue. Shorter shipping routes…  profit, and loss. Infrastructure.’ Here we see that even criminal activity is being reduced to a simple money game. There is no room for criminality as a source of meaningful  identity. This points to something else that is lost in the spiritual death of the Western — the reduction of activities that once had complex, varied meanings to a simplistic economic language of ‘zeros and ones’.


The Kansas City Mob’s “Office”. CR: Inverse.com

The loss of optimism, potential and meaningful communication presented in season two as the spiritual death of the American wilderness can be linked to what the philosopher Lyotard calls ‘the postmodern condition.’ In short, Lyotard identifies this condition with the death of master narratives, which are the ‘stories about stories that shape people’s sense of themselves in the world.’ In a postmodern world, we are left without an underlying, shared sense of meaning — be it religious, political, or cultural — that allows us to understand the more specific stories we tell each other in relation to our own lives. This makes it difficult to speak meaningfully about things such as  personal philosophies or the nature of life because we cannot be sure we are reading from the same script, or master narrative.

We can see the effects of the postmodern condition in both seasons of Fargo, where several characters tell extended stories and fables to each other in order to get their point across. But usually, rather than clarifying the issue at hand, these stories end with the person listening to them expressing confusion. Or, if they appear to understand, they reject the ideas which the story attempts to convey.

What makes Fargo a pertinent piece of art for discussing the postmodern condition is the way that it portrays this splintering of meaning alongside the advent of a world (represented by the Kansas City mob) where everything is submitted to the economic logic of ‘zeros and ones’. If we stretch this idea a little, we might say that the language of monetary exchange is the only remaining master narrative available to the characters. And that this narrative, being only concerned with exchange, is inadequate for expressing the stories which we find valuable in explaining our world. No longer do we live in a frontier world of optimism, ripe with potentials for new meaning. The wilderness has been tamed and absorbed into a world of money and miscommunication and pessimism.


Let’s return to the figure of Malvo. He is associated with the hunt, the wild animal, and communicates as much through violence as he does through language. He clearly represents a kind of wilderness. But we can expand on this and say he represents more specifically the remains of the  wilderness — the aspects of the wild that have survived in this world of fragmented meaning and communicational breakdown. Malvo is the wilderness robbed of any positivity or potential for new meaning. He is the parts of the wild which express meaningless and unintelligible violence, the violence of animal conflict.

To Malvo, we have always been animals, and the ‘civilised’ rules we have created to move beyond the animal are simply a pretend-game. Malvo is linked, both thematically and self-consciously as a character, to a violence which has always bubbled beneath human interactions, stretching back to our animal ancestry.

We can see further manifestations of these violent forces in the character of Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) from the second season. Hanzee commits acts which seem to have no clear motivation to the audience. An apparently loyal member of the Gerhardt family for most of the series, he eventually becomes the key agent of the Gerhardt’s destruction. A narrator in the ninth episode even spells out that Hanzee’s actions have ‘baffled’ (fictional) historians. I believe Hanzee can, like Malvo, be understood as more direct omen of the death of the American wilderness. This notion is especially fitting considering he is a Native American with no direct ties to his ancestral identity, having been kidnapped and inducted into the Gerhardt family from a young age. It is only when the Gerhardt family begins to break down under the pressure of fighting Kansas City that Hanzee decides to take matters into his own hands, killing several of his former bosses.   

George Cairns understands this as Hanzee ‘[rejecting] both his own Native American and contemporary American values’. Kansas City usher in a destabilising force that destroys traditional forms of meaning, understood as the familial dignity and pride that organize the Gerhardt family. Alongside this is the racist debasement of Hanzee’s ancestry — shown both in his treatment by random locals, and the striking image of a pile of vomit lying below a plaque commemorating the massacre of 200 Sioux Native Americans in the Great Sioux War. A kind of ‘break’ then occurs in Hanzee. Faced with a world of meaningless communication and unsatisfying identities, he decides to find freedom  in a return to the animal and natural violence of the American wilderness. Hanzee takes on the form and values of the wilderness that had always frightened colonial settlers — the aspects of uncharted territory that represented unknown and unknowable violence and perils. Hanzee becomes, like Malvo, an agent of chaos and destabilisation, whose motivations are opaque to those who he destabilises and kills. 

What we can draw from this is that, paradoxically, as the American wilderness suffers a spiritual death of its more positive values, this opens up a space where its more terrifying aspects can actually flourish and thrive. This is why, twenty eight years after the events of the second season we see Malvo appear as an almost omni-present, haunting force of chaos. Whereas Hanzee is a stoic, frustrated character who is out of place in the world and ‘tired of this life’, Malvo seems to revel in meaninglessness. He represents how a state of miscommunication and corrupted meaning is actually fertile ground for senseless acts of violence. Violence is able to flourish in this setting because it is a kind of ‘systematically distorted communication.’ Rather than attempt the futile exercise of creating shared and lasting meanings, the violent characters find freedom in doing away with communication entirely. They do not rationalize their actions, as ‘a violence that speaks is already a violence trying to be right: it is a violence that places itself in the orbit of reason and that already is beginning to negate itself as violence.’ 

Of course, this is only one interpretation, and what is so brilliant about Fargo is that it contains an engaging story and narrative that is also layered with multiple points of possible departure for analysis. This said, I think that Fargo, especially in the second season, is presenting a timeline where certain American values are lost, corrupted and replaced by this ‘zeros and ones’ master narrative. I doubt, for example, that setting the second season in 1979 — considered by many political theorists as a turning point in the global economy — is simply coincidence.

So while Fargo is not a literally true story, it is trying to say something true. It is an exploration of how traditional social relationships and forms of meaning are destabilised by social and economic change. This produces a world which is scarier, more unpredictable — where there is a violence and uncertainty bubbling beneath civilized society. One of the most compelling stories it tells is that of the wilderness that remains, now the optimism and potential perceived in the old American West have disintegrated against a flood of zeros and ones. This wilderness is one devoid of meaning and human understanding. It prowls the cracks and connective tissues of American society — the small towns, the empty roads — where too often the law is two steps behind. Even if it fails to evade apprehension, it lies beyond comprehension. It is an omen of how the social changes of the last few decades have dislocated some people so much that they can only speak in the systematically distorted language of violence. 

Because some roads you shouldn’t go down. Because maps used to say there be dragons here. Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.

Tom Maguire-Wright

Tom is studying for an MA in Political Theory at the University of Sheffield. His research interests include cultural studies, critical theory, criminal deviance, and the politics of leisure.

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Noose is something of a reviewer’s nightmare, as the entire drama rests on the (excellent) plot twist as the curtain falls. It’s almost impossible to give a proper opinion without significant spoilers. A new play by Anthony Maskell, it revolves around a couple’s final day together as one of them prepares to commit suicide. They’re interrupted by a blind pilgrim, whose presence begins to unravel their plan. Throughout, there’s a sense that you’re missing something, there’s something not quite right. And it suddenly makes sense as the play ends, and the audience is placed in the uncomfortable position of realising that they have fallen prey to the play’s premise — really, we don’t know people like we think we do. We see and hear what we want to and assume is correct, and in the process misunderstand ourselves as much as we do others.

The drama plays out in an Unknown Hinterland. Costumes, setting, and language are ambiguous, placing it chronologically and geographically both nowhere and anywhere. In the same way, the (young? old?) couple Jacques (Ali Porteous) and Seraphim (Misha Pinnington), occupy a double-sided position. In many ways they’re both completely relatable — like any couple who has been together a while, they know exactly how to wind the other up, and Seraphim in particular takes delight in surreptitiously goading her partner. On the other hand, they’re decidedly inhuman. What kind of couple stands around talking dispassionately as one of them prepares to hang themselves? The shadow of Samuel Beckett looms large over these scenes — Maskell’s script is quite literally full of gallows humour.


Ali Porteous & Misha Pinnington © Anthony Maskell

The best of Maskell’s script lies in this multiplicitousness. He doesn’t offer any answers, and in some respects the whole point of the play is its ambiguity. I loved the inconclusive ending, leaving you hanging. But this is also its greatest weakness. There were so many unresolved threads firing off in different directions that it sometimes crossed the border from thought-provoking to intellectually cluttered. Why was the couple’s baby a radio? I assume this had something to do with the theme of genetic imperfection and the role of technology that ran throughout the play — it begins with a radio broadcast talking about the ‘perversities of our generation’, and both Seraphim and the pilgrim repeat the mantra that ‘the boy follows the man’, asking just how much of our personality we inherit. But there wasn’t quite enough in the script to be able to fully form a question about this, beyond merely noting it as an idea that crops up. This was at least in part due to the fact that it was competing for space with a whole host of other ideas. Does language hinder how we communicate with others? As Jaques does with his books, do we build a scaffold for ourselves by trying to know too much? What role does religion play in a secular age? Maskell gives no answers to these — and in a way I wouldn’t have wanted him to try. Plays that do all your thinking for you are always frustrating. But more fully formed questions might have given the play more direction, and kept me thinking for longer after exiting the theatre.

The relationship between the Jacques and Seraphim was deliciously awkward. They say that ‘We each know the other so we don’t have to know ourselves’, but they come across as completely self-obsessed, always framing the other in relationship to their concerns. Their dialogue was a little jarring at times — possibly deliberately — but their interaction became more fluid as the actors warmed up. The stand-out performance came from Josh Dolphin as the blind pilgrim, his pious demeanour underlaid by something far more sinister. James Stoke’s lighting design was deceptively simple, always ensuring that the noose at the centre of the stage was the focus of attention. Particularly effective was the moment where the blind man and Jacques are left on the stage, and they are plunged into darkness as the pilgrim finally reveals his decidedly ungodly intentions.

Noose is an unpolished play, but some of its greatest assets lie in its roughness. Yes, it could use a little refining and fine-tuning, but Maskell is bold in his ideas, and how he goes about presenting them. It’s absurd in places and uncomfortable in others, and worth seeing for the last few minutes alone. It’s a wonderful, last-minute, but carefully planned question about what we think we’ve seen over the course of the play, and what people will do for love.

Leah Broad

‘Noose’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until the 6th February. For more information and to book tickets, please visit Koma Kino’s Facebook page.

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“At any given moment, several outcomes can coexist simultaneously.”

In Constellations, Marianne (Shannon Hayes), an expert in theoretical physics, meets Roland (Calam Lynch), a beekeeper, and this is how she explains the ‘multiverse theory to him. The ‘multiverse’ is the set of all the possible universes, which encompass all that exists. The play portrays the love story between Marianne and Roland in all its infinite possibilities, from the beginning to the end. No episode happens just once. The meeting, the seduction, the break-up, the proposal… everything is repeated at least three times, each time in a different way.


Shannon Hayes (Marianna) and Calam Lynch (Roland) © Lena Garrett

Far from being dull or repetitive, Constellations is an excruciatingly beautiful play. it comprises all human experiences at their most intense: love, sex, anger, sadness, embarrassment, illness, death. Constellations is deep and powerful, and the Experimental Theatre Club (ETC) brought Nick Payne’s play to life with incredible sophistication.

As performance for only two actors, Constellations requires an intimate space for the audience to appreciate it at its fullest. Set designer Chris Burr’s decision to have the spectators sit in a circle, near to the actors, was effective in achieving this sense of closeness. To obtain it, only the stage space of the O’Reilly Theatre was used, with a hexagonal construction designed for the play: the usual seating space was hidden. Sammy Glover’s masterful direction ensured that the two actors kept moving around the space, allowing spectators on all sides to view the performance from different angles. The stage was bare, and the actors’ clothes were normal, everyday. The decision to have the actors play barefoot added to the closeness of the whole play: it gave the feeling of watching not just two people onstage, but two naked souls.

The lighting design (also by Chris Burr) was particularly successful in giving the sense of being suspended in the midst of the cosmos. Hexagonal prisms hung from the ceiling, amplifying the reflection of the lights to enhance the stellar, cosmic landscape the play constantly dragged its audience into. Although initially, without the actors on stage, this felt a bit like the lighting of a club, it actually proved to be perfect for the development of the play. As the only “decorative” element, the hexagons reminded me of both Roland’s beehives and of the six faces of the die. The die recalls the multiverse theory: each face represents a different possibility, each face is a separate universe. But there is always an element of uncertainty at the throwing of the dice. In the very same way, Constellations never settles on any of the possible scenarios it proposes: they all coexist together.


© Lena Garrett

The play revolves not only around repetition of episodes, but also around flashbacks and flash-forwards. Some episodes are gradually pieced together, often starting from the end and then going back to the beginning through repetitions. Passages from one episode to another were carried out by turning lights off for a fraction of time, just to allow actors to shift into their new positions. In this way, the performance never lost its fast-pace. The audience was kept on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what new elaboration would follow, or indeed what episode.

The play’s gradual turn from bittersweet to tragic happens slowly but inexorably, with the amazing on-stage chemistry between the two leading actors key in depicting this shift. Their relationship evolved throughout the play, but perhaps reached its peak in the scene where the two use sign language to communicate. Both Lynch’s and Hayes’s performances were strikingly refined and potent, but it was the intertwining of the two that allowed the play to take an extra step towards the polished feel of the whole production. 

The tragic acme was reached in the penultimate scene, where the pathos that actors conveyed was so intense that many spectators (including myself) were in tears. Without wanting to give spoilers, the final scene somehow reminded me of the ‘Postscript’ of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement: Briony decides to give her novel a fictional ending, giving her characters the time they did not have in real life. In the same way, Constellations ends with a positive scenario, one that spurs the spectator to keep imagining what other events will follow. The performance only lasted around 60 minutes, but its intensity made it feel much longer. The emotional response of the audience was such that there was a well-deserved standing ovation in the final applause.

Constellations asks some of the deepest questions of mankind: who are we? What is our fate? What is our place in the universe? Is this the only universe we are given? Do we truly have free will? This production managed to convey the profundity of the play without ever being rhetorical or affected. It captured the essence of the script, rendered with powerful elegance. 

Francesca Beretta

Constellations runs at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre until 6 February. More information is available on the theatre website. Tickets can be purchased here.

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