Summer in Britain comes burgeoning with possibilities… at the Tate Gallery, satirical art offers an escape from the onslaught of technology, and at the National Theatre, boundaries of town and country, myth and politics, are blurred. VAYU NAIDU
D ivinity, in secular terms, has descended on England's pastures green. Summer with all its sibilant sounds is here. Every mid-July from Eton to the local state school it is a convocation for some, an end-of-school year for many more. Once the strawberries are downed with sloshes of cream, the champagne drunk and hats tossed in the air (solely for a select few) it's back to the business of a holiday.
Some have abandoned London for Tuscany, or biking in Norway, clubbing in Ibiza. I decided to have my holiday thumping in trainers across miles of concrete paving in the exotic locations of art galleries and the theatre tourist teenagers, and tourists behaving like trained teenagers are swarming. Teenagers have a way of bringing you to their senses. Just work with them, and I'm talking about across the board of the public independent and state schools, and suddenly you are transported to their view of the world. The most important lesson I learned from that was abandon, and context. Abandon is the talent that teenagers bring, context is what adults construct.
On a quest
I embarked on ‘A Story in Search of an Audience' which was a storytelling carnival at Battersea Park set in 223 acres of green space with nesting birds like herons, swans, migratory geese, coots and the like. Part of the excursion was to bring ear plugged, i-pod shuffling, twitter-talk, screen-facing, mobile-gazing teenagers studying in urban areas to engage with a green space at their doorstep. It was about the secret of happiness – but after months we learned that happiness was in the dreaming of possibilities of making things happen. The secret was to keep going in spite of teenagerism. While many of us believe in talking face to face, teenagerism is committed to listening to you only if you appear on YouTube, Facebook, Myspace, Ning or Twitter among others. If you are not on at least two of these electronic universes then you are not “N – gaged”!
Teenagerism works very much like comedy, and satire within that genre. So my story within a story is best illustrated by Tate Britain's exhibition rakishly titled Rude Brittania: British Comic Art. It is the perfect mirror and antidote to the gloom and despair of the current climate (economic – it's finally money and what comes with it!) More than that it's what the Brits do best, among other things of course. British humour wins accolades and TV time across the world. But its essential heart is in the idea of bringing pomposity down to size exposing the great and the good for who they, or indeed who we really are. The exhibition is curated thematically by comedians, cartoonists and comic writers. In the ‘Absurd' room materials like ‘Alice in Wonderland' illustrations suggests a different take on world views. In ‘Bawdy', the smutty seaside postcards of Donald McGill gives the changing season of social events a naughty chuckle. The rooms exploring politics, social satire covers many of William Hogarth's study of faces and his satirical series on marriage, it includes George Cruikshank's Victorian masterpiece ‘ The worship of Bacchus 1860-62' and ‘Splitting Image's' Thatcher puppet. The art of freedom of expression lashes out on the war between church and secularism and the language is terse, the wit to ridicule all stations of moral high ground. Even the World War II cautionary posters illustrated cartoon caricatures with simple, catchy strap lines warning against spies and ensuring secrecy: “Be like Dad, keep mum”, among others.
Language is stretched and teased to shock the brain's registry of linear information for comedy to succeed in offering headspace and other, parallel, or alternative world views. And, Henry Moore's sculptures in the Linbury Galleries of Tate Britain, radicalise conventional lines into solid works that reflect the passage of human civilisation embracing sex, primitive art, new ideas of sexuality, the advent of psychoanalysis, nature and Surrealism.
The hybridity of language is another bright thing that English does so well. The recently opened World City wing of the Museum of London is a special treat for teenagers and those of us who could be reminiscing the advent of multiculturalism in London. It's a fascinating time to watch India embedded in the daily Londoner's ambit – cotton, coffee, curry, brocade wedding dresses, Mayors, working women's hostels, Mahatma Gandhi's stays and much more. Then the advent of Vespa, packaged foods, idea of a holiday, and feminism.
This trend of transpositions was also skilfully brought together in two theatre productions at the National Theatre. The first was ‘London Assurance' by Dion Boucicault. Oliver Goldsmith being this playwright's particular hero, this play places country matters and town connivances working brilliantly precisely because of what Boucicault intended: “In fact my sole object was to throw together a few scenes of a dramatic nature; and therefore I studied the stage rather than the moral effect”. Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale's performances were exceptional and adept in this successful farce that premiered in 1841. Boucicault is the perfect selection for our time as a man who reflects the merriment of colliding cultures while the characters are oblivious to what they are revealing.
‘Welcome to Thebes' by Moira Buffini is directed compellingly by Richard Eyre, bringing together ensemble performances from actors and characters set in contemporary West Africa. The playwright on her own work commented: “The legend of Antigone's act of defiance in a world of men has been re-told again and again. The recipe became clear. I wanted ancient Greek mythology to meet modern West African politics head-on. Athens became the richest country in the world and Thebes the poorest; a war-torn failed state. The inspiration of the myths allowed me to look at politics with a freer language, exploring the possibilities of a fragile landscape in which women, for the first time, have the power.”
The story is simple yet complex in what it provokes. Faced with an impoverished, war-ravaged country the new president of Thebes surrounds herself with a Cabinet of sensible women and promises peace.
But without the aid of vastly wealthy Athens and its swaggering leader, she doesn't stand a chance.
Set in the modern day, but inspired by ancient myth, Moira Buffini's new play explores head-on the cost of democracy in the aftermath of war. And it is not without humour!
Dr. Vayu Naidu is a storyteller and theatre person based in London. She is also a writer of children's books and adult fiction.
“I wanted ancient Greek mythology to meet modern West African politics head-on....”