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Reviews

Cultural highlight of the year

Third Way Reviewers

Do you ever find yourself wandering around the shops at this time of year, looking at all the tinsel and reindeers, special offers and plastic snow, and wonder what the real meaning of Christmas is? Of course not. You know perfectly well. I'll bet you wander round wondering what books to buy for your loved ones though. And that's one Third Way can usually answer. But this year we're not going to fob you off with a list of things to pop down to the shops for. Here's what our reviewers did throughout 2013.

 

Prometheus and The Frogs
The Cambridge Greek Play

Arriving in Cambridge, I found the Greek play was on, in Greek. This only happens once in three years so I thought I had better try it, even though I know no Greek, especially as two students from Murray Edwards, my College were in the cast. Prometheus was gripping and appropriately draining. Then came The Frogs, really funny especially as it included a lot of topical wise cracks. Did Aristophanes really write a speech to the drunken frogs 'Make sure you only drink in moderation and never accept a drink from a stranger?' At that time in the Cambridge year that is just what all tutors are saying to their students. When it came up in subtitles though said in Greek, it brought the house down. Barbara Stocking

 

The Miners' Hymns
Directed by Bill Morrison

Redundant winding gear at the last iron ore mine in Cumbria formed a poignant backdrop to the showing of the film The Miners' Hymns. Documentary footage, accompanied by the haunting music of Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, traced the development and destruction of the coal industry in its Northern heartlands, where brutalising physical demands and dangers were supported through comradeship and community.

The film opened with aerial shots of former pit sites, now largely consumerist shopping centres, and ended with the crucifixion of the miners' struggle for work and justice as pickets were bludgeoned by Thatcher's mounted police. Yet resurrection emerged as lodge banners were paraded into Durham Cathedral; a cinematic dedication by a film that is both hymn and an opera of protest. Martyn Halsall

 

Auschwitz-Birkenau
Oświęcim, Poland

The pale September sunshine could not take away the emotional chill generated by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Knowledge of all the holocaust data in the world does not prepare one for the stark reality of the view from the tower-guardroom at Birkenau: the very size of the place, the railway that brought the prisoners to the spot where their fate was decided; the remnants of the gas chambers about 1000 metres away; nearer the tower but stretching left and right for hundreds of metres, row upon row of bare single-storey wooden huts. The quietness is eerie. People speak in hushed tones. Not a bird sings. John Bryant

 

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Theatre for a New Audience, New York

I enjoyed Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the Theatre For a New Audience in New York. Lots of dazzling stage magic and dance, and a really funny mechanicals' play, better than anything on HBO. Pretty amazing that Shakespeare can still unite a bunch of New Yorkers in a brief moment of innocent joy. Also, I rather liked Ricky Gervais' comedy Derek. It felt daringly counter-cultural in its simple moralism. Maybe we need more simple moralism, to balance all the amoral complexity. Theo Hobson

 

Macbeth
Directed: Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh
Manchester International Festival

For me it was the triumph of set design in the Manchester International Festival's pollution of Macbeth. The stage was a quagmire of mud as a metaphor for moral pollution. It defiled the fine trailing gowns of the courtiers. Kenneth Branagh, mesmerizing as the Scottish murderer (as was Alex Kingston as a compelling Lady M), took evil back beyond Freud to a malevolent engagement with religion. This was evil as waking possession and metaphysical reality rather than a psychological metaphor. Branagh took us back from the psyche to the soul, which is, interestingly, what Pope Francis is trying to do (among many other things) elsewhere. Paul Vallely

 

The Library of Birmingham
Centenary Square, Birmingham

A public library that cost £188.8m opened its doors in a year of austerity. The Library of Birmingham has a strapline - Rewriting the Book - and a mission to redefine books in a digital age. More radical, in my opinion, is that it is a civic space of a kind we have never had before.

The Library of Birmingham is not just about reading. It has gardens, a view point, meeting rooms, cafes, a box office, tourist information services, music rooms and performance areas. It's a place where people come to be on  their own or to be together, to work, to play or just to hang out. It's open to everyone. And it's free. In the bank this week, I overheard the cashier say to a customer. 'You have to do that online. Use the library. It looks like a present.' And what a gift it has proved to be. Jo Ind

 

Don't Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong by Rahila Gupta
Directed by Guy Slater
The Cockpit, London

Several years after the death of her severely disabled teenage son, the journalist Rahila Gupta turned the story of his life and their relationship into a one woman play. To her surprise, she found herself writing in poetry, a mode that suited her sensitive and nuanced storytelling. The actress Jaye Griffiths prepared for the role by getting to know Rahila and her daughter, who, to my complete surprise were in the audience for the performance I attended.

Nihal was born with a severe type of cerebral palsy, which left him without speech and much movement. Rahila was told by the medical professionals that he would never be able to learn or communicate. By the time Nihal was a toddler, however, Rahila realised he was extremely bright and had a lively and witty personality. The play shows Rahila's struggles with an educational system that did not know how to, or want to, help Nahil. It traces their inevitably intense and tender relationship, Nahil's declining health and his strangely peaceful death. What persists in my memory is a mother's love and determination, and a sense of gratitude for having been allowed a brief glimpse into the life of a young man called Nihal Armstrong. Christina Rees

 

Drysalter
Michael Simmons Roberts
Cape

Charles Darwin lost the ability to read poetry so immersed was he in dry prose. I was slipping the same way until I read Michael Simmons Robert's Corpus a few years ago. Drysalter is more ambitious and no less successful than the earlier volume. 150 'super sonnets' - 15 line poems of varying structure - play with the themes and tones of the Psalter. Biblical image and phrase are earthed in familiar world made strange. MSR is a poet of detail - like Heaney he is good as 'seeing things', a poet for whom the physical and the material are spiritual. Drysalter is like stained glass - translucent and yet transforming. Nick Spencer

The US poet Alicia Ostriker has remarked that the psalm in our day has undergone a 'sea-change', with death as a recurrent focus in such poems, and the presence of God in doubt. Michael Symmons Roberts' collection Drysalter, numbering one hundred and fifty fifteen line poems, provides a powerful and imaginatively rich counter-example to this claim, in the sense that it transfigures and recasts characteristic features of psalmody: lament and praise, ascent to God 'with a throat full of earth', and descent 'to lower midnight sea's abyss/ where sight begins to come back'. These poems beautifully articulate an incarnational vision, both concretely grounded, and 'pinprick points of light', at once. Hester Jones

 

The Coronet
Holloway Road, London

Cheaper than a gig, less solitary than book or film, on some evenings my fellow patrons, seen through the warm, yellowy light inside The Coronet on London's Holloway Road, are transfigured into the visual drama of a Hogarth canvas. For those with eyes to see. Conversation, after a glass or two, becomes as comprehensible as anything on Radio Three, and twice as funny. No loud music or jangling slot machines, no low-hanging flat screens invite you away from the face of the person you are talking with. To the spiritually visually impaired, it could appear like just another Wetherspoons in the dark urban night, but once or twice a week this is cultural illumination of the highest order. (There are 57,000 pubs in the UK). Martin Wroe

 

One True Vine
Mavis Staples

The editor is only allowed one pick too, but I can stop other people cutting out the highlights that almost made it. It was difficult to exclude Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, my book of the year. This tiny novella is an epic of just 116 pages. Robert Grainier lives by hacking down trees for the railroad - 'It was only when you left it alone that a tree might treat you as a friend. After the blade bit in, you had yourself a war' - and covers that time when the American pioneering spirit bumped hard into industrialisation. Though full of tenderness and wonder, Train Dreams constantly tests this new world, in search of its true costs.

Musically, Franz Nicolay's UK tour (backed by Exteter's The Cut Ups) was a showcase for overlooked brilliance. Epic, literate showmanship - you missed a treat. In October the London Sacred Harp All-Day Singing gave this Welsh tenor a true home, but nothing quite outdid Mavis Staples at the Royal Albert Hall, even as a supporting guest star. Her One True Vine, because it carries her irrepressible self, her faith in redemption, into the rest of the year, is the record I wanted to never be without. Simon Jones