Creative Sensemaker #5

The fifth instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a new cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d’Ancona   Above image from 'I May Destroy You' (BBC)   Friday 26 June, 2020   Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. Is there a digital equivalent to camping in a muddy field, queuing for hours for a shower, and dancing at the Pyramid Stage in face paint and decomposing wellies? Perhaps not. But the BBC is doing its best to create an online substitute for Glastonbury this weekend, with an incredible line-up of the festival’s greatest hits across BBC iPlayer, BBC Two, BBC Four and the BBC Sounds app. 

From Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Billie Eilish to Kano, Adele and David Bowie, this virtual jukebox is a spirited lockdown substitute for what would have been the 50th anniversary of the festival. 

It is also a reminder of how much is now at stake, as the cultural sector takes its first tentative steps towards a resumption of business. Michael Eavis, the founder of Glastonbury, has warned that the festival will go bankrupt if it cannot be staged in 2021. (Tortoise Media has done a deep dive on the prospects for Glastonbury, which you can read here.)

The dilemma facing this legendary fixture in the creative calendar exemplifies a problem that cultural institutions are facing all over the world. Confronting a 91% plunge in income, the excellent Theatre Royal Plymouth in Devon has announced that 100 jobs are at risk, while theatres in Southampton and Leicester have gone into administration. Four of the West End’s most successful musicals – Hamilton, Les Misérables, Mary Poppins and The Phantom of the Opera – are not expected to reopen until 2021.

Although Boris Johnson has announced that theatres and music venues will be able to resume business on Saturday 4 July, he has added the minor caveat that they cannot stage live performances. There is a new five-stage ‘roadmap’ back to indoor drama and music, but no specific timeframe. As they say in Whitehall: sub-optimal.
A man singing on a stage in a long coat with long hair.
A woman singing on stage.
Here’s what to watch out for:
The major cinema chains will be reopening in the next few weeks: Cineworld on Friday 10 July, Vue and Picturehouse on the same day, and Curzon a week later. The challenges are immense: social distancing, refreshment kiosks that keep staff and customers safe, and staggered timing of performances to minimise crowd accumulation. This is a true social experiment, as well as a test of future commercial viability. Don’t forget to support your local indie art-house movie houses – they need your custom if they are to survive.
Follow the money: Neil Mendoza, the government-appointed Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal, has the unenviable task of recommending how the creative sector should be saved and whether – in some cases – it can be. If you care about museums, theatre, music and art, this deserves your attention. The lobbying for strictly limited rescue funds is intense. Few institutions – from local theatres to the mightiest national museums are truly secure. So, if you want to save them, make your voice heard by emailing enquiries@culture.gov.uk.

We are now entering a strange transitional period between full lockdown and the hard yards of cultural recovery. Expect a bumpy ride. Here are some recommendations to keep your spirits up and your mind stimulated:
A woman's head with light shining on it.
Jodie Comer in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads (BBC)
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Alan Bennett is often lazily pigeon-holed as a cuddly national treasure, the last surviving member of the legendary Beyond the Fringe quartet (the others being Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), and the reassuring voice of Winnie The Pooh audiobooks.

Yet – as is clear from the BBC’s triumphant new versions of his classic Talking Heads monologues (all available on iPlayer) – Bennett is actually the laureate of English repression, yearning and the strange psychological borderlands between decorum and taboo. Despite appearances, he is the opposite of safe. 

Thirty-two years after Talking Heads first appeared, the scripts are still profoundly funny. But they’re also fearless in their exploration of themes, such as the claustrophobia of mental illness, fetish, addiction, sexual abuse and incest. In the context of lockdown, the solitude of the characters acquires a fresh piquancy.

Peerlessly directed by Nicholas Hytner, the cast is stellar. All are brilliant. Though, if pressed, I would single out Lucian Msamati in ‘Playing Sandwiches’, Rochenda Sandall in ‘The Outside Dog’, Jodie Comer in ‘Her Big Chance’ and Sarah Lancashire in the new monologue, ‘An Ordinary Woman’. Not to be missed.

Also recommended are:

Clemency (Curzon Home Cinema)
Available to be streamed as part of the online Edinburgh International Film Festival,  Chinonye Chukwu’s second film (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year) is so much more than another death-row drama. Alfre Woodard is extraordinary as Bernardine, a prison warden whose responsibility for executions becomes her own form of soul-destroying imprisonment. Indeed, the movie is less about the condemned men on death row than the collateral damage suffered by those around them. Richard Schiff is predictably great as a defence lawyer, desperate to save his client’s life – as is Wendell Pierce as Bernardine’s exasperated husband.

Dark Waters (VOD) 
Although the subject matter of Todd Haynes’ movie – unaccountable corporations poisoning helpless communities with their chemicals – has been standard fare since Erin Brockovich, Mark Ruffalo’s performance alone justifies the rental charge. As Robert Bilott, the real-life Ohio lawyer who took on the chemical manufacturing company DuPont, Ruffalo is compelling as a half-broken man. He’s increasingly dysfunctional, yet unable to ditch the mission that is costing him so dearly. This is a long way from Avengers: Endgame

I May Destroy You (BBC iPlayer)
Michaela Coel’s 12-part comedy-drama series has been misleadingly described as an Afro-Caribbean Fleabag, but the whole point of its power is its uniqueness. Mixing genres, timelines and tone, it plots the fortunes of Arabella (Coel), a star millennial writer. Struggling with her second book, she makes light of the absurdities of social media and dating, while engaging with subjects as serious as consent and sexual assault. 

The Sinner (Netflix)
Season 3 of this darkly psychological cop series is the best yet, as Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) engages in lethal mind games with Jamie Burns (the always-excellent Matt Bomer). As in Christopher Nolan’s masterly Insomnia, the question is not ‘whodunnit?’ – but who will win?
Theatre

National Theatre Live: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (YouTube) 
Part of the NT’s final tranche of free online productions, the Bridge Theatre’s acclaimed immersive staging (Nicholas Hytner again) is available on YouTube until Thursday 2 July. Great performances by Gwendoline Christie, Oliver Chris, David Moorst and Hammed Animashaun.
Two book covers on a grey background.
A book cover on a grey background.
Read
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

One of the best novels of the year so far. Bennett’s follow-up to The Mothers sweeps across decades of American life to tell the tale of ‘creamy skinned, hazel eyed’ identical twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes – grappling with the hugely sensitive issue of ‘passing’ as White (and much else). Read Bennett’s reflections on the recent protests here.

The Consequences Of Love by Gavanndra Hodge
Grief is one of the hardest subjects to write about – or to write about well. Hodge, a former Deputy Editor of Tatler, is unsparingly candid and eloquent in this memoir of a life scarred by the loss of a sibling – as well as by a bewilderingly bohemian upbringing. Her prose is splendidly spartan, and leaves you longing for her next book.

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton
Though nothing can top Michael Wolff’s two best-selling books on the Trump presidency, Bolton’s eyewitness account is full of jaw-dropping detail about his former boss’s petulance, bullying and epic ignorance. How can one seriously perform the office of National Security Adviser to a President who does not know that Britain is a nuclear power, and thinks it would be ‘cool’ to invade Venezuela? Bolton himself is an unlovable narrator, but the book is still a true page-turner.
An album cover with a portrait of a woman on it.
An album cover with John Legend Bigger Love written on it in colourful type.
Listen
Bigger Love by John Legend

Legend’s seventh studio album, produced by Raphael Saadiq, has an A-grade cast of collaborators, including Charlie Puth, Ryan Tedder, Ester Dean, Tayla Parx, Teddy Geiger, and Ricky Reed. Though mostly recorded in 2019, this is soulful, optimistic R&B at its most uplifting, and feels as if Legend crafted it to bring hope to bleak times. A soundtrack to help you out of lockdown.

‘I Cry’ by Usher
Inspired by the artist’s relationship with his sons, and the profound emotions stirred by the murder of George Floyd, this is a beautiful song of its times. (‘Now, I’ve seen struggles, I’ve seen pain. I’ve seen beyond the mess we made. I’ve seen things that I cannot change. And it hurts my heart to say.’)

What’s Your Pleasure? by Jessie Ware
Pure disco escapism in this fourth album from the singer-songwriter and podcaster. Splendidly unapologetic in its ambition to offer perfect pop in the finest English tradition, this is music to hear booming from cars as the nation emerges from hibernation.

On Sunset by Paul Weller 
Forty-three years since The Jam’s debut album, Weller has explored just about every genre with a curiosity matched, among his contemporaries, only by Elvis Costello. The eclecticism is the whole point: at 62, he contains musical multitudes, and relishes all the collisions and convergences. There is a strong streak of Americana to this album, too (as its title suggests). Listen to Weller’s new single, ‘Village’, here.
 
That’s all for now. Tell us what you’re thinking, reading and enjoying at matthew.dancona@tortoisemedia.com. We’d love to hear your recommendations.

Have a peaceful, happy week.

Ars gratia artis.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media
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