Michael gives a month by month overview of his favourite cultural events of 2018…
Cultural highlights of 2018
As I write each year, I know my opinions aren’t any more valid than anyone else’s, but I find it a useful exercise to recap my year and, if I’m going to do that, I might as well post it in this journal. So here’s my subjective list of the cultural events that thrilled me in 2018…
The Best of Daphne – Soho Theatre
One of my first outings of the year was to see ‘Britain’s most ethnically diverse comedy trio’. Jason Forbes, Phil Wang and George Fouracres brought their acclaimed Daphne sketch show to Soho Theatre for what might be the final live show as a trio (as they each pursue personal projects).
300 el x 50 el x 30 el – Barbican Theatre
As part of the 2018 London International Mime Festival, the Belgian company FC Bergman brought one of their early shows to the Barbican Theatre. A live camera feed, on a circular track, projected the quirky lives of an apocalyptic village as it prepared for the biblical flood (the title refers to the measurements of the ark). It was one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve written a full review elsewhere in this journal.
Be Prepared – Vault Festival
I saw several performances at the 2018 Vault Festival. In James Rowland’s Revelations, I ended up on stage. In Heart to Heart’s AI Love You, my colleague, Anna, became the chair of an existential debate. And before Ian Bonar’s Be Prepared, I sat next to a nervy man who ran onto the stage with a keyboard in a carrier bag. He turned out to be Bonar, whose character talked to us for an hour as the gatecrasher at the Quaker funeral of a man who’d misdialled him. It was beautifully written, paced and performed.
Network – Lyttelton Theatre
Bryan Cranston in a theatrical version of the groundbreaking 1970s condemnation of consumerism and celebrity culture. What could be better? Well, Lee Hall’s script, Ivo Van Hove’s direction and staging (including a working restaurant as part of the set) and an innovative multimedia presentation, mixed live and glitchy. It was overblown and over the top and all the better for it.
Girls & Boys – Royal Court
A perfect theatrical experience. Dennis Kelly’s script, Lyndsey Turner’s direction and Es Devlin’s literally stunning stage were all spot-on. Carey Mulligan’s solo performance was enthralling. Like her unnamed character, I was charmed and disarmed, lured in, trapped in the tragedy. By the end I was sobbing into the darkness.
Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre
My first trip to the Bridge Theatre and my first live experience of Julius Caesar. It was noisy, messy; electric. On the floor the audience became the huddled masses, whipped to a frenzy, herded between shifting sets. Populist politics, back-room ambition and the power of the rally were all terrifyingly prescient. Nicholas Hytner’s production had an incredible ensemble cast but David Morrissey’s Mark Antony really stood out.
In a year of anniversary celebrations (the women-only Processions event was remarkable, and Gillian Waering’s statue of Millicent Fawcett was a welcome addition to Parliament Square), I particularly enjoyed this immersive experience in the secret Suffragette HQ below Piccadilly Circus. We were taught about suffrage and self defence, sent on missions to post letter-bombs and graffiti the pavements, and locked-up with cell-mates who became so belligerent that I worried we might have to spend the night.
Simian Mobile Disco – Barbican
I’ve struggled to write this bit as I was waylaid by watching the whole remarkable concert on YouTube. Two geeky DJs performing their new album, Murmurations with the all-female Deep Throat choir in front of projected video art (being produced in a lab somewhere else in London). Hypnotic soundscapes and cascading waves of human voices mimicking patterns of nature.
Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss
Produced by Artangel, this installation brought together professional mourners from across the globe. Staged in a vast, never-completed subterranean concrete opera-house in Islington. Vocalists occupied pockets of space, their rituals of grief and lamenting cries merging and emerging as we walked between them until they fell silent and we traipsed, solemnly to the surface. I wish it had been longer.
The Writer – Almeida Theatre
At a moment of cultural self-reflection, Ella Hickson’s new work felt special, important, uncomfortably true. The opening is a meta, fourth-wall busting, post-play within the play, written by The Writer (Romola Garai) about the sexual power-play of a director (Samuel West) who feels a lot like the current artistic director of The Almeida. It’s messy, too knowing at times, full of contradiction and exploitation, and it lost me in the metaphysical ending. But I loved it.
200th anniversary – The Old Vic
Through the luck of the draw (my partner won tickets) I found myself at The Old Vic for their 200th birthday celebration. The show, presumably not programmed specifically, was Joe Penhall’s Mood Music, an examination of the tension between creativity and commercialism, with a dollop of power-play and #TimesUp exploitation that felt slightly sleight compared to other work I’d seen recently. But being in that theatre that night felt very special.
Xenos – Sadler’s Wells
This is Akram Khan’s last ever full-length solo show. It’s an epic one, the personification of the Indian story during WWI. Khan is shellshocked, reliving the horrors of the Great War. Snipers fire, explosions rip apart the scenery, he’s mired in mud and bound to the earth by cables. He’s Prometheus, punished afresh each day. I enjoyed it so much I booked again to see it in Edinburgh.
LIFT 18: Phobiarama
For my first LIFT 18 event, I sat next to a stranger in a dodgem car in a blacked-out warehouse. Round and round we went, fake-news flickered on monitors to show our progress. Bears appeared. Solo, distant at first, then up close and very impersonal. Clowns emerged beneath bearskins. Our car reversed, faster and faster, the clowns chasing us down. Don’t worry, they won’t touch us. They did touch us. My companion screamed. The clown suits came off and muscle-bound black men paced between us, on the monitors we saw people being dragged out of other cars. This was a very clever examination of the power of fear to make monsters of the unknown.
LIFT 18: These Rooms – Shoreditch Town Hall
Anu/Coiscéim Dance Theatre transformed the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall into the tenements of Dublin. Through a series of sometimes impressionistic, some very realistic immersive encounters (we were split into small groups and each experienced the events in a different order), we were shown the events of the 1916 Easter Risings, and the killing of civilians by British soldiers, from multiple viewpoints. It was intense, atmospheric, claustrophobic and very effective.
An odd day at the seaside began with 45 baffling minutes of people as pigeons, in Jude Crilly’s Prose Brut. Later, the trio Slack Fulcrum played Twelfths (Green Vitriol) as the incoming tide lapped around us on a shingle outcrop of beach which was challenging and fun; and there were some wonderful film installations, including Kihlberg & Henry’s moving Slow Violence.
Exploring the ‘satellite’ events, I also found myself crammed into a small summerhouse in someone’s garden for a spoken word/video performance of Dark Light by Mavernie Cunningham.
Three Imaginary Boys – Royal Festival Hall
In the final show of his Meltdown, Robert Smith performed with The Cure. Although, presumably because they were contracted to perform their ‘only UK show’ at Hyde Park, they appeared under a pseudonym. This was a show for the fans – three hours running chronologically through album tracks and live favourites, forwards, then backwards through the years.
Monumental – Barbican
After a day protesting the UK visit of the US president, I headed to the Barbican to hear my favourite Canadian anarchist post-rock band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, perform live behind the dance troupe Monumental. Simple, effective, affecting and very, very noisy.
The Head and the Load – Turbine Hall, Tate Modern
The Turbine Hall was transformed into an enormously wide stage for dozens of performers while we sat in steeply raked temporary seating opposite. Through speech, song, dance, moving and evolving sculptural forms, projections and long shadows, artist William Kentridge threw light on the neglected story of the 1.5 million Africans pressed into service as porters by their imperial rulers during the First World War. Overlapping narratives, overblown performances and the vastness of the canvas made for a deliberately confusing orchestration of sound and movement. It was remarkable. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW.
Lehman Brothers Trilogy – Lyttelton Theatre
Who fancies a three-part, three and a half hour play about the rise and fall of America’s biggest bank? What if it’s already a successful Italian play by Stefano Massini (translated by Ben Power)? What if it’s directed by Sam Mendes and stars Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles as the brothers, their sons and grandsons? What if it’s staged in an incredible spinning glass set, with projected backdrops, designed by Es Devlin? It is a remarkable production that’s transferring to the Piccadilly Theatre in May 2019.
Edinburgh Festival and Fringe
Like so many people, my August was dominated by Edinburgh. I enjoyed my first Waiting for Godot, loved plays by Paines Plough, Stephen Joseph Theatre and Malaprop, and laughed my way through many shows including Natalie Palamides, Janeane Garofalo and Daniel Kitson. I’ve written a full review, in two-parts, elsewhere in this journal.
Pussy Riot – Summerhall, Edinburgh
My highlight of Edinburgh was a residency, exhibition and concert by Pussy Riot, led by Maria “Masha” Alyokhina. In a three hour musical performance (with slides), Masha and her band recounted her protests, imprisonment and the journey she’d been on to get there (driving to Lithuania via Belarus to beat a no-fly order). It was a privilege to be there.
End of the Road 2018 – Larmer Tree Farm, Dorset
In the final days of summer I was at Larmer Tree Farm in Dorset for my favourite annual music festival. I squeezed in dozens of great bands including new discoveries (to me) Snapped Ankles, AK:DK, Amyl and the Sniffers, and IDLES. I even saw St Vincent in a much more entertaining show than the disappointing one of 2017. I’ve written a full, blow-by-blow account elsewhere in this journal.
Misty – Trafalgar Studios
Shamefully, Misty is the first play by a black playwright in the West End in more than a decade (Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen was the first ever). Arinzé Kene’s one-man tornado of a show veers between seriously epic and comically introspective, it tackles serious topics but doesn’t take itself too seriously, from night-bus confrontations to rehearsal-room expectations, plus lots of balloons. The theatre was bouncing with excited energy from a new, young audience.
Royal De Luxe: Giants – Liverpool
Theatrical magic-makers Royal De Luxe brought their Giants to Liverpool for the third and final time. I travelled with my family to witness the spectacular, and marvel at the power of the arts to unite people. I’ve written a full review elsewhere in this journal.
London Film Festival
This year’s BFI London Film Festival was as big as ever. I saw 10 films in 11 days, with many fancy premieres and red carpets in the mix. The Favourite was a favourite, as was Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, but I enjoyed just about everything. I’ve written a short review of each film I saw elsewhere in this journal.
Pixies – Roundhouse
In these 30th anniversary shows, Come on Pilgrim…it’s Surfer Rosa, the band performed their seminal early recordings, back-to-back. I’ve seen them many times but have rarely witnessed them enjoying themselves so much. It was figuratively and physically bruising to be in a mosh-pit full of people born long after the records were released, and I’m not sure they appreciated the pre-show slide-show about Vaughan Oliver’s artwork, but I had a great time.
Pages of the Sea – Folkestone
On the centenary of Armistice Day, soon after dawn, I was at a beach in Folkestone from which so many young men had left for the Great War, never to return. It was bitterly cold and driving rain whipped up the sea, washing away the efforts of volunteers as they tried to map out a portrait in the sand. Two hours later, the sun was out, the portrait was complete and I watched the world’s media interviewing Danny Boyle about this remarkable and ephemeral national undertaking, marking the end of the 14-18 NOW series of art commissions.
That Night Follows Day – Purcell Room
Out of the mouths (and sign-language) of babes, our audience of adults hears its platitudes and attitudes reflected back. A chorus of 8 to 14 year-olds tell us, ‘you tell us to… do as you’re told, act your age, shut-up…’ They recount the half-truths we say, they uncover the resentments we thought we’d masked, the anxieties we cannot help passing on. In the hands of Forced Entertainment and Tim Etchells, it’s uncomfortable, charming, amusing, disturbing, never sentimental.
A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter – Bridge Theatre
Martin McDonagh is now so successful that people don’t say no to him. Still, it must have been an awkward first meeting when he presented his script about Hans Christian Andersen stealing stories from a tiny, one-legged Congalese woman he keeps in a cage in his attic. Oh and she is visited by premonitions of blood-soaked Belgian mercenaries. It’s gloriously sweary, far from subtle but surprisingly effective at making us think about cultural appropriation and the heroes we choose to place on pedestals.
Christian Marclay: The Clock – Tate Modern
Such a simple idea to conceive, such a painstakingly difficult idea to execute. A 24-hour film, shown in real time, made entirely of film clips that reference the actual time you are watching it. Rows of IKEA sofas make for a hypnotic viewing environment. I stood at the back, intending to stay for a couple of minutes. Close to an hour later, I had force myself to leave.
Amongst the outstanding shows were a fair few other great events…
Somehow I seem to have crammed in a lot of theatre.
I travelled to Canterbury to see James Rowland’s excellent Team Viking again; to Oxford to see Creation Theatre’s adaptation of Brave New World (staged in a shopping-centre); to Coventry to see Maddie Rice do a great job of becoming Fleabag at Warwick Arts Centre; and to Stratford to see Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack in the RSC’s excellent new Macbeth.
Other Shakespeare I liked this year included RSC’s valiant attempt to make The Merry Wives of Windsor vaguely relevant at the Barbican. And Michelle Terry’s wonderful first outing as Director of The Globe in their gender neutral staging of Hamlet.
Around the edges of London I particularly enjoyed The B*easts by Monica Dolan at The Bush, and Brockley Jack’s Halloween staging of Dracula was a revelation (I’ve written a review elsewhere).
Emily Berrington was great in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal at Almeida Theatre, although perhaps I appreciated more than enjoyed the distant, expressionistic tone. I felt similarly about Instructions for Correct Assembly (with Jane Horrocks) at Royal Court; clever rather than emotionally moving maybe.
Andrew Scott was mesmerising in the revival of Simon Stephens’ short monologue, Sea Wall at The Old Vic. It brought tears to my eyes, or maybe that was the eye-watering ticket prices.
The National Theatre continued to be hit and miss for me but Exit the King had some remarkable moments and An Octoroon made me as uncomfortable as it set out to do. I also very much enjoyed Laura Wade’s Home I’m Darling and am pleased to see that Katherine Parkinson will still be in the West End transfer. I even enjoyed a musical, the Orpheus and Eurydices retelling Hadestown.
The surprisingly funny Lieutenant of Inishmore was perhaps my only bona-fide West End outing, although I did enjoy Brian Friel’s Aristocrats at Donmar which might count as well. Oh, and Misty of course.
Beyond the London Film Festival, I didn’t go to the cinema as much as I’d like (I’m increasingly impatient about people chatting and checking their phones), but I did have a run catching up on Oscar nominees. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was wonderful and Gary Oldman was astonishing in Darkest Hour.
The ambition of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is worth a mention. It was filmed entirely on iPhones, although they seemingly removed the auto-focus function.
I was lucky enough to be at a couple of special screenings. The near-perfect I, Tonya was followed by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney in conversation. And I was at a screening of the fascinating McQueen documentary at the BFI with the directors and the fashion designer’s nephew.
This year’s Grayson Perry-curated RA Summer Show was colourful, fun and even more eclectic than usual, but seeing Cornelia Parker’s ‘Psycho House‘ was my favourite Royal Academy experience of their 250th anniversary. And seeing her Perpetual Cannon was my highlight at Turner Contemporary.
Like everyone else, I saw the crowded but interesting Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up show at V&A, the curiously-ticketed Yayoi Kusama’s show, THE MOVING MOMENT WHEN I WENT TO THE UNIVERSE, at Victoria Miro, and the Basquiat retrospective, Boom for Reel, at the Barbican. Also the Alexander Calder retrospective From the Stony River to the Sky at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset was well worth the detour.
Through a lack of planning and the luck of timing I found myself in the Courtauld Gallery on the day before it closed for refurbishment. I’m embarrassed that I’d not been before. It was great.
One of my favourite individual works of 2018 was Es Devlin’s Please Feed The Lions, a fluorescent recreation of a Landseer Lion in Trafalgar Square. Maybe it didn’t roar swear words in the way I’d hoped, but it looked amazing.
As well as Monumental, I saw quite a lot of other dance. I enjoyed an evening at Rich Mix where Hetain Patel introduced his films, performed with a live orchestra, including the West African wedding dance-off Don’t Look at the Finger. By coincidence, I saw another of piece by him, Let’s Talk About Dis, written for and performed by Candoco at a free lunchtime performance at Royal Opera House. And their young company Cando2 were part of the monumentally huge East Wall: Storm the Tower event at Tower of London, led by Hofesh Shechter Company and East London Dance. And, resonating back to that African wedding film, I was at The Albany for Uchenna Dance’s energetic and engaging Head Wrap Diaries.
Retrospection seemed to be my musical motif for the year. At Dreamland in Margate, Ride performed an ‘acoustic’ (but plugged-in and very loud) 25th anniversary show. In Brixton I spent a very happy Saturday listening to indie-bands from the early 90s at Star-Shaped Festival, including Black Grape, Ocean Colour Scene and My Life Story. After an absence of 12 years, The Dresden Dolls were back for two big London shows, I caught them at an astonishing warmup event at the tiny The Dome in Tufnell Park. At Clapham Grand I enjoyed Club Classics: The Lips Remix, an all female choir performing dance classics from before many of them were born. Throwing us even further back in time, I saw a couple of shows of popular classics from London Incidental Orchestra (conducted by colleague Alex Conway) that I really enjoyed.
I did see some more modern music too. In Brighton I saw the gloriously bonkers Superorganism. Japanese instrumental rockers MONO came close to bursting my eardrums and burning my retinas at Queen Elizabeth Hall. And tUnE-yArDs were fabulous as ever at Roundhouse.
Nothing’s perfect and there were a few events that I was confused, frustrated or upset by…
As well as the excellent RSC production, I saw two other Macbeths this year: National Theatre’s production (with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, who somehow ends up in this section each year despite me thinking she’s great) felt too vast, cold and indifferent, whilst The Globe’s production (in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) was somehow too contained and never intense enough for my taste.
I saw a couple of shows at Soho Theatre that upset me. Vicky Jones’s early work, The One, was reprised with Tuppence Middleton playing Jo, utterly convincingly. I found it too dark, too nihilistic to see it as entertainment. Maybe that was the point.
Having missed it (by arriving late) in Edinburgh, I was really looking forward to the Underground Railroad Game that critics were raving about, but I had a complete sense of humour failure. It just seemed gratuitous, unpleasant and exploitative to me.
Although she features in numerous of my favourite works of the year, I was disappointed by Es Devlin’s talk at Purcell Room (it wasn’t what I was expecting, which I suspect was my fault for not checking before I excitedly booked a ticket). But it was Grayson Perry’s seemingly thrown-together, lacklustre lecture, Them and Us at the London Palladium that I found most frustrating (as I love his work).