Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The axe falls on the arts

On Saturday 26th March, I, along with half a million other people from all walks of life, marched in London in protest against the Tory-led government's stringent programme of public sector cuts. We marched for the alternative to this government's detrimental agenda.

Everyone will have had their different and numerous reasons for taking part in the protest, but one issue very much at the forefront of my mind on Saturday was the subject of this blog post - the arts.

Today, the Arts Council England has announced its series of cuts to the arts budget, encompassing theatre, opera, dance, cinematography, art galleries and many more cultural organisations - big and small, local and national. The ACE cannot and should not be blamed for these Draconian "efficiency savings" (as the ConDems would put it). They have been faced with an impossible task and forced to impose these cutbacks by the government. The Arts Council is the messenger of a cruel and determined master.

There have been winners and losers in today's announcement. Charnwood Arts in Loughborough, for instance, has been successful in getting a funding rise from £131, 000 to £137,500. Bristol Old Vic has been given standstill funding. This is essentially a cut, as inflation is currently running at over 4%. But it's better than a large and straightforward slash in the budget, as has been the fate of many other organisations. But the general picture from today is, as expected, gloomy. As a result of these cuts, the arts up and down the land will suffer. Organisations will receive fewer government subsidies, meaning they will have to raise the price of tickets (where applicable) in order to control costs. We all know what this means, it's stingingly simple - the arts will be even more expensive, and therefore they will be the preserve of the well-off.  What is more, less funding means less original and innovative work, and thus we risk becoming a cultural wasteland.

Before the collapse of Northern Rock and the ensuing financial crisis, the United Kingdom had the second lowest deficit in the G7. This means that the international banking catastrophe, caused solely by the selfish greed and reckless short-sightedness of those in the City and the wider financial world, as well as a severe lack of regulation, was the main cause of the "black-hole" deficit the coalition is currently trying to reduce, through destroying our public services. Not Labour. Not me. Not you. We didn't cause this and yet we are paying for it. That is not just unfair, it is insane.

The Tories believe in a small state and big business. They will stop at nothing to slash the public sector and that includes the arts.

In his wonderful speech at the rally on March 26th, the actor Samuel West said, "Conservatives don't like art being cheap because it educates and enlightens working people". I really can't put it any better. These overly severe cuts to the arts and the wider public sector are driven by ideology, not necessity.

It is my passionate and unequivocal belief that the arts should be everyone. Why should only the rich be allowed to experience the beauty of Shakespeare or Verdi? The arts are a right, not a privilege. Art, in all its many, many forms, is an essential aspect of our lives. Art is the greatest of all our endeavours, for it explores what it means to be human. Art is not some flowery nonsense, it is not a frivolous past-time in which only the wealthy have time to indulge. Through art, we express who we are, as individuals and as a race. So it angers me when Quentin Letts, writing in the Daily Mail (where else, I ask you?) says, "There will be keening and caterwauling on an epic scale. "Woe is us!" the corduroyed luvvies will chorus". Those are the remarks of a silly and ignorant man. The arts aren't just for "luvvies". They are the most powerful exploration of the human condition, and they are for all people, irrespective of whether or not they wear polo necks and end every sentence with the word "darling" (guilty as charged). At this time especially, we should be encouraging more people from all backgrounds to experience art, but instead this government, interested only in its own ends, wants to close off access to those who can't afford it. We must fight them. We must fight for the arts. We must fight for our fundamental rights as human beings.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Richard III - Review

You know you're in safe pair of hands when it comes to Propeller. The all-male, Shakespeare cast are adept at making the Bard's lofty plays accessible, enjoyable and relevant, and their production of  Richard III at the Lowry, Salford, is no different.

Richard Clothier's hunchbacked, murderous and conniving Richard, Duke of Gloucester (latterly King of England) is a joy to watch from start to finish. Clothier carries the play with skill and brilliance, delivering each line with a perfect mix of bitterness, greed and pure evil. The King's crookedness, both in body and deed, is played to great effect.

Director, Edward Hall's take on the play is particularly excellent; he and the company having chosen to focus on the black humour of Richard III. The numerous murders of the play are gruesome and extremely bloody, but also very comical. And each character is played to such melodramatic heights that even as Lady Anne weeps over the dead body of her murdered husband, the audience are in roars of laughter (mainly at Richard's wicked attempts to "woo" her). That is not to say, however, that the play has lost its poignancy. Clothier's deliverance of that famous line, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!", is incredibly powerful, and the audience pity the trounced King, pathetic in his final defeat. 

Other delights of this production include Tony Bell's embittered Queen Margaret as she curses the nobles by splashing them with blood, after they refuse to head her warning. The stage is also constantly populated by a ghostly, masked chorus whose chants and songs are poignantly juxtaposed against the death and gore on stage. 

Richard III is Shakespeare's second longest play (after Hamlet) and this abridged version comes in at two hours, forty five minutes. But time flies as you are swept along in this royal rampage of killing and manipulation. Propeller's conceptualisation of the play, in terms of acting, costume and set design, is superb and the end result is a memorable, enjoyable and entertaining night at the theatre. 

Star rating out of five for Richard III:

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day, and across the world people are celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women in the present day and throughout history. Be it the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th century who fought for women's votes, the feminist movement of the 60s and beyond which demanded gender equality or inspirational female figures - all are being championed. And it's not just these landmark campaigns and people, but the everyday women of the modern world.

Today is also a day to reflect on a plain, undeniable fact: women and men are still not equals. Despite centuries of toil, there is still economic and social disparity, and still a culture of misogyny and sexism.

Women are, on average, paid less than men, often for doing the same job. They face a much greater challenge than men if they wish to have a successful working and family life. Women the world over are the victims of domestic and sexual abuse and harassment, from men they know and men they do not. They are told by a corporate media that the key to happiness is fitting into a size zero dress and having a handsome, preferably wealthy husband. They are judged and deemed immoral by many for embracing their sexuality, and are called murderers if they try to take control of their own bodies. Things are stacked against them when it comes to breaking into the male dominated worlds of work, such as business and politics, to name but two. To some, women are not people. They are objects.

Why is it, after everything women have done and are still doing, after all the progress throughout the years, after they have proved categorically that sexist stereotypes are just that, why are women still not regarded and treated as equals in this world?

There is no single, simple answer to that question, but I believe it has a lot to do with the people's mindset. We may now pride ourselves on being progressive, as being as a society where women are not just expected to stay at home, cooking, cleaning and looking after husband and children. But make no mistake, those sentiments are persistent. Just consider the casual misogyny of pluralist, modern Britain. It is an outrage, and one that shocks me on a daily basis, that sexism is not considered to be as serious and repugnant a form of discrimination as racism.

Indeed, sexist gags are the all the rage up and down the land, and the chauvinistic slurs of media personalities when they think their microphones have been turned off, are simply indications of a much wider epidemic. Ah, but it's 'banter', I am told. It's 'just a joke'. Just a joke? Is it just a joke when women are afraid to walk the streets alone at night? Is it just a joke when women are killed and raped by men everyday? Is it just a joke when a woman is physically attacked by her partner? Hilarious stuff, eh?

It is an unspeakably infuriating truth that we live in a world void of gender equality. Great progress has been made and so much achieved by so many, but we haven't won yet. Feminism's work is not done. One day, maybe, we will be able to say that women - economically, politically socially - are equals to men. But until that day, until sexism becomes an embarrasing relic of a bygone age, until women the world over are free from oppression, until we can write the words 'Here lies patriarchy' on a headstone and be done with it, until then, we must strive on. So whatever you do today, take a moment to remember the immense achievements of women, and the immense challenges they face. And don't despair, there is hope yet for a better world.

An Extract from "A Doll's House", a play by the 19th Century playwright, Henrik Ibsen: 

Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties? 

Torvald: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to me your husband and your children?

Nora: I believe I have other duties. 

Torvald: That you have not. What duties could those be? 

Nora: Duties to myself. 

Torvald: Before all else you are a wife and mother. 

Nora: I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a human being.