Thursday, August 8, 2019

Country Pavilions show propaganda at Venice Biennale 2019

These are impressions. Not an essay, not even an article. For the reader planning on going to the Biennale. For the reader who has been to the Biennale, and those who are planning not to go to the Biennale.

Starting by the pavilions is not a good idea for people sensitive to any hint of propaganda. The Venezuelan pavilion which actually exhibited some interesting art made no mystery of its intention (see its claim to being a peaceful nation in a time of absolute corruption and crime), unless it was supposed to be sarcasm which would be screamingly funny, I admit.
Natali Rocha, De Tripas Corazón
The Russian pavilion exposes a crowd pleasing installation of decors and automates inspired by famous works owned by the Hermitage. Come to Leningrad! Sorry, - come to St Petersburg, visit our beautiful Museum endowed with pieces by the Tsars before all that unpleasant communist business happened, make Russia great again. In fact, the exhibit refers to The Return of The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt. There is a video with some war stuff. We could read it as a criticism to Putin’s war on poor Ukraine. Or as support to same.

In the US pavilion, Martin Puryear comments on being American: subverted hunting trophies, the eagle, the tired myth of the pioneer. Isn’t that another form of propaganda even if the artist is well intentioned? See how democratic we are, we let our artists criticize our identity? The pavilion might be allowing free expression, but this is a facade for a country that has legalized torture and that tramples human rights when it comes to what is termed “illegal immigrants” who are generally people indigenous to the continent.
Liberty, by Martin Puryear

American Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019

The Ghana Pavilion boasts the great Maestro El Anutsai, stunning self portraits from the 60s by Felicia Abban, and ... Yiadom-Boakye whose top selling work does not exactly express her African roots.

A 112 min film at the Canada pavilion. Maybe I had not slept enough, or was feeling more and more cynical, but the day in the life of an indigenous man, an interesting concept, failed to convince me. Old men obviously suffering from substance abuse hang around the icepack pretending to hold strong to their traditions for the filmmaker’s sake. At one point, two young indigenous girls speak coyly on camera about boys. As if they would. When we know what the sexual reality is for these girls, one of the highest rape rates.
The pavilions push against each other to grab the attention of the visitor: watch our video! Read our long texts! As if the longer the visitor stays, the more success for the pavilion.
All this lead me to extract the following formula:
art x propaganda = propaganda
Which would mean propaganda has similar properties to zero. Works with other variables:
Writing x propaganda = propaganda
Gardening x propaganda = propaganda
Filmmaking x propaganda = propaganda
Hair cut x propaganda = propaganda

What does it mean to have countries show off art, artists in a pavilion? It’s a remnant of a time when countries had pavilions at World Fairs, promoting their national products and colonies. A major study by Tjaco Walvis called "Expo 2000 Hanover in Numbers" showed that improving national image was the main goal for 73% of the countries participating in Expo 2000. Pavilions became a kind of advertising campaign, and the Expo served as a vehicle for "nation branding".”
The pavilions might show work similar to the Biennale's exhibit but they turn the art into propaganda as it contributes to promoting their image.
To foster the Biennale’s integrity, it’s high time to transform the pavilions into a different form, a difficult, costly decisions as the pavilions, these crowd pleasers funded by individual countries are a boon for the Biennale. The pavilions could have different subsections that could change each edition: social issues one year such as immigration, refugees, gentrification, water access, etc. And another year show art by creators that are underrepresented: outsiders, traditional woman craft, art by children, etc.
I was certainly gripped by the video installation of the Australian pavilion. Which strikes me as a country which is genuinely taking a stab (is that really the expression? So difficult to stay away from violent wording) at democracy.  The videos take place in an imaginary building. Images of people playing music, of meeting places, build a three dimensional space where change and exchanges can happen. Much needed utopia.
Angelica Mesiti, Assembly
The German pavilion felt like a meditative relief with its rocks, its simple installation, its offer for people to sit and stop. A dam, exuding the power of an Egyptian temple, will hold the deluge for how long?

An animated fresco at the Chinese Pavilion:
In the Austrian pavilion, I was delighted to find Renate Bertlmann, an old favorite of mine.
The Danish pavilion exhibited an artist of Palestinian origins Larissa Sansour, a smart move to skirt nationalism. In one room, a huge black globe pushes the limits of the walls. Close up, the black as it absorbs all light, eschewing any shadowing, the globe looks flat, like a disk. Optical illusion. Just as on a daily basis we aren’t aware we tread a globe. But if we take the time to stop and think, we know it’s a globe, and it’s in serious danger.

“May you live in interesting times” is the theme of the 2019 Biennale. It is apparently a curse that a wise man in China threw to an enemy, but its origins are unclear. I wonder what is the literal meaning of the ancient Chinese word, “interesting” seems such a modern concept. It was in fact denounced by Susan Sontag as being linked to capitalism.
The exhibit A, in the Arsenale, makes for a consistent experience. The artists chosen, the work presented, the actual exhibition of the pieces in terms of sequence and placement, form an expressive ensemble. Some artists’ pieces are all gathered in one space, others are sprinkled through the buildings.
A lot of the work feels genuine. That skirted the common case at Art Fairs of walking into through the exhibit and feeling like the works are all screaming as loud as possible for attention: look at meeee!!! Buy meeee!!
There are lots of films. Good films. But feels like a punishment to be stuck inside dark rooms when it’s so beautiful out. Like a physical version of the Internet with its motto: use videos, not still images, not words, to grab attention. Here's a film using big data and scientific data to make a rhythmical symphony of images.

A lot of dried plants, weeds, seaweeds. Indeed our poor oceans know “interesting times”.
Some exhibits are smelly. Nice to have an additional sense stimulated.
A piece with interviews by Skype of soldiers of various armies: most compelling, the constant, the differences, and the sad fact that there are soldiers and there are armies, and as long as we have these, there will be wars.
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster takes us on a virtual tour in a beautiful universe where we float or fly. Bubbles come by. Shapes arise out of nothing, stun us with their shifting form, their bright colors, it’s a creation story.
The gut wrenching photos of Soham Gupta, taken in the slums of Calcutta. Humanity reduced to its common denominators pushed to extremes - hunger, love, disease, fear-, the images stab us out of our comfort. A baby looks too big for his mother's body. 

Elegant installation with tartan from Anthea Hamilton:

A piece of the Biennale's heart:

This piece by Liu Wei, Microworld 2018, refers to the molecular but has the size of the macroscopic for our appreciation, with its beautiful shapes and colors. Spectacular, while managing to retain modesty, as it typical of this edition of the Biennale, with its new curator Ralph Rugoff.
Liu Wei, Microworld

Questioning what it means to be "Asian" in our modern world, buddhist lama Khyentse Norbu presents options:

It's good to run into old friends. Painting, a trend making a coming back in the current art world, is well represented, here by Julie Mehretu.

The Biennale also takes place in spaces outside its geography.

Ibis, by artist Mother Nature, found a lot of admirers.

Finally, the wide diversity in terms of origins is welcome though still a lot of Americans and Europeans, but a disappointing number of women artists. Was parity not aimed for?!

Written and published by  - -  Arabella von Arx
Sculptures at the Italian Pavilion

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Five reasons you don't want Samuel Pepys' life, 5 reasons you want to read his diary

Titian's Miracle of The Jealous Husband


Theater in 17th Century England

Last blog entry listed the 10 reasons you want Samuel Pepys' life. There are only five reasons you would not want his life:

1. You would be terribly jealous. Pepys suffered from terrible bouts of that ailment when his wife took dancing lessons with a dance master. ‘my wife, who by my folly has too much opportunity given her with the man, who is a pretty neat black man, but married. But it is a deadly folly and plague that I bring upon myself to be so jealous and by giving myself such an occasion more than my wife desired of giving her another month’s dancing. Which however shall be ended as soon as I can possibly. But I am ashamed to think what a course I did take by lying to see whether my wife did wear drawers to-day as she used to do, and other things to raise my suspicion of her, but I found no true cause of doing it.'
'Up with my mind disturbed and with my last night’s doubts upon me, for which I deserve to be beaten if not really served as I am fearful of being, especially since God knows that I do not find honesty enough in my own mind but that upon a small temptation I could be false to her, and therefore ought not to expect more justice from her, but God pardon both my sin and my folly herein.'
And just as he said above, he soon started to approach women, and young girls, to solicit sex or sexual interactions. Maybe that was his way to deal with his jealousy. It's certainly not pretty.
2. You would have no anesthesia is you needed surgery. Before he started writing his diary, Pepys had his bladder stones removed. Without anesthesia, naturally. Every year, he celebrates the anniversary of the successful surgery, and he’s ever grateful to his operating doctor. Everyone seems to have some kind of stones, not everyone had the gall to get surgery for them. For people who could afford it, like Pepys, diet was pretty much exclusively meat. Venison pasty almost daily. Lots of boiled lamb or ham. Add a few oysters here and there. Vegetables seem unheard of, fruit hardly more present.
3. If you were barren, there was no cure, nor treatment. Pepys and his wife had no children. It might have been a consequence of the removal of his stones. Pepys does not discuss this issue much except that he is invested in his brother getting married and having children. His brother actually fathered an illegitimate daughter with a working class woman.
After the brother’s early death, Pepys pays a number of people to hush the whole affair, and take care of the girl. It’s quite clear from the negotiations that no one gives a hoot about the little girl’s welfare, unless the mother does but she has no voice. It never crosses Pepys’ consciousness that he could adopt the little girl, as he and his wife are childless. Maybe he would have considered it if it had been a boy. Da Vinci, the son of a laundress and a noble Florentine, was adopted by his father and his barren wife. The problem of the girl seems to go away, as Pepys never mentions her again, and it is assumed that she died. My heart hurts when I think about this little girl, swung around like a load of dirty laundry, who might not have had much fuss over her in her last days.
Medical statistics: causes of death, 17th century
4. Just as you are thrilled to be alive, you live in fear. Fear of the Plague and other diseases. Pepys and his wife are terrified when one of their servants falls ill during the Plague. They nudge him firmly out of their house, by sending him to get nursed in his family. It turns out it was just a cold. After the Great Fire, he’s always worried about fire. He wakes up, startled, in the middle of the night: Is the City on fire? 
England is also at war with the Dutch which creates a lot of unrest as huge amount of resources go to the war. The sailors are unpaid and refuse to serve again. Their wives demonstrate, harass the navy officials including Pepys who expresses his sympathy in his Journal. He’s very critical of the authorities, particularly of the King. He reports his whoring, his mistresses, his friendships with rogues. One has to wonder who he writes his Journal for. He reports what’s happening politically and also intimate: the death of his brother, his jealousy of his wife’s “dark” dance master. That’s quite endearing. It’s a bit hard to follow the politics as there are so many players, still the mixture of macrocosm and microcosm is so compelling. He’s a born narrator. His Journal is very precious to him. At one point, terrified of an impending invasion of the Dutch, which does not happen, he sends his wife to the country side with a lot of their gold and ... his Journal.
5. It was a time of constant fake news. You think we live in a world of fake news? It was worse then. Rumors about conspiracies, invasions, victories circulate all the time and are usually completely erroneous. The Dutch were not invading, the French did NOT conspire to set the City on fire, the Navy did NOT win over the Dutch. And there is no reliable source of news that can be go to to check on rumors. Only time tells.
And Pepys has to keep himself up to date with current politics. His position depended on this protectors, and he had to navigate some hairy situations. Though he kept climbing the ladder after he stopped writing his journal (He thought he was going blind) and reached a very high position, he eventually fell with his protectors, even being jailed for a brief time on accusation of jacobinism.

5 very good reasons you should read Samuel Pepys' diary
1. If you love History, this diary gives you an unmatchable insight in life in the 17th Century, and into its society. There seems to be way more social mobility than you would expect in a class society. It’s well written too, Pepys has a sense of narration. He wrote a fictional text as a youth, which he mentions destroying in his diary. It’s not evident who he wrote the diary for. He writes in his own personal shorthand in which he criticizes quite freely the king and a number of aristocrats. Obviously, he had no plans of showing anyone the diary while he was alive. He wrote for posterity, and for himself. He liked to keep a record of his health and daily activities, of his social status, and it helped him manage the stress of his social and professional life.     
2. If the human story is more your thing, his relationship with his wife is riveting. She seems quite free. They do a lot of things separately. She definitely is not locked up at home. He doesn’t seem to be madly in love with her, but he cares very much, she plays a huge role in his life. They had arguments, often over small matters, as most arguments still do now.
'So after the Paynter had done I did like the picture pretty well, and my wife and I went by coach home, but in the way I took occasion to fall out with my wife very highly about her ribbands being ill matched and of two colours, and to very high words, so that, like a passionate fool, I did call her whore, for which I was afterwards sorry.'
'After that I went by water home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it. '
After she dies, he stopped keeping his diary. The official version is that he had issues with his eyes. But he never remarried, despite having no children, though he might have figured out his organs were at fault, as none of the women he had sex with became pregnant. 
3. He presents an honest picture of himself, and he is often repentant – that might have endeared him to the nobles around him. He is aware that he does not repress his passions. He penalizes himself with fines when he does not respect his own rules. But mostly in the first years of his diary, and it mostly concerns his spending too much money, particularly on plays, and spending too much time on leisure to the detriment of his work load. That does not seem to have hampered his social climbing.
4. His ascension in society is fascinating. He becomes richer, more influential, both through connections and skills. And he’s loving it! His father was a tailor, but probably fairly well-to-do, their status ranking above other working class positions such as laundress or servants. His family has aristocratic relatives, one of his aunts having married a Montagu. 

As he climbs the social ladder, he tends to go less to the pub, and host more in his home. At night, at first, he uses the services of young boys that carry a torch and light the way home for a small fee. He moves around a lot during the day, often by barge, and details his commutes in his diary. He takes the coach more, until he finally takes the dive: he purchases a fancy coach, complete with horses and drivers. He even changes one of the horses which he thought was not good enough. With his wife, they go parading through Hide Park, the fashionable thing to do for upperclass people, until someone tells Pepys it's unseemly for an upstart like him. He's terribly vexed. But still he loves having his portrait painted, and his wife. His household becomes larger, he hires a number of maids for his wife who seems dissatisfied with most.

'I do see the inconvenience that do attend the increase of a man’s fortune by being forced to keep more servants, which brings trouble.'

In the morning he usually goes to Whitehall or the exchequer to hear the latest news, and to network. Networking is a huge part of his life, and he must have been good at it. Then he might go to the pub such as the White Swan 'for his morning draft'. He has the despicable habit of trying to kiss the waitresses. He goes home for his midday meal which is called "dinner", hosts guests or is invited. He often sings with his wife, either during his lunch break or at night. In the afternoon he might go to a play and then he'll work later, sometimes after his evening meal. He also often walks in a park or in his garden with a friend for an hour or two. He doesn't say whether that's for health or just for enjoyment.
5. He has an endearing personality. Apart from his womanizing and his occasional brutality, he’s spontaneous, affectionate, curious (he was invited to the Royal Society, quite an honor at the time), eager, intelligent, sociable, volatile, has ethics when it comes to his work, - but not to his personal life. One has to wonder whether his lack of control over his passions were typical of the times, which seems likely. That lack of control can be enviable to the modern reader living in our highly regimented world: he gets angry! He weeps when his wife reproaches him his deplorable behavior! He creates, and celebrates, almost daily moments of merriness!
You can read the whole text online, or, recommended, the abridged version which runs only about 600 pages!
Written and published by  - -  Arabella H. von Arx


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

10 reasons you wish you had Samuel Pepys’ life

Samuel Pepys at the time he wrote his diary
I have been reading Samuel Pepys' diary. The abridged version: one volume of about 600 pages whereas the whole diary takes up 10 such volumes. It makes for a fascinating read, and offers such a unique insight in the London of the mid 17th century. It's a raucous time: he saw the execution of Charles I, the Restoration, the persecution of Catholics and Quakers and other non Anglican church believers, various wars, the Great Fire of London, the Plague. He lived from 1633 to 1703.

1. You have no schedule. He works for the Navy but no one seems to have heard of office hours. He usually gets up really early, but he might go to bed one night at 3am, and another day get up at 3am.
2. You socialize all the time.  He typically went to the pub two to three times a day. He has people over for dinner, at midday, or is invited. Also in the evening, but not as much. He had tens of friends, women and men alike, as well as relatives.
3. You go to the theater a lot. Pepys sees the same plays many times over. Here's what he thought of A Midsummer’s Night: 'we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.' – well, he’s not remembered for being a literary critic.
Allegory of Music, Czech wall painting
4. Music is a huge part of your life. When Pepys goes home at lunch time, he often plays music on his flagelette (a wind instrument) while his wife sings. And then again at night. If he hears music played, a song sung, he cannot resist the attraction, and has to find who is playing, who is singing, particularly if they’re good. A talent for music will reinforce his friendships of which he has many. His wife asks him for a lady companion as they re going up in the world. At first, he renegades at the expense. But when the young lady comes and he finds she can sing, and is rather pretty, he yields.
5. There was little censorship yet, you didn’t have to worry so much about being correct. Pepys “shits”, and talks about his anus and his stools abundantly. And there is no correct spelling. He writes people’s names as he sees fits. And spells some words in various variants with no particular rule. Behavior also seems to have been looser, less repressed if a bit cruder. Pepys and his wife enjoy watching an execution on a Sunday, though these shows do get mobbed. A couple of Lords regularly enjoy running around the streets of London naked and singing "bawdy" songs. They get arrested by the watch, and the King has to go and bail them out. Then they all go to visit prostitutes together.
6. It was an exciting time, half way between an era of obscurantism and one of discoveries. It’s curious the irrational things Pepys will believe, when he is a man of intelligence, and passionate about science. He teaches his wife mathematics, and takes lessons himself from various scholars. He’s delighted that he’s been invited to belong to the Royal Society. There, he attends scientific demonstrations. He has a friend who invents an unsinkable double-shelled ship, the model of which gets sold to the navy, but the first one produced promptly sinks. An early Titanic.
7. Goods were precious. Pepys gets excited about getting a pettycoat for his wife, or a trinket. He's very excited about the purchase of a watch. Then he remembers he had had one, but didn't like using it! But he’s most passionate about books, each acquisition is a source of future joy: they offer knowledge to his avid mind, whether about microscopy or other parts of the world. Sometimes, he goes and reads at his bookseller, who seems to encourage it. The bookseller’s entire lot goes in smoke during the Great Fire.
Elisabeth de St-Michel,
Samuel Pepys enduring wife
L'Histoire amoureuse des Gaules
8. You have flexible morals. Pepys, who never had to worry about #metoo, puts pressure on his suppliants’ wives to have sex with him. He describes these interactions in a despicable mixture of Spanish and French and English, producing a kind of Lingua Franca of misbehavior. That’s a most detestable aspect to his personality which is quite attractive otherwise. Moments after these spurts of fornication, he goes to church. Mostly to watch the attractive women at the service, but he does pay attention to the sermon which he is usually critical of.
He reads titillating books such as “L’Histoire amoureuse desGaules” then burns them because he does not wish them to bring him posthumous shame by being to catalogued in his library after he dies. 
Samuel Pepys, later in life, with his wig
9. You are moving up socially. Pepys was the son of a tailor. He was smart and got a scholarship to attend Oxford where he learned Latin and Ancient Greek. He got under the protection of an aristocrat that was a remote family connection and entered the administration of the Navy. Thanks to his connections, and probably to his intelligence and social skills, he gets more and more responsibility, and he becomes richer. Every month, he makes his account to figure out how rich he has become. It’s fascinating to see him hit landmarks in that ascension: he purchases a powdered wig, which takes some encouragements from his servants for him to wear outside the house. Later, he plans on getting his own coach with coachman and horses.

10. But best of all, you are always so glad just to be alive and safe. He escaped the great Fire of London, and the Plague. His account makes you realize that the Plague was much more lethal for poor people. Anyone who could afford it fled the City. It’s surprising how much it was business as usual. The government, the nobility, the bourgeoisie all transfer to the outer suburbs. And party away. Pepys takes a ferry back and forth to visit his wife. A ferry! That seems the worst place to be in a time of epidemics, the equivalent of taking a plane, as you know a sure way nowadays to catch a virus going around. The City is much more affected, and he worries every time he has to leave the countryside. He does mention stumbling in the dark on a corpse left on the street. But it’s not the image we might have of ghostly streets with barricaded windows and doors, of lone passerby wearing masks and walking close to the walls, head down. Maybe that mental picture of the Plague is closer to what the situation was like in mainland Europe. At the end of every month, he takes the time to review his situation, and he thanks God for him and his wife being in good health, for his good economic situation. Almost everyday, he eats and drinks and sings with friends, reporting in his diary they "made very merry".


                                           written and published by  - -  Arabella von Arx

Great Fire of London

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

I was bored at Mark Morris’ Pepperland! I swear!

Take The Beatles superlative Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Heart Club Band album, have it turned into a modern dance show by super fun choreographer Mark Morris: we had to be in for a treat. Even if the show didn’t break the intellectual sound barrier, it was bound to be highly entertaining and pleasurable. Well, no, and I am compelled to introduce a sad face 😢to support this statement.
The costumes were super yummy, I admit.
The music was awesome, it was arranged by Ethan Iverson to sound more like a musical's score, and the Beatles music can go there without blushing.
The whole show came across as a homage to the American musicals of the 60s, think American in Paris. Don’t think West Side Story with its grand tragedies. So what about the Beatles? What about their genial breakthrough in terms of the history of music with that album?
The Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Heart Club Band was the band’s homage to their working class origin. They offered the music band culture’s naive artistry to the wild wild world of the 60s with drugs and yoga and crazy costumes and... and dark glasses. They paid homage to the working class’ sweet taste for tackiness, and at the same time they acknowledged the hardships of these Lonely Hearts. So little of that groundbreaking approach to making an album is conveyed by the show. The Penny Lane song does contribute some nice working class content, but again it’s all fun and eye candy.
Unfortunately, additionally to the lack of meaning, the choreography was so so so so repetitive. A little repetition is satisfying, a lot turns sedative. Lots and lots of pieces with couples, female/male couples, female/female couples, male/male couples, loving, having fun. How did that relate to the album?
The dance movements had some relevance to what is being done now, nothing very ground breaking, and to American musicals, as mentioned, and to 60s pop dance such as the twist – that last part most enjoyable, naturally. Some of the dancing was quite casual, a bit sloppy, without the usual perfection reached for in modern dance. Nice.
The cancan was fun. There was some interesting stuff about mathematical permutations of movements: at first the whole line does the same movements, then they get shifted so that one dancer does movement #1, 2nd dancer movement #2, 3rd dancer movement #1. At the next round, the movements shift across three dancers (easier to do than to explain) instead of two. That was fun. That type of permutation was applied to another part of the choreography too. Choreographers can get quite obsessed with mathematical patterns. But what’s that got to do with the Beatles? With the 60s?

The show was sprightly and pretty vacuous, it was like The Monkees to the Beatles. The sense of optimism hit the mark better. But the 60s were not just about being a pretty face, it was not just about sex, drugs and rock and roll, remember? Vietnam War protests. Women’s Lib. Civil Rights movements. An interest in other cultures. Non violence. Tolerance. Change. Imagination. The only part where this was alluded to, aside from the homosexual couples, was the interpretation of the song A Day In The Life aka “I heard the news today”. The choreography nailed the feeling of the song, the music supporting beautifully with the use of the theremin: a bit sad, a bit sloppy, and a bit political. The Beatles! How I wish the rest of the show had been in tune, a contemporary dance show offering us an interpretation of that genius album.
The musicians were great. The dancers were great. They’re all shapes and forms, that’s cool. One was pregnant! How about that?! A woman, I think.
Mark Morris bypassed Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds for this show. HOW ABOUT THAT?! I couldn’t believe it. But I respect that choice, it is an obvious iconic song to exploit, though the choreographer of the superlatively fun Nutcracker ballet is usually not too worried about subtlety.

written and published by  - -  Arabella von Arx

Monday, April 29, 2019

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers: An Ode to Woman

I wrote a blog entry a couple of weeks ago entitled it 'The Lehman Trilogy: An Ode to Patriarchy, Judaism, and Capitalism.'
That play was written by a man, based on a book by a man, directed by a man, and played by three male actors.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, playing at the beautiful St Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo, shares these features: based on the best seller written by Max Porter, it is staged by the inventive Enda Walsh, and stars a man and two boys. But where the creators of the Lehman trilogy didn’t think the play needed women to tell the story of a family, ‘Grief’ tells of the disappearance of one woman as defining the whole story of that masculine family at that point in their life.   
Cillian Murphy plays a father who loses his wife abruptly. He, and his two young sons, are visited by Crow, which is also played by Murphy. Crow is evil and elegant. Crow is witty and articulate, cruel and detached. A black, hooded bathrobe turns Murphy into the mythical bird, and any evil creature associated with fear, with loss, with death: demons, ogres, henchman even. He is the one who imposes pain. As Crow, Murphy speaks with the literary English accented voice of fairy tales turned wrong, of horror films. The powerful male voice is further amplified, distorted until the beautiful text becomes incomprehensible. The book, and the play, are based in part on a body of poems, The Crow, that Ted Hughes wrote after the suicide of Sylvia Plath. 
Murphy is the fascinating actor of the Internet series ‘PeakyBlinders’. With his square jaw and stunning blue eyes, glamor is in his range. He leaves all that backstage as he turns into an Irish father, with an unflattering hair style, unfashionable moustache, drab clothes. H portrays the fallibility of a man, as a lover, as a husband, as a father. That requires modesty.

When the actor switches to being Crow, he recovers his potential for glamor, all brilliance, all aloofness from anything that ties humans down: emotions, fears, needs. His bird dance, trancelike, dazzles with its lightness, his delivery of the text seduces with its perfect articulation. He won the Irish Times award for this near one-man show in which streams of sweat literally jets out of his body from the physicality of the performance.

How can grief, that utterly internal experience, so huge, so overwhelming,  liquefying of the insides, be represented on stage which by definition shows only the exterior of a human body? In part, in this case, by projecting the pain onto the walls. They are scratched with the words, with scribbled words, that turn to pure scribble, that paint the walls black. The whole stage is plunged in darkness. Suddenly Crow is perched on the 2nd floor, light strobes, throbs like sobs in the throat, like blood in the head. It’s terrifying as it looks like Crow might try to fly, and he would crash, being only human.

The moment of terror, the father’s madness passes thanks to the cathartic experience. Back to the mundane London apartment. The stage is mostly empty but for the bare necessities. A kitchen for food. Bunk beds for the boys to sleep. The father does not have a bed. A home movies is projected on the wall. Day trip to the beach. The mother’s face. She’s just a woman. One woman. But we know that every trait of her face, every expression is beloved by the three males in her life, who, dwarfed by her image and her presence, watch her. Her projection becomes huge, encompasses all three walls, the floor of the stage until it diffuses into the whole theater and can’t be read anymore.

The power of women. And isn’t that what they are forever being punished for by men? Girls as sisters, women as mothers, as life partners to men, loom huge over the male emotional landscape with their psychological powers, the power of their beauty, of their bodies, and at the same time, the power of their frailty, the innocence of not knowing their own power. However much material submission men impose on women, as they have done on other groups of human beings, whether they lock them indoor, deny them education, property, respect, whether they are beaten, the dependence of men’s happiness on women can never be reversed. In this play, the boys and their father's world turns to chaos and violence without the presence of the woman in their life.

The lights, the projections, the distorted voice turn the major part of the play into a noisy experience that could have done with a bit more modulation. In the end, the father recovers his sanity, is able to care for his young, and Grief might turn back into "Hope that thing with feathers". In an effective staging trick, the pantry that was empty because of the father’s incapacitation, has miraculously refilled with cans and jars of food: sustenance has been recovered.

written and published by    Arabella von Arx