Friday, 17 November 2017

Spid Theatre Company outside

'Where's the tower?'

Goldfinger's fashionably brutalist Trellick Tower looms over us so I assume he means that one. But he and his companion are seeking the scorched exoskeleton of Grenfell Tower. They've got out at the wrong station. I hope they're not going to take selfies like the others.

Spid Theatre Company is filming scenery in brief snatches by both towers and its HQ, the modernist council block Kensal House. It's cold.

Drummers under the overhead railway line
Grenfell Tower in the distance
There are toys and tributes outside Notting Hill Methodist Church

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Read Not Dead: Jacobean tragedy at Gray's Inn

It's suspenseful all right. Will Philip Massinger's neglected Jacobean tragedy, The Unnatural Combat, survive a script-in-hand performance in Gray's Inn Hall? And will the pro-am cast - the Bar v. Shakespeare's Globe - be oil and water? 

This is part of Globe Education's commendable Read Not Dead project, dedicated to resuscitation.

She's absent, but I have her figure here; 
And every grace and rarity about her 
Are by the pencil of my memory 
In living colours painted on my heart. 

Malefort, an ambivalent war hero dragged out of jail for his first scene, is racked with desire for the beautiful Theocrine - his daughter, ew. He kills his equally ambivalent son and the wheels of retribution grind away.

I don't guess all the lawyers/actors correctly, which is instructive. Sir Michael Burton QC and Colin Manning have a forensic élan. Emily Barber, who was a touching Innogen in Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, plays Theocrine with doomed delicacy; Tok Stephen deals well with the ambiguity of her half-brother; Tim Frances takes command of the hall, explores the light and shade of Malefort and builds an intimate connection with the audience. The play's director Philip Bird dips in and out, taking miscellaneous parts. The only run-through happened this morning.

It's a tale of cynical politics and betrayal, and there's speculation that Malefort was based on George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), the royal favourite who was assassinated after his popularity waned. Here he is, probably as Lord High Admiral, painted by Daniel Mytens the Elder (National Maritime Museum).

This performance is a counterpoint to last week's appeal in the UK Supreme Court about abortion law in Northern Ireland, which addressed rape and incest. With no jury present, counsel knew better than to try to stir emotion. Their approach can be studied on the court's website. This afternoon the play-reading lawyers have to tackle an emotional open runway. There is a sympathetic audience and plenty of room to move in the round, with clothes mainly their own and hardly any props.

After a court hearing it might be interesting to cast a play with the same line-up. King Lear for Miller, the Brexit Article 50 appeal, with Lord Pannick QC and James Eadie QC splitting the title role and Gina Miller as Cordelia.

Throughout this afternoon's performance the Director of Globe Education, Patrick Spottiswoode, has been willing everyone on like a parent. He has a battered book with him. It's a source for next year's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the abolition of theatre censorship in the UK ('the Lord Chamberlain regrets...').

Like me, he went to the 1968 London production of Hair, its first beneficiary. I saw the watered-down London revival a few years ago and felt it was a period piece misunderstood by the cast. How times change. But time is the key to this afternoon's shared mystery. This is not about taking something out of the freezer, but celebrating a continuous river. It's an important process.

Supreme Court: lighting-up time

The tobacco-laden fug of Courtroom 1
The tawny sky over parts of England in October was the colour of a pub ceiling before the ban on smoking in some public places.  

But what is a public place? Today’s appeal, R (on the application of Paul Black) v Secretary of State for Justice, asks whether the Health Act 2006 applies by necessary implication to a prison administered by the Crown.

Mr Black, a prisoner, complains that the ban is not enforced in his prison’s common parts. He says prisoners should have anonymous access to the NHS Smoke-Free Compliance Line which allows callers to shop violators to the local authority. To be practical, this line does not exist. Perhaps that indicates how long the case has been in the courts. A number that does come up online, 0800 587 1667, is unobtainable.

Philip Havers QC (who must be fed up with being described as Nigel Havers's brother) points out that some 80% of prisoners smoke. This is more than four times the national rate. I know nothing about smoking or prison so I asked someone who has experience of both to comment. The following words in italics are his.  

Surprised (and not surprised) they haven’t sorted this one out. When I was a guest, after the ban came into force, smoking happened in cells and all communal areas, but was officially allowed only in cells. Officers (in the open prison) usually went outside to smoke, but very likely smoked on the wing after lock-up. I don’t recall smoking in the gym or education block. I got the impression that the ban was not enforced because it could increase tension, violence etc, even riots. Also many prison officers smoke. 

As we know well from the debate about the distribution of condoms in the early days of the AIDS crisis, prisons are public places (condoms could not be distributed to prisoners because homosexual acts were permitted only in private). 

This is the Orwellian/Carrollian unreality of the prison system. The entire system is about fear, first of the ‘other’ who needs to be locked up, but much more pervasively from the point of view of the lower castes of the criminal justice system (prison officers, some police officers), fear of ending up on the wrong side of the door, very justified by the fact that the state monopoly on violence attracts these servants who take a deep enjoyment in the enactment of this violence. They are often people with strong criminal tendencies who are able to act out their natures in a structured and legalised manner. 

Tobacco, clean urine, drugs etc are currency in prison. And as such vectors of violence. The removal of the privilege of being able to purchase tobacco from the canteen is also a major (violent) sanction available to the prison authorities.The health of prisoners is of no account. So that is not a reason to stop smoking in prisons. All actions by the prison are intended only for the benefit of the prison. It is a closed system: physically, emotionally, spiritually, legally, morally. Read Solzhenitsyn.

There are as many opinions on prison as there are prisoners; prison reformers - professionals and volunteers - would do their best to counter some of the views above. Meanwhile, the current situation on the smoking ban’s application to prisons seems to be an obscure tangle of expediency and riots.  

He looked past him and seemed indifferent, but he noticed that after each puff (Tsezar inhaled at rare intervals, thoughtfully) a thin ring of glowing ash crept down the cigarette, reducing its length as it moved stealthily to the cigarette holder. Fetiukov, that jackal, had come up closer too and now stood opposite Tsezar, watching his mouth with blazing eyes. Shukhov had finished his last pinch of tobacco and saw no prospects of acquiring any more before evening. Every nerve in his body was taut, all his longing was concentrated in that cigarette butt—which meant more to him now, it seemed, than freedom itself—but he would never lower himself like that Fetiukov, he would never look at a man's mouth.
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  

Story Time, a free exhibition in the Supreme Court, features works by offenders, secure patients or detainees under 18.

Two items in particular catch my eye. The first, Inside, represents either the controversial Hymn by Damien Hirst, or the Humbrol toy of which Hirst asked technicians to make a 20-foot-high copy. In 2000 Hirst paid an undisclosed sum to avoid a breach of copyright action by the toy’s designer and manufacturer.  

The Guardian wrote: ‘The artist has also agreed to restrictions on future reproductions of the polychromatic bronze figure, described by one critic as "a masterpiece" and "the first key work of British art for the 21st century", which Hirst admitted was inspired by his son Connor's anatomy set.’

I am also intrigued by Vinopoly, a cryptic board game by an entrant from Vinney Green Secure Unit (detail shown here). The exhibition, run by the Koestler Trust with Victim Support and the Supreme Court Arts Trust, ends on 7 December 2017.