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You can always rely on the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, devoted to (mostly free) outdoor performance, for something different, and this year it was an Australian play on a bus without air-con driving around Docklands on the hottest day of the year!

When we board at Beckton Park, there’s a passenger already on the bus. Just before we leave, another takes the final seat next to him. He spends much of the journey on the phone to business colleagues or his eight-year-old son. The woman next to him makes conversation in between. We’re eves-dropping on an encounter between two strangers on a bus, with an atmospheric soundtrack, and half-way through our journey I was wondering where this was going.

We’d encountered three other characters along the way, on the roadside, one boarding briefly to deliver something to the driver, but couldn’t see the connection. Then the woman makes it clear this is no chance encounter, she’s planned it, and her plan continues when we reach a wasteland where two of the other characters reappear and she takes him off the bus. This final, very cinematic scene is played out thrillingly on this wasteland with a backdrop of derelict buildings in front of Docklands skyscrapers, as our bus circles them.

The narrative of Jessica Wilson’s story is clever, with a serious message at its core, and Jim Russell and Victoria Moseley create believable characters. A tour of Docklands – part new city, part building site – is a bonus. I could have done without the sweltering heat, or with some air-con, but I’m used to suffering for my art, and it was worth it.

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Rear View

We start as participants in a life drawing class, at desks or easels, doing our best under instruction. Then the subject begins to talk to us, looking back at her life from age 65, though her body is her younger self. She eventually invites us to follow her, which is where we board a bus with raked seating facing backwards and headphones to wear. 

From here we drive around the South East London suburb of Eltham. She’s not on board, but we meet her at a number of locations – waste ground behind Eltham Football Club, the B&Q car park (!), a removal company’s yard and a secluded green – where she continues her reminiscences. It’s quite other-worldly, a feeling enhanced between stops as you watch passers-by with surprised and bewildered expressions watching you.

The prose is good and it’s a gentle, thoughtful experience, but for me it was a long schlep by two buses and two trains each way; an investment that I’m not sure was fully repaid. That said, Greenwich & Docklands International Festival continues to provide original experiences, for which they are to be applauded loudly.

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The Greenwich & Docklands International Festival is best known for outdoor spectaculars, so its good to see them include a classic play. Flemish company de Roovers first staged it with Antwerp docks passing for the Brooklyn longshore. Now Greenwich Peninsula and the Thames riverbank pose as Red Hook with the skyscrapers of Docklands standing in for lower Manhattan. It’s an inspired idea.

Arthur Miller’s play is like a Greek tragedy, but an Italian American one, involving longshoreman Eddie Carbone, his wife Beatrice, his niece Catherine and two other relatives, Rodolpho and Marco, illegal immigrants from Sicily seeking better lives than they can have in post-war Italy. Eddie is possessive of Catherine; they are close, too close, and as she develops a relationship with Rodolpho, Eddie becomes racked with jealousy, with tragic consequences. I particularly liked the way they represented the way Eddie’s life is turned upside-down by the developing relationship.

At the end of a sweltering week. it was cold and windy and this somehow added dramatic effect, with dust blowing across the playing area and brooding cloud cover above the skyscrapers. The sparseness, with just a platform and chair representing the Carbone living room and the phone box specified in Miller’s stage directions, added to the atmosphere, as does the soundtrack by a live trio. It was reasonably faithful to Miller, but I wish they hadn’t changed the ending, as this added a touch of implausibility to go with its heightened dramatic effect.

With the actors all of a similar age, you do have to suspend disbelief and imagine the youth of Catherine and Rodolpho, and why on earth the lawyer Alfieri broke into a manic dance during one of his later pieces of narration is beyond me, but these were the only things that jarred in an atmospheric telling of a classic tale. 

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Contemporary Music

Rufus Wainwright returned to form with an eclectic concert as part of the new Festival of Voice at the WMC in Cardiff. In addition to a fine selection of his own songs, we had an aria from his opera, a sonnet from his recent collection and a whole host of show tunes from his Judy Garland tribute, with stunning accompaniment from a cabaret pianist. His own vocals and piano playing were faultless and the sound and audience silence were a rare treat. Support Ala.Ni sang beautifully, with just guitar accompaniment, though I was less enamoured with her retro songs, which were a bit samey. She charmed the audience, though, with her infectious enthusiasm and excitement and complimented Rufus.

I very much like Elbow and booked for three concerts in Guy Garvey’s Meltdown, though one was cancelled when Robert Plant had to hot foot it to LA to defend Stairway to Heaven against copyright infringement some forty years on! Mr Garvey himself was a bit low on solo material so his own concert was short but sweet and very good-natured and warm-hearted. There was excellent support from the delightfully melancholic Jesca Hoop. Laura Marling, the second Meltdown concert at the Royal Festival Hall, was a bit of a disappointment. It was so slick, clinical and soulless, a bit monotonous and lacking in any excitement or emotion. At 75 mins with no encore for £40, I also felt more than a bit cheated – 50p per minute! Another good support act in Marika Hardwick, though.

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, many refugees, were invited to Europe by Damon Albarn and world music champions Africa Express. At their Royal Festival Hall concert, they played Syrian music with guests from five African countries, the US and the UK, including Albarn and Paul Weller. It was welcoming, uplifting, positive, inspirational and heart-warming – the day after the referendum result!

Opera

Welsh National Opera’s 70th Birthday pairing of their first ever staged opera, the classic verismo double-bill Cav & Pag, and a brand new one, In Parenthesis, at WMC in Cardiff was inspired. I have never seen a better Cav or Pag, a great production that were beautifully played and sung. Iain Bell’s new opera followed the National Theatre Wales in commemorating the Battle of Mametz Wood (part of the Battle of the Somme) where many Welsh soldiers met their end; it was an impressive new work. Both showcased WNO’s not-so-secret ingredient – its superb orchestra and chorus – as well as featuring some fine soloists.

Opera Holland Park provided a rare opportunity to see Iris, a full evening opera by the man best known for the Cav half of Cav & Pag. It’s an odd story set in Japan, before Puccini wrote Madam Butterfly, made odder by a third act that seems to be bolted on for dubious reasons, but it’s lush romantic music with particularly good choruses and here it was played and sung beautifully.

Classical Music

At the Royal Academy of Music, the hugely talented Symphony Orchestra gave a lunchtime concert featuring unlikely Scandinavian bedfellows Sibelius & Neilson which proved to be a real treat. Melancholy + Thrills under the encouraging baton of Sir Mark Elder, who continues to defy convention and provide informative introductions. Lovely.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra gave a short but beautiful early evening concert of English Orchestral masterworks by Vaughan Williams, Gurney & Britten. I am in awe of the talent of these college players. Even the conductor of the VW piece was a student.

Art

Newport Street Gallery, Damien Hirst’s new initiative, opens with a Jeff Koons show. I’m not mad keen on the mounted hoovers or his porno pictures, but the more playful stuff such as giant steel balloon animals and piles of play doe make me smile. It’s a lovely bright airy space and free and I’m looking forward to returning regularly.

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern was interesting in telling the story of how photography is used to record performance, but as an art exhibition it was rather dull. It was very hard work looking at walls and walls of mostly B&W, mostly small framed photographs.

Dulwich Picture Gallery provided another opportunity to discover an unknown artist (well, to me) Winifred Knights. Though there were only c.20 paintings, and c.5 major mature works (and a lot of studies for…) what was on show was a significant quantity of her limited output and all very beautiful.

A members preview of the Tate Modern extension turned into an art feast, but not because of what was in the extension (largely dull, the space for collections is c.30% of the total space, but the building’s nice!). Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective was wonderful – quirky, original and colourful – and I surprised myself by loving about a dozen of Mona Hatoum’s large sculptural / installation pieces. It was also good to see Ai Wei Wei’s tree in situ on the bridge, though I was puzzled by two mounted police riding around it!

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds at the British Museum was as good as an archaeological exhibition can get. In addition to the items recovered from the Med, there were terrific pieces from the museums in Alexandria and Cairo. Wonderful.

Painting with Light at Tate Britain showed the impact of the invention of photography on art and was rather fascinating, with some particularly good pre-Raphaelites on show. Upstairs Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 just proved it was a movement better forgotten! Meanwhile in the Duveen Galleries Pablo Bronstein has built replicas of both Tate Britain facades and painted geometric patterns on the floor where dancers perform period works in contemporary clothes. Outside in, old and new. Very clever.

The Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize shortlist exhibition at The Photographers Gallery was the best for a long while, and for once they got the winner right! The four projects covered the Arab Spring uprising, European immigration, space & surveillance and car restoration!

Ethics of Dust is an extraordinary installation in Parliament’s Westminster Hall. The artist cleaned the east wall during the hall’s renovations by capturing hundreds of years of dust in a thin latex cast which has now been hung in the hall. Extraordinary.

Film

Nice Guys was a fun caper movie, but it was way too violent for the genre and my taste and overall a bit beyond preposterous.

I very much liked Money Monster, a real thrilling ride with some great performances, a snipe at financial sector ethics but a bit of a depressing ending.

Love & Friendship was an odd affair. I liked it, but again not as much as the hype. A tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a surprisingly racy Jane Austin novella!

Much of the sentiment in Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next could be applied to the UK as well as the US. As we’ve blindly followed their model, we have lost our way. I thought it made some good points very well.

I loved Adult Life Skills, a lovely independent British film that was again way better than its critical reception with another extraordinary child performance.

I don’t know how much of Elvis & Nixon is true (it’s based on a photo!) but it made for a quirky and funny film which I enjoyed more than I thought I would.

Other!

The Greenwich & Docklands International Festival specialises in outdoor events and everything is free if you stand, and very cheap to sit. My first visit this year was to the Queens House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a spectacular called The House that included dance, projections and fireworks – and the wonderful Sharon D Clarke. I’m not sure I quite got the narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the spectacle! Six days later in Bethnal Green, Polish theatre company Theatr Biuro Podrozy performed Silence which I think was about refugees, but the narrative was even less clear than The House. Still, it kept my attention, though it was beyond melancholic so I ended the evening feeling rather sad. I first saw this company in Edinburgh 23 years ago and it was one of those shows that you’re still talking about, well, 23 years later.

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