Culture I devoured in Autumn 2019

This season turned out to be surprisingly busy with culture. I started the month by talking at two tech events in London, meaning I arrived into the full body of the month having produced some very technical, thoughtful output. I needed some really well-considered and curated culture to put everything back in the right places. Kind of like an internal tidy-up after I’d rummaged through all of my draws to produce someone who was definitely more knowledgeable than I am, and probably a lot funnier and more extroverted.

Historic Centre of Florence

Italy, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Hard as it is to believe now, a stonking four weeks later, but I started off this month in the centre of Florence, Italy. It’s a city I’ve visited every year since 2014, sometimes alone, sometimes with romantic partners, other times with friends. It is a place unlike anywhere else I have been on earth. The city is old and sprawling, the centuries-old city wall no longer even resembles an outer limit. It is one of the centres of the European renaissance, a hub of craftspeople, artisans, religion, philosophy, and hot blooded commitment to creating something beautiful. I don’t care that it’s full of tourists (myself included). I don’t care that I was only there for three full days, and that my Italian really has plummeted. I don’t care that it’s a romanticised ideal that I’ve created of a city in a country with some very real economic and political problems, and a culture which I don’t think would fit me very well at all. The city reminds me of the wonder and joy of travelling to new places, and to the higher ideals of art and craftspersonship which I value, but can be pulled away from by the urgency of the day-to-day. It is a city which speaks volumes to me, in a quiet, old language that I have to be very still and quiet to hear. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I make the rules so I say it counts as culture, and boy am I glad to have had the chance to visit to visit there again.

House of MinaLima

Soho, London

MinaLima are a design studio founded in 2002 to create the entire visual language and style of the Harry Potter universe as it was being brought from page to screen. They contributed hugely to the visual props in the franchise. If you’ve seen the films, you have seen their work: The Daily Prophet (the wizarding newspaper), the most-wanted posters for Sirius Black and Bellatrix Lestrange, the Black family tree tapestry, the penmanship in Molly Weasley’s howler that she sends to Ron after he flies a Ford Anglier into a magical tree. The whole thing is situated across four floors in a historic london terrace, with charmingly wonky floors, windows, and ceilings. The walls are full of all of the attention to detail that you could so easily miss by “just” watching the films. I grew up with Harry Potter, the books and the films, and that house felt so wholesome and warm - it is a really wonderful example of an intersection between visual design and world-building. If you are in north-ish London and want to kill 20-40 minutes, go and take a look. It’s most wonderful.

Faith Hope and Charity

The National Theatre, London

This piece makes up the final in a trilogy of new work by Alexander Zeldin. I haven’t seen either of the previous pieces, though I rather wish I had. Faith Hope and Charity takes place in a community centre in London across a couple of months, seeing a host of believably-guarded and warey characters, as they come for a free lunch and choir practice. While I was watching it, I felt the pacing to be unbearably slow at times - but on reflection, the whole thing was staged and timed exactly as it needed to be. You were never force-fed any ideas, and the eight-or-so principle characters tore you between a number of simultaneous plots or points of interest. Certain people and events became more of a centre-piece later on, but for most of it I got such a real sense of London: disjointed conversations hindered by people not wanting to share or give too much - because they either don’t know things about themselves or are scared to let other people see them as weak or frightened. Of people deflecting questions and awkwards conversations by busying themselves, or talking about anything (the biscuits, the leaky ceiling, anything) other than the things which very much needed to be talked about. Susan Lynch, one of the actresses put it perfectly when she said that the piece is “about moments between people, and it’s about small acts of human kindness… the audience is as vulnerable as the players”. It’s also the second time I’ve seen Cecilia Noble on stage, and the second time I’ve watched her command my attention - the woman is fantastic to watch.

Akram Khan’s Giselle

Sadlers Wells, London

I feel lucky that I got a chance to see this piece. Based on the classical ballet, in its characters and broad plot points, but has been adapted into contemporary movement and narrative by Khan’s choreography and vision. There is always a risk when you see contemporary movement given to classically trained dancers. They could hold back from the rawer moments or the unclean lines. Ballet dancers like to look good, it’s understandable. For the most part, if you weren’t looking at them thinking about this - I don’t think you would worry so much about it. Tamara Rojo’s performance as Giselle was, appropriately, otherworldly. From innocence and smitten to fear-driven anger, she mixed vulnerability and strength in a way which I can’t imagine ever being able to replicate. The first act was bullish, raucous, misplaced energy. Some wonderful folk dancing, animalistic movement, and very physical violence. The second act, all forty minutes of it, were heartbreaking, and I was furious when the curtain came down without letting me know what I need to do with these new emotions. It was wonderful to see the piece reimagined in this way, and set to a powerfully composed original score and soundscape, which pleased the contemporary dancer in me to no end.