Videocracy dir Erik Gandini. On general release from 4th June
Videocracy, by the Swedish-Italian director Erik Gandini, doesn’t give you many details about Silvio Berlusconi and his media empire (read Alexander Stille’s 2006 book The Sack of Rome for that). But it does tell you a lot about the atmosphere that the Italian prime minister helped to create, and the people around him. The opening shots are from Berlusconi’s first notorious television game shows of the early 1980s, in which housewives take off an article of clothing every time a contestant gets the answer to a (simple) question right. This is as good a metaphor as any for someone who, in Berlusconi’s own words, believes that everyone can make it if they get the chance to appear on TV.
Berlusconi’s hangers-on include Fabrizio Corona, who blackmailed celebrities by threatening to publish embarrassing pictures of them—he describes himself as “a Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives to himself.” The film was made before last year’s sex scandals about Berlusconi and presciently shows the degrading atmosphere in which he operates.
Much of the comment on the film within Italy has been rightly anguished—of the “it’s not him, it’s us” kind. How can this modern, well-off liberal democracy continue to tolerate someone who indulges in such lies, shameless self-promotion and even more shameless legislative self protection? Many Italians have complained there is nothing new in this film: yes, indeed. The point is to change it.
John Lloyd is a Financial Times columnist
St Magnus Festival Orkney Islands, 18th-23rd June, Tel: 01856 871 445
There may be starrier and more prestigious music festivals in Britain than the St Magnus Festival in Orkney. But none save the Aldeburgh Festival can boast such an intimate connection between the spirit of the festival and that of its locale. This is an event that takes place in a rough-hewn but magical cathedral, in community halls and little windswept churches within sight of an unruly sea. Another similarity with Aldeburgh is the feeling that the founder’s influence lingers on. But whereas Benjamin Britten is only present in spirit at the Aldeburgh Festival, Peter Maxwell Davies is very much a living presence in Orkney—and once again he has written a new piece for this year’s festival.
The community spirit Maxwell Davies is so keen to foster is still there in the event known as a “Foy,” an amalgam of stories, dance, music and song performed by locals. There is also high-quality chamber music from visiting artists, including the Hebrides Ensemble, the Royal String Quartet and violinist Nicola Benedetti among others. And running through this year’s programme is a Polish theme, with fresh takes on Chopin from pianist Ewa Kupiec and jazz pianist Leszek Mozdzer.
Ivan Hewett is the Telegraph’s music critic
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (Old Street Publishing, £12.99)
Milo Burke, the corpulent 40-year-old narrator of Sam Lipsyte’s extremely funny novel The Ask, is an overeducated slacker in the tradition of Oblomov and Ignatius Reilly. Once a promising artist, he now works at a third-rate New York university, persuading rich people to donate to its arts programmes. But his job is on the line after he unwisely took out his frustration on the daughter of one of the college’s major donors. And to compound his woes, he is in the process of discovering that his “touched out” wife, Maura, is being touched up by one of her colleagues.
The novel tracks Milo’s desperate efforts to salvage his job by extracting a large donation from a mega-rich old friend. He encounters a succession of amusing characters, including a jargon-spouting pre-school teacher and a porn-viewing lesbian grandmother. Much of the novel’s humour stems from the contrast between a culture that fetishises wealth and achievement and the humdrum realities—death, physical limitations—that attend all human life. This theme is well served by Lipsyte’s prose, which specialises in giving novel expression to feelings of disappointment. Sample sentence: “Later, in bed, Maura and I cuddled in the way of a couple about to not have sex.”
William Skidelsky is books editor of the Observer
Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini, dir Richard Eyre. National Theatre, 15th June-18th August, Tel: 020 7452 3000
In Greek mythology, Theseus, the founder-king of Athens, was driven from the city and died on the island of Skyros. But in Moira Buffini’s new play, set in the present day, he’s back in charge and coming to the aid of Thebes, a neighbouring state, for dubious reasons. War-torn and poverty-stricken Thebes is ruled by the democratically elected president Eurydice, who seems to have given her lover Orpheus the slip in the underworld.
This is the first contemporary mythological epic at the National since 1978, when Edward Bond’s The Woman put a modern gloss on the aftermath of the Trojan war. The theatre is pulling out all the stops, with Richard Eyre directing, a large cast and a top design team. It’s also the latest show in the Olivier auditorium’s Travelex £10 ticket season—one of the great success stories of sponsorship.
Buffini wrote the recent Jane Eyre television adaptation for the BBC. Her last play at the National, Dinner, in 2003, starred Harriet Walter as a hostess from hell and transferred to the west end. Her 2007 version of The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman, called Dying For It, deserved to. David Harewood, who was Martin Luther King in the award-winning The Mountaintop last year, plays Theseus, and Nikki Amuka-Bird from Torchwood is Eurydice.
Michael Coveney is chief theatre critic of Whatsonstage.com
David Nash Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 29th May-27 February 2011, Tel: 01924 832 631
David Nash, the heroic chainsaw-wielding man of trees, turns 65 this year. Yorkshire Sculpture Park is hosting an expansive celebration of his 40-year career, with the largest exhibition of his work to date and a new permanent outdoor commission.
Wood is Nash’s fundamental material. In 1968 he bought a chapel and adjoining schoolhouse in the small Welsh town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia, establishing his pattern of living and working in situ. Early carpentered towers quickly gave way to the more direct approach of chainsaw, axe, and sometimes blowtorch, tools he wields with tenderness and precision, most often on fresh unseasoned trunks and branches.
His most famous works are necessarily unavailable: Ash Dome was planted near his home in 1977 and Wooden Boulder, a chunk of 200-year-old oak, was released into a Welsh mountain stream in 1978 (its subsequent journey documented in films, maps and drawings). But with a retrospective in the sculpture park’s Longside Gallery, drawings and photos in the Garden Room, and new monumental pieces—giant redwood “crags” and black eucalyptus spheres—in the Underground Gallery, this is as good an opportunity as you will get to measure his stature.
Emma Crichton-Miller is an arts writer
Toumani Diabaté presents: Ali Farka Touré Variations Barbican Hall, 2nd June, Tel: 020 7638 8891
Music is not a universal language, recent studies suggest. If so, it follows that our tastes are more culturally determined than we realise: music that makes little reference to the cadences of our youth is less likely to hold any meaning for us.
Perhaps the appeal of Malian Toumani Diabaté to western listeners is his willingness to invite the familiar musical syntax of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, flamenco and Indian raga (popularised by Ravi Shankar and the Beatles) onto the 21 strings of his harp-like kora, thus softening our ears to the exotic complexities of the traditional Malian repertoire.
Similarly, his compatriot Ali Farka Touré rose to international fame after taking up the six-string guitar, on which he played blues-tinged Malian riffs. Farka Touré claimed to have discovered in west African music what Martin Scorsese called the “DNA” of the blues, which centuries ago crossed the Atlantic with slaves, finally evolving into the musical outpourings of bourbon-soaked retirees. This, in turn, provided the basic grammar for rock ’n’ roll.
The two Malians were friends and collaborators, winning a Grammy for their 2005 album In the Heart of the Moon. In the same year, they met in a London studio to record a follow-up, Ali & Toumani. Released in February, the album once again entangles the gentle virtuosity of two of Mali’s most extraordinary figures. As a tribute to Farka Touré, who died in 2006, this concert should thrill even the most parochial of ears.
Nick Crowe is a music writer