Our First Five Years: from tiny beginnings to exciting developments

July 20, 2018

Written by Diana Spencer

Thoughts from the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Dean

 “The last five years have been exciting times for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham. With two cohorts now successfully graduated, this makes for a very good moment for reflection.

As Dean, I spend my time between getting better to know and support our students, thinking strategically about where our developing organisation can lead us — and into what new partnerships and opportunities — and working on the nuts and bolts of staffing and our physical resources. All these things are interconnected, but also have their own energies and dynamics.

We are a complex organisation, and in our cultural programme, our rich suite of extracurricular activities (including our overnight trips, which take a lot of planning!), our international band of affiliate students, and our strong links into the academic practice of every one of the University’s disciplinary Colleges, sometimes it’s hard for students and graduates of LANS to keep track of all our achievements. So let me outline some of our current highlights, and our plans for 2018/19.

It remains the case that each of our students graduates with a unique programme of study. Reflect for a moment on that: the enormous flexibility enshrined in LANS genuinely enables all our students to craft something brand new and personally meaningful, drawing on the cutting-edge research from across our truly comprehensive university. When we started out, even I found it hard to appreciate how remarkable that would be in practice.

As our graduates know, with four years of LANS under their belts, and for some of them, a year of further study, employment, or other activities, the importance of reflective practice within LANS is paramount, and continues to shape our ongoing development of our core compulsory and optional modules.

Reflection and in particular, learning through trying, failing, reflecting, evaluating, and moving forward through these cycles, is as central to our educational philosophy as it is to our research expertise, and to the entrepreneurial activities of those with whom we collaborate. Our academic faculty, students, and our professional services team, share these goals, and work with the University and other stakeholders to achieve them.

It is in no small part due to this collaborative ethos that we continue to receive resource investment from the University, and collegial support from and within the shared aspirations of Liberal education programmmes within the UK and globally. It’s in all these contexts that we thrive.

Our pioneering cohorts will recall that the LANS academic team was originally composed of many staff seconded to us temporarily on small proportional percentages, and whose ‘main’ role was based in a disciplinary department. This was ideal in many ways, as it gave us breadth across the University, and also provided flexibility. We really had no idea of numbers of students or what it would be like, in reality, to deliver the programme in those early years…

By 2017, it was clear that LANS was recruiting increasingly well – strong numbers, growth in interest, and exceptional students. This made the temporary nature of most of the personal tutors’ roles with LANS increasingly hard to manage: good colleagues were in demand in their ‘home’ departments just as much as they were in LANS, and the pressures on their time and ability to manage the split looked set, eventually, to eat into time that could otherwise have been spent creatively working with students on academic outcomes.

Moreover, although when we started we had a ‘support’ team of just one (Ruth Johnson), we had already anticipated the new scale we were developing by successfully recruiting additional enthusiasts to the office team (compliments to Neil Nelson and Mary Ann Clarke!).

So from September 2018, this wonderful backbone will now grow further, with the permanent addition of Graham Davies, and another administrator to join Mary Ann.

Professional services’ support is one key piece in the jigsaw, but there’s more to the outcomes of this strategic planning. We know how much students value continuity within all elements of the team. We began to address this, redefining our faculty model, by recruiting two new full-time LANS academics in 2017 (Mircea Scrob and Simon Scott) — their roles, working in particular on our core modules’ ongoing refinement and delivery, has been transformative, and they have brought a freshness of vision and energy that we have all relished!

This investment programme also delivers five new academic colleagues, to be known as Lecturers in LANS and x, with ‘x’ a subject area supported by one each of the five university colleges. These new permanent faculty members will be 50% based in LANS. We are extremely excited by this development and the confidence that this resource shows in us as a team (staff and students).

Thus in September 2018 we expect to welcome a new lecturer to Birmingham, shared with the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, and with a mission to focus on public communication of sciences outside the academy. In addition, we will be joined by an expert in interdisciplinary Humanities, whose background in SportEx, History, Conflict Studies, and expertise in languages (and organising study abroad programmes), will make him an excellent new colleague for our new shared Lectureship connecting the College of Arts and Law with LANS, again, this is a 50% LANS proportion, and as a permanent lectureship. September 2018 also sees our current Director for Natural Sciences, Julia Myatt, add to her portfolio by taking on our 50/50 new lectureship in LANS and Biosciences (representing the College of Life and Environmental Sciences).

In autumn 2019, we will increase by two further permanent shared lecturerships, linking us with the College of Medical and Dental Sciences, and the College of Social Sciences.

But where will we fit these new team members in? We have successfully bid to relocate to a fantastic new suite of rooms. It’s still in our home — the European Research Institute building, but better because bigger and configured specifically as we want it. Some readers may know the exciting open plan flexible-learning space from our Applicant Visit Days – this whole area (including offices, social-, and meeting-space) will now be the LANS Staff and Student Hub, more than tripling our current home. This means that tutors will at last able to be deeply integrated into the spatial dynamics of the community, and more dedicated space can be provided for LANS students to work and socialise in groups, and consult with the LANS student administrative, wellbeing, and experience teams.

This autumn, I myself will become a little semi-detached for a year to give me time to get my next major research project off the ground (my current project, a book about the politics of language change in the late Roman Republic – first century BCE – will be published shortly, Research-in-progress updates will be appearing on my blog: https://dianajspencer.com). After four years as Dean, it’s really important that my research has some space to take shape and for me to produce some preliminary results. Just as we are challenging our students to work interdisciplinarily, we are modelling that behaviour ourselves as academics. I’ll be sending dispatches (and maybe a blog post) about my progress by the end of the year…

For this reason, I am delighted that Julia Myatt will spend the 2018/19 academic year as Dean (we will have a temporary colleague covering for Julia’s work as the LANS NatSci lead, but under Julia’s watchful eye) – I will also be popping in every now and again, generally keeping my ideas and assistance in the mix, and I hope that all of our graduates will continue next year to keep in touch with me, as well as with the rest of LANS!

I will return to the position of Dean in September 2019, and am looking very much forward to that new term of office already!

Finally, we are also in the process of setting up an Advisory Board, comprising internal and external members, and our graduates, to guide LANS through its next phase of development and to advise on strategy — keep an eye out for more communications, and more reports on forthcoming adventures as we look forward to 2018/19…”

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Graduate Stories – Jennifer Bainbridge

March 12, 2018

Written by Jennifer Bainbridge

 I graduated from LANS in July 2017 with a double major in Economics and Chemistry. After a rather rainy graduation ceremony I flew over to Malaysia for a couple of weeks in the sunshine and sea.

In September, I returned to the UK to start my new graduate role as a Finance and Risk Graduate in Canary Wharf in London for an Oil and Gas Major. The graduate scheme runs for three years with three one year rotations around the trading part of the company. My first role is as a Commodity Risk Analyst which mainly involves working with traders to manage their risk and monitor their profits and losses. It’s a fast paced dynamic environment working with departments across the company including traders and operators both locally and globally.

My new role has taken up the majority of my time but when I have time off I spend it exploring London, planning and going on holidays, at the gym and spending way too much time at dinner and brunch. I’m also involved in a committee for the graduates at my company and organise socials each week. On top of that, I’m about to begin studying towards my CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountancy) qualification.

In terms of how my LANS degree was useful for applying for graduate jobs; I think the biggest benefit was the fact it’s a bit of an USP. You’ll get very good at explaining the course to recruiters (after being met with a blank face when you reel off the degree title). However, once people understand it, the usual response is “I wish I could have done that at university”. I had positive responses at every company I interviewed at, including consultancies, big four, and finance companies.

For applications, I think it’s important to highlight the technical and in-depth knowledge you gain from studying towards a subject major. You can also show how studying a wide variety of subjects not only improves your understanding and appreciation of the wider world, but the softer skills that come from basically designing and studying your own individual degree – from organisation to communication, perseverance to problem solving. The group projects you do in first and second year also useful for competency based interview questions – for skills such as teamwork, leadership, communication, working with people with different working styles/opinions and many more.

Your combination of subjects is important: try to weave a story about why you picked them (it could just be that you wanted to try something new and challenge yourself). I’d definitely suggest spending time looking at the skills required for each application and finding a couple of examples to back up each skill. You’d be surprised at how many of these return to the opportunities provided by the LANS degree.

In terms of employment and future career, I’m very open to different options and pathways. I feel like I’m still at the stage where I can explore and develop a range of skills and the LANS degree definitely made me more open to trying out new things. Whilst I will probably stay in the Finance/Trading industry for a while I’d consider other avenues such as consultancy down the track.

The Kite Runner

April 10, 2018

Written by Memoonah Hussain

“THERE IS A WAY TO BE GOOD AGAIN”

Redemption lies at the heart of this devastating tale of friendship. This unforgettable award-winning adaption of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel The Kite Runner is now on its third tour.

Having missed the opportunity to watch The Kite Runner back in 2014 (courtesy of my AS English teacher) and hearing how amazing the production was from my friends, I knew I had to see it this time round. Having intensively studied Khaled Hossein’s The Kite Runner for two years and having watched the film, I was intrigued to see how Matthew Spangler adapted the novel, especially key storylines and sensitive scenes, for the theatre.

The Kite Runner navigates through religious tension, racism, deformities, war, and terrorism to tell the “haunting tale of friendship” and family. The story follows Amir who grew up in Kabul with his best friend and servant Hassan before becoming a refugee in the Unites States. Pivotal in the narrative are the themes of guilt and redemption which have drastic consequences in shaping the lives of each character as that “frigid overcast day… changed everything. And made me what I am today”.

Before attending the play, I didn’t research the adaption because I wanted to see for myself how Spangler’s realisation of the novel would be visually adapted for this setting. I came in expecting two actors to be cast as Amir- a young child to play Amir as a boy in Kabul and an older actor to play the present Amir. However, Spangler’s decision to have just the grown-up Amir narrating his story and weaving in between past and present alongside Raj Ghatak’s ability to immerse himself in childlike sensibilities before returning to his adult self, beautifully demonstrated visually how integral the winter of 1975 was in defining him and how it continues to haunt him today.

Although Ghatak played the protagonist, stealing the show was Jo Ben Ayed. Playing the ever-loyal Hassan, his characterisation of Hassan through mannerisms heavily contributed to the emotion rife amongst the audience. Ayed’s faced was lit with genuine childlike wonder as he grasped after each word uttered by Amir which when paired with intricacies such as the way he squinted, hunched his shoulders, held his kameez, and spoke, bought to life Hassan’s submission to Amir.

The complexities and layers of Afghan and American culture were always going to be difficult to transcribe into a theatre setting so director Giles Croft’s minimalist set design consisting primarily of two large canvas kites was used brilliantly for scene transitions by projecting media onto them. By crafting the stage in this way, Croft was also able to utilise the kites to serve as a constant visual reminder of Amir’s betrayal and the link between Amir, Hassan, kites, and family by using the canvas kites to shield the audience from the rape scene. Evoking unease and nausea, the audience too are haunted by the betrayal just like Amir is. Croft returns to the kites behind which Hassan was raped to project the murders of Hassan and his wife which beautifully reinforce the themes of betrayal, redemption, and family.

Music was paramount in creating the atmosphere of the play given the simplistic set design. Before the play began, authentic Afghan music welcomed us into the theatre as we were greeted by Hanif Khan playing the tabla. Transporting us to Kabul, this perfectly set the scene given the simple set. The tabla alongside Tibetan singing bowls and schwirrbogen were used by Khan and the cast to evoke emotion and create the atmosphere during critical moments for Amir. Large wooden rattles were also used to create the sound of the wind blowing and the kites soaring. By using rattles of different sizes, spinning at different speeds, and using canon, Croft skilfully built the momentum and tension during critical moments during the play as the wind became more urgent, louder, and wild.

What I found surprising was the depiction of the antagonist Assef. Although Soroosh Lavasani expressed Assef’s psychotic persona, in the novel, Assef is half-German half-Afghani with blond hair and blue eyes. He is also an avid fan of Adolf Hitler and gave Amir a biography of Hitler as a birthday present whereas in the play there was no mention of his bloodline, Hitler, and a football was the present given to Amir. I am aware that Spangler consulted with Hosseini regarding his adaptation and perhaps this was discussed, but I do find this omission disappointing. With the rise of the Alt-right, these themes are significant today and by failing to include far right extremism but still mentioning Communist USSR and Islamic Terrorism, this does seem akin to the failure of the Western world to align such ideologies as being on par with Russian and Islamic terrorists.

I really loved this adaption, but it has left me torn. As soon as I heard Ghatak speak the words I had committed to memory: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve…”: I knew that the script had been lifted straight from the book. When films are not made exactly as the book is written, many, like myself, find it frustrating. But this time I was slightly frustrated that the play was word-for-word the majority of the book. Although, Spangler’s adaption is true to Hosseini’s tale, by using the book as the script, the play has omitted some key aspects. Of course, he couldn’t have included certain details such as Hassan’s cleft lip, but I do feel that there were certain things he should not have omitted but had to because by sticking to the wording in the novel, he could not condense scenes to include others. For example, in the book, there is an embedded storyline where Amir stays at Farid’s house after returning to Kabul in search of Sohrab. Amir thinks that Farid’s children are staring at his wrist because they want his watch, so he gives it to them. What they were actually staring at was the food in his hands because there was no food for them. After realising this, Amir plants money under a bed just like he had done twenty-six ago in an attempt to oust Hassan from his life. With “a way to be good again” central to this story, the failure in incorporating this circularity means that Amir’s redemption is not fully realised.

DanceXchange, Mark Bruce Company-Macbeth

April 9, 2018

Written by Memoonah Hussain

 

DanceXchange Present Macbeth? More like WalkXchange confuse Macbeth?

Upon hearing DanceXchange Present Macbeth, I was consumed with fascination about how dance would be used to convey such as a dark and tragic Shakespearian story. My introduction to dance conveying stories stemmed from watching Matthew Bourne’s Edwards Scissorhands. I had never watched anything of this kind before but the power and beauty of dance in portraying and conveying the emotions and story still strikes me three years on. The clean lines, perfect time, costumes, facial expression, dance moves, music, props, just everything was magnificent and heart-stopping.

So, I obviously had very high expectations for Mark Bruce’s portrayal of Macbeth which sold itself as a dance theatre production that realises “a beautifully harrowing vision of an internal wasteland formed from a pursuit of power through ruthless means”. But boy was this far from the truth. It was more like a ‘restricted, weird, ugly, unharrowing eyesore of an external wasteland formed by a limited number of dance moves’. Bruce actively disagreed with me when I asked him why the number of dance moves was limited but if you repeat around ten dance moves in every dance, as far as I am aware, that entails a limited number of dance moves.

The dance organisation calls itself ‘DanceXchange’ but ‘WalkXchange’ would be much better suited. More than three quarters of the entire ‘dance’ was spent walking. When the crown was placed on Macbeth’s head, the routine was walked. When the two guards outside of the King’s bedroom were drugged, that was walked. When Lady Macbeth considering killing the King after drugging the guards, it was walked. I had the opportunity to ask Bruce why he chose not to have his dancers dance in these moments as they had such great potential to be portrayed through dance. He replied saying that he wanted to be economical in how much dance he used. He said that many performances overuse dance and overperform, so he wanted to be more sparing in his use of dance. However, on one hand you have Emirates’ economy class which includes somewhat spacious seats, access to movies and TV and food and on the other you have EasyJet which provides you with nothing other than cramped seats. This production was much more EasyJet than Emirates. I have no problem with being economical but there is something called being too economical and spending much of the time walking around the stage when you’re called ‘DanceXchange’ certainly calls Bruce’s concept of being economical into question.

 

 

In terms of the actual choreography and dancing itself, it was very disappointing. During the first ‘fight’ scene, the men were leaping and twirling around. It looked more like a child pretending to be a fairy then a sword fight. We were also treated to a dance number with the three witches who, like all of the female dancers, wore very tight skirts that drastically limited the range of movement in their legs. I was reminded of a school dance showcase rather than a professional dance because of the timing issues. I feel that the tight skirts may have contributed to this as the majority of the hand and arm lines were clean.

There were also random dances between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth which contained the same leaps and twirls as the fight scene. My assumption was that these dances were supposed to be sensual but what with these two main characters spending a lot of time staring down the audience, it was more weird than sensual. There were also a number of scenes without context. For example, there is a scene of Macbeth dancing while there are people dining behind him and there were intense crescendos of a violin. No reason was given for as to why this was including. It did not add to the story, it merely made it much more confusing.

 

For some, the outfit choices may have seemed brave for modern clothing was used, but they left me feeling confused. The men were dressed in what seemed like very poor-quality suits while the three witches weren’t even dressed as witched. They had tight fake leather skirts, chockers, and leather buckled ankle boots. Coupled with an inadequate attempt at anti-dancing, the witches looked like three drunk girls on a night out at a club.

The performance did contain the cliché blood, thunder claps and lightning, and screams. During the second half, there is another repetitive weird dance between Macbeth and his wife. During the dance, Macbeth leaves before returning with blood covering his hands and he is holding knives. Having studied Macbeth previously, it made sense to assume he killed the King but as it wasn’t shown, those unfamiliar with the play wouldn’t have known. Lady Macbeth soon leaves before returning with blood on her hands. This occurs to the backdrop of some very weird music. It may have been Bruce’s attempt to show the characters “goaded by the whispers of demons” but it was strikingly similar to the eerie Church music in The Da Vinci Code but by layering weird sounds like those of a groan tube, consequently it make the whole affair even weirder. Bruce did say that he the music was used to show redemption, but I do believe he said that because he was feed that when questioned by an audience member.

Again, due to Bruce’s wish to be economical, there was no dancing to show the anguish and horror at the King’s murder. The scene purely consisted of the Queen screaming, the other performers walking up to the King or to the other side of the stage before Macbeth walks up to the two guards drugged by Lady Macbeth and brutally stabs them. Amazingly, Bruce inserts a dance to a scene of his own creation immediately after Queen places flowers by her dead husband. The Queen walks forward with her out to the sides and her arms drooping down, perhaps in attempt to mimic the image of Jesus on the cross. She then dances to the creepy Church music. Again, there is more staring at the audience as her facial expression is devoid of any emotion. Given the lacklustre dancing and her emotionless face, the dancer looked like a rag doll which a child is manipulating to make her dance.

The group dances again utilised the same dance moves and if you weren’t already bored, you were definitely by the penultimate group dance. The first group dance of each series of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ has more oomph, passion, emotion, and skill than what I saw (or didn’t see) in this production.

This production contained even more bizarre things such as tattoos, creepy silver babies, Pennywise masks, and a rotting baby bought out by a woman covering in filth and grey. Not only was Lady Macbeth’s demise orchestrated poorly through tattoos shown on her body, her scratching the blood of her hands before a split-second dance choreography before she resorts to search for God knows what on the stage, shake, cry, streaking blood down her face and smearing it across her lips. She then dances to some jolly music where it is not the dance which portrays her demise but her facial expression of psychoticness before a man joins her who is revealed to be Macbeth after he removes his mask. Lady Macbeth then dies but the reason behind that is not terribly clear for although she does begin to strangle herself, Macbeth quickly removes her hand from her neck, but she still dies.

Regarding Macbeth’s death, the Queen stabs him twice with a spear before the rest of the cast join in, they too using spears. There were no entry or exit wounds nor is any of Macbeth’s blood split. The stage does dark, there is an extended pause as the audience is unsure as to whether this disaster has finished before eventually applauding the fact they have survived this train wreck.

Why this production was performed at The Hippodrome, I have no clue. By associating it with the prestige of The Hippodrome, you would expect it to be at an elite standard, not mediocre. Yes, there were some beautifully orchestrated moments where, for example, Lady Macbeth stroked the crown of the Queen before her face, but the overall performance detracts from these intricate moments. You should be able to understand what happens in the performance without knowing anything about it. Those who were not well-versed on Macbeth would have absolutely no idea what was going on. Had Matthew Bourne headed this production, it would have been breathtakingly phenomenal, and I really hope he decides to showcase Macbeth in dance to show us how it really should be done.

Nina, Birmingham REP

March 9, 2018

Written by Susannah Shepherd

 

In three words, I would describe Nina as passionate, stirring and insightful.

Nina is a one woman show performed by Josette Bushell-Mingo about her own life and the career of Nina Simone which touches on the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Despite the implications of the title, the show is as much about the woman onstage as it is about Nina Simone, if not more so, as well as things larger than either one. Bushell-Mingo showcased her huge personality, passion and boundless energy throughout the show, as well as her beautiful voice. The first half of the one act show took the form of an extended monologue, peppered with songs and accompanied with images from the civil rights movement as well as Black Live Matter. The second half took the form of a Nina Simone concert, with Bushell-Mingo introducing herself as the understudy. In the second half, Bushell-Mingo’s vocal talent is immense, and her performance was utterly captivating. However, it was not her singing voice that drew my attention, but rather her voice in a different sense – that of an activist and a passionate black woman – which she used fully during the first half.

She began by singing ‘Revolution’ by Nina Simone, but before the song was over the show took a sombre turn, as she claimed there had been no revolution, referencing the many black men and women killed throughout the 20th and 21st century. She also touched on forgiveness and religion, speaking about her mother’s death in a particularly moving section of the show. A darker turn was to come however, with Bushell-Mingo playing out a hypothetical situation in which shoots every white member of the audience, which included her imagining her family pleading with her to stop.

One-woman-shows automatically put me on edge, as they can be stirring, provocative and imaginative, but they can easily be cringe-worthy and over-dramatic. I was surprised and thrilled that Nina was an outstanding example of the former.

Puccini’s La Boheme

March 3, 2018

Written by Chiara Longmore

On the 26th February LANS students went to the Midlands Art Centre to see a cinema screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme. La Boheme tells the romantic story between a vulnerable seamstress Mimi, played by Sonya Yoncheva, and a romantic poet Rudolpho, played by Michael Fabiano, set in poverty-stricken bohemian Paris. The story is simple, yet powerful, as the doomed romance between the two lovers is played out in 4 Acts.

The first Act begins with a comical exchange between Rudolpho and his best friend Marcello, played by Lucas Meachem, as they joke about the poverty they inhabit. Rudolpho comments on how he is poor yet happy in life and Fabiano delivers this beautifully with his strong tenor voice. This is a theme throughout the opera where characters continuously try to make the best of their situations through humour and friendship. Meachem has a deep, rich voice which throughout the performance captivated audiences. His character Marcello is witty and feisty, and a clever contrast to that of Rudolpho who is more sincere and idealistic about life and love. The two men are joined by their friends Schaunard and Colline and the jovial display of friendship and camaraderie set in a decrepit attic makes this scene even more impactful as it shows that happiness can be made even when living in abject poverty.

The men leave to go to the Latin quarter, but Rudolpho stays behind. This is where he first meets Mimi who comes to ask him to light her candle. The famous arias that follow are Che gelida manina’ (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’) and ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ (‘Yes, they call me Mimi’) and both beautifully outline how both Rudolpho and Mimi are happy in their humble jobs and lives. Fabiano and Yoncheva delivered these arias beautifully and faultlessly, and this was concluded with the duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ (‘O lovely maid in the moonlight’). What struck me in this scene was the power both singers demonstrated in their voices without the tone being compromised, and this helped to make the scene particularly moving for the audience as the instant love both characters felt for each other was beautifully translated through their voices.

The second Act is set in the Latin quarter and it was interesting that between Acts we were able to see the scene changes behind the curtain. The set design for the second Act was incredibly impressive, filled with great amounts of detail that perfectly imitated the backstreets of bohemian Paris. This scene included many more performers on stage and chorus songs which was very enjoyable to watch, and in this scene we are also first introduced to Musetta, played by Susannah Philips, who is Marcello’s love interest. Philips has a strong voice and she brilliantly portrayed her character Musetta as a feisty and sensual tease who drives Marcello crazy, and the exchanges between Musetta and Marcello bring a comical element to the opera.

The love between Marcello and Musetta is a great contrast to that of Mimi and Rudolpho, and this is cleverly portrayed by Puccini in Act 3. Marcello is outwardly cynical about love, although it is clear that he is infatuated with Musetta, and their constant bickering is a great juxtaposition against the idealistic love between Rudolpho and Mimi. We soon find out, however, that this love is tragically doomed in Act 3 due to Mimi’s illness which we find out is terminal, and Rudolpho and Mimi have a heart wrenching moment where they agree to not be together anymore as neither can bare the pain of Mimi’s illness and potential tragedy it will bring.

The opera reaches its narrative climax in Act 4 when Musetta brings a dying Mimi to Rudolpho’s apartment and in this scene, we see the true nature and kindness of the characters emerge as they do everything they can to help save her. Musetta, who we often saw as being materialistic and selfish, sells her jewellery to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands and Marcello comments how kind and selfless Musetta is. We see the love between Musetta and Marcello rekindle in this scene as they are tragically brought together over the lost love between Mimi and Rudolpho as Mimi dies in his arms. In this scene there is also Colline’s famous bass aria ‘Vecchia zimarra senti’, known as the coat aria, which is a shy yet powerful tribute to Mimi as Colline talks about pawning his old coat to buy medicine for Mimi, literally selling the clothes on his back to help a friend.

Although the opera has a tragic ending, the last scene demonstrates the kindness and selflessness of characters who, although impoverished, give the little they have in order to try and save Mimi. This is an emotive conclusion to Puccini’s La Boheme which, although has a relatively simple storyline, is filled with beautiful music and powerful themes such as love, kindness and grief.

 

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

February 13, 2018

Written by Abi Pilkington

 As the war sirens engulf the room with the clever use of surround sound, it is clear that this version of Cinderella is not the fairy-tale we are all accustomed to. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of this classic as a World War II love story works surprisingly well. Bourne stays true to many elements of the fairy-tale, such as the poor treatment of Cinderella by her evil stepmother and sisters, the lavish ball and of course, the lost shoe; however, he adds and alters so much more.

 Bourne taints the elements of the story that are usually depicted as pure and good, dimming them somewhat with darkness. For example, the Prince is an injured RAF pilot, seemingly traumatised from the war, the fairy god-mother figure is an ambiguous phantom-like character who seems to have both good and evil qualities, and the notorious ball is set in the Café de Paris- a venue that hosted and still hosts a range of performers, but during the Second World War was bombed causing a number of fatalities. This intriguing mix of good and evil is a fitting reflection of the war. The prince-like character as an RAF pilot highlights the glorification of fighting for your country. Yet, this status came with a price- leaving many survivors traumatised, shell-shocked and injured. Still, this glorification is present throughout the entire performance, including the other male characters dressed in uniform, as all the women in the piece clearly want their attention. However, this idealistic image of a war hero is shattered when you consider the brutal and murderous nature of war. This conflict in honouring the men who went to war and showing the reality of it is depicted in Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Although Owen was a soldier in the First World War, the messages he conveys are still extremely relevant, particularly the preface we wrote to his poetry anthology:

‘This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.’

Furthermore, this dark undertone is evident in the costumes they use. Every costume we see is a shade of grey- even the extravagant ball gowns- depicting the bleak reality of the war that is constantly hanging over each character’s head. The evil stepmother, however, is very clearly always seen in black. This immediately reflects her dark qualities and makes her stand out from the others, often helping her to steal the attention of the scene as her character so clearly loved to do. In addition to this, the fairy godmother and Cinderella both wear white costumes- the fairy-godmother throughout, and Cinderella at the ball. This may be to show the ‘good’ characters, however, the fairy godmother seems both good and evil, particularly when playing the doctor character, or when hovering over the ball seemingly causing the explosion. Therefore, the white may instead be used to show what is supernatural, perhaps Cinderella never did attend the ball or really have a fairy godmother.

This dark and grey aesthetic is also reflected in the well-thought-out stage design. However, moments of intense colour such as the hellish bombed scene that act II began with, stood out against the mundane costumes and background colours. The set transported the audience to so many realistic and magical places. The London underground stood out for me as it captured exactly what it feels like. The surround sound of a tube arriving successfully added to this. The lighting and music also aided the overall atmosphere of the performance. Moments of intense colour from the lights depicted the time of day, the weather and much more, whilst the music added to the suspense of each scene.

Furthermore, it seems Bourne was inspired by the music for Cinderella, as the time period in which Sergei Prokofiev was writing it was during World War II, hence the setting of this ballet. The anxiety of this time period is mimicked in both the tense, dramatic music that leaves the audience in constant suspense, and the constant threat of a bomb, foreshadowed by the sirens and films they play throughout on ‘how to be safe’ in the event of an air raid. When eventually an explosion does go off it separates the two lovers, a twist that allows the story to be grounded in reality, instead of the spell wearing off at midnight like in the original. However, when the fairy-godmother character then comes on and seemingly reverses time and allows Cinderella to attend the ball, the story becomes increasingly more magical and supernatural, especially when Cinderella eventually arrives in her spectacular dress.

Although the ball that follows in one of impressive dancing and vibrant set design, it seems to go on for slightly too long and confuses the storyline when Cinderella seems to leave the prince before going back to him. Despite this, there were moments that were flawlessly executed. For example, when one-by-one the males attending the ball all began to dance with Cinderella, forming an almost ‘conga line’ sequence. The canon and different levels used in this section of the dance looked beautiful on stage and framed Cinderella’s transformation into a blonde ball-gowned beauty perfectly.

However, the scene that followed was by far my favourite:

We are met by the prince walking on stage where Cinderella sleeps in a bed. They are both in their 1940’s style underwear which immediately creates a vulnerability to the scene. As Cinderella wakes up the lighting starts to brighten slightly to a beautiful orange colour, creating the feel of a sunrise, or perhaps a fiery reflection of London burning outside. Cinderella and the prince then begin to perform a stunningly intimate dance, full of lifts and other dynamic movements that capture all the magic and romance that is expected in a performance of this classic fairy-tale.

Overall Bourne’s stylistic interpretation of Cinderella was something completely unexpected. Although moments of it left me confused and questioning certain plot holes, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this stunning piece of art take over the hippodrome stage.