Re-viewing Rome (LANS summer study tour 2017)

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Arch of Titus, Forum Romanum (4/7/2017)

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Rome study tour: 3rd-8th July 2017

One of the pleasures of being Dean is that I have twice had the opportunity to spend a summer week learning with and from a cross-section of our LANS students, while also talking to them about my own area of research expertise, the turbulent years of the late Roman Republic (the first century BCE) and the impact of that revolutionary era on how modern citizenship continues to be defined and contextualised. I blogged that first trip, and will try not to replicate too much of what I recounted there, here 🙂

With University of Birmingham doctoral candidate Miriam Bay, and guided by the wonderful Agnes Crawford, we worked our way through Rome and its environs with thirteen LANS students, moving from radical urbanism in classical antiquity to the modern city’s shifting acknowledgement of the importance and perils of embracing change.

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Streets in Rome’s Ghetto amply evidence the ‘layered’ quality of the cityscape (4/7/2017)

Rome, for me, is the ultimate laboratory city. Perhaps it’s my research focus talking, but in articulating my vision of what the tour would deliver (when describing it, back in January, to an interested but uncertain group of potential student travellers) I saw the sparks of questions, challenges, ideas, and responses flicker across their faces; to reappear over the ‘welcome’ dinner we hosted (at L’Isola della Pizza) for the whole group on 3rd July 2017, and as we made our first foray into the Forum Romanum early morning on 4th July.

Day 2 (4 July 2017)

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Spoliation, repurposing, but also the lure of genius loci are all on display for scrutiny (4/7/2017)

As Agnes emphasised, that calendar serendipity gave bite to our consideration of the complex forces that cause a people to turn upon themselves in civil war and in the process, to scrutinise and find wanting a myriad previously unquestioned myths of self-determination. These were the years when autochthony and (in a phrase Agnes used as a motif for the week’s study) genius loci (spirit of place) crystallised within Roman identify-formation. By the second century BCE Rome controlled a growing Mediterranean empire; no longer a city-state confined by peninsular Italy, yet still uneasily related to the peoples and cultures of its nearest neighbours.

This was an era when land use and land rights, not to mention rural to urban migration, linguistic change, and a reverse cultural imperialism (speaking to and striking back at Rome) from the literate Hellenic kingdoms that had previously dominated the western world, were all troubling the growing and increasingly urban political elites. It was also an era in which centuries of oligarchic politics (res publica or ‘public affairs’) were foundering as charismatic individuals (reformers, agitators, cynics, soldiers, demagogues…) began to see ways to game the system and wrest control from the few — by promising to transfer it to the many.

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The Temple of the Dioscuri — where we thought about how/why new gods get assimilated (4/7/2017)

Strolling through the Forum we considered how that genius loci paradoxically became a force for political and religious conservatism (‘we have always done x in y manner in z place, we always will; it’s who we are’) and also radical revisionism (‘by doing x in y place we validate transforming how, why, when, by whom it is done in z manner’). Thus, the Curia (a chamber used for meetings of the Senate, traditionally Rome’s conciliar body) which occupies a site by the Arch of Septimius Severus both is and is not the Curia constructed over two millennia before, by the Dictator (at that time still a regular office within consensus politics) ‘Lucky’ Sulla. And it also does and does not recall Mussolini’s early twentieth-century programme of laying bare, often with brutality to the urban fabric of the intervening centuries, what might be recalled to life as ancient proof of Rome’s destined imperial greatness.

As we discussed how the forces of history act not only on the fabric but also the context of how buildings function, we stopped at two evocative death zones. The mysterious Lapis Niger or ‘Black Stone’ (in one legend, the site of the burial of Rome’s founding father Romulus back in the eighth century BCE) is a waymarker for two other key funereal moments in the Forum: the riots, fires, and destruction that followed the deaths of Publius Clodius Pulcher (arch-nemesis of the orator and statesman Cicero) and, not long after, of Julius Caesar.

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The Deified Julius’ temple abuts the former home of the Pontifex Maximus and the commercial and civic centre known as the Basilica Aemilia-Paulli which went through significant changes in form and use (4/7/2017).

The temple to the God Caesar, dedicated shortly after his assassination in March 44 BCE, brings that strand in urban morphology full-circle. Like charismatic leader Romulus (in one version of the legend), Caesar was killed by his colleagues — a rebel conservative group within the political elite. Also like Romulus, he gained permanence within the built environment of the Forum. As Agnes reminded us, the extraordinary thing for contemporary Romans to get their heads around must have been that while humans in myth did indeed cross over into divinity, this was the first time a man with whom one might have had lunch made such a transformation.

The Forum was the heart of the Republican-era city, and while it had few permanent inhabitants (exceptions: the Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest, plus the college of female priests called the Vestal Virgins, a powerful cadre of professionally unmarried women) it was the hub for the courts and legal activity, for religious practice, political deliberation, for marking the triumphant return of successful military commanders. It had shops, monuments, arcades within which to stroll, and before the construction of permanent theatres or amphitheatres, it was a space for staging public entertainments. Setting the new God Caesar in this context, in a brand new marble temple, sent a powerful political and cultural message to upholders of the previous status quo.

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Pausing in the portico garden of the House of the Vestals gave us a chance to gaze up towards the Palatine Hill, and think about why statues are most vulnerable at their necks… (4/7/2017)

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Palatine Hill, the zone towards which power began to shift under the next phase in Rome’s political development: the era of the Principate, ushered in by Caesar’s heir who took the honorific name Augustus.

Rome’s Seven Hills are famous (even if no-one in antiquity exactly agreed which of the many more than seven were the Seven), and the Palatine gave us the chance to talk through the rapidity with which political power shifts can become inscribed on physical topography, and in turn shift cultural expectations. Elevated on a hill, Augustus’ (relatively) modest house was gradually added to, first by him (the construction of a temple complex to the god who helped him come to power, Apollo) then by subsequent ‘emperors’ (a term which in antiquity meant someone with officially sanctioned power, but without the autocratic connotations we now attach to it).

The vestigial remains of one part of that eventually imperial residential complex developed by the emperor Domitian (51-96 CE) showcased the superfluity and conspicuous consumption that characterised the powerful architectural and visual rhetoric of Roman ‘palace’ complexes (‘palace’ from…Palatine!). We would see aspects of this visual rhetoric (opus sectile, scale, complex geometric built form, rich materials) in the static experience and staged movement through space at the Pantheon (that afternoon), St. Peter’s and EUR (6 July), and Hadrian’s Villa (7 July).

After lunch we worked our way through the city zone that was in antiquity the Campus Martius (Field of Mars). Once outside the city limits, it was incorporated, shifting during the late Republic from a green-belt military exercise ground to an entertainment zone hosting the city’s first stone theatres, an amphitheatre, a grand public baths and gymnasium, gardens, galleries, and places of religious worship (including temples of some of the new gods Rome was so good at assimilating, for instance Egyptian Isis; but also giving us a chance to discuss a characteristically Egyptian power-icon, the obelisk, imported into Rome’s urban visual vocabulary).

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S. Maria in Trastevere (4/7/2017)

We though about urban segregation: by ethnicity/religion (within the confines of the Jewish Ghetto), by risk (on Tiber Island, a place of isolation and healing of the sick since classical antiquity), and by choice (the changed urban dynamic reflected in Papal realignment of power at Rome centred on the north-west bank of the river, some distance from the historic centre).

At Santa Maria in Trastevere we concluded the day, thinking about ‘left bank’ politics, spoliation and continuity with classical antiquity, and how radical was the iconographic shift from medieval to renaissance rhetorics of power.

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This charming fountain just outside the Ghetto belies the troubled history of Rome’s relationship with its Jewish population, and the wider challenges of how urban morphology aids/hinders integration (4/7/2017)

All these changes had deeply personal effects on individual lives, but also created seismic shifts in the economic, infrastructural, and political life of the city and its topography.

Day 3 (5 July 2017)

LANS students impressed us all with their ability to get up early and be on time for morning meet ups that were typically 0730! Students were staying in apartments on either side of the Tiber, and had to make their way independently every morning to the designated site — what stars they all were! Wednesday we were on a train to Ostia Antica by 0800 (some of us had postponed breakfast till the caffe at Porta San Paolo station…).

Agnes gave students a clear sense of how visiting Ostia not only presents the skeleton of an ancient city laid bare, but also tells a story of how geographic and environmental change have a radical impact on urban and economic life. This was a port city which lost its connection to the sea, and with its waterway gone, was abandoned to time. Commerce and economic life moved with the changes in the river’s course and the coastline. This vital impact of the river at the heart of Rome’s success was embedded by Agnes in discussions all week. As she reminded students, Rome itself may have been founded where it was not because of a legend of abandoned twins washed up on its banks (Romulus and Remus) but pragmatically because the salt route, moving inland from the coastal salt-flats, found a fordable point there on the Tiber. Commerce and politics then grew up around that site.

For lunch that day we ate at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a wonderful restaurant built into the base of Monte Testaccio, a hill composed artificially in antiquity as a terraced rubbish dump for broken potsherds, detritus of the city port on the Tiber from whence cargo from Ostia was unloaded and ported onwards (over land or using smaller boats).

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‘…along the banks of the sacred river, as far as the Tyrrhenian shores’ (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Similarly, on Thursday evening, at our visit to EUR we saw the famous inscriptions emphasising the River Tiber as a vital artery connecting Italy with its renewed twentieth-century status as a Mediterranean superpower, and characterising Italians as navigators, a nod to the importance of proximity to the sea by way of that watery road.

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Getting a straight line-up together in the cortile at the Palazzo Orsini-Taverna proved harder than one might think… (5/7/2017)

Wednesday evening was the first of our formal lectures, a tour-de-force exposition of what the terminology of the ‘palimpsest’ means when thinking syn- and diachronically about cities, delivered by Prof. Davide Vitale of the University of Arkansas Rome Center (based at the beautiful and evocative Palazzo Orsini-Taverna). I heard students dropping the term blithely into conversation over the following days, and am in awe of how well Davide managed to capture them with this new earworm at the end of another long hot Roman day!

The temperatures were in the mid- to high 30sC all week, so alongside breaks where possible during the early afternoon, we reconvened when it was cooler for evening activities.

After our lecture on the politics of architectural history we thus strolled briskly to the Ara Pacis Museum to look at a very old object (the Altar of Peace, commissioned for Augustus by a grateful Senate to celebrate peace in the empire and at Rome; dedicated in 9 BCE), significantly restored and reconstructed in a new location, excavated using cutting-edge technology, contextualised by a Piazza proud with fascist-era sloganeering and bombast, contained within a new museum (one of the only new buildings permitted to be built in the city’s historic heart) an external wall of which bears the autobiographically styled account by Augustus of his array of ‘things achieved’ (Res Gestae Diui Augusti).

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Do private finance and corporate investment represent a new dawn for the restoration and upkeep of cultural heritage? Are there dangers? (Colosseum, 4/7/2017)

Phew. Not to mention that like the Colosseum (where we ended up on Tuesday lunchtime), the Mausoleum of Augustus (the centrepiece of the Piazza) too will be subject to a restoration enabled by a public-private partnership, bankrolled by Italian commercial and telecoms giants. This, we decided, bore thinking about.

Day 4 (6 July 2017)

Thursday 6 July was another very early start: 0730 at a caffe near St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s gave us a chance to think about how this part of the city had been re-zoned by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of the Papacy, and the seismic shift operated by the fall of Constantinople leading in large part to what would become known as the Renaissance (with all the architectural, political, economic, artistic, and religious shifts that entailed).

The world really was changed as humanocentric theories of the cosmos were challenged (and eventually overturned) and the Catholic Church began the counterattack against ‘protesting’ voices unhappy with the style, ethos, and manner of central religious government.

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St. Ignazio, where a trompe l’oeil ceiling (and dizzyingly fake dome) helped students think about how the counter-reformation Catholic Church fought back… (4/7/2017)

From the church of St. Ignazio with its emphasis on the unknowability of the logic and language of the divine (unless mediated by the Church for its flock) to St. Peter’s (with its massive evocation of classical forms to lend authority, scale, and wow-factor, while reminding pilgrims that Catholicism remained Peter’s foundation and an earthly manifestation hinting at ineffable heavenly glory), we saw again and again how the urban vocabulary of classical antiquity and ancient Roman innovation formed vital motifs in successive negotiations of civic power and authority.

The Vatican also, of course, recalls the Lateran Treaty (1929) and the rapprochement between Church and State that saw the papacy make peace with Mussolini in exchange (among other things) for territorial rights. We saw flickers of this as we studied the iconography and design of the buildings left representing what was to be a showpiece of Mussolini’s fascist (from the Latin term fasces, the name for the symbols of office associated with the magistrates of the Res Publica) vision.

See St. Peter's dome rising, right below the Colosseum and just a swerve from the Pantheon!

Antiquity, Christianity, and politics jostle in this unusual frieze (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Concretised in a grand exhibition (Esposizione Universale di Roma, EUR) in 1942, this vision was to illuminate the modern capital city and (not long ago unified) nation as a ‘Third Rome’ (after the Emperors and the Popes). It would have stressed both the continuity and majestic progress embodied in Italy’s new and improved redevelopment of imperial status.

We had an unexpected transport strike to deal with that day, so Agnes’ ability to hire us a minibus (blessedly, with air conditioning — by 1600 when we were leaving for EUR the heat was intense) last minute was totally miraculous!

Our minibus moved us in style between key sites at EUR (sadly, the Museo della Civilta Romana is still closed), then returned us to the city centre where we variously went for a quick drink and/or a gelato before reconvening for our second evening lecture of the week: Miriam’s introduction to the ideological design linking botany, art, architecture, religion, history, and politics at the Villa d’Este, where we would conclude our visits the following day.

Day 5 (7 July 2017)

Friday morning saw many bleary faces. My impression is that the LANS students made a night of it and fully enjoyed Rome’s summer party atmosphere. I, by contrast, had embraced an early night. We set out for Tivoli in our mini-bus at 0830, and after a pity-pit-stop for coffee / cold drinks / cake at the nearby bar we tackled the archaeological site of the country estate said to have been designed by the Emperor Hadrian. Agnes had designed a route to give maximum thematic value and access to key zones while also keeping us moving between water fountains and patches of shade.

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Orientation: Villa Adriana (7/7/2017)

Crucial discussions picked up on the power of scale and decor, and the relationship of designed space to movement patterns and ideology. In a site as big as this one, with so many unique and complex architectural forms to get to grips with, the most important thing for LANS students was to understand the complex interrelationship between such disparate areas of expertise and authority, and the significance of buying in (or knowing how to source) expertise when novel problems appear.

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Hadrian, an emperor famed for forcing his ‘court’ to join him at his out-of-town villa (or on-tour across the empire), dabbled in architecture and philosophy, and wrote poetry (as well as governing most of the known world). After lunch at the hill town of Tivoli we finished our week’s work with the water-fantasia that is the Villa d’Este.

This sixteenth-century palazzo and garden complex, designed for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este by architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio (just as Ligorio was excavating the nearby site of Hadrian’s villa, for his patron the Cardinal — see a googlebooks preview of David R. Coffin’s 2004 study of Ligorio here), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, but sadly diminished in terms of the working hydraulics as originally envisaged.

We were lucky to have Miriam as our guide for the gardens because her research is breaking new ground in explaining how the somatic, architectonic, natural, economic, hydraulic, political, religious, and personal all coalesce in a stroll through the water-feature filled terraces. I’m not going to give away Miriam’s original analysis in this blog! Lucky students got a sneak preview, everyone else reading this will have to wait for the completed thesis.

Suffice to say that the stimulating and cooling properties of the Villa d’Este made for a perfectly judged end to a memorable trip, which concluded that night with a very convivial dinner at Trattoria Polese.

There was genuine emotion on display as our meal ended, coffees were drunk, and Miriam and I made a closing address to sum up some of what we hope and believe the week achieved. It’s been a real privilege to share this intensive learning experience with such a great group!

Amédée – Madness at the REP!

contributed by Harriett Stothard, LANS Year 2 student

I went in to this play completely blind (and slightly late – oops!), aside from this very short description I skim-read:

‘Frustrated playwright Amédée (played by Trevor Fox) is still trying to finish the play he started writing  . . . 15 years ago! Meanwhile, his wife Madeleine (Josie Lawrence), works hard in telecommunications to keep them in their dilapidated London apartment. But the couple are keeping a secret. A big secret that seems to be getting bigger by the day. A terrifying secret that is now threatening to take over their lives. A secret that has grown into an unwelcome entity they can no longer hide. Now they urgently need a plan of how to get rid of it!’

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The wordy trailer….

I assumed that it would be a kitchen-sink comedy drama type thing, which I thought would be interesting if a little dry, but I was so wrong! Turns out, Amédée is a little known Theatre of the Absurd play from 1954, from one of the first voices in Absurdist theatre, Eugène Ionesco, who was in the forefront of this movement along with Samuel Beckett. It has been adapted by Sean Foley and produced by Roxanna Silbert, the Artistic Director of the REP (with this trailer).

It did have elements of the domestic/kitchen sink/sitcom drama style with a bickering couple, except with a mysterious growing… thing in the next room and mushrooms sprouting through the walls! One would be mistaken (as I was) for thinking at the beginning that the growing thing could be their child and that the play was reflecting the common parental anxiety of children growing up and flying the nest, as Madeleine had a sense of the maternal about her, but it ended up being a growing dead body that she accuses Amédée of killing because it was her young lover. This is never really agreed upon amongst all the weirdness in the play, for example Madeleine’s job as a switchboard operator in their apartment, fielding calls for and from various heads of state and often answering nonsensically, Amédée’s vision of himself and Madeleine when they were younger, and the absolutely mad ending, which I won’t spoil in case anyone who hasn’t seen it wants to!

It is very confusing to pick up on different themes from this play as I am no expert in the Theatre of the Absurd, but I found it interesting to witness the (non-physical) transformation of the body in the other room from unwelcome, mysterious house guest, to child, to feared, semi ridiculous growing body, to ex-lover, to Jesus/God (from the layout of his body on stage) to finally, and most bizarrely, a sail!

I mustn’t forget to mention the kind of police state they seem to live in, with Madeleine informing someone over the phone about it, although without having been outside in 15 years, and Alfred Hickling interprets it as an allegory to the emergence of far right politics at the moment.

All in all, it was a fantastic play to see, even if I left feeling not a little flabbergasted and confused, but it was an enjoyable and very intriguing experience, which I recommend to anyone if they get a chance to see it. Lucy and I talked about it all the way home!

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Diana Spencer‘s input:

I find the challenges of absurdist theatre refreshing as well as provocative. Living within a context where norms and values seem to shift daily, and within which the ability of anyone to say ‘I belong’ with any sense of confidence has diminished, the worlds of Beckett and Ionescu become increasingly relevant. Like a number of the LANS group, I had been guided by the blurb into expecting something like Look Back in Anger (and was a little bit ambivalent about how such an adaptation would work). Perhaps a better way to my mind of characterising what we experienced was Joe Orton crossed with Monty Python, with a dash of Antonin Artaud.

The play left us processing the challenges of variant and fragile versions of ‘reality’, and it prodded us to examine what constitutes a sense of self and how this reacts to but also models the various modes of existence available to us. We wondered, discussing the play afterwards, whether the growing corpse was symbolic of the ego and its destructive potential. We also wondered to what extent the incomplete play (and the incomplete/dynamic corpse) signalled a wider challenge to the idea of iterative self-fashioning as a way of coming to terms with the daily grind of life. Is it ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to acquiesce to these patterns and normalise them? Or should we seek to ‘resolve’ the irregularities and the mundane experiences that frame them by stepping outside?

I think we all marvelled at the play and the ideas it generated; it’s not necessarily a play to like but it is a play to come back to, and kept creeping into my thoughts all weekend.

And another, shorter, comment: I went along with no idea what to expect and left with just as many thoughts flying around my head! Absolutely bonkers, but also hilarious and thought provoking.Lucy Fellows, Y2

To be or not to be absurd: the existential question of Amedee

contributed by Emil Toescu, LANS team

Amédée, you are the artist: highfalutin with words, working with them, spontaneously. But unable to string them on paper when it matters, but you try.

She’s telling you – she will divorce! Amédée, in all this time, you did no do a thing about it! You just let it grow.

Oh, this antipathy, this pathetic antipathy, la-di-da, like corn is born when thrown, you see!

Amédée, you need to do something about it, you need to overcome these growths, they flourish everywhere, and they might be poisonous, they might be toxic, they might be delirious – they grow and it grows, its nails and hair, all certainly in geometric fashion. Bring on science, bring on numbers, so that we have an understanding: 6 cm in the last hour or so -we do have some control now!

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Another flying man – this one depicted by Marc Chagall

It started in the bedroom: the lover, or the corpse, the baby?, a positive or a negative – depends on the point of view, but both and all expressions of a missing…

Amédée, she is going to divorce you, if you don’t do anything about it! – and if you do? Well, Amédée, then you are going to go, with it, with the relation, with the corpse. She had enough of cleaning and brushing, Amédée, and you’ll be floating, up and free, dead or alive – it’s all just a matter of a point of view.

Whatever you feel it is a right description for this case, Eugene! – we’ll drink to that, us all, la-di-da, with the patophysician on duty near the hatstand.

And the clock eventually stops, the moon shines – it don’t mean a thing even if it got that swing…

(it’s all about this Amedee)

Leviathan, you creature of the seas…

contributed by Cassidy Locke, LANS Y2

When I went to see Leviathan at the MAC last Friday, all I knew was that it was a contemporary dance piece based on the story of Moby Dick.  It sounded intriguing enough, despite the fact that I was having trouble remembering the basic storyline of Herman Melville’s classic novel, having never read it.  I had seen the film, years ago, but all I could remember was a vague impression of a crazed sea-captain of a whaling ship being absolutely determined to catch some particular whale at any cost.  Ahab, this captain was called, and the whale was Moby Dick.  Ahab sought revenge on the whale for biting his leg off at the knee on a previous expedition.  My lack of knowledge was not to be a problem, I was relieved to find. The performance was only loosely based on Moby Dick, picking up key themes rather than attempting a complete retelling.

Throughout, the performance evoked the theme of obsession and desperation that runs through Melville’s novel, poLeviathan-spouting-girl_1000rtrayed through a remarkable flow of capoeira, martial arts and stunningly athletic dance.  The result is hard to put into words.  The stark lighting, making use of black and white, with rare flashes of yellow, the arresting artistry and deft expression of the dancers, accompanied by a moving electro-rock soundtrack by the Polish prog band Lunatic Soul melded to create a remarkable show (check this trailer of the show).  The only prop was long lengths of heavy rope, skilfully used.  The rest of the time we were left to marvel at the dancers.  The female lead, dressed all in white as some embodiment of the whale that Ahab seeks, maintained her distance from the audience all evening.  We were never acknowledged, scarcely saw her face, were treated to long moments where she seemed to flex each individual muscle in her back.  She was completely ethereal, totally elusive, neatly giving us an insight into Ahab’s frustration that he cannot catch her. This is a frustration that we saw mounting all evening with Ahab’s vocal and dynamic performance evoking the chaos of his mind.

leviathan2Every dancer was perfectly poised, panther-like in their bounce and stealth, radiating strength and artistry in a way that I could never have expected when I settled into my seat that evening.   The performance was creative and innovative in every aspect.  There were times when they were all linked together and sailed over and under one another in a way that did not seem possible, even as they proved me wrong.  The James Wilton Dance company gave us something unique, something startling, something powerful.

The Power of Cultural Events

by Jeevan

The recent study trip to see Cathy has had a more profound effect on me than any other of the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Cultural Programme’s events. I need not reiterate the version of events, but Forum Theatre’s approach of engaging the audience with the actors provided a new dimension to the performance. It was very easy for an onlooker to sit back and judge about the decisions Cathy made throughout the play and making a commentary about what she should and should not have done.  But the audience was also invited to contribute and participate.

When I summoned the courage to say “STOP!” and suggest a point in the story where one of the characters was asked to swap for a member of the audience to alter the course events, and provide a possible alternative development, I was in for a shock! I was of the opinion that Cathy should accept the council’s offer to move to Newcastle (which would take Cathy and Danielle away from London) and it was up to me to break the news to 16-year old Danielle and convince her that moving to Newcastle was the right thing. I pay a great testament to the actor playing Danielle for remaining steadfast in her opinion that she wanted to remain in London. My decision to play “I’m the adult card” backfired completely and resulted in Danielle storming off of the stage presumably leaving hers and her mum’s housing situation ‘in limbo’.

Perhaps for the first time in a cultural event I did feel the relevance and necessity of the “Next Generation of Leaders” motto attached to our course. The issues faced by Cathy and Danielle are not an isolated case and that is an incredibly scary and stark reality facing people around the U.K, and not just Londoners, and there homeless people in Birmingham.  The play certainly made me take a step back and think that in any transaction that takes place (in this case between a landlord and tenant) there is almost always a human dimension and perspective. If we forget this human aspect and obsess about the bottom line and profit, the strength of community will decline and factions will flourish, and with them tensions. In light of recent global changes, as a society, we need to reassess our positions and think about the world we want to shape. 

contributed by Jeevan – 2nd Year LANS student,  majoring in Chemistry

Cardboard Citizen’s Cathy

by Nelsen Durkee

Facts and figures related to Cardboard Citizens and their work were collated from their official website and related articles. If you are interested in reading more on them, click on the following link. https://cardboardcitizens.org.uk/

As one of the leading practitioners of the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology in the UK, Cardboard Citizens theatre company has worked to tackle the issues of homelessness for the last 25 years. Ali Taylor, writer of Cathy, said that “we need to recognize that homelessness can strip people of their self-respect and mental health.” This is precisely what Cardboard Citizen addresses.

The theatre company, exclusively consisting of members who have experienced homeless in one shape or form, empowers those affected by the issue to understand and change their situation. Those not directly affected by the UK housing crisis, gain a personal insight into the convoluted nature it.

“Cardboard Citizens tells stories that need to be told, through theatre performed on stage, in the streets, in hostels, centres and prisons”. The theatre company provides a format and space for individuals to develop their skills and confidence through projects, workshops but also forum theatre; the format that Cathy took.

The special thing about Cathy and the other forum theatres tours from Cardboard Citizens is that the audience doesn’t just need to sit back and let the story unfold. They get to act. The performance we saw at mac Birmingham (https://macbirmingham.co.uk/ )  was one of the stops on the UK wide tour of Cathy ending February 2017. Based off and inspired by Ken Loach’s Film Cathy Come Home, aired 50 years ago, Cathy reflects on the “social and personal impact of spirally housing costs”, “gentrification” and the “challenges of the forced relocation away from London”.

In the first half of the evening, we got to see the play itself. Fueled by real-life testimonies on the housing crisis, the play was an emotional downward spiral for Cathy and her 16-year-old daughter Dannielle. Following them from the conviction of their original home, all the way to couch and bus surfing, insecure, run-down, and temporary tenements, emotionally raw and desperate fights, it led to the eventual conciliation between the downtrodden, but hopeful mother and burdened yet coping daughter. Characterized by negative turn after negative turn, this was a truly hear-breaking play to watch.

After this emotional rollercoaster for the audience, there was an intermission, which was more than necessary after the events that we saw unfold, followed by the second half of evening: the forum. As I said earlier, this is where the audience got to act. After short round of feedback from individual audience members and resulting discussions, we were prompted to put our suggestions for the betterment of Cathy into action. The actors on stage let the story unfold again, but this time we could intervene with a determined “STOP!”, giving us a chance to get up on stage to enact our suggestions for an improved course of the story. This I think was the critical stage for these performances.

Engaged, Engaging = Forum Theatre (Photo: Emil Toescu)

To bring a personal note into this piece: even though the play’s progression fascinated me, with a desire to learn more about the situation and excited for the chance to intervene in a negative spiral, I still felt powerless and out of place. Here was a situation, from my perspective as an undergraduate Liberal Arts and Science student studying abroad with a privileged family background, where I felt I shouldn’t even pretend to know anything about the issue. I didn’t even know where to start to try and intervene. The thing was though, that wasn’t the point at all.

The point of Cathy was that we were given the chance to rehearse important life decisions that Cathy had to make. We got a chance to be somewhat of a think-tank for alternative courses of actions. We could set high standards for people and how they could improve their lives. We didn’t need to have the answers, but we did need to show initiative. Some ideas were received better than others, some people came from a more experienced background and could give more information than others, but in the end, viable alternatives to life choices were given. The audience made progress.

To bring in more of a Liberal Arts and Science perspective: here was a group of people from vastly different walks of life coming together to try and enact change for an issue that required more than one solution. It’s hard, but it’s possible. Here was a theatrical performance that affected and improved our perspective on a social, political, and economic issue. The forum theatre of Cathy was interdisciplinarity and cross-boundary problem solving at work and it was conducted in an emotionally vulnerable yet polished format. I’m glad that we got to see this performance and widen our horizons on issues for which we can realistically enact change. It was a truly gripping evening.

Contributed by Nelsen Durkee, 1st year LANS student majoring in Geography.

Here are some testimonials from other LANS students on the evening:

Richard William, 1st year LANS student majoring in Political Science.

Cardboard Citizens: Cathy’s tale I have never witnessed a format of theatre quite as engaging and enriching as this. A stimulating topic followed by active intervention in order to stimulate change, followed by discussion and law-making with the aim of proposing change is one of the most interesting forms of political movement that I’ve ever been exposed to. As someone who wishes to reform the political system and in doing so give people more of a voice, I felt that this experience unlocked a closed door behind which lay ideas on creative opportunity for listening to what the people want.[…]

Behind each person is a story, a story which is different, a story which carries with it human suffering at the hands of neglect.[…]

The set was simplistic and yet functional; each piece had its purpose […]

The evening left many feeling united behind the desire to see change, which, in a world of seemingly increased division and pain, is much needed. I would go back time and time again to this style of performance, for even if the script was the same, the response wouldn’t be, and I found the response almost more enriching and engaging than the performance, as it changed the theatre experience from one of passivity where one watches scenes unfold, to one of activeness, allowing for change to occur.

Lizzie Rowland, 2nd Year LANS student majoring in History

I first witnessed the uncontrollable spiral into desperation when I watched Cathy come home. However, I would never imagined the impact seeing the same thing in a modern day context (and on stage rather than screen) would have. I thought the message was more than powerful -scary and moving. The play made me seriously reassess my political understanding (something I thought up until that night I New quite well).

Alice Heaps , 1st LANS student majoring in Philosophy

for her blog, check at: https://justonesecondalice.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/cardboard-citizens-cathy/

“As a performance, this play was beautifully arranged and seamlessly executed with a multi-role cast who switched incredibly between situations and characters to make the story feel incredibly real.”

“As a usually helpless audience, the chance to get up on stage and take the places of the characters and fix things for Cathy had a great element of catharsis to it. It seems that Cathy had more options available to her than she realised at the time and, although heartbreaking to see so clearly where she made the mistakes that landed her into homelessness, the solutions provided by the audience highlighted a running theme of education and thorough-thinking as being necessary to preventing such difficult events occurring”

“Experiencing this play both as an individual situation and a representation of the struggles faced by so many people across the country and the world, it hit me just how ordinary the people in the story really were. I like to think of myself as somebody understanding to the situations of others and I make a point not to judge homeless people and help them if I think I can, but even I will admit that it becomes difficult to not assign stereotypes in some situations. Maybe the most important thing that this experience showed me was that something needs to be done from both within the system, to prevent people becoming homeless so easily, but also from outside the system – there needs to be a change in response towards homeless people.

Some of the responses from the audience were worded in a way that made it clear that views remain divided by ‘us’ and ‘them’ with the latter being people without a stable home, I think that there is something fundamentally wrong with this response and that, while changing legislation can be difficult failure-ridden, a change in attitude is something that everyone can do within themselves to help the situation: there is no us and them, we are all people and we all deserve shelter, food, water, warmth and most importantly compassion”

A day submerged in The Tempest

by Jennifer (Qian) Zhang

For the second Tuesday of the term, we set off to Stratford-upon-Avon for a special cultural event: a workshop, joining a rehearsal, then a lecture on ‘Magic and Science’, and finally, the evening show, in the recent RSC production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is difficult to encapsulate such a rich and varied day in one single view, and here below are some of the comments made by my colleagues.

tempest_1Nelsen Durkee (Y1) felt that “the whole experience represented LANS as a degree structure. From acting theory to the integration of technology with performance the actual performance was riveting”. And the lecture, squeezed between was “a great supplementary session to contextualize the experiences we were having as well.” Others joined Nelsen in appreciating the whole structure of the day. Jess Dawson (Y2) also referred to the dinner we all had, together, which “was really useful for getting to know other LANS students.” And “watching the play was a great culmination of everything we have learnt throughout the day.”.

Some of my colleagues were focusing on one particular aspect of the day. One commented, with what appears to be a good deal of understanding and previous knowledge on the actual details of the rehearsal that we watched, finding it “fascinating to be privy to the inner workings of a professional stage dress rehearsal for the first time, and no more so than at the RSC nonpareil. Informed by the Meisner technique, the actors employed a five-stage approach to some scenes from The Tempest: preparation, objective, stakes, as if, entitlement. To explain briefly, before a scene, the actor would have a tête-à-tête with the director in which they recalled their character’s point of view, identified their objective in relation to other characters (e.g. gain the affections of Miranda), considered the stakes (e.g. Prospero’s possible presence), related the character’s situation to a personal experience (the ‘as if’), and remembered to believe in their character’s entitlement to their goal. This insight into the acting method helped us as the audience to empathise with the characters more and to keep in mind that all acting is relational. This specific dress rehearsal was for the RSC’s First Encounters with Shakespeare production of The Tempest that is going to tour schools. What was remarkable was the minimal set, in contrast to the high-tech production (with live motion capture!) that we watched later on in the main theatre. Personally, I found I engaged more with the actors’ physical presence when there was almost no set — it set my imagination gears into motion and created the intimacy needed to generate the spark between Miranda and Ferdinand.”

Others, like myself, having only for the first time such an opportunity to attend a professional theatre rehearsal look at it in more simple terms, while being equally impressed. The whole session was an excitement right from the start. We were hosted in the ‘Other Place’ Theatre, and I found Aileen, the director of this production, as the most theatrical spirit-minded and passionate person I had ever seen. Even their rehearsal was inspirational to look at– I admired the fact that the actors and actresses made acting seem so intuitive while I would find it against my nature to express myself like that – too shy! The evening production was also great, I particularly liked the way Ariel expressed his otherworldly qualities using some ballet-like feet movements.”

Certainly, the new RSC production of The Tempest was the focus of the evening. And this particular production has been made famous and the centre of much attention through the extraordinary innovative use of motion capture, and live digital avatars on stage (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/such-stuff-as-dreams-are-made-on-ariel-to-appear-as-3d-digital-a/). Not surprising, the implementation of such approaches generated a lot of discussion amongst ourselves, and reflections from some of my colleagues. Lizzie Slattery (Y2) thought that “for the most part the technology was integrated very well into the production as a whole and gave it the magical quality which is so important for the Tempest. … On the whole though, an amazing production!”

Prospero's Cell in Royal Shakespeare Company. (Photo by Katrina)

Others, while enjoying the potential of the technology, found it frustrating not being able to enjoy it from the seats that were made available for some of us in the theatre hall. Cassidy Locke (Y2) wishes she could “have got more out of the motion capture technology. I felt like I didn’t experience it because I was sat to the side of the stage and so couldn’t see it very well – sometimes from an angle and sometimes not at all. I thought that this was a shame from the production, as they must have been aware that this would pose a problem. This didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the play and the acting, but I had been excited about seeing what the motion capture technology would bring to the performance and I left feeling like I still didn’t know.” And in respect the to relationship between the actor and his live display on various screens and surfaces, a mix that could be distracting or deterring from the watching of either, Cassidy really fell for the play of the real actor: “I thought the cast in general was great though in particular the actor who played Ariel. His movement around the stage was mesmerising. I’m so glad they decided to have the actor Ariel on stage as well as the images of him from the motion capture technology.”

Another friend, Chloe Gooding (Y1) engaged in a more detailed analysis of the production. She clearly did not find the use of technology that inspiring, and almost detracting from the stage performance of the actor playing Ariel. Chloe furthermore, looked at the production almost like a theatre critic and focused of various performances: “The performance of Simon Russel Beale was truly amazing and the use of projection and lighting during the masque scene was breath-taking. In the Show, the only let-down was the use of the live motion capture and the slightly odd performance of Miranda (Jenny Rainsford). The use of motion capture– a new device used for the first time during a live performance was obviously troublesome. Firstly, the effectiveness of the projections relied heavily upon the position in which the audience member was seated. For instance, someone in a central position probably had a far better experience than me who was at the far left hand side. Furthermore, many of Mark Quartley’s fantastic facial expressions and physicality were lost thanks to the restrictive nature of this developing technology, leaving behind only vocal expression and slightly jolty animated creatures. Rainsford’s performance was also perplexing. While I understood the interpretation of Miranda as a strange, isolated girl who has little experience of real society other than what was passed onto her from Prospero, her performance went one step further than that. Her vocal expression was jarring and I felt she lacked the raw genuine emotion one would expect to see during her interactions with Ferdinand. It was like he fascinated her, rather than his appearance overwhelmed her with strange new emotions – this being a widely accepted element of her character and one too integral to leave out, as they did, almost entirely.”

 

Ariel and Caliban taking the bow. (Photo by Emil Toescu).

And during discussing about the play, I was surprised to find out that some of my colleagues had a much closer encounter with the play earlier in their life! Abi Pilkington (Y1) has been studying ‘The Tempest’ at A level and also performed in it. She was “extremely excited to see what the Royal Shakespeare Company made of it … and the RSC certainly didn’t disappoint. For me, the most exciting aspect of the trip was having a personal insight into the rehearsal process from both the director and the actors’ point of view, it really made me remember and appreciate why I love theatre so much. It also gave an insight into the infinite ways in which a play can be interpreted and conveyed, especially when contrasting the two versions they were putting on, one with INTEL’s insane technology, and the other with no technology at all. I wish I’d had this kind of insight into Shakespeare’s work when I was doing my exam on ‘The Tempest’!”

All in all, what a day to spend in Stratford. And I we’ll be excused that, while in Stratford, we did not have a chance to go for visiting the touristic sites. Or go shopping! For LANS, Culture trumps many things.

Contributed by Jennifer (Qian) Zhang, Y1, LANS