It’s that time of year again, and Wales Arts Reviews‘ writers have been choosing their cultural highlight of the year. The brief was simple; it had to be something that happened in 2013 and it had to be something that left a mark on that writer’s psyche. In three parts, we see impassioned writing on a diverse range of subjects, and also see the emergence of a striking cultural map of 2013. In Part Two, we see tributes to the David Bowie comeback, the Playstation 4 and the flowering work of Theatr Genedlaethol.
The Bowie comeback, and the Dr Who anniversary
2013 has been the year that the two most influential corners of creativity on my life were celebrated. It is hard to choose between David Bowie and Doctor Who. One has a time machine and the other has two different coloured eyes, obviously meaning that he is an alien. Bowie released what is probably the finest album he has released since the 1980s this year and one of the best of the year. No mean feat for a 66 year-old rocker, in a year that has seen great albums from Low, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Primal Scream to name a few. Bowie’s masterly manipulation of modern technology, as always, astounded the world. Brief snippets dropped announced onto the internet fuelled a fire that younger, hungrier acts can only dream of. The album lived up to the excitement and all things Bowie were embraced, including a stunning exhibition at the V and A Museum of his vast collection of personal memorabilia spanning his career, which is now making its way around the world. A stunning celebration of the most important pop star of all time.
In 2013, Doctor Who turned 50 years old. I started watching the programme just as Tom Baker was leaving in the early eighties. I watched as my favourite programme became more and more unloved and finally cancelled. I saw the programme’s years in exile and it’s recent comeback and rise to be the biggest television programme this country produces, (maybe after Downton Abbey). The celebration has been compounded by rare, previously lost Patrick Troughton episodes being discovered and released. A top class fiftieth anniversary episode of Doctor Who was broadcast, ‘The Day Of The Doctor’, which revelled in it’s own history and my history. Tom Baker had a cameo in it. I fell off my chair, crying, as only grown science fiction fans can cry. I have seen the comeback of Bowie and the real comeback of Doctor Who, in the sense that it is now considered as important as we always knew it was. 2013 unlucky for some? Not me. Fancy a jelly baby, Ziggy?
A picnic with the Mujahideen
Gazing at the fading photograph that I’ve lifted from a box filled with many others, the scene is of a picnic. I recognise my grandmother Elsie sitting on grass on the far side of a large, spread tablecloth with my auntie Jean, a toddler then, which dates this day to the mid 1930s. The sunlight is strong, the shadows dark as the ten or so afternoon loungers recline, breaking bread in the shade of trees.
I’m visiting my parents at their Norfolk home and my mother is talking me through the whos and wheres of what’s gone before me on a continent far from my own, in preparation of placing this archive into my future care.
‘That was across the border in Afghanistan,’ she tells me. ‘Their warrior horsemen used to ride in to our camp and show off. We were on good terms with them.’
Another time and truly, another age. As the British Army’s sunset children in India, a picnic with the Mujahideen was one of my family’s several normal anomalies. Strange goings on until the partition of 1947, that brought Pakistan to independence and the old country gathered up her fostered children to bring them home to Blighty.
There is a crisp, white cotton turban with patu worn by a gentleman Afghan who is contradictorily in a white European suit worn with brogues. There are two natively dressed bearers refilling drinks, and amongst their leisurely kinsmen, a courtly mother comfortable in her sari as she entertains the guests. It’s a testament to the contemporary international relationship that it is my grandmother here in the sweltering afternoon heat with the tribesmen and not my grandfather. I learn too that he, Major Donovan, would entertain guests in the family home too.
‘Gandhi used to come round to see my dad,’ my mother drops, ‘And Nehru too, sometimes. Gandhi used to come in through the kitchen and leave his goat there while he went into the parlour to talk. His goat was always smelly and my mum wasn’t very happy with it.’
There, amongst the photos now scattered over the table, is one that should probably have been discarded years ago because the heads of most are lost above and out of the shot. My young aunties Joy and Jean, the shortest of the group, are in full view, as is a goat with a little monkey playing at its hooves. The identity of the barefoot darker skinned, and like the others, headless man in white dhotis, I will forever ponder.
As the defining cultural experience of my 2013, the few precious hours spent at my parents’ house this summer, places me at the helm of time. As the new guardian of this strand of history cyphered through photographs that my mum, now in her 80s, feels she is unlikely to spend time with again, I feel a strong sense of collective past, present and from what I take with me, future.
For seven years we have been content with the third installment, but in November PlayStation 4 was released and, once again, the gaming industry is evolving with giant steps. The launch wasn’t spectacular in terms of the games released, but you can already see the clout of this Next Gen console. And the fact that the release of one of the biggest games saved for the launch, Watchdogs, has been postponed, along with Drive Club, coupled with the fact that there wont be more games to get hold of for a few months, suggests Sony would have hoped to leave the launch of the PS4 until 2014. Competition with Microsoft’s Xbox One means that both consoles have been launched close together, though some will say it was Microsoft who had to change their plans.
In reality, there is very little difference between the two consoles, so what I say about the PlayStation, my personal gaming preference, can probably also be said for the Xbox One.
There is a rumour going around that computer games do not count as Art. One of the launch titles for the PS4 was Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. First you have your protagonist: Edward Kenway, a Welsh privateer-turned-pirate, voiced by Matt Ryan but performed by the gamer. As well as the fictional characters you meet, you will also encounter real-life pirates. Secondly, you have your setting: Havana, Kingston and Nassau are the main areas you get to explore; and you wouldn’t be a pirate if you didn’t get to conquer the high seas. There is also a plot but this isn’t the place for spoilers. Admittedly, most games do tend to crumble under the pressure of plot and character development, but in Black Flag there is a strong sense of plot and this area is being strengthened in other games as well.
Frenchman David Cage (a pseudonym, obviously…), once a freelance musician for film, television and video game projects, is now the Video game Director for Quantic Dream. Described by game developer veteran Warren Spector as one of the best storytellers in the business, Cage once stated that ‘games always explore the same things. They’re about being powerful, being the good guys against the bad guys – that’s a very tiny part of what can be done. There are so many other stories to tell, so many other emotions to trigger – this is a fantastic new medium, we can do much more than we currently do with it.’ Quantic Dream’s latest game, Beyond: Two Souls, features the voices of Ellen Page and Willem Defoe, and, like in the developer’s earlier game, critically acclaimed Heavy Rain, emotional narrative is a significant tool in the development of its interactive experience. Although Beyond: Two Souls has been criticised for its ‘passive gaming experience’ and ‘frequent narrative dead ends’, there is no doubt that David Cage’s method of game making has been pioneering, and Quantic Dream will take this to the next level when they finally release games on the Next Gen console, a console on which, ‘game creators can now forget about technology limitations and focus on creating experiences never seen before’.
Which sums up the launch of the PS4 perfectly. Its release is the highlight of the year not just for what it brings to the table now, although that alone is satisfying enough, but for the joy we know it is going to bring us for the rest of the decade. Like a cute little puppy which captures your heart at first sight but which you know will cause you frustration and tantrums further down the line, this console is for life, not just for Christmas.
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness
I admit it – as much as I enjoy plays, museums, comedy, music, dance, and other forms of culture, literature will always be my true cultural love. And within the vast field of literature, every year I make new friends and return to old treasured ones, and I do this across an array of genres. So it’s extremely difficult to choose one favourite.
But the work of fiction that is staying with me right now, as the year heads towards its close, is Patrick Ness’s The Crane Wife.
I discovered Patrick Ness through his absolutely brilliant and heart-breaking novel A Monster Calls. Published for children, A Monster Calls should be required reading for everyone. Read it and prepare to be moved, and to appreciate life anew, and to sob.
So when I saw that Ness had a new book out in 2013, I had to read it. The Crane Wife is an adult novel about George. George seems like a pleasant enough but rather ineffectual man, living a small life in London. He is woken in the middle of the night by a crane in his yard. The crane’s wing is pierced through with an arrow and George manages to pull it out. The crane then leaves.
The premise of the novel perhaps doesn’t sound that intriguing. But this quickly changes as the reader gets to learn more about George, his daughter Amanda, and the mysterious woman who enters his life after the crane episode and who begins to make art with him (George makes cuttings from books, and how I wish there would be an exhibit of his and Kumiko’s pieces). Ness describes George and the others in such exquisite detail that a reader comes to love these characters, and it’s impossible to put the book down. The story is beautifully rendered, showcasing Ness’s not insignificant talents.
Patrick Ness somehow manages to write books that are affecting but never soppily sentimental, that are gently humorous but never mock the characters, that are intelligent and thought-provoking but not explicitly philosophical. These are books that will become treasured old friends.
The work of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru
This was the year when Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru seemingly came of age. Under the artistic stewardship of Arwel Gruffydd the company staged a profoundly affecting series of stand-alone but always political plays, which also naturally connected and concatenated to such a degree that they seemed to form an organic whole. This added up to nothing less than a year-long theatrical narrative and this a very rich and deep engagement with the audience.
First up was Y Bont, a renactment of the moment, fifty years ago, when young language activists closed a bridge in Aberystwyth and gave birth to Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the Welsh language society. Hard on its heels came another account of protest, more intimate this time, with Dyled Eileen, about Llangennech couple Trevor and Eileen Beasley’s efforts and sacrifices in trying to demand Welsh language documentation from the local council. Then, in that heatwave summer, there was a quite extraordinary production of Saunders Lewis’ Blodeuwedd at Tomen-y-Mur, a genuinely mythical site (if you pardon the oxymoron) overlooking Trawsfynydd nuclear power station. Part of the excitement of this en plein air production was knowing how the story of this maiden of flowers ends, with her transmogrification into an owl and wondering how the heck they’d manage that. In a simple but sensational coup de theatre, they did indeed pull it off, sending a bright white image to lodge forever in the memory.
And then at year’s end, Aled Jones Williams’ Pridd coupled scalpel sharp – no strike that – microtome sharp language with a tour de force of a performance by Owen Arwyn to dissect the life of Handy Al, the doomed clown and children’s entertainer. Collectively the plays deepened this reviewer’s allegiance to the language, but also seemed to move theatre in Welsh away from its own rather conventional and sometimes cloyingly conservative recent history. Arwel Gruffydd hasn’t just oxygenated things, he’s added a dash of revivifying ozone too, mixing in the tang of theatrical adventure together with have-a-go attitude that was for too long missing. In short, he’s brought that vision thing and persuasively so.
Having been overshadowed somewhat these past few years by its sibling – by the extraordinary and deserved success of National Theatre Wales, under that urbane and extraordinarily hardworking wunderkind John McGrath – this was Theatr Genedlaethol’s moment in the sun, and, my, how brilliantly, dazzlingly and illuminatingly it shone.
Never judge a book by its cover. Or in this case a film. It may be a cliché but it has become one of the most overused expressions for the simple reason it is an absolutely flawless piece of advice. A thing I was reminded of most recently as I took my seat earlier this year in my local cinema, entirely expecting to spend the ensuing two hours viewing a funny, but not hilarious, mostly predictable yet enjoyable, archetypal romantic comedy – nothing too controversial, just some lighthearted fun. And indeed, the first twenty minutes or so indicated this was just what was in store; Tim a 21 year-old male is told he can time travel and naturally the first thing he does is goes back and snogs that girl he was too shy to kiss the first time round.
However, this film developed into so much more. Directed by Richard Curtis and featuring a stunning cast including Domhall Gleeson as the entirely lovable time-travelling Tim, Rachel McAdams as his sweet yet insecure love interest and Bill Nighy as his brilliantly eccentric father who instructs him in the delicate art of time travel (‘You can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy’). It is a quintessentially British film which is not just funny but hilarious at times and anything but predictable.
It is a love story of course but not exclusively the romantic kind; its true delight comes in the form of its touching portrayal of the beauty of the relationship between a father and his son. It is a tale of love, of the sacrifices we make for our family and the quirks and experiences which bind us together. It is about people; the choices we make and the paths we travel. It is also a story about morality. If we could, would we? If most people were handed the opportunity to do almost anything in the world would they make the right decisions?
Personally I believe this film had such a deep pull for me as it was centred on the one of the questions that plagues humanity so intensely. It is a heart-warming must see film for anyone who ever wondered … What if?
Wales Arts Review’s Newport Special Launch Event
My hometown of Newport gets a lot of bad press, some of it deservedly, mostly not. But even in our native devotion, we’re unlikely ever to claim it as a cultural capital even if we’re proud of the achievements of individual artists. If we who live along the banks of the Usk have that ingrained view, what can we expect from those who live elsewhere? It’s no surprise that there was sniggering and sneering at Wales Arts Review’s Newport special this year. I’m biased because of my involvement with WAR so you’d expect me to think that the issue itself was a triumph. It was, but you can make your own mind up about that. The launch event however was something else entirely. In a year when art and culture in our big town/small city suffered several blows, it was an unequivocal, unsentimental, hilarious, outrageous, rude and sophisticated celebration of what writers, artists and musicians have created and are creating because of, not despite, being in Newport. A reminder of a rebellious, riotous spirit that has seemed a little crushed lately but remains unbowed I’m sure. I’m still laughing at some of the lines in Craig Austin’s hilarious hymn to the music that runs through the centre of Newport like the words in a stick of rock, particularly his withering put-down of the erstwhile musical tastes of our bigger neighbour: ‘Cardiff may aspire to be a world city now, but in the 1980s it quite happily aspired to be Level 42.’ Speaker after speaker that night chanted a Newport liturgy, reminding us what of the basic tenets our optimism should be based upon. It’s up to us to do the rest.
Go to Wales Arts Review Highlights of 2013 Part Three
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis