Category Archives: London UK

A city we visit often to feast on its theatre, art, music and unmatched energy.

East Enders vs the Republic of China

How a small news story about East-Enders and the Chinese Embassy takes us on a big ride through family history, via the Battle of Cable Street and the mural …

Ron’s late mum Alice Weihs was an honourary East-Ender. She was dubbed “Ellis the Ken-eye-dian” (cockney accent).

She went off to London UK on her own in 1976, for a brief visit — that lasted over 20 years. She got involved with some political east-enders creating a co-op to fix up a derelict apartment block (council flats) just south of St. Katharines Docks. The photo of St. Katharines docks below is from 1963, and still shows rubble from the Blitz of 1940-41.

The flat she fixed up is still in the family. She and Ron and I bought a leasehold in 1989. Ron and I love the flat, the riverside, the East End. So when some unusual news crossed my path, I paid attention.

Breaking News Nov 15, 2020 : The People’s Republic of China has been taken to task by the feisty citizens of Tower Hamlets, in London’s east end.
The situation: China’s plan to convert the former Royal Mint property into their new embassy in London, UK. (See A on a current London map below)

Why does this matter to the East-Enders who live around the corner?

Let’s back up in history a bit.

The East End is known for its extremes in everything: poverty,  pride, resilience and independence.

One defining moment of East-End pride happened on October 4, 1936.  

The British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Oswald Moseley, planned to show off how strong they were by attacking an “easy” target: the heart of the poorest area of London. They didn’t count on the well-organized resistance from the people who lived and worked there: a mix of radical Orthodox Jews, and radical Irish Catholic dock workers.

On Sunday October 4, 1936, with mounted police protection, the Moseley gang marched in from the west (B on the map).  They met thousands more people than they expected (at A, B, C, and D). Trams were strategically stopped by their drivers.
On Cable Street (D), barricades of pipe, bedsprings, lumber and rubbish blocked the street.  First aid stations had been set up to tend the wounded.

The Fascists did not pass!

This is known as The Battle of Cable Street.

The people of Tower Hamlets are proud of this resistance, and proud that Catholics and Jews fought side-by-side. In the years since 1936, there have been many new arrivals to this area, from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The area now has the highest number of Muslims than anywhere else in the UK.

So today, the Chinese discrimination against the Uighur Muslims does not sit well with East-Enders of any nation or religion.

1976: The year Alice came to London was also the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Some activist east-enders wanted to do something special to commemorate it. Local artist and illustrator Dan Jones suggested that a huge mural of the Battle be created on the wall of St George’s Town Hall on Cable Street. Fundraising began. From Wikipedia: “Planning for the mural began in 1976, when Dan Jones, Secretary of the Tower Hamlets Trades Council,  …[asked] artist, Dave Binnington, to paint a mural in Cable Street…   [who] also recruited Paul Butler to design the lower section. Many of the faces in the mural were inspired by newspaper pictures of people who took part in the battle.” Work on the mural began in 1979, but due to some setbacks, wasn’t completed until 1983.

1983: When Ron first took me to London to meet his mum Alice (1983 or 4), the first thing she did was march us across the street to the “local” on that Sunday afternoon, announcing to all her chums “Here’s me kids!” and introducing us to the publican. Good manners, East-End style.
The next thing we did was walk up to see the Battle of Cable Street mural.  It was the first of many walks to her favourite places. I can’t find any of Ron’s photos. Above is from The Guardian by Martin Goodwin, for the October 2016 commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.

Now back to the Chinese Embassy in the UK and the citizens of Tower Hamlets, and the breaking news, mid-November 2020:

“In a letter seen by The Mail on Sunday [Nov 15], Mr. Liu [China’s Ambassador to the UK] told Mayor John Biggs [mayor to Tower Hamlets]: ‘It is hoped that Tower Hamlets Council will respect the agreement reached between the Chinese and UK governments, resist disruptions and foster sound conditions for the building of the new embassies in our respective embassies.’ ”

A meeting of the Tower Hamlets Council in mid November 2020 resolved:
“to write to the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China based in the United Kingdom….  to cease its human rights’ abuses against the Uyghur Muslims and all other detainees….
… to engage Hong Kong’s people, institutions and judiciary to prevent further erosion of the rights and freedoms…. We in Tower Hamlets welcome residents of Hong Kong who wish to take advantage of their now increased ability to move to the United Kingdom.”

My favourite bit is the parting shot of the Committee resolutions:
“The Borough [of Tower Hamlets] has a long and proud history of
being the first home in the UK for many people

fleeing persecution in their original countries.
And that those earlier arrivals are now British citizens.”



Afterword:
the other side of the story – remember the Opium Wars  

Future London embassy’s link to era of Chinese ‘humiliation and sorrow’

China acquired the historic Royal Mint site in London in 2018 for its new diplomatic mission —
Site has historic significance: it took delivery of tonnes of silver that China was forced to pay Britain in the 19th century.

RSC: Kathryn Hunter’s Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens
Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

When Judith and I  learned that the Royal Shakespeare was doing it this winter, with Kathryn Hunter in the lead role, we were more than excited.

Kathryn Hunter is a remarkable actor. She is known for her powerful stage presence, her prowess as a physical performer, and for fearlessly and effectively tackling male roles. We’ve been fortunate to see her in two unforgettable productions: Richard III at the Globe in 2003 and Yerma at the Arcola in 2006. So Judith and I came to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Hunter in Timon of Athens with the highest of expectations.

Though Hunter’s charismatic force was in evidence, the production as a whole  was disappointing. It seemed unfocused, as if they hadn’t worked out just why Timon should be a woman. (And in this production, Timon is a woman, wearing a golden dress through the first act — unlike, for example, her Richard III, who dresses and acts as a male.) Does this gender switch illuminate the play, or alternatively, does it help us understand something about our culture and our time? I didn’t find either.

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens
Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

Elements of design and staging seemed easy, even perfunctory. The first act is drenched in gold, a bit obvious even in these Trumpian times. In the second act, Timon digging for roots to eat, finds a carrot already peeled and washed. The rebel forces carry signs all drawn with the same magic marker, with unlikely slogans (“Banish Usury”). Other details seemed hasty and unformed.

Timon is an anomaly in the Shakespeare canon: stripped down, moralistic, with a simple A/B structure that is tragedy at its simplest. The old blues song says it: Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. When Timon is rich, he gives freely and excessively to his friends; when his money is gone they turn his back on him. He becomes an embittered misanthrope, living rough in a barren desert. When he discovers a cask of gold, he gives most of it to a band of rebels marching against the city. and dies in the wilderness, offstage. The characters, Timon included, lack the subtleties, nuances and contradictions so characteristic of Shakespeare. The play is a diatribe against greed and hypocrisy, stark and elemental. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Timon is the one that most relates to the world outside the theatre walls. It isn’t about ancient Athens, it’s about here and now, Shakespeare’s here and now, and ours. It’s up to the director to draw the connections.

This production seems half-baked and under-done, especially given that this is the RSC. They have the resources, the actors, the designers, and Kathryn Hunter in the title role! It isn’t enough to simply do Timon. Help us to understand something we don’t already know: the play, our culture, the times we live in, sexual identity, greed, class, political struggle. This is a play that needs to have something to say.

Simon Russell Beale did a powerful version at the National in 2012, directed by Nicolas Hyntner, at the height of the Occupy Movement. The message, “we are the 99 percent” came through loud and clear. The intent of this production was not clear at all, and nothing Kathryn Hunter could do could help that.

RSC: Tartuffe in Birmingham

Tartuffe (played by Asif Khan) takes a selfie.

The RSC’s new version of Molière’s Tartuffe is a remarkable piece of work. It transports the plot to Birmingham, and sets it in a Pakistani Muslim household. Tartuffe is a fake holy man, who has gained influence over Imran Pervais, and is imposing his fundamentalist version of Islam on the family, while he persuades his patron to sign over his possessions and give his daughter to him in marriage. All the while, he is attempting to seduce Imran’s second wife.

This displacement is a very apt parallel to Molière’s original Christian framework, but it could be undeniably tricky to pull off in these troubled times. And, of course, it needs to be funny! It succeeds thoroughly (and hilariously), thanks probably to the participation of Anil Gupta, co-writer with Richard Pinto, and Iqbal Khan, the director, who grew up in a in a Pakistani family in Birmingham. The script confronts preconceived notions and misconceptions of the audience head on, and manages to be educative and critical at the same time.

Parts of the script have a very loose relationship with the original, and others follow the dialogue quite closely. Most of it is in prose, rather than rhyming couplets, but there are passages that rhyme, and some rap sequences.

Darina, the Bonsnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard
Darina, the Bosnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

The play opens with Darina, the Bosnian cleaning lady, with a monologue (not in the original) to help the audience get over some of their assumptions about what a Muslm family is like.   “Also, you should know, they are Muslims. It’s OK. Don’t be scared. I am Muslim too. You didn’t know Bosnians were Muslim? What they teach you in school?”

And that’s the spirit of the rest of the proceedings. Molière’s script, controversial in its time, provides a framework for satirizing hypocrisy and corruption today. It is clear that it is talking about corrupt elements within a community, not the community itself. And, by the way, it’s beautifully performed and staged. And very, very funny.

Richard II at the Almeida: the real Beale

It was with great anticipation that I went to the Almeida to see Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II. He had been a brilliant Timon of Athens at the National in 2012, in a startling production by Nicholas Hyntner that connected Shakespeare’s stark fable to the Occupy movement and Wall Street corruption. I knew that this Richard II had been reworked to focus on the theme of solitary incarceration, and I thought “what a good idea!” Richard in his cell suffers the disintegration of his personality, and halucinates the events that led him to his ordeal. Richard’s agonized musings, rather than historical events, are now the core of the drama.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida. Simon Russell Beale. Photo credit Marc Brenner
Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida

Exploring Shakespeare in this way is very like the experiments back in the sixties and seventies, by Charles Marowitz, Peter Brook and many more. Unfortunately, this production incorporated another aspect of those experiments: real things happening to real people (actors) on stage.

In this Richard II, Beale is hosed with water and has a bucket of filth poured over his head. A bucket labeled “blood” is sprayed over the stage. And so forth.

Well, Mr. Beale is a good sport. However, the play is distorted by these devices. Richard’s suffering evaporates, while we watch the actor letting himself be abused, and wonder what he is thinking, what he is feeling, why he lets them do it to him.

Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida.

There are kinds of performances where we watch real things happen to real people: prize fights, pornography, gladiatorial spectacles and so forth. They are fascinating in their way, no doubt, but I had come to witness theatrical suffering, and the real discomfort of the actor was enormously distracting.

Tate Modern Photo-ops

Picasso retrospective

Art lover at the Tate ModernChildren playing in Turbine Hall

I love the Tate Modern. There’s the shows, of course — the free ones from the permanent collection and the blockbusters. There’s the mysterious Tanks and the clever Artist Rooms. There’s the building, with all its curves and angles and long, long escalators, and the wonderful smooth sloping Turbine Hall. There are the people who swarm through it, who all seem  happy to be there. People from many lands, with many complexions, dressed up, dressed down, dressed tastefully, dressed oddly. And children, running and rolling and skipping up and down the shiny turbine slope. Photo-ops everywhere!Picasso retrospective

The show was Picasso 1932. An argument is made that this was a pivotal year for Picasso, and it seems so. However, Picasso had many phases in a long artistic life, and there are other years that are equally important. But what does it matter?

Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective
Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective

Lots to see in 1932, particularly since Picasso had his first retrospective that year, providing an opportunity to include works from other periods. Particularly interesting was an arrangement of a group of paintings and drawings just as they appeared in the exhibition in 1932.

I’ve been looking long and hard at Picasso’s work ever since the great

The view across the river
The view across the river from the members lounge

Picasso and Man exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario when I was in high school. (“Picasso and Man” it was called, though “Picasso and Woman” would have been more appropriate. This was 1964.) He’s like an old friend. I’m always glad to renew our acquaintance.