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ARTS ROUND-UP 2013 - Part 2

Star critics remind us of events in the arts they were most impressed by in the last 12 months

CINEMA

It has, quietly, been a rather good year for films which disrupt the established order. Ken Loach's superior documentary The Spirit of 45 (above) not only recounted the moment when-post war Britain effected historical socialist reforms but in doing so attempted to will apathetic audiences into demanding similar changes be made now.

Despite its polemical premise Loach's film was not a reproachful call to arms but a gentle, rational and inspiring reminder of the power the voting public possesses.

Frequently moving interviews with those present at the time built an affecting, logical argument for reform, then and now.

This theme of social reform also found its way into the science fiction genre. Neill Blomkamp's gritty dystopian movie Elysium satirised the regressive US healthcare system, but was let down by allegorical heavy handedness.

More effective was the new entry in the Hunger Games series, Francis Lawrence's Catching Fire. While perhaps lacking the visceral charge of the first film this second instalment expanded on its themes of manipulation, oppression and rebellion to more potent effect. This was augmented by excellent central performances and an exceptionally solid supporting cast.

The fact Catching Fire was so unfairly maligned by many critics may be more indicative of a prejudice against franchises than any fundamental flaw within the film itself.

The current surge of interest in silent cinema from both critics and cinephiles continued this year with Eureka Entertainment's rerelease of FW Murnau's Nosferatu (below).

The film's impact had not weakened with time. In fact the power of this stark, silent vampire fable was enhanced when viewed in the context of our digital age. Nosferatu's un-manipulated simplicity felt troublingly authentic when compared to its CGI-soaked predecessors and confirmed that silent cinema possesses a power modern movies may well lack.

Just as The Spirit of 45 compels us to act on the evidence of previous triumphs and Catching Fire enhances the socially subversive themes of its predecessor the 91-year-old Nosferatu demonstrates the power of the unaltered, pre-digital image.

As we enter into the New Year, some of 2013's best releases remind us that improving our future often means drawing lessons from the past.

Steve Richards

 

MUSIC

On the whole, 2013 has been a pretty good year. There have been some really promising bands and artists emerging from the woodwork and some old timers have returned with a vengeance to release career-defining material.

January witnessed Sean McGowan make his London debut at the Barfly in London's Camden. The Southampton lad sang from the gut about love and politics and it is no surprise Billy Bragg subsequently booked him for the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury.

Another new act that made inroads were Model Society. Their debut EP Inner City Kicks displayed a love of Blur circa Modern Life Is Rubbish and has an energy akin to the Buzzcocks at their peak.

The old timers, however, has been the true trailblazers in 2013. Suede returned with Bloodsports, a body of work which is only bettered by their 1994 masterpiece Dog Man Star. The Manic Street Preachers (below) came back with a new acoustic sound but Nicky Wire's vehement political rhetoric hit new highs on 30 Years War.

Sitting top of the pile this year has been Primal Scream. Their album More Light is on the money in every aspect. Bobby Gillespie's vocals are his best and the musicality is so good it surely completes their holy trinity along with Screamadelica and XTRMNTR.

The savage lyrics set this album apart from the pack. Album opener 2013 is as close to perfection as it comes, with not a single word wasted.

Attacking the psychology of the political right and highlighting the subjugation of Britain's rock'n'roll "rebels" is challenging to say the least. This album and that single in particular are hopefully the end of the rock-psyche era of past three years and herald the dawn of an angry and exciting epoch of music reflecting social change.

Mike Adams

 

PERFORMANCE

The dark clouds of austerity continued to hang over Britain as the Con-Dem government continued to slash public spending, including huge cuts to arts funding.

Despite this, many local and regional arts organisations battled to ensure some cultural light pierced the gloom created by these philistines.

Against the odds, 2013 saw another exceptional year for Manchester's theatres.

The Royal Exchange kicked off with a magnificent production of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, in which director Max Webster delivered a wonderfully humane expose of the pernicious destruction caused by racism.

Over at the Library Theatre there was a truly outstanding version of Bertholt Brecht's Mother Courage And Her Children, with Eve Polycarpou mesmerising as the mother scheming her way through a long and pointless war. A great revival which showed how important Brecht still is to political theatre.

In Tull (above), at the excellent Octagon Theatre in Bolton, there was a beautiful and moving account of the first black professional footballer Walter Tull, with the play tracking the gifted player through his time with Northampton, Spurs and his death on the battlefields of the Somme.

The gentle warmth of a fine spring saw Cush Jumbo positively light up the stage at the Royal Exchange with an exquisite performance as Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House and, just as the cold began to bite, the Royal Exchange staged an excellent gore feast with a gloriously funny revival of Stephen Sondheim's fabulous Sweeney Todd.

The future may have its uncertainties but with the fantastic talent on show in young companies such as Toxteth's 20 Stories High prospects looks great. This wonderful Liverpool-based company brought their smashing production, full of humanity and hope, of Melody Loses Her Mojo to the Contact Theatre. Truly memorable.

Bring on 2014!

Paul Foley

 

PERFORMANCE

My dance picks of the year include Tamara Rojo's performance in The Nutcracker, which got the year off with bang.

It was a breathtaking performance in its technical perfection and focus and there might have been nothing else in the year to compare it with. But then at Sadlers Wells Tanztheater Wuppertal's gave an extremely rare performance of the company's most fantastic and beautiful work Vollmond (below).

Featuring massive sheets of falling water on stage, it was visually astonishing but the production was distinguished even more by the expressionistic power of the performers.

In the summer, the "choreographer's cut" of Hofesh Shechter's Political Mother grabbed the attention and probably provoked the ire of dance traditionalists.

Raucous and wild, Shechter's work attacks totalitarian noise and control and in this production, and in the premiere of his new work Sun, Shechter's freedom fighting comes in the shape of choreographed abstract narratives to communicate the dignity of a suffering people fleeing from hellish circumstances.

William Forsythe's Double Bill was another inspirational work but it was dance of the neo-geo-pop kind that finished the year in spectacular fashion.

Michael Clark reached a height of choreographic perfection in his Triple Bill at the Barbican. It was a triumph of experimentalism but seemed way over the heads of some critics who can only label Clark's work as "iconoclastic" in their attempts to explain the creation of a new dance language.

With a visionary style even more exciting and certainly more succinct than when he first started out, Clark closed the year on a high.

Peter Lindley

 

MUSIC

Gwyneth Herbert (above) and her Sea Cabinet show at Wilton's Music Hall in London was a stand-out. Herbert's vision comes complete with strong and immaculately timed composition, eloquent and complex instrumentation providing diametric mood shifts and wonderfully evocative lyrics. Like the sea that inspired it, the Cabinet disgorges melodic riches, ranging from mere whispers and murmurs to gusts of ominous, dark sound and roars delivered by a voice that can effortlessly render any emotion with commanding ease. Every song is an impressively crafted and engrossing vignette of life's more difficult moments and they grab the attention time and again. Well worth purchasing the CD.

There was an unexpected chamber music structure to the concert by Irish troubadours The Gloaming at Union Chapel in north London.

While individual instruments sounded razor sharp, they blended into the melody of each song with mesmerising musical rigour and inventiveness.

The result is commanding music of faultless execution and the audience sensed the extraordinary, with the appreciation growing more rapturous as the night progressed.

This masterly outing embraced the breadth and integrity of a musical vision that is ancient and new in equal measure and their eponymous debut album, to be released next year, should be well worth checking out.

The album Awayland, following the success of Becoming A Jackal, saw The Villagers upping the stakes with another collection of Conor O'Brien songs, this time employing child-like innocence to describe the world we are born into.

The lyrics impressively bring melancholy up-to-date, as only an Irish soul is capable of, and O'Brien's persuasive, delicate voice, pensive and intimate on My Lighthouse, explodes with rapturous energy on Nothing Arrived.

The quintet imbues these songs with gob-smacking tonal depth and range, including gentle nods to Kraftwerk. No surprise then that they're selling out halls across Britain and Europe.

As Peter Green was conquering depression and mental illness in the mid-'90s he candidly confessed: "I'm not afraid anymore. Music doesn't scare me the way it used to" and the album Peter Green: The Very Best Of Peter Green Splinter Group eloquently supports that statement.

Green, together with Nigel Watson, Cozy Powell, Neil Murray and Spike Edney, is in top form throughout, his nuanced husky voice and melodically rich harmonica and guitar work draw repeated listening.

The band - each a master in their own right -had an admirable togetherness but sadly it all came to an end in 2004 when Green walked out.

Michal Boncza

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