Peter Pan, National Theatre, London — overview

From left, Paul Hilton, Madeleine Worrall and Marc Antolin in ‘Peter Pan’ © Steve Tanner

With its pirates, fairies, fights and flights, it is small wonder that Peter Pan remains a staple of the festive season. But at its heart is also a deep poignancy: there is wistfulness in the truth it considers that all youngsters should grow up and grow old — and a reminder that the alternative is far sadder. A recent staging at London’s Open Air Theatre brought that sadness to the fore by setting the story against the 1st planet war.

Sally Cookson’s rich, nuanced production doesn’t go that far, but it brings out that bittersweet tone and is streaked with nostalgia. In Neverland the lost boys live in a pre-digital globe, exactly where tin cans are pressed into service as telephones, a bicycle pump becomes a walkie-talkie and a skateboard turns into a boat.

And, as the production bowls through the story, the performances deftly bring out the psychological layers in the story. Paul Hilton’s Peter is a gangly, wild, man-boy in a tight green suit that fitted him when — both fascinating and slightly sad. Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy is a wonderful blend of common sense and girlish excitement — in her we see the lady inside the girl, just as in her father (Felix Hayes) we see the boy inside the man. The staging is complete of such ironies: reminding us, for instance, that when kids play, they usually play at getting adults (soldiers, pirates, nurses), and that adults are usually far more childish than their juniors. Meanwhile the doubling of Anna Francolini as both the loving Mrs Darling and a sinister female Hook adds to the questions about conformity, maturity and ageing.

It is also masses of fun. Cookson reaffirms the connection amongst play and a play: the large Olivier stage right here is turned into a giant adventure playground, a celebration of the ingenuity of invention and the joy of storytelling. There can be few who don’t shiver at the method of the crocodile, composed as he is of bits of corrugated iron and a saw for a tail. There can be few too who do not really feel a pang of envy as Peter and Wendy soar and swoop over the stage. And when, finally, the audience is necessary, it is so keen to play along that the clapping to revive Saikat Ahamed’s grumpy little Tinkerbell begins extended prior to Peter has even asked for support.

To February four,

Section: Arts

Film overview: Amazing Beasts and Exactly where to Discover Them

Steamrollering into our intriguing instances, Amazing Beasts and Where to Discover Them — the new fantasy blockbuster scripted by JK Rowling — starts as an immigrant story. There is Lady Liberty welcoming us to Ellis Island at the begin of the 1st of 5 movies due to be spun off from the edifice of Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Where we’re spinning is the past — the New York of 1926, approached by a bashful young man in a flamboyant coat. His name is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). The customs officer is unsurprised to uncover he holds a British passport.

Scamander, as you guessed, is a practitioner of magic. But he is living in a dark moment. Anti-wizard sentiment is rife in Manhattan, even ahead of the sidewalks are ruptured from beneath by mysterious forces. But for Newt, the 1st order of company is the escape from his wriggling suitcase of a lot more than one strange creature just arrived in America. For he is, apparently, a “magizoologist”, guardian of exotic animals threatened by the present mood. Quickly, human buddies have gathered also, which includes a hard-cookie witch (Katherine Waterston) and sweet-natured everyman (Dan Fogler). Among them and the menagerie, the film sets a tone of antic thrills and spills. But with a long-term story arc to launch, some thing wicked also comes, and cliffhangers artfully dangle.

The girdered backdrop of old New York is a CGI marvel, nonetheless developing into its contemporary self, the skyline low in locations it now soars. And in the city nevertheless below building we discover Rowling, with her potent present for fictional “world building”. For all the pressure bearing down on it — how badly the creaking movie market could do with 5 certain-fire box office smashes — it feels, remarkably, like a tale told for the enjoyable of it.

The great news extends to the cast, even though the weak link is Redmayne, his range narrower with each and every part. The director is David Yates, whose secure hands also delivered the last four of the eight Harry Potter films. He also makes the film far better than it had to be. With each and every corner stuffed with visual curlicues, setpieces are cranked into delirium. You will see a platypus (or thereabouts) slo-mo’d in mid-air amid a shower of stolen diamonds, and wish you had brought ear plugs for the volume of children’s laughter.

Section: Arts

PJ Harvey, Brixton Academy, London — overview

The first of PJ Harvey’s two nights at Brixton Academy opened with the Dorset singer-songwriter and her nine-powerful band emerging from backstage gloom in a file wearing funereally dark garments. Two drummers led the way with a military tattoo as the musicians arranged themselves in an oval shape, a gothic encampment. The 1st notes they struck up were a grave blast of noise, fuelled by three horn players like Harvey on saxophone.

When she started singing, her voice rose higher above the ominous musical reverberations, telling the story of an old woman living in a deserted Balkan village. The song was “Chain of Keys” from her most current album The Hope Six Demolition Project, whose tracks had been inspired by Harvey’s visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and the US. “Imagine what her eyes have observed,” she sang of the elderly villager she saw throughout the Kosovo trip. “We ask but she won’t let us in.”

Harvey is playing an unusual hand in The Hope Six Demolition Project. Created as a functionality art piece in which she and her musicians could be watched recording its songs in the studio, it addresses war, poverty and pollution, a world out of kilter. But Harvey is a reluctant agitpopper. Shouts from the audience at the Academy met with implacable silence, only broken at the end when she introduced her band. Like the lady in “Chain of Keys”, Harvey prefers to keep her public at a distance, even when she desires to engage them in wider problems.

Her all-male backing band played their role as retainers with formidable discipline: a saxophonist’s superbly wild solo at the end of “The Ministry of Social Affairs” was a rare moment of peacockery. Otherwise the theatricality was left to Harvey, front of stage in an artfully revealing black outfit, unencumbered by her usual guitar. The sound mix was completely judged, from the immense bass saxophone wailing like the dawning of an awful thought in “The Ministry of Defence” to the numbed subtleties of the ambient lament “Dollar, Dollar”, which ended with a wonderfully mournful tenor sax solo.

Harvey’s vocals have been dramatic, varying notes and tones expertly. At occasions she got carried away with performing, or becoming seen to be performing: the way she palmed her cheeks like Munch’s “The Scream” throughout “Dollar, Dollar” was pure ham. But largely her movements were expressive, as when her imploring gesture at the finish of “Rid of Me” was cast into darkness by an extinguished spotlight. She is a class act.

Section: Arts

Ed Ruscha: Extremes and In-betweens, Gagosian, London — overview

“Words reside in a planet of no size,” Ed Ruscha has observed. “You can make them any size and what’s the genuine size? Nobody knows.” Such lucid innocence is usually the prerogative of geniuses or small youngsters. But if we’re lucky, it also animates our fine conceptual artists, of whom Ruscha is undoubtedly 1.

The Los Angeles-based artist’s most recent paintings, at present on show at Gagosian’s new gallery in London’s Grosvenor Hill, spin the above insight into a surreal, optical poetry. Produced this year, nearly all of them display pyramid-like scales of words whose descending size mirrors their meaning. “Universe”, for instance, is stencilled in a massive white font at the top of a list that encompasses “America”, “Tampa Florida”, “Back Bedroom”, “Dust Bunny” and “Static Electricity”. “Silence” is writ huge — Ruscha constantly gets his priorities right — above “Commotion”, “Racket” and “Peak Volume”. That the final word, which surely summons some apocalyptic cacophony, is illegible is no error of judgment. Ruscha is a painter who when said that each operate he created would be “completely premeditated”.

The meticulous however insouciant linguistic slopes at Gagosian are inscribed on plain grounds painted in hues of grainy dun brown, astral grey and dusty black. Here and there a wrinkle or fold disturbs the empty prairies. At instances, they are juxtaposed with painting of scraps of wooden planking, as if Ruscha is telling us that any old surface will do for a humble signwriter like him.

‘Silence with Wrinkles’ (2016)

That capability to produce high art out of low approaches and signifies has created Ruscha as enduring and crucial an artist as any operating these days. Now in his 79th year, he did certainly begin out coaching to be an industrial painter when he moved to Los Angeles from his house town of Oklahoma City in 1956. Within a decade, however, he’d segued into the Pop/Minimalist/Conceptual zeitgeist. His early paintings slapped vast words — “Boss”, “Smash”, “Noise”, “Space” — on monochrome backgrounds. With photographic books such as Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963) and Each and every Developing on the Sunset Strip (1966) allied to his seminal painting of the Hollywood sign (1968) at sunset as if dipped in the faux-gold of the collective American dream, he stamped himself as the Californian painter par excellence.

Over the decades, the versatility of his media — he has created photography, prints, artists’ books, and has even painted in blood — has in no way diluted the clarity with which he continues to demonstrate that the bond between language and which means is supremely vulnerable. “I like the concept of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word once more,” he when said.

The very best of these new operates flirt with our eye, obliging us to draw close in order to study the smaller text, then unsettle our thoughts when we get there. Often the journey is beguiling. Set against a sandy ground, “Sun/Earth/Texas/Horse/Hoof” is a marvellously unexpected declination, as if a benign visual-art equivalent of Cormac McCarthy were leading us out into the desert which, Ruscha has frequently mentioned, is his favourite landscape.

‘Sun, Atom’ (2016)

But it is unlikely that McCarthy, the American author known for his explorations of his country’s psyche at its darkest and most existential, would have come to mind at all when we contemplated Ruscha’s perform a decade ago. Then, the painter’s zany, ethereal lyricism still had the laconic playfulness of a single who prefers to rise above gritty sociopolitical realities.

These paintings really feel bleaker, sadder, as if Ruscha has finally plugged himself into the gloomy massive picture. One chops up the words for numbers — “Tril/Bil/Mil/Thou” — so that their endings appear to have plunged off the edge of the canvas in what is surely a metaphor for wealth’s crucial frailty. An additional begins “Bio” and steadily shrinks the word until “biology’ is spelt out at the bottom like a tiny death sentence.

Ruscha has stated repeatedly how a lot he fears for his country’s social and environmental future. This new operate isn’t perfect. Many of the photos add practically nothing to what their a lot more potent fellows are reaching, and their almost uniformly large size, though acceptable for Gagosian’s capacious galleries, creates a leaden cadence. But it’s exciting to see an older artist acknowledging that anxious occasions demand a response, and taking dangers with feeling and intensity as a outcome. Ruscha mustn’t retire into the desert just but.

To December 17,

Section: Arts

Film overview — My Scientology Film: ‘Informative fun’

Scientology is fair game for documentary makers, which may possibly explain why none of them has killed it off. They need to have it as hunters need prey. Without having the species — L. Ron Hubbard and his well-known, for some infamous, religious group — what would come about to the season?

Scientology. Feel of it as a prize boar that is never ever a prize bore. We really like to chase it we attempt to chase it down yet we’re fascinated by its eluding, evading impudence. As if aware that Alex Gibney’s 2015 documentary about the Dianetics gang, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, rumbling its bellyful of damning details, was a difficult act to stick to — whilst nonetheless not delivering the death blow — British docu-sleuth Louis Theroux tries the playful approach. In My Scientology Film he goes to California, rounds up a band of wannabe actors and workshops them in recreations of infamous sect tactics for brainwashing or infamous incidents of browbeating and persecution. (The young actors playing Tom Cruise and David Miscavige, Scientology’s head because Hubbard’s death, are dead ringers.)

Theroux’s on-hand specialist, doubling as dramaturge and drama coach, is Hubbard defector Marty Rathbun. He is a garrulous, excitable fellow which may clarify why he keeps losing his temper. Geeky-featured Louis, we all know, is a pseudo-simpleton who stands there asking “naive” concerns. They provoke the innocent and enrage the guilty. Rathbun’s past as a best Hubbardite, an “Inspector General” forsooth, triggers two or 3 Rathbun tantrums. For far better drama still — moving on — there are confrontations with actual camera-wielding snoops sent from Hubbard HQ (1 assumes) to doorstep Louis’s production venues. When he complains about their surveillance, a girl snoop complains that he is harassing her. Louis: “You’re filming me! How can I be harassing you?”

The movie goes nowhere, you might adjudge by the end, if you’re harsh. But it has a lot of informed and informative entertaining going nowhere. And probably a going-nowhere documentary is the appropriate answer to a malignant, hypocritical religious institution — tax-exempt in its native US, of course — that creates its personal Lewis Carroll itineraries for taking believers from Point A to Point A even though convincing them they’re travelling a whole alphabet of growth and enlightenment.

Section: Arts

Deepwater Horizon — film overview: ‘Nightmarishly effectively directed’

On the morning of April 20 2010, the mood onboard the vast offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon was jumpy. Or so at least it appears in the new account of the most infamous environmental disaster in modern day US history. Your gut suggests the filmmakers have it correct. Following all, by now the crew was 43 days behind schedule in preparing to drill a tundra of seabed miles below the Gulf of Mexico, the sort of delay that makes a specific sort of particular person believe of cutting corners.

But not electronics technician Mike Williams, played with an easy swing by Mark Wahlberg, a rapidly-speaking lunk with a loving wife and daughter waiting at residence. He is our chief point of get in touch with in a tight-knit group of blue-collar competence. Ranged against them in a film of good guys and negative are what they call the “company men”, the BP logo stitched helpfully on to their shirts: males like Donald Vidrine, a slow-roasted web site manager blown up, you assume, to 110 per cent of his actual size by John Malkovich, with a relaxed method to safety tests and a liking for sermons on the size of the corporation.

Vidrine is also given to underlining his authority with mentions of “the bosses back in London”. All told, Deepwater Horizon is unlikely to uncover the BP boardroom in St James’s Square sending out for popcorn. But even if they feel aggrieved at the broad strokes of the narrative, they would have to acknowledge that creating this the story of the ordinary workers is the wise dramatic play.

The script gleams with efficiency. For all the winsomeness of the Williams household, yanked heartstrings are rare, the plain truth of 126 men and women on a fireball-in-waiting permitted to exert its personal energy. When dealing with a story of dynamically positioned, semi-submersible ultra-deep oil exploration, there is also a particular genius to being aware of what we need to have to be told and what we don’t. The language of needles jolting into the red proves universal.

And then the hiss from beneath the rig turns to a scream and disaster strikes. The result is nightmarishly properly directed, a kind of precision chaos. If the film will have the status of a horror movie among some audiences, all of us will be left a small quiet by the sight of BP’s Leviathan in its death throes, engulfed in flames above and flames under.

Section: Arts

Privacy, Public Theater, New York — overview

Daniel Radcliffe, centre, in 'Privacy'. Photo: Joan Marcus©Joan Marcus

Daniel Radcliffe, centre, in ‘Privacy’. Photo: Joan Marcus

Intervals are typically about promoting drinks. In James Graham’s play Privacy, initially staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2014 and co-designed by director Josie Rourke, those 15 minutes of hastily gulped wine and beer also let the individuals backstage to spy on the audience.

What begins out as a rather unfocused piece about a lately jilted author trying to overcome writer’s block (Daniel Radcliffe in Woody Allenish mode) by interviewing a slew of academics and tech personalities thus veers towards an exploration of the far more sinister implications of our collective telephone and internet addiction. Having followed guidelines to email selfies to the theatre for the duration of the initial half, audience members are summoned onstage and confronted with vaguely embarrassing pieces of personal information (a favourite term here) that are floating about online.

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Initially played for laughs, this device develops into a complete-blown interrogation as ever a lot more intimate information are disclosed. The point is to illustrate Edward Snowden’s critique of government surveillance and the whistleblower himself duly pops up in a video recording presumably created in a Russian secret service guesthouse (an inconvenient irony that goes unremarked here).

We are, in addition, in the end sworn to secrecy as to the course that interrogation takes. Suffice it to say Privacy’s hypothetical denouement turns out to be so far-fetched that I felt much less convinced by Snowden’s case at the finish of the play than I had been beforehand. The government could use the electronic data it harvests to ruin our lives. But Privacy gives no real evidence that such a dystopian outcome is even remotely most likely in a democratic technique with appropriate checks and balances. Documentary theatre performs best when grounded in hard facts. By resorting to overheated speculation, Graham weakens the argument at the heart of his play, which packs much less of a punch than Citizenfour , Laura Poitras’s chillingly understated fly-on-the-wall documentary about Snowden.

Much more telling right here is the demonstration of how we gleefully connive like selfie-snapping lemmings in violations of our personal privacy, described early on as a type of religion. On this evidence, not many think in it.

To August 14,

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Section: Arts

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, Whitney Museum, New York — overview

Danny Lyon's ‘Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville’ (1966). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York©Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon’s ‘Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville’ (1966). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

“You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to men and women,” the photographer Danny Lyon once stated. “Not just physically close, emotionally close all of it.” Perhaps that yearning for intimacy explains why New York’s Whitney Museum chose the 74-year-old as the topic of its 1st photography show. If so, the curators fell for the very same romance of roughness that seduced him in the 1960s, when he shot calendar-prepared photos of sullen bikers and sinewy Texas convicts. If he ever got actually close to a subject it was only to find out there was nothing at all significantly there, aside from an attitude, a rap sheet and a properly-honed set of muscles.

In the Whitney’s incoherently hung retrospective, Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, Lyon comes off as a workmanlike documentarian who spent his greatest years mimicking Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus ahead of entering a steep inventive decline. But those photographers took deprivation and the men and women who suffered it seriously Lyon sentimentalised poverty, eccentricity and defeat.

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Born in 1942, the son of a New York doctor, he grew up in an affluent section of Queens, and graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in history. Lyon shucked off his privileged surroundings as soon as he had the chance, poking his lens into shabby neighbourhoods and campus protests. (He not too long ago enjoyed a small spurt of political fame when a 1962 photograph he took of Bernie Sanders addressing a student sit-in came to light, affirming the candidate’s civil rights bona fides.) Lyon went on to become an official photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. You get the feeling in these early protest photographs that violence and confrontation thrilled him even more than the pursuit of social justice.

But what he actually relished was an air of proud seediness. In Uptown Chicago, he shot hillbilly migrants like rockers posing for an album cover, their sneers, slumps and hair radiating casual glamour. In 1967, he road-tripped to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he ogled barefoot and bare-chested unfortunates in their Ford convertibles and tumbledown habitats.

Lyon made his Knoxville pilgrimage in honour of native son and fellow celebrant of the downtrodden James Agee. The author of “Let Us Now Praise Well-known Men” exhorted photographers “not to alter the world as the eye sees it into a planet of aesthetic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality inside the actual world”. Lyon answered the get in touch with. He was after the holiness he saw incarnated in regular folk and their automobiles. “I am left feeling the folks I photograph are the best individuals in America,” he wrote. In Lyon’s populist exuberance, which is as significantly literary as visual, we hear echoes not just of Agee, but also of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac.

Lyon’s fondness for pariahs drove him to join the Outlaws, a famously antisocial biker gang, whose members, the smitten photographer enthused, were “probably the only thing like cowboys left in America”. They definitely had fantastic outfits. Lyon lingers over their regalia — leather jackets, tight T-shirts, iron-cross pendants, tattoos, patches and berets — and the burnished gleam of their bikes. He had vowed to get behind the bandit pose and portray their lives and libertinage from the inside out, but for the Outlaws, image was a weapon they seldom holstered. As they rode dead-eyed by means of Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, they seem never ever to have forgotten that Lyon’s sidearm was his camera, and they treated it with respect.

The gang got a volunteer propagandist, the photographer got access to a renegade legend. He made a suite of flattering symbols, such as “Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville, 1966”. A slender rider’s physique types a 3-slash rune (torso, thighs, calves) against a lushly detailed bike. His hair trails out behind him like comic-book speed whooshes.

His relationship with these males was “tactical however genuine”, in the words of curator Julian Cox (but can each words actually apply at the exact same time?). Lyon’s corps of hog-riding primitives aligns perfectly with Kerouac’s portrait of Dean Moriarty in On the Road: “His ‘criminality’ was not one thing that sulked and sneered it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, some thing new, extended prophesied, extended a-coming (he only stole cars for joyrides).”

The bikers led him toward the Texas penal technique. He hauled his camera to six prisons over 14 months, ingratiating himself with prisoners and guards alike. Lyon had just read Jean Genet’s penal-colony memoir, The Miracle of the Rose, and he responded to the dreamy eroticism of the prose: “I was certain that someplace inside those golden-necked brutes, maybe in between their shoulder blades, was a hidden rift of tenderness.” Genet transformed the murderer Harcamone into a practically godlike figure Lyon found his personal Harcamone in Billy McCune, a charismatic rapist on death row. “I believe Billy McCune is the identical as me,” he wrote — an ordinary man trapped in a pitiless system. Lyon believed that McCune required his story told, and he was the man to do it.

'Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas' (1968). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York©Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

‘Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas’ (1968). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Whatever closeness Lyon established with McCune, or with any of the other Texas inmates, should have vanished in the darkroom. Alternatively, the men who populate his scenes of hard labour flaunt blank faces and buff bodies, some nude, some in jumpsuits like flashes against the dark land. This is the segregated southern prison culture of Cool Hand Luke, and more than a couple of of the convicts seem to have modelled themselves on Paul Newman. Not even the recordings he produced of his subjects’ voices (which play on a loop at a listening station) can genuinely bring them alive.

Later, he tried a distinct tack: maintaining a film camera educated on his subjects lengthy adequate to get to know them. But here, also, he plays the part of a slumming voyeur, fascinated with weird, provincial varieties. In his 21-minute film “Soc. Sci. 127” (1969), Lyon hangs around a Houston tattoo artist, Bill Sanders, who drawls and drones endlessly, whilst adorning a woman’s nipples with flowers or a man’s backside with an eagle. It’s tough to see what Lyon wanted us to see in this sweaty, talkative codger: an artist, a blowhard or a loveable eccentric?

The Whitney scrambles the photographer’s work so badly that it is easy to lose track of him. The show shuffles chronological order and geographic unity, occasionally scattering random photos across a gallery wall. Maybe this arrangement was meant to evoke his appetite for chaos and danger as an alternative it sows confusion and muffles Lyon’s quiet achievements.

To September 25,

'Occupy Oakland, City Hall, Oakland' (2011). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York©Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

‘Occupy Oakland, City Hall, Oakland’ (2011). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

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Section: Arts

Richard Ashcroft, Roundhouse, London — overview

Richard Ashcroft at the Roundhouse. Photo: C. Brandon/Redferns©C. Brandon/Redferns

Richard Ashcroft at the Roundhouse. Photo: C. Brandon/Redferns

Richard Ashcroft nonetheless has it, the spark that separates the prime tier of frontmen from the journeymen toilers. At the Roundhouse the former Verve leader created for mesmerising viewing, projecting a mix of arrogant disdain and passionate commitment, 1 moment eyeballing the audience from behind rock-star sunglasses, the subsequent punching the air in full rabble-rousing mode.

Throughout one particular song there have been no fewer than seven spotlights educated on him. He looked lean and intense, as considerably so at 44 as he did in his Britpop heyday. “Up for it,” in the lingo of that vanished era. Meanwhile, his backing musicians, who went unintroduced, stood in the shadows. “Well played, boys,” Ashcroft stated at the finish of “Music Is Power” in a moment of magnanimity.


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Yes, Ashcroft nonetheless has it. But what he does not have are the songs to match the swagger. Or rather he did, nearly 20 years ago: but no more.

This week he releases These Men and women, his initial solo album in a decade. The tracks debuted at the Roundhouse were underwhelming.

“Out of My Body”, sung by Ashcroft with a gas mask dangling about his neck, was unmemorable techno-rock about state surveillance, at as soon as urgent and dull. “This Is How It Feels” had a good sense of stadium rock bombast but took an age to erect its slow-creating verse-chorus-verse scaffolding.

String arrangements (played on a synthesiser) echoed The Verve’s 1997 album Urban Hymns. But his former group’s volatile chemistry has proved impossible to replicate. “They Do not Own Me” belied its message of independence by sounding like an Urban Hymns clone, a defiant singalong doomed not be sung along to.

At least Ashcroft was in very good voice: his statuesque transatlantic drawl bestrode the music like a colossus. “Break the Evening with Colour”, from his 2006 album Keys to the World, marked a partial breakthrough, ending with the singer playing a wild electric guitar solo and bellowing “Yeah!”

But the longed-for release of energy only came when he revisited his Verve songs, climaxing in a majestic rendition of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Though unable to scale new heights, Ashcroft can nonetheless reach the old ones.

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Section: Arts

The Assassin — film overview: ‘Bewitching’

Shu Qi in 'The Assassin'

Shu Qi in ‘The Assassin’

If The Assassin had been any much more beautiful it could be prosecuted under the hazardous drugs act. Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien creates images of a narcotic allure even more bewitching than in his Flowers of Shanghai (1998). That was the movie that made late-19th-century Chinese brothels appear like a hallucinogen addict’s vision of paradise.

The new film is a wuxia (martial arts) story. You ought to read a synopsis of the introductory scenes prior to you see it — a brief one particular is supplied below — because you’ll be knocked off your perch by the wealthy colours, glittering textures, flaming golds and silvers, jewelled costumes and jaw-dropping, nay jaw-dislocating scenery. And by your intuition, appropriate, that Hou has researched the hell out of the story’s period — he claims to have spent years undertaking so — distilling it into a heaven for aesthetes and gogglers at the beautiful.

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The opacity of the narrative virtually seems element of the film’s purpose. In late Tang Dynasty China a stunning assassin, played by Hou typical Shu Qi, is dispatched by her guardian nun to kill a provincial ruler. Mercy intervenes it’s this hit-woman’s redemptive foible. (And her quarry was as soon as her betrothed.) Whereupon we start dreamily to slip time and place. The film’s oneiric eye-blinks, some longer than other folks, consist of a flashbacked princess singing of a tragic bluebird, horsebacked warriors weaving by way of spectacular gorges, domestic scenes of an opiate beauty set in royal bedrooms or boudoirs. Human actions are a saga of small, exquisite scratches on the scroll of eternity.

I’ve seen the film twice and nonetheless can not stick to every single shift of its court intrigues and conspiracy plots. But I’m not sure Hou wants us to. He wants us to really feel the enraptured shrug of a secular pantheism at once complete-earth and unearthly. Nature is everywhere in the film. Birdsong and insect noises magically orchestrated on the soundtrack breeze-blown veils and curtains shimmering in interiors cloud-girt mountain crags soaring like petrified eagles caught in mid-takeoff. The fight scenes themselves are sparse, vivid, startling, surreally short. They seem like convulsions of fleeting goal in a globe exactly where the only fixed rule of existence is — indifferent however majestic — existence itself.

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Section: Arts