Stephen Baxter’s The Wheel of Ice reviewed.

Audio  Earlier today, the BBC’s official Doctor Who website posted a short film, pieced together from bits of storyboard, a script by Chris Chibnall and a voiceover from Arthur Darvill explaining what happened to Rory’s Dad after his son and wife were zapped back in time at the close of The Angels Take Manhattan.  Even in this rudimentary form it’s poignant, bittersweet epilogue providing the footnote which was missing from the televised episodes.  It’s called P.S., post script, and is structurally rather like those Brief Encounter prose shorts which appeared in Doctor Who Magazine way back when.  It’s also doing what many past Doctor stories have across the years: it concretes in a narrative or thematic or character hole which the television series either neglected to, or as is most of often the case didn’t think of.

Stephen Baxter’s The Wheel of Ice is another of those post-scripts.  The first of these past-Doctor novels since the television series returned in 2005, it features what’s now called the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe in an exciting adventure on a ring of one of Saturn’s moons, where a mining colony ekes out an existence supplying raw materials for an Earth which is stretched to its own limit.  Amid equipment failures and social unrest, the TARDIS crew find themselves trapped by some cosmic time anomaly and quickly realise that in order to break free they have to investigate what’s causing the malfunctions and fuelling the disruption within the colony.  Before long, as is always the case in these situations, they're blamed for both, subjected to medical testing and only the Doctor’s charisma can save them.

It’s a post-script because amid all of that it’s also a story about the colony’s children.  In the 60s, for a show designed to attract inquisitive, very rarely were the stories specifically about them.  Susan and Vicky were both supposed to be viewpoint characters, but stories weren't often specifically about them (which was one of the reasons Carole Ann Ford left the programme) or the people they might meet on a planet and that continued right through to the modern era.  One of the major threads in The Wheel of Ice is how the children’s rights have been neglected because of the apparent need for them to work the mines, the argument being that like settlers on old Earth who equally exploited their young folk, they’re working for some greater cause, an argument which ultimately unravels as the cause of the all the mischief unravels.

Like those other post-script it’s also an attempt to place those 60s stories in the context of the franchise elements which were established later, threading various parts of its story through the later history of the programme and established fixed points but cleverly without subjected the TARDIS team to information they shouldn’t otherwise be exposed to (think the treatment of the Borg and Ferengi in Star Trek: Enterprise).  Though not too far ahead; unlike Gareth Roberts’s novelisation of Shada, the references are kept well within classic Who and indeed almost as though the 60s show was simply foreshadowing events in future stories close at hand rather like a continuity strung modern affair like Fringe.  Such things were the 90s post-scripts also built on and Baxter’s clearly paying a debt to them too.

It also takes full advantage of its medium.  After a number of recent pretty straightforward nuWho novels providing what amounts to a novelisation of an episode which hasn’t been made, it’s refreshing to return to a book which is able to have “interlude” sections revealing the back story of key characters (one of which, an A.I.-like deviation about a robot, is one of the best pieces of writing produced in connection with the franchise) and that’s unafraid to take excursions into what’s often described as “hard science”, something the author is especially known for.  Not having read nearly enough of anything, I’m not that aware of his work.  It’d be interesting to know the extent to which he’s subsumed his style in service to the franchise.  It’s certainly a clearer listen than Michael Moorcock’s attempt.

It’s always authentic.  In its audio form, each of the eight discs roughly covers what you might expect in a typical television episode, albeit on a massive budget with an infinitely extended shooting schedule.  All of the main characters are present and correct aided by David Troughton’s glorious reading in which he once again eerily recreates his father’s performance and offers a pretty decent Fraser too.  Baxter’s prose has a conversational style which really lends itself to be read out loud and although it's arguable whether it’s a story which needs telling over this extended length, it’s never less than compelling (which is something which can’t always be said of adventures from the television period in which this is set).  If Baxter wants to return to our universe at any point, he’d be most welcome.

Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter is out now from AudioGo.  Review copy supplied.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
The Royal Standard (13)

Art Rather shamefully this is the first time I’ve visited The Royal Standard for no other reason than I have the geographical awareness of a pigeon when the Earth’s core’s halted disrupting the globe’s magnetic field and it seemed like very far to go by public transport.  The  Biennial booklet map has a red spot with the venue number (thirteen, which as you see may be relevant) and an arrow pointing up away from New Quay (near The Mersey).  It's important to note at this point, I consulted no other maps.  It’ll be fine, I said before visit.  Out loud.  To people.  Well …

Here’s how I got there:  having left METAL, which is at Edge Hill Station, I took a train back to Lime Street Station and went down to the underground, to the Wirral Line.  At which point I realised I couldn’t actually get the train to Moorfields due to the single direction, clockwise train traffic in Liverpool city centre.  After asking for information via the big blue button on the platform I was advised, because Central Station’s Northern Line platform is still closed for refurbishment to travel out to Hamilton Square and change platforms.

I travel out to Hamilton Square and change platforms.  I travel back to Moorfields and change lines jumping the Kirby Train out to Sandhills, the only passenger at 4:30 in the evening walking out of the station.  At which point I remember that the Biennial map doesn’t especially say where the venue is.  Outside I ask a passer-by.  He points me in the direction of Vauxhall Road, which is The Royal Standard’s address.  As he walks away I notice his staff badge.  He’s police liaison office.  Which is lucky.

I walk in the direction he suggests and reach … Commercial Road.  Well, hum.  There isn’t anyone about.  Then I notice across the road, and across a playing field, Peter Coyne’s funeral directors.  There’s a telephone number which I can’t quite make out.  Is it .. 702 … 022 …2?  Or 0022?  I cross the road.  I climb the hill on the edge of the playing field and stand against the railings.  I still can’t tell which it is but decide to phone it anyway.

It’s the right number:  “Peter Coynes?” says a voice.  I ask him if he’s on Vauxhall Road.  He says he isn’t.  I ask if he knows where Vauxhall Road is.  He asks me why.  I explain to him that I’m looking for directions and he gamely asks where I am and I explain I’m across the playing field from him and that his was the only telephone number around.  He realises where I am.  “Oooh …” he says and explains that if I keep walking up Commercial Road I’ll reach Vauxhall Road.  I thank him.

Now that I have the number of a funeral directors seared into my memory I start walking.  And walking.  And walking.  And walking some more.  None of the buildings I pass, the disused commercial unit, the derelict pubs have a house number on so I don't actually know how far I'm walking, how close I am to The Royal Standard.  I’m not even sure if I’m walking the right direction up Vauxhall Road.  I’m walking towards the city centre with seems about right.  It starts to rain.  I begin to have Oxford Road flashbacks.

I keep walking.  And walking.  By this time I’ve decided that wherever The Royal Standard is that (a) I should have brought their phone number with me, (b) I won’t be walking back to Sandhills and (c) I should have checked Google Maps.  I’m passing bus stops.  The buses are every half an hour but I’m prepared to wait.  Or get a taxi.  At this point I don’t care.  I keep walking.  Eventually I reach some houses and a house number.  328.  I look again at The Royal Standard’s address.  131.  Sigh.

I walk some more.  At a certain point I realise I must be getting somewhere.  The commercial properties are in use now as are the pubs.  I pass The Green Man.  I’ve heard of The Green Man.  I walk some more and eventually I pass Liverpool Community College.  Then a William Hill betting office, a newsagents and then within sight is the Vauxhall Business Centre and above what looks like a modernist take on the entrance into a inn courthouse, The Royal Standard’s logo.

I visit The Royal Standard, the details of which are below.  Inside as part of the whole, well you’ll see, I ask for directions back.  I’m shown the Biennial map and it’s noted that I’ll know I’m in the right place when I see the Superlambanana.  Well, that’s very close to Liverpool so it must still be a bit of a walk away.  Well, ok, that’s fine.  I leave The Royal Standard and steel myself for this long walk.  I phone home to let people know I’m still out and about and as I’m talking …

… I pass the Superlambanana and as I look up I can see what’s now called the Radio City Tower, the top of Municipal Building and the top end of Hatton Garden and the flags outside the Central Perk theme coffee shop.  Well, that was a load of walking and messing about on trains for no reason other than telling myself I got a lot of exercise in.  I go for a coffee.  On one of the plasma screens, Joey Trabianni is pondering how he managed to get to another Valentine’s Day without a girlfriend.  Me too, Joey.

I look again at the Biennial booklet map and ponder.  What’s that red blob pointing up away from New Quay for anyway?  Why is it not pointing up from Hatton Garden, indeed, why isn’t the map zoomed just a little bit further out so the red spot marks the location?  But it’s unfair of me to blame that map.  I should have consulted other maps.  An A-Z.  Google Maps (which actually says, Transit: Moorfields).  I’ve been told in the past I need to be more relaxed about things.  Less planned out.  Well, I've tried that now and …

*     *     *     *     *

For this Biennial, the Royal Standard has commission five artist-led groups to occupy their gallery space for two weeks, each exploring the festival's themes of private and public hospitality.  It’s a good idea and unlike some venues which have a single exhibition for the duration might lead to some repeat foot traffic.  Not from me of course, what with my numeric approach to visiting the venues.  Depends what happens after (30).

For these two weeks it’s the turn of Dundee's Generator Projects with The Agency.  On the venue’s own leaflet (which has a fantastic map) (really none of the above in The Royal Standard's fault so it’s probably unfair that the majority of this post is about my own stupidity) (though the map’s not on their website) (no, let’s more on) we’re told that its “a paradigm of the cultural economy, an articulation of the values of an artist-run space through the commodification of one within another.”

Through the Standard’s entrance is a small waiting room and beyond that an office with The Agency printed on the door.  Which is unexpected especially after, well, see above.  There are two desks, two people, a man and woman.  The man welcomes me in, asks me to take a number, there is a ticket machine, and asks me to look at a leaflet and ask if I want to know what’s on offer.  I ask if they have a toilet (see above).  They do, which I’m grateful for.

Back in the office, I sit on a couch, pleased about the rest and flick through a brochure.  There are photographs of what looks like an Ibiza-like club tour, except there’s one shot of people watching a presentation and the overall impression is of something other than the kinds of things you’d expect to find on an Ibiza-like club tour.  At this point I am wondering what I’ve let myself in for.  Is this a job agency, a travel agency and as my natural psychological barriers shunt up, I consider my next move.

“So, um, what do you have to offer?”  I ask.  Seems like the thing to do.  Having not read the Standard’s leaflet because I don’t see it until I'm leaving, I’m wondering about the level of fiction I’m being subjected to, the extent to which the two people I’m in the room with are performing for my benefit or if the artifice simply extends to the space itself with its crushingly authentic details.  I briefly wonder how I’m even going to write about it for this blog.

This isn’t helped by two artist-types who wander through apologising for not being able to make an appointment.  I wonder:  Was there a real appointment?  If there was a real appointment, what could it possibly be given that this place has only been open a night and a day.  If it’s not a real appointment, does that mean that they’re having that conversation in that way for my benefit because I’m in the space?  Was that a conspiratorial glance I saw between them?

I had to ask then, didn’t I?  “So, um, what do you have to offer?”  The woman, who having read the leaflet I now strongly suspect is the artist Catrin Jeans, begins to explain that they’re trying to sign people up for an arts tour which is taking place during The Long Night, the evening when all of Liverpool's arts venues open late.  It’s a sales pitch.  But it’s a nervous one and again I’m not sure if she’s really nervous or if she’s acting nervous.  Is anything she’s saying in the way she’s saying it part of the patter or are we having a real conversation?

She shows me around the office.  The pictures in the brochure are on one of the walls (these pictures in fact) and she talks about what might happen on the walk, that it’ll be starting at The Royal Standard and I could hop in and out again.  I tell her I’m not sure if I’ll be available that evening, which is true, I’m not, but it sounds as though I’m fobbing her off I think, which I wasn’t supposed to be, but it’s the space, this agency, it’s so authentic, my tendency to say no to everything has kicked in.

What about the authenticity of the walk?  Given that it's the culmination of this two week installation or performance work or whatever this is, to what extent will the artifice of this agency be extended there?  If I do sign up, what can I expect?  It's all very perplexing and not helped by the fact that I'm wandering if it'll visit some of the venues I won't have numerically "reached" yet on my own way around.  I don't ask because it's becoming apparent that the last thing which is need at this moment is a mention of that.

We sit again.  She gives me an application form and I also take one of Generator’s business cards.  The whole process feels exactly as it might in an agency.  I’m being terribly polite, I feel, in that way I do when I’m faced with desks and people offering jobs or when I need to make a good impression.  I give her one of my blog’s Moo cards which presumably means she will have read this post too.  She’s probably thinking, “You thought I was acting?”  Or some such.  Probably.  Sorry.

All the while the man is working at his computer.  Some kind of letter.  Is that letter real?  Is that proper gallery based admin or is he just doing that for my benefit?  When I leave will be he back to solitaire or visiting Facebook?  When I go, do they relax?  Have I interrupted something more useful?  Perhaps its what they’re wearing which has thrown me.  Does he usually wear office casual?  Does she, with her blue jack and neck scarf?  They’re both very smart, smarter than me.

She asks if there’s anything else they can help me with.  I ask for directions and that conversation’s related above.  I thank them both, and head for the door.  As I leave I stop to pick up the Standard’s leaflet and consider what just happened again, and the point at which reality stopped and the fiction began.  The photographs and material about the previous tour around Dundee (plus the Standard’s leaflet) point to the content being genuine.  But, what about everything else?  The artist's own tumblr doesn't explain either way.

Reflecting back onwhile watching Red Dwarf this evening, I’ve decided that recent Biennial experiences, the perception meddling likes of Markus Kahre’s inn and all of the self-imposed build-up, the walking, led to me expecting to find an art piece and that’s potentially what I found and what I reacted to, even if most of it wasn't.  Which should explain to those involved why I too seemed to be engaging in some kind of performance and why I regarded them with a certain suspicion throughout.  Again, sorry.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
METAL (12)

Art Metal is an arts organisation begun in 2002 which currently inhabits part of the shell of Edge Hill Station. For this Biennial, rather than provide exhibition space, they're offering a pop-up cafe and a series of lunchtime talks and evening performances around the Biennial's theme. Their website offers some idea of the kinds of activities they're providing. Due to the slightly manic approach I'm taking to the Biennial, I've somehow managed to visit when there aren't any events on, but have the sounds of a rehearsal for tonight's show by Oreet Ashery swirl around me because ....

* * * * *

... this is the first of these blog entries I'm writing at the venue.  On arrival I've been introduced to a library space on the first floor of the building, a gorgeous bare brick room rather like a studio flat, with cushioned benches, a large sculptural book case and the mac I'm typing this into. I've barely used a mac before. It took me five minutes to work out how to cut & paste so I could add the link to Metal's website above.  The space is meant to be somewhere for visitors to gather and relax before and after performances.

The book and dvds which a sign says have been lent by friends and colleagues, have been selected to reflect the Biennial's theme.  Each of the shelves has a connected subject heading.  "Indoctrination", "Psyche","Invasion", "Apocalypse", that sort of thing.  While the usability rating would implode, sometimes I wish bookshops and larger libraries would adopt this kind of eclecticism, books grouped around ideas and concepts rather than genre.  What's to say a science book about meteorology shouldn't be filed with Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm?

At Metal we find across the categories, Slaughterhouse 5, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Globalization and its Discontents, The Lancashire Witches, Naked Lunch and Dancing with Men from tonight's performer, Ashery.  Without posting a complete list, a quick glance suggests that what they have in common is an investigation of the implications of hospitality, of wanting to share ourselves as human beings and our culture and how that has positive and negative outcomes, and how some might not necessarily want to be as hospitable through avoidance.

What would I add to this library?  Well, Timon of Athens might be symbolic of how hospitality could become exploitation (which would mean you'd also have to include a dvd of Torchwood's Children of Earth too).  Some Jane Austen.  No Logo is already here, but how about Mark Stein's How The States Got Their Shapes, which above all else is about accommodation and disagreement, nibbling geographical notches in perfectly square territories, sometimes due to an oscillating attitude to globalisation and isolationism.  Now it's time for me to go.  I don't want to outstay my welcome.

Google Cultural Institute's Hamlet photographs from the LIFE Magazine archive.

In their ongoing endeavour to make all the world's knowledge searchable, Google has teamed up with an array of museums and archives to produce Google Cultural Institute.  The Museum's Association has some background.  Most of the venues are related to great cultural shifts or dedicated to commemorating awful moments in human history, Anne Frank House or the Nelson Mandela Centre for History.

Also in the mix is LIFE's Magazine's extraordinary collection.  These are not new to Google, and have been part of the image search for a few years, but Google Cultural Institute's presentation makes them far more accessible and provides a much richer experience in information terms.  Inevitably I wanted to see if some of the production history of Hamlet is available, and oh the riches.

Here then is LIFE Magazine's Hamlet history:

1865     Henry Irving
1956     Siobhan McKenna
1963     George Grizzard
1969     Nicole Williamson

* and not Greigud as the database would have it.

The Chamberlain Hamlet seems to be this production for the ITV Sunday Night Theatre, adapted by John Barton and Michael Redgrave as Polonius, Alan Bennett as Osric, Martin Shaw as Horatio and with John Gielgud as the Ghost.  Pieces of a fifth generation VHS copy of it are available on YouTube, but the sound's too horrendous to listen for too long.  Chamberlain has recently turned up in indie documentary Three Days of Hamlet as Polonius.

There are also a range of images listed under the headings Lit Shakespeare Hamlet and The Show Shakespeare Hamlet though the data on those is negligible though there seem to be line drawings of the likes of Kean.  When I have a moment I'll check through and see who's there and add them to the above chronology.  Nonetheless this is a fascinating collection especially the Burton photographs which include some colour images.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Liverpool One (11)

Art  My memory being what it is, I’m slowly forgetting the geography of the area that’s now Liverpool One.  I remember the massive Argos and the old Radio Merseyside building, the Quaker Meeting Place and the massive hotel, but John Lewis seems to have been dropped on their footprints so successfully I couldn’t specifically say exactly where they would be standing.  During the 800th birthday celebrations in 2007, I attended a series of talks in the Lady Chapel at Liverpool Cathedral.  The one public comment I remember vividly was from someone who was clearly very distressed by the rate of change.  “They’re ripping the heart out of the city” they said.  I wasn’t sure if that was true.  Now all I want is for the old Zavvi store to be turned into a Waitrose.

*     *     *     *     *

If I have a general attitude to the kinds of places which require lists, it's to avoid them.  Unlike Groucho, I don't care to belong to any club that wouldn’t have me as a member.  I don’t have any pangs of jealously when I pass queues and cordons and confident looking people holding clipboards.  Which isn’t to say I haven’t attended events with lists, it’s just that they tend to be during the day or early evening, feature guest speakers and close when these other places are about to opened.  Such attitudes are probably why I’m also a lonely person, but if the only way to gain acceptance to some section of society is to reconfigure yourself so that you can be accepted by that section of society, I’ll retain my individuality, thank you.

Which is probably why, when I stood in front of Elmgreen & Dragset’s But I’m on the Guest List Too!, I somehow knew that when I tried to open its big silver door with VIP emblazoned on it, it wouldn’t open.  Well ok, I did see that it was concreted down too which was also an indication, but the implication was already clear.  Thou shalt not pass.  The text in the Biennial booklet says that the piece is “examining the hierarchy of values and meritocracy established by celebrity culture, the artist’s oversized VIP door, slightly ajar, invites the viewer in but cannot be fully opened.”  You could replace the m-word in that sentence with “mediocrity” too I suppose and it would mean much the same thing.

You could argue the reason I avoid such places is the fear of rejection of finding out I’m not on the list, that by going out of my way to not even be in the hairs breath of the list, I’m protecting myself.  That is a thing with me, something I tend to often with other, well, things.  But as this big silver door demonstrates, it’s also because I know that there’s always another level of exclusivity.  Everyone is faced by this door no matter how many others they’ve been ushered through.  The fact that we can walk around it, that if we could open it and walk through we’d find nothing we didn’t have already, the same pavement, same view of the Albert Dock, might indicate that it’s always a false promise, a transparent dangling carrot.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Tate Liverpool (10)

Art With its main contribution to the Biennial elsewhere, Tate Liverpool this year have decided to utilise some gallery space to present Thesholds, a selection of work from their collection offering a microcosm of the festivals themes of, as the Tate website explains, “the uncertain boundaries of personal, geographical, political and cultural identities. The exhibition explores powerful themes including British identity, migration and the global effects of regional conflicts.” It’s important to keep that in mind as you wander around because, as is often the case in group shows, the connection between the works can otherwise seem a bit tenuous.

*     *     *     *     *

With Scottish independence back on the agenda, it’s apt that Tate Liverpool should select Layla Curtis’s United Kingdom as one of the pieces in this group exhibition. Originally created at the turn of the millennium during devolution and the reconstitution of the Scottish Parliament, as with many of her works, Curtis has utilised the contours of a map of Britain and reconfigured the internal geography, on this occasion shifting the elements of the Scottish and Welsh nations within the shape of England and vice versa. Subsequent works have attempted similar projects with Japan, the United States and the European Union.

This isn’t some slap happy collage; coastal cities have become land locked and the lines of the roads have been kept reasonable logical so that if this place really existed, perhaps in one of Markus Khare’s parallel dimensions, it would be entirely possible to navigate even if some M-roads would become A-roads and others might drop into the oceans. As the artist says, “Travelling has always been an integral part of my life. Like most people I rely on and trust maps to find my way, locate myself and plan journeys. By dissecting, dismembering and collaging maps to create new, hybrid maps, I aim to explore the effects of disturbing this trusted system of mapping.”

This is a piece which rewards careful study and part of the fun is seeing where your given city had ended up. Liverpool does pretty well, slotted in somewhere towards the Inner Hebrides. On the other map, it’s amusing to find Aberdeen in London’s place, when you consider that Curtis is a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art. It would be interesting to know how she chose the placements for the cities. Was there a plan, is any of the weighting autobiographical, or was it simply that this was the best way this geographical jigsaw fitted together? Either way, England seems to benefit aesthetically from receiving an excess of countryside.

Bartlett offers Obama some debate prep.

Politics In 2008, Aaron Sorkin scripted an encounter between Jed Bartlett and Barack Obama, the sum total of his advice being "Call them out for being the liars they are..." After Obama's debate performance, Sorkin's decided that he needs another pep talk:
"And that was quite a display of hard-nosed, fiscal conservatism when he slashed one one-hundredth of 1 percent from the federal budget by canceling “Sesame Street” and “Downton Abbey.” I think we’re halfway home. Mr. President, your prep for the next debate need not consist of anything more than learning to pronounce three words: “Governor, you’re lying.” Let’s replay some of Wednesday night’s more jaw-dropping visits to the Land Where Facts Go to Die. “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale you’re talking about.”" [via]
Having stayed up to watch, I didn't think Obama's performance was that bad. It was annoying that he didn't indeed call Romney on his repetition about the $700 odd billion he isn't literally removing from Medicare or the 47% thing.  But I do think he's a clever enough person to know that when Romney had a platform he would spew all of his inconsistent policies and lies in a forum in which they might not have been heard before might pay attention and see them for the empty shell they are.

Unfortunately he also seems have not realised that most of the time people tend to base their opinions on the interpretation of an "expert" rather than their own feelings.  Analysts said he tanked so that's become the prevailing narrative.  Now he's become Andy Murray.  We're willing him to do well in the battle not just with his opponent but himself.  We want him to enter the next debate and box Romney in until he becomes as much of an empty shell as those "policies".  We'll see.

Necklace Shots.

Film Watching Ella Enchanted tonight, finally, and having loads of fun, my finely turned senses noticed ...

... which reminded me of ...

... was that a deliberate homage, Mr Nolan?  Mr Pfister?

34 Patrick Wymark

Hamlet played by Patrick Wymark.
Directed by George Rylands.

In the late 50s and early 1960s, under the auspices of the British Council to increase understanding of Shakespeare abroad, the Marlowe Dramatic Society, a theatre group for Cambridge University students aided by professional actors, set about recording all of Shakespeare’s plays for release by the Argo label initially on vinyl (in mono and stereo!) and later cassette. I first encountered them at school when researching my A-Level at the Central Library in Liverpool, shelves full of records in austere blue boxes with Liverpool City Council emblazoned on them in gold lettering (which I know for sure because when they were sold off years later I managed to buy their copy of Measure for Measure). I have a memory from the 1990s of listening to their production of Cymbeline, copy of a complete works in my lap.  I remember enjoying the language but not really understanding the plot.  Having listened to Cymbeline again in a different version over the summer, I'm not sure my appreciation has much changed.

The Hamlet has a few useful points of interest. The Ghost’s appearance is heralded by a peel of what sounds like trumpets which saps it of any sense of “mystery” but does at least underscore the regality of Hamlet’s father. I’ve not been able to find a complete cast list, but I’m sure it’s Derek Jacobi’s voice which can be heard as Fortinbras’s Captain, which would make sense since he’s an alumni of the Marlowe Society. The female player sounds like Judi Dench and Osric could be Kenneth Williams. Whoever’s playing Polonius interprets the man as the ancient old dodderer who appears in countless illustrations with his lengthy beard, which makes little sense in the context of the moment when he sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Oh and the duel is intercut with the sounds of battle and a peel of trumpets to indicate the encroachment of Fortinbras’s army, a rare audio addition which prefigures the Branagh film.

Unfortunately elsewhere, like so many of these Marlowe productions this is an incredibly dull and often frustrating listen. In between rendering the text with all the earnestness of a 1950s news report, few of the actors tackle their roles as though they’re characters, often treating each of their lines as though they’re unconnected to the others or else any emotional through line spread across an entire speech rarely differentiating changes in thought. A contemporary review argues that the prince “starts weakly, but gathers strength and authority. His sibiliants are aggressive, but his passions magnificent”, which, assuming that the writer’s referring to Patrick Wymark, the actor not his character, is amazingly sympathetic to a performance in which the advice to the players sounds like a training day in a call centre and whose death has all the tragedy of losing a remote control down the back of the sofa.

As I’ve said before, Hamlet or indeed any Shakespeare play isn’t simply a text to be read or more specifically in this case, read out loud. While I understand the need for clarity given one of these production’s primary utilities, that text can become lost in translation if there isn’t a real human emotion behind it, if as is so often the case here, there’s only the vaguest sense that these characters are related to one another or to create an atmosphere. There are individual shining moments, Ophelia’s madness, Claudius’s prayer, the Mousetrap, oddly, though it’s dented slightly by the inclusion of the dumb show which is read in via Shakespeare’s stage directions which only makes dramatic sense if you assume that its being described in the space while the actual mime is occurring. Whoever it is playing Gertrude is really quite good too, but handstung by director George Rylands lack of a particular vision for what the play’s supposed to be about. I simply can’t tell is Hamlet’s supposed to be mad or not.

All of which sounds wildly cruel and having listened to it yourself thanks to that Spotify player, might just consider that its just dated and that I’m simply criticising the mode of acting which was prevalent in that era. That might be true. I wasn’t much of a fan of Gielgud’s audio rendering of the same era. Or Paul Schofield’s which was published at roughly the same time.  Both of them were great actors.  Legends.  Wymark too was a stalwart of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (which later became the RSC) so I'm willing to entertain that there's an expectation presentment mismatch.  But I can only provide an opinion on what I've heard and what I've heard are performances in which the passions seem to be engaged in the wrong places and lacking in psychological complexity.  It says much that when EMI re-released these Argos in the 80s, they swapped out this original production for the superior Jacobi Old Vic version (which is why it’s taken so long for me to alight here).

Nevertheless there’s a definite sense in being steeped in a kind of history listening to this recording. It is a rarity and having listened to say many of the other Marlowe Players productions (even if I’ve not enjoyed many of them) it’s good to tick it off that list. The provenance of the recording’s open to question. The album cover on the Spotify version is very home made, dated. The recording itself is directly from a vinyl copy; the clicks and drop outs are all there and the sound becomes distorted as it reaches the end of the each of the sides. There’s also a pretty big mistake. Part 4 is an exact copy of Part 3, which means its missing the fishmonger, the arrival of the players and the initial greeting with R&G. So, yes, this is a review of an incomplete recording. But given that this is the only recording available, it’d be wrong not to add it to this list. Some of these productions are a revelation. Some of them are a box ticking exercise. The joy is, I’m never always sure which it’s going to be.

You can make up your own mind. Here it is on Spotify:

If you're looking at this post in RSS you might have to open the post in order to see the Spotify embed.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
The Monroe (9)

Art The Monro seems like a nice place. There were certainly plenty of people passing through the doors of many stripes, but it’s impossible to comment further than that because the Biennial bypasses the bar with an entrance to the rooms above via a separate doorway. The festival inhabits an old flat, the kind of dwelling I always imagined Sherlock Holmes lived in before I was old enough to realise that (a) he’s a fictional character and (b) he’d need rather more space than this. At the top of the stairs sits a lone volunteer. Having hiked over from Copperas Hill, I sit briefly and get my breath back and we chat about visitor numbers. Because this isn’t one of the “main” venues, it’s more of connoisseur’s choice, the Biennial equivalent of art house cinema so there's less people through the door than some others.  Apart from him, I was alone for the duration.

* * * * *

Since this is the connoisseur’s choice, the Biennial equivalent of art house cinema, if you are intending to visit, I’d stop reading at the close of this paragraph. The Biennial’s booklet is pleasing vague on the specifics, that this is “a welcoming and cosy environment where slight physical and sensorial shifts conjure against the peace of mind of the guests, suggesting that the site might be haunted”. That’s only the half of it. If there was a theme park dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, this would surely be installed in the Bate’s Motel recreation next to Janet Leigh’s room with its blood splattered shower curtain and sensor activated Bernard Hermann sting. Now stop reading. Speaking as someone who worked out the twist of The Sixth Sense from the trailer, I know how important it is to keep some surprises. Spoilers …

Are they gone? Why are you still here? I imagine that it’s either because you’ve already visited and know what I’m talking about, aren’t bothered about visiting, in which case, more fool you, or you’re nowhere near Liverpool in which case I hope to give you a flavour though this meagre description of the experience will inevitably fail to capture the shock and awe. Like Audrius Bucas & Valdas Ozarinskas’s Black Pillow, there’s a moment when everything you believe to be true disintegrates, just before your rational mind kicks in seeking an explanation. Markus Kahre, the artist has channelled the work of MR James, so if you’re a fan of the old Christmas adaptations of his work this is for you. All of which sounds like so much build-up but it really is that good. And that’s my final warning.  Stop reading now.

Still here? Well ok then. After glancing through the first room, which has the Dane Mitchell’s spectral glass objects and Janine Antoni’s cast of the inside of her mouth cupped around the bowl of a silver spoon, I’m drawn towards a doorway which turns into a small corridor. Passing through, an apparatus on the wall makes an unsettlingly air propelled noise which makes me jump. That’s the preparation. At the end of the corridor is a door, and through the door a room. It’s the guest room of the inn, a small low bed, a small carpet with the corner turned up and a chair and desk upon which sits a fan. Above this within a mirrored frame is a black surface reflecting the room I’m standing in. It’s curious. There’s something not right. I look the image up and down but can’t put my finger on what it might be.

It’s through this black mirror I notice the other door in the room. I turn and see a bright light shining through, a bright light which isn’t in the image in front of me. That’s odd. It’s then I notice. I’M NOT IN THE IMAGE IN FRONT OF ME. I look down at my hands. They’re still there. I’m not invisible. Questions, oh the questions. How is he, he being the artist, doing that? I’ve watched enough episodes of Doctor Who and Fringe now to know that the only way to find out is to investigate so I hold up my hand and gingerly move it forward. And forward. And forward again right through the mirror. Which isn’t there. Astonishingly, what the artist has done is recreate the room I’m standing in the closest detail in the space next door (explaining the corridor) right down the turned up corner of the carpet and a tiny fault in the surface on the top of the lamp.

I carefully lean forward and peer into this other space. The bed, which is in a place which wouldn’t easily be seen through the “mirror” anyway is also reflected in this other space. I turn. Intrigued I move into the other room and again, the same arrangement, the same room and beyond that room another, also reflected. This is slightly less effective because of the need to create the illusion of another room beyond through a bright light and yet as a design and narrative achievement it’s still extraordinary and unsettling and even with an enquiring mind with the capacity to sit on the edge of what human perception might conceive. Kahre has decided that this doesn’t require a title, but obstinately, it’s called “No Title” rather than “Untitled”. Any kind of title would be a spoiler I suppose.

It’s a sculpture, it’s an installation, but to an extent it’s also performance art but with a visitor being acted upon rather than acted too. The Fringe and Doctor Who references above were not accidental. In No Title, Kahre, as well as jolting our primal expectations of reality, nudges the part of us who wonders if there are parallel dimensions and how different they may be, some darker in which the version of us is having an even worst life or lighter, taking a path akin to heaven on Earth with us existing somewhere in between. But Who fans will see the similarity to the entropy increases elements of Logopolis, the Doctor and Adric’s dash through nested TARDISes, the console rooms becoming darker the deeper they explore. I will admit that just briefly my internal cloister bell did chime.

As I step out of the space and back down the corridor.  I can’t quite remember what I said to the volunteer though I imagine it was something along the lines of “That’s just, but that’s just amazing”, a word which is over-used but on this occasion entirely accurate, the dictionary definition “causing great surprise or sudden wonder”. Which this does. Which this did. Ironically when I was at Copperas Hill beforehand, I’d remarked to someone that the kind of art I tend to like has a surface which then dissolves into something, I’d scrabbled around for the right word but what I should have said was profound. The “oh so that’s it” moment. Which is why it’s important to be a spoilerphobe even with art exhibitions because some art is best experienced rather than simply seen.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Liverpool John Moore's University Copperas Hill Building (8)

Art The old sorting office on Copperas Hill has always had slightly mythical qualities, at least for me. When it was still a sorting office, every post box in Liverpool would give details of when its final collection would be and then underneath information that a final collection of the day would take place at 7:15 at Copperas Hill. I’d look at that and wonder if there was ever a circumstance in which, having missed the 5:50pm deadline on a given post box someone would have to rush to Copperas Hill before the final deadline. A few months before closure I did make a point of visiting, just to see what the building was like and popped a Lovefilm dvd over at reception at about seven o’clock. Sure enough it was in Peterborough, where the dvd rental company is based the next day, travelling, I also romantically imagined, on the night train.

The sorting office closed two years ago this month and since has been bought by John Moores University to provide replacement accommodation for the departments at the IM Marsh Campus in Aigburth, which they’re selling off. In the meantime it’s been borrowed by Liverpool Biennial to house another of The Uninvited Guest pieces, Bloomberg New Contemporaries (previously housed at the AFoundation in the Baltic Triangle which is now the Camp and Furnace) and City States, the festival within a festival in which a group of cities have invited some of their best artists to create thirteen small exhibition inspired by the Biennial’s main hospitality theme. It’s also worth visiting to see the interior of this mythic building which still has most of its post office fixtures and evidence of being a place were people lived and worked.

Let me offer a “quick” survival guide for visiting LJMU Copperas Hill:

- Give yourself at least half and if possible a whole day, you will need to the time if you want to give everything the attention it deserves. This is a massive building with lots to see.

- Visit The Univited Guest piece first, then Bloomberg then City States. With the best will in the world, seeing Bloomberg last could be a bit anti-climactic.

- Wrap up warm. Somehow, at least when I visited on Friday, the temperature seemed lower inside the building than out. The end of my nose was cold.

- Don’t drink too many liquids before you go. The building lacks running water so although there are lots of old toilets and signs pointing to the old toilets, the only lavatory is a port-a-cabin in a yard out back which is miles away by stairs and lift from City States on the floor above.

- Pace yourself. Take breaks. If there’s video art take the opportunity to sit down.

- But don’t go to Costa Coffee at Lime Street Station and have a chai latte though as I did. It’s rancid and not patch on the golden cup of joy that FACT’s cafe sells.

- Visit the City States cities in alphabetical order as they’re all listed in the booklet. Because it’s all on one floor it lacks the rabbit warren element of the old CIC setting. By visiting the cities in alphabetical order, I found myself criss-crossing the floor catching tantalising glimpses of exhibits yet to be visited with feeling of traversing the world like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or Michael Palin, depending on your taste. This also has the benefit of beginning in Birmingham then going international and ending in Wellington, which has a potential going away present. You’ll see.

- You’ll also need the map that they’re giving out at reception.

- Explore. One of the benefits of the building is that there are loads of offices and rooms around the edge which have been utilised as mini-viewing areas for the video art. But some of them aren’t obvious even with the map. Usually in City States if there’s a black curtain, something’s hidden inside. That’s especially true of Gdansk.

- Pay attention to the red sandwich boards. Each of the different countries in City States is signposted by a sandwich board in the Biennial livery. On one side the given city is named and on the other there’s an explanation which is sometimes more detailed than the booklet. It’s always worth stopping to have a read before plunging into the given exhibition.

- Don’t read below the upcoming stars if you’re going to visit. As is so often the case it’s good to have surprises, especially in one case because the object is so inexplicable.

- That’s it.

*     *     *     *     *

The most explicit unexpected guest, Jorge Macchi’s contribution, Refraction, is about perception. The first perception is that the room we’re standing is filled with steel girders, leaning against the walls, towering above us despite having a bend in the middle. As we walk around them, we know that there’s something a bit off, but we can’t quite put our finger on quiet what. The artist is playing a mental game with us, the artistic equivalent of that moment when you meet a friend or something more and notice that there’s a difference about them but you’re too embarrassed to ask what. Is it the hair? Have they had their ears pierced? Put on weight? Or as is the case here, is it the way they’re leaning? Does it have something to do with the way the wall’s painted?

A bit tired and lacking in concentration I decide to skip to the end and look at the information board outside the room which says that Macchi is interested in optics and perception, which is fine but doesn’t provide many answers. Thankfully the booklet is a bit more helpful. It explains that the artist has created “an environment that plays with the occurrence of being suddenly submerged in a pool of water”. Glancing again the girders and I notice that they’re all bent at exactly the same point, a point which matches the line on the wall. When I was wandering around inside the room, I was effectively drowning in an imaginary sea in what could be the remains of some terrible marine disaster, which probably does say a lot about my particular perception of the world.

I expect I’m a bit troubled that the information board and the booklet having different information, the latter offering a more specific explanation. Shouldn’t they be the same? Re-entering the room, I immediately stand next to the wall to see where I would be in relation to the surface of this imaginary water tank. My eyes are just above the line, which means with a bit of floating I could well survive, which is reassuring. With this extra piece of information, the work gains extra depth as I remember Kate Winslet and Leo fighting along corridors or divers in wetsuits in a dozen nature documentaries. I wonder if a visiting group filling the space would have the same reaction, unable to move about in quite the same way.  Perhaps this is an installation best enjoyed alone.

*     *     *     *     *

Perhaps the most thematically intriguing piece in Bloomberg New Contemporaries is George Eksts’s Circumspects, which helpfully for those of you outside Liverpool can be viewed on the artist’s own website here. As you can see, if features a giant circular cage with spinning compartments, each containing a horse moving forwards at night. There’s no word of explanation about the piece on that website, or Bloomberg’s which offers a short CV and all this interview the artist gave to Used magazine adds is that he’s interested in progress, completion, time and the temporary. "I like things that are unfinished or beyond complete. The structure of my work is of more importance to me than the content, for example the endlessness of the videos and the relationships established between one and the next” he says and that he’s a “terrible storyteller”.

Here’s what I think the piece is about. In choosing to shoot this real world utility in this way I  think that he's offering homage to the dawn of cinema in the digital media of the modern age. Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge was famous for a few things. He was acquitted of shooting his wife’s lover on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”. He was one of the few people who photographed the Tlingit people in Alaska. He’s probably best known for his motion photographs in which he set up a line of cameras, twenty-four in a row for twenty four frames and recorded the movement of humans and mammals, for the first time proving I think, that a horse has all four of its legs off the ground when galloping. The wikipedia page has examples of these efforts turned into animated gifs.

But he also developed the Zoopraxiscope, potentially the first projected moving image, in which a glass disc was spun in quickly to give the illusion of movement. For this he took his inspiration from the Zoetrope, the large cardboard cylinders spun on a drum with a mirror in the middle which have much the same effect for just a few people, created originally in feudal China. What I think, either inadvertently or on purpose, is that Eksts has produced a video of a life sized, realistic, anti-illusion version of a Zoetrope or the kind, which might have Muybridges photographs in the middle. The horses aren’t galloping, merely exercising, I suppose, but the effect is really similar, asking us to concentrate on their movement. The repetitive nature of the image only adds to that impression. Perhaps.

*     *     *     *     *

City States is so huge, and covers so many artists, that choosing a single object would be unfair and so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In the next paragraph but four. Before we reach it, I did want to add a quick word for the Birmingham and Hong Kong sections. The former includes a display of memorabilia for the grindcore band Napalm Death much of it lent by founding members Nicholas Bullen and Miles “Rat” Ratledge, whose music, judging by the accompanying concert video I can barely understand but does remind me of an argument I had with friend at school about whether the heavy metal genre really exists.  I can still remember my young voice arguing the point and him saying “there’s no such thing as heavy metal, it’s grindcore…”

Nearby, brummy film collective, the Flat-Pack festival have produced a compilation of promotional videos for the town including a paean to the modernist joys of the old Bull Ring Shopping Centre, the kind of nightmare of glass and consumerism that George Tati had fun with in his film Playtime and There is a Better Lifestyle, a 1989 attempt at attracting yuppies to the city which spends much of its duration stressing how close it is to other places including an airport out and whose key message, and this is a direct quote, “it’s not really as hideous as you might think”. Half a dozen B-Ark survivors line up to praise the cultural elements of the city, stressing the nearness of the countryside and watersport venues and how it’s possible to visit Stratford to see shows “six months before they’re at the West End.” This strident piece of cultural history is also available on Vimeo.

Thence to Hong Kong, whose exhibition All Are Guests explores “the intricate subject-object” dichotomy between the individual and the city. Its key work is “So …Soap” which documents the work of the SLOW women’s collective who produce handmade soap which allows them to look after their families whilst enjoying flexible working hours. The other artistic voice, CoLAB, are responsible for the soap's brand name, packaging designs and marketing, part of which constitutes the presence at City States, a promotional video showing a specially designed cart, a wash basin and water reclamation system, being taken around the city offering the wider public an opportunity to sample to soap and wash their hands, which is soundtracked by a surprisingly catchy bit of dance music.

Like the George Eksts piece this appeals because it reminds me of the pioneering spirit that accompanying some of the earliest commercial innovations. Just the other day I was reading about “Pluto Lamps”, gas lamps which sprang up around London at the turn of the century before last that as well as providing light included a vending machine capable of dispensing “a gallon of hot water, or a halfpennies worth of Beef tea essence, Cocoa, Milk, Sugar, Tea or Coffee” [via]. Deep in the recesses of my brain I seem to remember that around the same time, carts similar to the SLOW’s promotional model (which is also in the exhibition space) were actually dragged around cities so that passers-by could pay a nominal amount to wash their hands in a forerunner to public conveniences.

But the one object I want to focus on, um, where to begin?  How about:  Every now and then at an exhibition you’ll greet something so bizarre, so unruly that you just have to stand and gape. Well, congratulations to Vilnius whose “exhibition” contains a single inexplicable object, produced jointly by artists Audrius Bucas & Valdas Ozarinskas. It’s a Black Pillow. It’s a giant inflatable Black Pillow which is the same size as the Copenhagan. Torshaven, Rekjavik, Nuuk and Incheon exhibition spaces altogether, consuming, I’d estimate, one sixth of the area dedicated to City States, stretching from floor to ceiling. Standing within the vicinity of most of its edged its impossible to see much else in the field of vision and loomed larged as I passed by on my way to the various cities listed above which are entirely hidden if you look for them from the other side of the room.

Apparently there have been visitors to City States who unaccountably missed it. Perhaps its an example of what Douglas Adams described in one of his novels as an SEP, or “somebody else’s problem”, something which so far out of human experience that our minds block it out automatically. Actually its more like what’s generally known in science fiction circles as a BDO or a Big Dumb Object, a huge alien mass which wanders into orbit threatening humanity or otherwise offering benevolence until we target our nuclear warheads at it. Perhaps its also like the thirty-five foot long twinkie Egon Spendler metaphorically utilises to capture the enormous increase in telekinetic energy in New York which heralds the climax of Ghostbuster. It’s big. Really, really big.

But it isn’t dumb. Far from it. The first version of was produced in 2010 for an exhibition in Vilnius itself. The idea was originally to “appeal exclusively to the limits of the viewer’s phenomenological experiences” or blow our tiny minds. But it’s monolithic, black shading and massive dimensions led the locals to quickly see it as a metaphor for the prevailing mood in the country as their economic crisis hit. As the sandwich board text says, “Black Pillow took a symbolic shape and dimension accumulating all the possible personal and collective failures of our lives” or a massive empathic sponge. Except inflatable and made of vinyl or whatever the substance is. To stand before this object is to look into your own soul, which to take the metaphor to its limit, is probably empty.

Werner Herzog believes the “common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” I wonder if he’d modify that belief if he saw this. Strolling around the edges of the pillow I notice dirty foot prints across its surface which presumably happened when the artists were installing the piece. They’re distracting but they also oddly serve to remind me that the thing is man made. Every now and then I try to fall into it, perhaps bounce off it, but the form is too immense. It can’t be pushed either. Or climbed. I tend to hate art which expects us to offer our own interpretation, usually because it means the artist doesn’t have their own. But this Black Pillow is somehow beyond interpretation. It just exists, this benign, thoughtless shape.