Mankind is Ruined: a piece of DR Congo in North London (Ruined, @AlmeidaTheatre until 5 June)

You don't expect much from the Almeida Theatre at first sight. Its doors onto Upper St in Islington are shabby and unappealing. Directions pinned to the door send you an age further up the street. Eventually the real theatre entrance is revealed, all glass and concrete in smooth modern blocks of grey, with a stylish bar-restaurant.

Entering the theatre ten minutes before the start of the play, you're instantly in the Congo – a soundtrack plays the chirping of crickets and a gentle rainfall, the set is a corrugated iron shed on the stage of a muddy clearing, which runs to the front row's feet. Vines and lianas drape from the ceiling; trees rise up the side of the stage.

Great theatre should knock you out of your small world view and transport you somewhere far more difficult. But this play goes further. At the end of 'Ruined', you want the ground to open and swallow you up.  

Cast of Ruined at the Almeida Theatre London

It's about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the breakdown in the rule of law, the anarchy of young men with guns and the horrific consequences of the crimes they commit. It's set in an anonymous village near Kisangani, in Eastern Congo, near the lucrative (for a few) mining areas.

It's about the enormous, grotesque tragedy of the Congo played on an intense localised context. We never leave this rotating set of the corrugated shed, the (whore)house of 'Mama Nadi' – we just see the bar, the girls' room, and an outside view. And that's how it gets you. It reduces a suffering on such an unthinkably awful, incomprehensibly large scale down to a few people in front of our eyes. Perhaps its a shame that we need that. Or perhaps just human.

The first half is slow to start. There's a clever first scene in which the salesman brings goods to Mama, then talks about the 'other things in the truck' and the horrible truth is revealed: it's two girls, brought to Mama to become prostitutes. Except that one isn't. One cannot do that work, since she is 'ruined': taken with a bayonet somewhere in the bush by armed militia. 

The full extent of this isn't fully grasped in the early stages; the play largely runs through sitcom-style jokes, perhaps to ease us in gently, and there's impressive live music – the girl who is 'ruined' has to earn money this way. But gradually, as the scenes from whorehouse continue, we see the nights at Mama's and the play becomes increasingly uncomfortable. 

But its after the interval that the play explodes into life. Suddenly it's more real, as the war draws closer and closer to what Mama would call her 'haven' from it all, and the women's stories are told. Though Mama tries to defend her hard-nosed business attitude to running the house ('While two birds fight over a kernel, a third bird swoops down and carries it off…who do you think the third bird is?') she slowly reveals more of her character, every moment becoming more absorbing. At the time a final secret is a revealed, the audience seem to have stopped breathing.

It is an appalling play; nauseating, devastating, but brilliant. I haven't stopped thinking about it. The lead actress who plays Mama, Jenny Jules, gives an encapsulating performance. She barely smiles as she takes the applause at the end of the play, her eyes wet with tears. I'm not quite sure if we should be applauding. This must be exhausting for the cast. 

And then everybody leaves. They pile into the bar or outside for a cigarette; and go about their wealthy, secure lives. 

Better written reviews from Time Out and the Guardian.

James Martin on coming century of extremes, and ‘idiot bloggers’

During the course of this evening’s Commonwealth Lecture, Dr James Martin has twice referred to ‘idiot bloggers’. I think he’s blaming the web for allowing (self)promotion of ‘pseudo-science’. But here goes..

The Royal Institution is in Mayfair, on a street packed with jewellery shops. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth eases his tall frame out of a black limousine and follows me in.  Everyone’s in suits. The wine’s courtesy of the high commissions of South Africa and New Zealand. All very fancy. 

Everyone’s here to see this James Martin chap, who’s funded (and founded, and named, and chosen the staff of) Oxford University’s new 21st Century School. He’s presumably vastly wealthy. But he holds himself quite quietly. He seems unassuming. Mild-mannered. 
And then he leads a captive audience (the lecture hall in the Royal Institution is rather small) through a hundred or more powerpoint slides, skipping across disciplines, suddenly changing tack to deal with something else that his wandering mind appears to have remembered, then returning again and again to the starving child photo. From nanotechnology to transhumanism. [shows photo of 500 yr old tree being logged]. Quantum entanglement. [shows photo of Maglev train; photo of starving child].
And it’s fascinating. 
Broadly, the gist goes as follows
“We’re completely screwed“: population growth, climate change (inevitable) –> famine, massive inequality. 
“Wow, look at the amazing science on the horizon”: cancer treatments, GM crops, mass produced nuclear power stations, computers that will be ‘a million times more intelligent that we are…but it’s a different kind of intelligence’.
“But remember we’re screwed.
“But remember there’s technology…and hopefully the various institutions I’ve founded at the 21st Century School [he’s provided $50m; Gates, Soros, etc have matched it for Institutes for Future Cities, for Nanotechnology etc] put the pieces together to solve some of the problems.”
He’s aware of how the technology will enable a global elite to live incredibly well: astonishing new laser tech will help us eradicate cancer, we’ll build amazing new cities (in the Arctic Circle and in the very south South America) – but he’s very worried that we’ll remain as callous towards the poor as we are now. He shows pictures of shanty towns next to great architecture, and pictures of Bangladesh and starving kids. He says we’ll see ‘famine on an unimaginable scale, in the late 21st Century’. You get the sense that this is the one he doesn’t know how to solve – technology can’t help him here. Technology can’t save us.
Dubai Island by Djumbo.
“Is there a sort of meanness in the spirit of mankind?…It costs less to save the forests than the bankers…The most powerful people fail to put together the big picture…Does democracy work?”

Without any science to talk about here, in this question of ethics and inequality, he doesn’t have a lot to suggest. He talks of ‘a higher layer above government’ and speaks of the ’70 scientists in the House of Lords’ and even of ‘world government’, but one that mustn’t interfere with the sovereign.
I manage to grab him at the end to ask more about global governance. He uses a hearing aid and leans in to hear me better. ‘Do you have anything at the School relating to global governance’, I ask, hoping this is the start of a conversation that ends with a scholarship. ‘No; that was the one we couldn’t get matched funding for – we planned on an Institute for Global Governance, but nobody would match the funding.”  
James Martin
So you can get funding for an Institute for Future Cities, but not one for Global Governance? How non-strategic, shortsighted, muppety failish is that? The thread that runs through all of these massive problems, through the organisation and funding of the solutions, is global governance. Maybe they’re all funding Jim ‘Blackberry’ Balsillie’s new school.
We’d better hope so.

The real van Gogh at the Royal Academy, London – until 18 April

Despite the crowds, this exhibition is utterly absorbing. The RA has gathered an impressive selection of works from the UK, Amsterdam, the States and private collections. The sense of the ‘real’ comes through the display of perhaps twenty of van Gogh’s letters.

He wrote copious short letters, some of which include sketches of planned paintings: a detailed ‘scribble’ of a weaver at a loom on a letter to his brother, Theo, becomes the great painting hung alongside it.


There are seven rooms showing different elements of Van Gogh’s work, progressing chronologically. The exhibition begins with his ‘scratches’ (sketches), follows the introduction of colour and the impact of impressionism, his move to Arles and Provence, before his final move north of Paris. The role of literature is highlighted: we read that he was a great fan of Dickens – much moved by Dickens’ humanity and his true portrayal of the poor.

The curators translate sentences from the Dutch and French letters which concern his works, but more moving are the personal details. He begins one letter with the tragic statement that ‘I have found a restaurant where I eat for a 1 franc’, a sweeping down stroke forming a stylish ‘f’. In another he asks his brother to send him brushes and sketches the types he wants.


His addiction to his work comes through strongly, writing of his desire to constantly paint and sketch,  to record the beauty of seasons, landscapes and people, as though under an obligation to constantly improve, to perfect.

His handwriting degenerates as time goes by, he writes on both sides of paper, on the backs of sketches, on envelopes, anything he can get his hands on to explain his enthusiasm, his awesome passion and magnificent ambition that, for him, was always unsatisfied. It drove him to depression, exhaustion and ultimately suicide, though it took the poor man two days to die of his gunshot wounds.

The exhibition includes the last letters between Vincent and Theo,  both dated (thurs) 23rd July 1890, and finally the draft that Theo found upon Vincent after he’d shot himself in the chest, complete with still pinkish blood stains.

At the RA

One gallery visitor, stood next to ‘The Yellow House’, a work of breath-taking beauty, says ‘I must admit I’m not enamoured by  any of them ’, leaving one wondering what could possibly do it for her.


The RA packed its visitors in, one compared the space to rush hour on the Northern line. And on very dodgy calculations, the gallery must be taking several million pounds from ticket sales. While they must cover the costs of staging, does the surplus simply revert to the general gallery funds? They could spend some of it on decent cycle parking.

The exhibition finishes on the 18 April, but happily, you can view all van Gogh’s letters at the fantastic  – and if you have £400, get the book described by the Economist as possibly ‘the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere’. Could I borrow £400?

Købke at the National Gallery

Who’d have thought that there was this great Danish artist called Christen Købke?


Not me. Possibly because he only left Denmark once, during which time he was a bit homesick, so went back to Copenhagen. And he died at 37. Poor chap.


But GREAT paintings! Like Denmark’s Constable. Painting at roughly the same time. Stunning romantic images of Denmark following their rather poor show in a face-off against Britain , which helped Danes think warmly of the motherland again. Not excessively romantic, but just glowing enough to make you want to go to Denmark a little bit, clever use of light, and even cleverer framing type stuff. Denmark is also very pink, apparently.


File:Christen Købke - One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle .jpg


Runs until 13 June.


Watch the little film in the little film room too, cos it gives you a super close-up of the picture of his dad, which is intricate and beautiful, but very small in real life.

Notes and thoughts from City Univ’s ‘2010: the new media election?’ w Blue State Digital, BBC, Tory/Labour peeps. #cityvote

It was only when Matthew MacGregor of Blue State Digital, famous for
advising Obama’s campaign, talked about the importance of email that I
realised this debate was about ‘new media’ rather than ‘social media’. But
isn’t new media what happened quite a long time ago?

Social media is much more important. Social media allows people to join
campaigns, to become activists, to donate money, more easily than ever
before. MacGregor spoke of 90% of a party’s new media effort being spent
on email – but email is just another form of broadcasting, unless you’re
going to have somebody actually responding to the replies.

Social media is all about sharing, being rewarded for being open – and the
panel ignored this, providing a surprisingly negative view, focusing on
the potential for citizen journalists to pick up and amplify gaffes and
mistakes. That will happen, but Twitter allows the gaffeur (or gaffeuse?)
to respond immediately, and social media moves at such a pace that the
story will have died out before it hits the more mainstream press. DJ
Collins of Google was the only one who seemed to get this.

If you’re a good, honest, genuine and caring politician – that will out
through social media. If you’re an arse, the truth will out too.

What they said

Matthew MacGregor (BSD)
‘New media allows politicians to bypass the media and talk straight to the
people, who won’t listen, because the politicians don’t have anything
interesting to say.’

Ivor Gaber (City University)
‘Twitter is anarchy.’ ‘Post-expensesgate, there will be a higher turnout.’

Rupa Huq (Labour blogger)
‘[The news cycle is faster], but election machinery isn’t’

Nick Robinson (BBC)
‘It’s still all about TV.’ ‘Sarah Brown [in her Twitter guise] is one of
the most influential people in politics’.