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.

Habermas in FT: “Today we need institutions capable of acting on a global scale”

You said it, Jurgen.

Includes!

Jurgen on Greek debt crisis: weakness of European nations to think beyond their measly nation state. Still a long way off proper functional union.

Jurgen on internet as saviour: not likely

Jurg in own words: "Time and again, a sufficient equilibrium between the market and politics was achieved to ensure that the network of social relations between citizens of a political community was not damaged beyond repair. According to this rhythm, the current phase of financial market-driven globalisation should also be followed by a strengthening of the international community."

Ah-yeah.

The strange and lonely death of London’s Heygate Estate (words+pictures)

The estate is less than 40 years old – it opened in 1974. It’s early days are described with some nostalgia, but realistically in this 2001 article from the Observer.

In 2004, Southwark Council chose to embark on a multi-billion pound regeneration for the entire Elephant & Castle area, which was to include demolishing both the Heygate and Aylesbury estates. The residents were promised rehousing by the Council. But by the time they had moved a large number of residents out, and boarded up their properties, leaving the place feeling like an abandoned ocean liner, the credit crunch hit. This delayed the demolition. In late March 2010, Southwark Council said that the new regeneration agreement was ‘nearly ready’.

Since 2007, the excellent Heygate Live blog has provided regular updates on the affairs of the 1260-unit estate.

In the last sun of an April evening, the estate was eerily quiet. Though completely empty, most entrances and walkways were still open, and a pile of fresh human faeces lay in front of a lift chamber. Empty walkways, empty corridors that must have buzzed at one time, not so long ago – now still. I saw a few people cutting through the estate, and one woman ran past me on the corridor/balcony, but walking around the site, just one single flat appeared to be still occupied.

More photos here and here (mini photo essay). And Clint Eastwood.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/  – 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?

The brilliant @HansRosling explains the world with lego bricks.

Had somehow missed Prof. Hans Rosling’s tweet on explaining the world through Lego. But of course, it’s brilliant.

“The weakest point today is the lack of global governance.”

Yup.

There’s lots more Hans Rosling, and all his fun world-comprehending tools, at www.gapminder.org.  Also lots of TED videos, which come without the muzak and pretty pictures – but he’s even more inspiring and witty in those.

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.

 

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/christen-kobke