What does AI mean for creativity?

This week, I went to the Barbican to check out what academics and artists have to say about the implications of AI at a very stimulating recording of Radio 3’s excellent Free Thinking series. The show will be broadcast in the first week of June, but in the meantime, here’s what I got from it:

  1. The biases we have creep into the creative process – and since humans create AI, it absorbs bias too.

One of the things that really frustrates me is that people who position themselves as logicians always talk about machines as though they are impartial – but we make machines and we make decisions about data and tools, which means they carry our bias – it seeps in through the choices we make. A bit like how old white men (hello, Alabama) like to think the law is impartial when it is made by them, in their image, to serve their interests and give longevity to their bias.

For example, activist and academic Joy Buolamwini pointed out that cameras are biased by design. Photographic technology has been built by light-skinned people and optimised for light skin, but no-one cared until chocolate and furniture manufacturers complained that it did no favours for their product ranges. Before that, everyone just said darker skin was more difficult to light.

Buolamwini highlighted that we’re doing the same again with facial recognition technology – which is way better at dealing with light skinned faces than dark skinned ones. This all comes down to quality of data. We often use pale, male datasets because they are the most available, the most convenient. But this means that what we create reflects the bias and limitations of our society rather than its objective reality. AI can help here: there is an international standard for facial recognition being developed which uses machines to identify faces based on a scale of lightness and darkness rather than subjective definitions like “white” or “black”.

What it boils down to is that AI is only as good as your data set. If you’re using data that comes off the shelf, you may not know the ingredients. But if you curate your own data, it will absorb your bias. So we need to take real care in the way we create and use AI – but also think about being more transparent in the way we approach the decision-making behind our data.

Given all this bias, what is AI good for?

Lots of things – provided we change our approach. Because of our tendency to humanise technology (of which more later) when we approach the concept of AI, we often think in terms of it replicating or replacing existing human processes – along with all their inherent bias and failings. However, if we avoid doing this, AI can be a great tool for helping us identify and minimise bias (not eliminate, I’m a cynic) instead of reinforcing it.

 

2. Cobotics are better than robotics

The tendency when approaching AI is to assume it will replicate and then replace us. Part of this is natural human insecurity – as well as a desire for what is known as moral outsourcing, whereby we put moral arbitration onto the inanimate so we don’t have to take responsibility. But AI’s potential is far more powerful if we aim for “Cobotics” – a state of cooperating between machines and humans where we can use AI to augment our skills – whether creative, scientific, judiciary or otherwise – instead of aping them.  

3. The future is interdisciplinary

As a French medievalist turned copywriter turned PR person turned web editor turned social media strategist turned marketing director turned content strategist with a splash of poetry, activism and HR thrown into the mix, I was not inclined to disagree with English Literature academic and roboticist Michael Szollosy when he said we all need to up our interdisciplinary game.

Interdisciplinary skills are the only way to truly understand the implications and applications of AI and also – to help counteract its absorption of bias by putting ourselves in a stronger position to absorb our own. Does that mean we all need to go back to school? No – the cobotics principle can help us here. We need to change our approach to collaboration – less working separately and piecing it all together at the end and more sitting together in a room, creating things together and absorbing each others skills.

 

4. But… what happens to a work of art – or design – in the age of mechanical reproduction?

People build machines to solve problems, but they often create as many as they solve. At the very least, they raise questions we can’t always answer. Artist Anna Ridler uses algorithms to create some of her work, but admits this leads to queries such as: Who is the artist? Who do you credit? What is the legality here?

The fact that we are even asking such questions betrays our fragility and bias. Write Michael Szollosy pointed out that in the Enlightenment – or Age of Reason if you prefer – thinkers made automatons – 18th Century machines, robots, AI – an ideal. In the Romantic period, artists made them an abomination – something that threatens our own humanity. Event today, robotic ethics are very conservative and we are now redefining human sentience based on how we think – and fear – about AI.

Caught up in this is the fact that in a Western world dominated by Abrahamic philosophies, we assume that every creation is made in the creator’s image (and given the previous discourse on bias, often it is). As a result, even when using the phrase Artificial Intelligence, we forget that it is a simulation of intelligence in our eagerness to believe that it is like us and therefore confer actual intelligence upon it.

But it’s worth noting that drawing and design are simultaneously nouns and verbs. The noun version is an object a machine can create. Whereas in its verb form, the act of creating a work of art is a process that involves meaning, memory, context and provenance – all of which come from a human artist,

Reading list  for the curious and/or intellectually inclined

All-female line-up too. BOOM.

Advertisements

Lest We Forget

I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with Remembrance Day. Quite apart from the whiteness of it all, which sits uneasily with someone of mixed heritage, I don’t think Britain knows how to remember its dead appropriately.

The rhetoric bothers me. Because if you really think about it, there is no such thing as a war hero. War is never heroic. Yes, people do heroic things during wartime and yes, many die trying to preserve the lives of others. But they do so because some selfish arse – always someone who never sees a day on the battlefield of course – wanted to increase their personal power. And that is the central shame of war. It’s an abomination, something that should never happen. It’s easier to brand people as heroes because it means we can take something positive from their loss. But that doesn’t change the fact that war heroes are as fictional as grubby, benefit scrounging asylum seekers. In war there are only victims – the people who fight and the people they kill and those who lose them; and there are war criminals – the people who start it all.

When we think about the wars of the last century, we shouldn’t remember soldiers for “the sacrifice they made”. We should remember them because they were sacrificed, which is something very different. Sacrificed – along with civilians and animals – to political ambition and compassionless ideology.

WWI was meant to be “the war to end all wars” not because it was a supreme exercise of military might, but because it was a futile and shocking waste of life. And somehow the grandchildren of that generation, who spent their peaceful mid-century Christmases watching WWII shite like The Great Escape, have interpreted wars as part of some glorious past to hanker after instead of an atrocity to avoid. And they have given us anti-European sentiment, increased xenophobia and Brexit because they never learned to contemplate war properly, or to fear it. The way Britain marks Remembrance Day is a big part of that failure. We have strayed too far from “Never Again” and into “Honour Our Lads” territory. But war is a dishonourable thing. I read a quote online which said that the best way to honour war veterans is not to create more of them. I wholeheartedly agree.

Why we need to talk about periods at work

This week, MP Danielle Rowley mentioned that she was on her period during a debate in the House of Commons on the cost of menstrual products. Shortly afterwards, it was breaking news all over the UK, with many people debating not only the issue Rowley was raising, but also whether or not it was appropriate, brave or simply gross that she had mentioned her period.

As I waded through the waves of judgement, ignorance and support being directed at Rowley, I started to feel increasingly angry at the way women are expected to draw a veil of silence over their periods at work. Whether we excuse it as a way to avoid us seeming weaker or physically unfit in comparison to male colleague, what lies at the root of our silence is male comfort. Periods aren’t part of cis male experience, so we don’t acknowledge them in masculine gendered spaces of which the workplace, despite all of our best efforts, remains one.

And so, today we’re going to talk about what it’s like to have your period at work, and why talking about this experience has a role to play in reclaiming the workplace as a space for all genders.

 

Here’s my story.

I’m a cis woman. I menstruate. For most of my teens and 20s I used hormonal birth control and hardly even noticed when I was on my period, but since 2013 I’ve used a copper coil and one of its side effects is heavier than usual periods. Picture me, one morning in 2015, as I woke up from a night of interrupted sleep, did an awkward backwards jerk out of bed to avoid touching the bedclothes and hobbled to the bathroom with blood streaming down my legs. As my male partner slept undisturbed, I cleaned myself up, cleaned the bathroom up, cleaned the drips along the way up, got dressed for work and rushed to catch my last viable bus. The bus stop was already in sight when I realised that – thanks to the unpleasant experience that is flooding – my mooncup was full and about to overflow. I had a choice. I remember pausing on the kerb, asking myself whether it was better to get the bus and risk blood running down my legs for the next 45 minutes in order to arrive at work on time, or to go home and empty my cup. On the basis that I worked in an office where arriving at 9.01 was a disciplinary offense, I got on the bus and stood with my thighs clenched for 45 minutes and waddled to my office drenched in humiliation and sticky blood. I got through the door at 8.57 and because it was not acceptable to be anywhere in the building but at your desk at 9am, I had to sit awkwardly and uncomfortably at my desk, log on and wait until 9.20 to go and clean up. By which I mean emptying my cup, wiping away as much blood as possible and wadding my underwear with toilet paper until lunchtime when I could go and buy emergency underwear, painkillers and wet wipes.

The worst thing about this story is that the person I was working for was also a cis woman. I should have been able to call her and explain that I was having menstrual issues, catch a later bus and arrive at 9.30 with no judgement. The fact that I couldn’t do that without being screamed at, made to feel inadequate and potentially being sacked, is something we should all be angry about. Even more enraging is the fact that all of us – men and women alike – treat work as an ideologically male space where female experience doesn’t have a right to exist.

Women shouldn’t have to work in an explicitly male space

Because we don’t talk about periods, we allow men forget they happen and effectively excuse them from having to think about the effect they have on us. Instead, they think about the effect periods have on them.

Now, I am very aware that there are lots of feminist men out there and I am proud of them. And there are also a lot of men out there who consider themselves quite ‘woke’ when it comes to periods. They proudly announce that they are OK with buying tampons and pads for the women in their lives. And should a woman turn down sex because she’s on her period, they will cheerfully say “Oh, I don’t mind period sex. We’ll put a towel down.” Which is my personal favourite because it completely ignores that the woman might, you know, be in pain or discomfort and not want anyone poking around between her legs. Oh, no, the conversation is entirely about whether or not the man is grossed out by blood.

Bringing this back from bedroom to boardroom, because men dominate the workplace, we end up working in spaces that don’t acknowledge – let alone accommodate – our experience. To give you some examples of what this means, in the past, I worked in an office where, despite the fact that 20-30 women were on site on any given day, no-one thought the sanitary bins needed emptying more than once a month. I’ve also worked in an office where the cubicles were so small that changing tampons or menstrual cups required more contortion than my weekly yoga class.

Even worse, this marginalisation of women is happening despite the fact that we are not a minority. We are half the population. So if our experiences can be marginalised in this way, then true minorities won’t even get a look in. If we allow straight cis men, most of whom live with a woman who menstruates, to be so grossed out by our bodies that they can’t even stomach us talking about our periods, how can we expect them to factor the experience of other less populous gender groups into their headpsace? We can’t. And as women, I think we have a responsibility to support other marginalised groups by channelling the strength of our numbers and pushing hard on this issue.

Our silence on this issue jeopardises equality for everyone

Let’s go back to Danielle Rowley telling the Commons she’s on her period this week and raising the issue of period poverty. The best the Tories could do was say they will be axing VAT on menstrual products post-Brexit, bring the annual cost of menstruating down to £400. And that’s assuming the price doesn’t go up by 20% after we’ve waved goodbye to the customs union. So, that’s £500 a year for the privilege of being a woman, until 2019 when depending on David Davis’s negotiating powers it may go down to £400.

Hang on a minute. We can all get condoms for free, because they go on a penis and our government thinks contraception and sexual health are important. So…why doesn’t the same go for menstrual products and womens’ health? I’ll tell you why: because no-one gives a shit. When Rowley spoke,  the House was nearly empty. I could only see two men, both of whom looked as though they’d fallen asleep on the benches and were attending by mistake.

What this tells is that we can’t continue relying on men to adapt their spaces for us. The past few decades have shown that this is a process which is inadequate and too slow. We need to reclaim these spaces immediately, not only for ourselves, but for all gender groups.   

 

Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre

8/10

When I told a friend of mine that Cell Mates was about to open at Hampstead, they replied they were surprised anyone was willing to take it on. Well, I am delighted that Edward Hall has, because it is a play worth seeing.

When Cell Mates premiered and had its brief but controversial run, involving Stephen Fry running away to France I was only 15 years old.  I doubt many people my age or younger will remember that happening or feel any link between that 22 year-old incident and the quality of the play.

Built around the story of British Soviet spy George Blake and the friend who helped him escape from prison, Cell Mates is part crime caper, part spy thriller and entirely an exploration of the nature of friendship and the exploitation and betrayal that characterise it.

As the action moves from Wormwood Scrubs to London to Moscow, Blake and Bourke’s friendship develops. It is unhealthy from the start: characterised by need, exploitation and dependency. At various points, each man holds the life of the other in his hands, or is helpless and at the mercy of the other. Bourke likens it to a marriage when one spouse is sick. Throughout the first act, the audience must constantly reassess who is exploiting who. Who is the betrayer?

At the heart of the play lies a sense of claustrophobia so strong that for much of the second act I kept thinking of John Fowles’s The Collector. Blake and Bourke are never cell mates in prison. But as soon as Blake escapes, they are trapped together, at first in a London bedsit, then later under the surveillance of the KGB. At the beginning of the play, Bourke characterises it as being closer than two men ever get. It sounds almost romantic, and it’s a shame that Gray’s text fails to really explore the homoerotic possibilities of this. By the end, Blake has evoked the relationship between colonial slaves and their masters, the sense of ownership passing between each, the imbalance of power and the explicit sense of menace on one side and helplessness on the other.

By the end, I was left wondering what actually happened to Bourke. Was his trip to the Union Hotel a final double cross? A way to get him to come along quietly? Blake has wound both Bourke and the audience into so many knots, that unless you’re familiar with the history, you simply don’t know. I haven’t looked at the history of it. It’s a perfect moment of theatre and I don’t want to know.

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne embody their roles flawlessly and I couldn’t help thinking back to the original West End casting and failing to get my head around it. Had Fry been in good health, would it ever have worked? I find it hard to imagine so. My only gripe is that I do wish Blake had been played by someone who actually looks mixed race. If you look at photos of the real George Blake, he is dark in his colouring, and whitewashing him in the form of a strawberry blond actor didn’t sit entirely well with me. And yet, Streatfield is outstanding.

It’s no secret to anyone that I am not a fan of Simon Gray and often dismiss him as a theatrical also-ran: his plays are linguistically clever, but really rather forgettable. All the elements of his other work are here: poking fun at Britishness and social structures, moments of tongue-tied cringe comedy, clever word play. And yet, Cell Mates is so much more than that. Because it looks outside the confines of Britishness, it has a lasting appeal. Gray wrote it before the internet had taken centre stage in our daily lives, but Blake’s evocation of the country of the future as he repeatedly manipulates reality resonates with those wary of Brexit committees, political campaigners and the Murdoch press.  As a result, despite receiving notoriety rather than recognition in his lifetime, Cell Mates may just be the best thing Gray ever did.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, Wyndham’s Theatre

5/10

The tragedy at the center of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is this: it needn’t have been an awful play.

The basic premise of unlikely romance is unoriginal but sound. The performances are good. Ann-Marie Duff gives Georgie an energy and spirit that prevent her from being  entirely annoying despite the relentlessness of her character. Kenneth Cranham’s reticent Alex manages to remain down to earth while being intriguing and enigmatic. The characters as written are knowable and believable. Interesting, even.  And yet, they are stuck in an absolute stinker of a plot, so bad that by the final scene I had started to wonder if I were watching an unsuccessful film script that Jennifer Aniston and Michael Caine had rejected.

It’s not very often that I sit through a play cringing with embarrassment: but that is how I felt watching this one. Towards the end of the second scene – and thereafter throughout the rest of the play – I started to experience that creeping sense of horror every teenager feels when an explicit sex scene happens on television while their parents are in the room. I cannot account for this feeling, it was just there.

Georgie (42) and Alex (75) meet on a train platform. Georgie has just crept up behind Alex on the bench where he is sitting and kissed him on the back of the neck. Her justification for this is that he looked, from behind, like her husband, who is dead. Georgie feels a connection to Alex and keeps talking. Alex is indifferent and responds to her conversational overtures out of politeness. The conversation progresses naturally and is played deftly by the actors. At this point, the audience is interested. In the second scene, Georgie has tracked Alex down to his place of work. He is no more interested in her advances, but warms to her over the course of a conversation in which many of her assumptions about him and assertions about herself are shown to be false. By the end of the scene, they seem set to go on a date. The audience is intrigued.

From this point onwards, the play tumbles downhill like a fixie bike on Highgate Hill. Over the first two scenes we have established that although mismatched in some aspects, Georgie and Alex are a couple perfectly capable of getting together. The third scene throws all that good work away. Georgie’s outrageous flirting (“Your eyes! Your eyes!”) would make Forrest Gump question her sincerity. Alex’s suggestive mirroring seems incongruous with his reticent, buttoned-up character. In the next scene, having had sex (indicated by the set walls whipping back and forth in a way I assume was meant to simulate penetration) Alex, who has met Georgie three times at this point, has moved on to declarations of love. This seemed so ludicrous to me that it muted the horror of the hackneyed Hollywood plot device that was about to follow: Georgie admits she is planning to scam him – in fact, it was her object in meeting him.

From this point onwards, it was a question of trying not to look at my watch as I waited for them to wind things up, while working out how something that started off reasonably well went so horribly wrong.  The central flaw seems to be that while the characters are developed to full depth, the plot isn’t. Played out over a few months or several weeks, Georgie and Alex’s story would remain unoriginal but would at least seem believable. Having met him more than thrice, Georgie might have had the opportunity to genuinely feel remorse for wanting to fleece him. Having got close to Georgie over months or weeks, it would seem more believable that Alex is willing to overlook her motives and focus on what attracts him. By cramming the plot into a matter of days, Simon Stephens makes the play a nonsense. It’s a shame because the actors – and indeed the characters – deserve better.

Prism, Hampstead Theatre

5/10

Prism is one of those stories that leaves the audience member baffled as to why anyone thought it needed to be told. Its premise is an imagining of the late life of cinematographer Jack Cardiff – famous for, among other things, his work on The African Queen – in particular his years with dementia.

Plays that depict dementia’s slippage between present reality and memory can be moving, interesting and great art – Florian Zeller’s The Father being one example. where Prism suffers is in choosing as its subject someone renowned, but not sufficiently present in the public consciousness. Why Jack Cardiff, the audience is left wondering. Were we meant to know that he had Alzheimer’s? Why is his decline so particularly interesting? The choice of subject detracts from the play and makes it – despite its all-star cast – seem somewhat small and parochial.

Robert Lindsay is on fine form as an irascible man in occasional possession of his marbles, and his manner and energy carry the play. Claire Skinner excels both as the younger wife Cardiff no longer recognises and his remembered vision of Katharine Hepburn, whom she captures perfectly. Ultimately, however, the production falls flat. The characters are insufficiently fictional – but also not real enough – leaving a sense if dissatisfaction. I left feeling that I had watched someone’s pet vanity project, and I wasn’t sure why.

Le Grand Mort, Trafalgar Studios

6.5/10

Le Grand Mort has the distinction of being one of the most unusual plays I’ve ever seen. At the outset, the audience is introduced to Michael, carefully preparing pasta puttanesca live on stage for his dinner guest Tim. The audience is drawn into Michael’s confidence and his psyche through a combination of anecdotes, bons mots and poetic passages about love, intimacy and death.

By the end of this scene, I was convinced I was watching a death pact comedy-drama and in that assumption lies all the tension of the play.  Is Michael a murderer? Is Tim a victim, or an adversary come to beat him at his game? Or is something else at play here? The  fragment of plot revolves around this, the events surrounding their meeting, and the lies and stories they tell about themselves.

Le Grand Mort is a play that plays tricks on you. In fact, the play is about the fear and dread of intimacy, the idea that giving yourself up to someone, letting them in, removing the masks you wear when facing the rest of the world, is as terrifying as death itself. Intimacy, the title suggests, is where we risk the most.

Playing with words, is, as the title suggests, at the heart of the play and its words are its strongest point, both characters and what little there is of plot lying obscured behind them. he star of this scene is not Clary himself, but the language.

Le Grand Mort is clever, funny, well-written, tense and even sweet in places. The performances are good, but the language is overly clever at times and as the characters debate intimacy it is ironically difficult for the audience to get close to them. Nonetheless, Julian Clary sparkles as the erudite and enigmatic Michael and James Nelson-Joyce is a tantalising Tim and the resolution they find together – although perhaps slightly incongruous with the overall tone of the play – is heartwarming in a pleasant way.

Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s Globe

2/10

This production has the distinction, not just of being the worst production of Much Ado that I’ve had the misfortune to see, but of being the absolute worst thing I have seen put on at the Globe in 20 years.

All the hallmarks of the Globe’s recent productions were there, but this time none of them worked:

  • The action was moved to 19th Century Mexico, and the exposition and rewrites required to make this plausible were clumsy and tiresome. Scenes were punctuated by sweaty, dirt-brushed people with guns rushing about babbling in Spanish.  I cringed with discomfort.
  • Obviously, if you have Mexicans (said someone) you need Americans for the purpose of them being at enmity with each other. Cue Dogberry running around being semaphored as A.N. Annoying American hours before his character became relevant. How subtle.
  • Antonio was played by a female actor, but no-one on stage could decide whether this was a gender-blind or gender diverse casting, and so the character was she then he, then brother then sister, which felt lazy and like tokenism.
  • There were horse puppets and every opportunity was taken to put actors on stilts with horse puppets. Horses not being particularly integral to the action in Much Ado, it was a distraction. If I had liked horse puppets, I would have seen War Horse.
  • The songs were fucking awful

There is some attempt at feminist interpretation: in the lengthy set-up sequence we see Beatrice, Hero and Margaret toting guns and performing surgical procedures on wounded soldiers. But it felt unnecessary and unwarranted.

But despite this – and here’s the thing I am going to get really angry about – some genius decided to turn the female lead from a rapier wit into a cringing drunk. Beatriz Romilly‘s Beatrice treats her dialogue as the pre-smartphone equivalent of drunk tweeting. She apes cringing regret practically every time she opens her mouth, gurning and flinging her arms in a show of “Oh no, what have I said?” She’s patronising and often slows down and repeats her barbs with expansive gestures. In one scene, to indicate that she is not really aware of what she is saying, she downs repeated tequila shots before starting her tirade. And yet, by contrast, Benedick is shown in full possession of his wits. I wanted to drag the woman off the stage and yell at her, I was so enraged by her interpretation of the role.

The one saving grace was Matthew Needham, whose Benedick was funny and believable in the midst of so much mess. As far as I could tell, the rest of the audience around me was drunk enough to have no complaints, and I must confess, I envied them.

 

Apologia, Trafalgar Studios

8/10

I first saw Apologia when it premiered at the Bush Theatre in 2009 – and it is a testament to the play’s weight and complexity that I got something entirely different out of the play in 2017.

Apologia is about the choices society forces women – specifically feminists – to make and the judgement that is passed down when women choose equality and feminism over what society expects of them as women. The central character, Kristin, is a celebrated art historian, academic, author and activist who has held firm to her convictions since the 1970s and has prioritised her career and activism over family life. In 2009, she was British, and I loathed her, I know not why because the performance was great. In 2017, she is an American who has adopted the UK as her home, played with vigour by Stockard Channing.

Channing’s Kristin is loud, sharp, and takes no prisoners: exactly what she’d have needed to be to  reach eminence in male-dominated academia. And yet she also exudes a certain nervousness and physical fragility that betrays her battle scars and the sacrifices she has had to make. The action opens as she is preparing for her birthday party and the arrival of her friend Hugh (Desmond Barrit), her sons Peter and Simon (both played by Joseph Millson) and their partners Trudi (Laura Carmichael) and  Claire (Freema Agyeman).

It’s clear from the outset that Kristin has a fractured relationship with her children – and has taken refuge in an echo chamber that shares her ideals, as represented by her fellow warrior, Hugh. Channing perfectly conveys Kristin’s spiky anxiety, moving testily around the stage, unsure about facing her offspring, and spoiling for a fight.

Both Kristin’s sons have built their lives around opposing the mother they feel abandoned them: The eldest, Peter, by entering wholeheartedly into the corporate world and by betrothing himself to a woman who is everything his mother is not: Christian, stereotypical and happy to be a ‘supportive wife’ – a basic bitch, basically. Simon, by refusing to lead a functional life and partnering with a seemingly superficial television actress. And yet, they cannot escape her: each craves her approval in his own way and their chosen partners are more like her than they realise, particularly Claire, a born fighter who prioritises her career over Simon in the end.

While the past bubbles under the surface, there is an immediate source of tension: Kristin has just published a memoir, in which neither of her children is mentioned. This sets the scene for what, in my view, is an exploration of the double standard society sets for women when they are parents. Kristin is at pains to explain that her memoir is an exploration of her professional life: it does not cover her personal life at all, except where it overlapped with her work. Whereas for a man, this omission would largely go ignored, for a woman, it is unforgivable. Kristin’s children are deeply hurt at having been filtered out of her life.  Over the course of the dinner party, the audience learns that Kristin did not abandon her children as they claim: their father came and took them, and she chose not to pursue. They maintained contact, spending holidays together. Kristin’s crime, it turns out, is not abandoning her children, but failing to meet their standards for motherhood.

Desmond Barrit is outstanding as Hugh, Kristin’s fellow activist, always ready with a glass of wine and a sharp, witty phrase. He gets the biggest laughs in the production – and more than once Laura Carmichael seemed to be struggling not to laugh, too. But there’s another, less comfortable side to Hugh, too. If Kristin represents the feminist perspective, he represents her LGBT counterparts. Elderly, comical, poverty-stricken at at times condescended to, it’s hard not to see his Hugh as a representation of how the LGBT activists of the 1960s have fared in relation to their feminist sisters.  Looking beyond the laughs, it’s plain that Hugh is treated not only with affection, but with condescension, too. The last, he is portrayed as living vicariously through others, a sexless existence hinted at by his parting shot to Claire to enjoy her upcoming erotic tryst. For me, Hugh represents those who have suffered for their activism and who have seen their contributions ignored and their talents left behind.

I generally enjoy Laura Carmichael’s performances, but I think she was handed something of a poisoned chalice playing American Trudi opposite a genuine American.  I couldn’t help feeling she deserved better. Freema Agyeman, on the other hand, is wonderful as Claire, a woman as strong, feisty and in charge of her own destiny as Kristin.

In 2009, I had very different feelings about it. In one of the key scenes, where Kristin’s younger son Simon blames her for a miscommunication which led to him spending a night alone in Florence and narrowly escaping sexual assault, I empathised with him, loathing Kristin with all the fury of a child who has been let down by their parents. Simon is a man whose life is marred by the fact that his parents turned out not to be the all-powerful superhumans he wanted to guide and protect him. In my 20s, I felt that way too.

This time, decidedly closer to middle age than adolescence, I took Kristin’s side. How was it her fault that her ex-husband miscommunicated the travel dates? In a world before mobile phones, how was she to learn about the whereabouts of her son? How dare he blame her, hate her, judge her not just for the misunderstanding but for her failure to stick to the role society had arbitrarily assigned to her. A mother would have been there, he spits. But he means the fantasy mother women are told they should be.

With a feminist reading, the conclusion of the play is deeply unsatisfying in that it reveals how society has punished many of the women who spearheaded feminism. In the era of “choice” where we tell young women they are free to make more traditional life choices, we also often tell women who rejected those choices in the past and lived with the brutal consequences that they are monsters. At the end of Apologia – rejected and alone – Kristin is undeservedly suffering the fate of such a monster, despite having paved the way for the confident women who judge her. 10 years on, Apologia is more brutal than it was perhaps intended to be. And I for one like it that way.

NB – I caught up on a couple of broadsheet reviews of the production – both inevitably by middle-aged-to-elderly white men and was quite shocked by how comprehensively they ignored any kind of feminist reading of the work. Yet another reason why we need more diversity in theatre criticism.

 

 

Follies, Olivier Theatre

10/10

If you are going to see Follies, be warned: this production is a tapestry so complex that at no point does the audience know where to look. Wherever the focus of a scene seems to be, there is always something else happening in the background or off to the side. You dare not focus for fear of missing some subtlety on the other side of the stage. I have seen it three times so far, and still feel I have not quite experienced the whole of it.

Follies has all the hallmarks of a great Sondheim show – that almost macabre dissection of human relationships which grips anyone who has ever fallen in or out of love. This particular production is also a tribute to resilient womanhood: from the opening strains of Beautiful Girls to the reprise at the end, the men play second fiddle: they are the plus ones, merely a part of the stories of these women. They mourn for former glories, grasp for emotional strength, hold handbags, watch from the shadows. The men wait and prevaricate.  The women dominate centre stage.

Everyone – and everything – in this show is superb. Not flawless – of which more later – but of a quality that is unlike anything else you will see. It is a perfect combination of material – which, although acknowledged to be problematic has been reworked expertly here – direction and performance and a testament to the sort of thing that can be achieved with publicly funded theatre. It’s unlikely that a show like this, at a scale of this kind, would not work commercially.

There are three types of song in this show: the showcase showstoppers (Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here, Who’s That Woman, One More Kiss etc); dialogue songs that move the action along (Waiting for the Girls Upstairs, Don’t Look at Me, In Buddy’s Eyes Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You) and the follies themselves (You’e Gonna Love Tomorrow, Buddy’s Blues, Losing My Lind, The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie, Live, Laugh, Love). These are performed to incredible effect by all concerned – the casting in most cases so perfect you cannot imagine each number being performed by anyone else or any other way.

Imelda Staunton is one of those performers whose work I admire so much its’ hard for me to be objective – and the combination  of her talent and Sondheim’s is intoxicating in the extreme. There’s no question she is fantastic as Sally Durant Plummer – possibly the least sympathetic character in the show. Her rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes takes a frankly quite cloying – and at times lyrically repetitive, though it reveals some of Sally’s obsessive nature – song and turns it into one of the best musical moments of the show. Her voice breaks in all the right places – notably on the line “I’m still a princess” – and anyone who has experienced the warm beam of adoration will feel the emotional punch. It’s a scene to give you chills. Losing My Mind is often performed as a lovelorn ballad, but in Staunton’s hands it is become the battle cry of a woman scorned. Sally’s helplessness – her inability to know whether to brush her hair, drink her bourbon or stare wistfully into her vanity mirror – gives way to seething rage at the rejection she has experienced. When she sings “You said you loved me,” clutching her empty class, there is rage intermingled with her despair, her face is tense with it, the words “you bastard!” are almost implied. I got the sense that if Ben were stood before her that glass would be hastily smashed and thrust into his face. Her intense lingering gaze at the end of the number is not that of a woman lost – instead, it is reminiscent of a Hollywood ‘bunny boiler’. This is a woman who does not internalise her hurt, who seeks revenge on whoever is most accessible to her, as hinted at by the long, rageful phonecalls to her distant sons.

And yet, Staunton doesn’t give the show’s standout performance. That comes from Janie Dee – exceptional as fast-talking, sharp, brutal Phyllis. She’s elegant and relentless, delivering her one-liners to perfection without once stooping to ruffle her feathers. While the role of Sally offers room for interpretation, the role of Phyllis is so taut that the performer cannot miss a beat. Phyllis is the only character whose emotional epiphany doesn’t involve a breakdown, in fact, she emerges still calm, still collected, and triumphant. Dee is custodian of one of the finest numbers in the show – Could I Leave You – and performs it with a brilliance and gusto that leaves you on a high. #TeamPhyllis all the way!

I was lucky enough to attend the Platform with Janie Dee and Phillip Quast and got to ask them to reveal their favourite moments in the show. So many, too many to mention – everyone in Follies, after all, is a star. For me, that moment is Too Many Mornings – vocally the absolute peak of what this cast can do, pitched perfectly at that point where musical theatre and opera converge. Staunton and Quast execute it superbly – in my view it could not be perfected beyond what they have done.