• Jean Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show review: Self-indulgent but fabulous
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    Evening Standard

    Jean Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show review: Self-indulgent but fabulous

    Part cabaret, part catwalk show, designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s stage autobiography is massively self-indulgent but also kind of fabulous.It’s basically two hours of hot-bodied dancer-singer-exhibitionists posing and vogueing in his hyper-sexualised, gender-bending creations, supposedly to show that “everyone eez byoodeefool”. Um, what’s not to like? Both JPG and his Fashion Freak Show — FFS! — may be absurd but they undoubtedly add to the gaiety of nations.A rough arc of his life is sketched out in frantic dance routines interspersed with video interludes to a superb soundtrack by Nile Rodgers. JPG put a conical bra on his teddy at seven and would later put one on Madonna. Originally employed by Pierre Cardin, he discovered his own signature style mixing kink, camp and glamour in the Eighties. His most famous collections are referenced but his later work for Hermès and his designs for films barely merit a mention. He also promoted ethnic and bodily diversity, which is echoed here in the casting. Sort of.The show has been imported from the Folies Bergère in Paris with little concession made to British audiences. Few of the video cameos will be familiar outside France or fashion circles, with the exception of actresses Catherine Deneuve and Rossy de Palma. But his love of London shines through. Punk was an influence, as was the Queen. Her Majesty is here played on screen by Antoine de Caunes, JPG’s co-host on the Nineties TV show Eurotrash.Gaultier is now 67 and his designs, like Madonna’s boobs, no longer seem as outrageous as they once were. But the impish spirit that led him to record a dance single in 1988, and to collaborate with streetwear brand Supreme this year, remains. “Have fun, be free,” he twinkled from the stage last night, wearing a feather headdress. This raucous frocky horror show is certainly fun.Until August 2 (020 3879 9555, southbankcentre.co.uk)

  • How selfies can do good – and not just for your Instagram feed
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    The Independent

    How selfies can do good – and not just for your Instagram feed

    This month, when earthquakes rocked southern California on back-to-back days, it was a visceral reminder that we may one day experience the “Big One”, a quake with the power to kill and destroy.A few people saw something else: a photo opportunity.Tourists flocked to a large crack in a highway to see evidence of the damage for themselves and, of course, take a quick selfie.250people died while taking selfies between 2011 and 2017It was just the latest example of how our modern love of sharing photos we take of ourselves in notable situations is colliding with nature and the world, often in perplexing and even dangerous ways.In Canada, a sunflower farm barred visitors last year after selfie-seekers destroyed flowers and left the land looking like a “zombie apocalypse”. In Spain, a man was gored in the neck last weekend while trying to take a video selfie at the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona.The selfie phenomenon entered the mainstream after Apple and other phone makers added front-facing cameras starting in 2010, the same year Instagram and other photo-sharing apps were becoming popular. From 2011 to 2017, more than 250 people died while taking selfies, according to a study by researchers in India, which had by far the highest number of such deaths, followed by Russia and the United States. Many died after drowning, falling or being attacked by an animal. Most were under the age of 30.All of it paints a picture of a self-obsessed online culture hell bent on getting the perfect shareable photo to feed its vanity. With each like, we feel better about ourselves. But there is no denying the intrinsic draw of the selfie, which feeds so many of the most vulnerable parts of ourselves: our innate attraction to images of human faces instead of landscapes or objects, our nostalgia for capturing memories, and yes, our need for social approval.It’s easy to be uncomfortable with selfies and even mock them, especially when they’re risky or in bad taste. But some researchers have explored different questions: Why do we take selfies? Can they ever be a healthy form of expression? Can selfies be used for good?“Narcissism is one thread,” says Jesse Fox, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, who has studied how people use selfies and social media. In one study, she found that characteristics of narcissism and psychopathy predicted the number of selfies men aged 18 to 40 posted on social media.But she said the need for social approval and support is universal.“We all have levels of insecurity,” Fox says. “When someone posts, ‘Here is my cancer selfie,’ they are feeling vulnerable. You need that social support. That is not saying you are a narcissist for putting it out on social media.”After all, people have been making self-portraits for centuries, in remarkably similar ways. The 16th-century Italian artist Parmigianino famously painted a portrait of himself with his arm extended, almost as if holding the canvas; a 17th-century self-portrait by Rembrandt shows an expression similar to the classic “duck-face” selfie, and during the Italian renaissance, at least one artist used a self-portrait for “calling cards”, as a way to market their work.Since the term “selfie” first caught on – it was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2013 – researchers have identified three types of selfie-taker.There are communicators, who want to have a two-way conversation (for example, a post with an “I voted” sticker to encourage civic engagement); autobiographers, who document their lives for their own purposes, rather than seeking feedback or compliments (a selfie at home with a favourite coffee mug, or a photo at the Grand Canyon); and self-publicists, who want to build a brand and positively curate an image (à la the Kardashians).“They have become so common that my grandma does them when we get together,” says Steven Holiday, an author of the study who argues that the notion of the selfie as narcissistic is outdated.“We have gone beyond the self-centred nature — we need to let it go when it comes to selfies,” he said. “Selfies are a way for us to connect and communicate, and feel more personal with people all around the world.”> This is not just me taking a duck-faced selfie or trying to look cute on camera. This is me being able to better tell the story about my science in a way that helps people trust meIn one example, researchers developed a ScientistsWhoSelfie campaign studying how scientists posting photos of themselves with their work on Instagram influenced public perception of the profession. They found that photos with human faces helped improve impressions in a field that is often subject to negative stereotypes.“Scientists in general were perceived as warmer, but no less competent,” says Paige Jarreau, the lead author on the study. “That was particularly true for female scientists.”While some scientists baulked at first, fearing that their colleagues would consider them self-centred or think they take their work less seriously, Jarreau says those concerns dissipated once researchers explained that it could help build public trust. The hashtag ScientistsWhoSelfie has taken off, with thousands of posts on Instagram.“This is not just me taking a duck-faced selfie or trying to look cute on camera,” she says. “This is me being able to better tell the story about my science in a way that helps people trust me.”Similarly, Fox has studied how self-documenting on social media can be a powerful tool for gay, transgender and non-binary people who are undergoing an appearance transformation to live more publicly as their true selves. The public nature of the posts, she says, can be a cathartic form of self-expression.“That is a very empowering thing for them,” she says.But in the everyday, most of us post reflexively, even obsessively. Fox recalls a road trip she took to national parks, where she witnessed so many people taking selfies, she began taking photos of the selfie-takers themselves.“Ask yourself: why are you posting that picture?” she says. “If there was a platform that didn’t enable likes, would you post this?” After all, there are other ways to foster a social connection. You could send the photo to a private group. You could put it in a frame at home. You could be mindful in the moment by not taking it at all.But if you do, watch your step.© New York Times

  • The openly gay rabbi who’s working to change the face of Judaism
    Style
    The Independent

    The openly gay rabbi who’s working to change the face of Judaism

    When Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, the first openly gay rabbi of a large synagogue in Canada, was preparing to begin rabbinical school, she faced a daunting choice: love or serving God.Her world was suddenly turned upside down in the late 1990s while she was studying religion at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and fell in love with a woman she met at a conference. This posed a problem: the conservative rabbinical school she planned to attend did not ordain openly gay rabbis. Rather than abandoning her vocation, she opted instead to join the Jewish Reform movement – a liberal progressive denomination that accepts gay rabbis and same-sex marriage.“Coming out,” she says, “brought me closer to God.”“It was the first time in my life when being good at something and working hard weren’t enough to open the door,” says the bookish 44-year-old rabbi, who speaks with the soothing voice of someone used to softening life’s upheavals. “By following my calling and being true to myself, I was embracing both essential parts of my identity.”Now divorced, and remarried with two daughters and a third child on the way, she says her struggles have helped shape her inclusive approach to Judaism during posts in New York City and in her current role as the first female senior rabbi at the 137-year-old Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a sprawling Reform synagogue in Montreal’s affluent Westmount neighbourhood.Named one of “America’s most inspiring rabbis” by the influential Jewish publication The Forward, she has edited a seminal book on Judaism and sexuality, works to improve ties between Canadian Jews and Muslims; and counsels lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews from Newfoundland to Mexico.And while Judaism has a long history of trailblazers in gay and gender equality – the first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935, and the Reform movement formally endorsed the ordination of gay clergy in 1990 – Grushcow is playing a leading role in breaking what she calls the “stained glass ceiling” in Canada, where senior female rabbis remain rare.She observed that, in a historically patriarchal religion, “people expect their rabbi to be a stand-in for God, who they think looks like a guy with a beard sitting on a cloud – I don’t look like that.“Being a divorced and lesbian rabbi and mom deepened my understanding of human experience,” she adds. “It broadened who I can relate to.”> She exemplifies how a community can both embrace tradition and also adapt to who we are as a people and community todayRabbi Hara Person, the first top female executive in the North American Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, calls Grushcow “a leading light of the Reform movement” and a rabbi for the modern age.“She exemplifies how a community can both embrace tradition and also adapt to who we are as a people and community today,” Person says.Nevertheless, overcoming prejudices can be an occupational hazard for a gay, female rabbi. Stephen Yaffe, a former president of her temple, who was on the search committee that hired Grushcow in 2012, recalls that some congregants initially expressed concern that she could prove polarising.“For some people, the fact that she is gay and female was a big deal, and some said, ‘This is not who we are,’” he recalls. But he says Grushcow had quickly convinced the doubters with her empathy, intellect and ability to connect with people. Before long, the temple’s benches were overflowing with young people.Having the comic timing of a Borscht Belt comedian also helped. The rabbi recalled that a stranger recently made an appointment to ask her to adjudicate a family inheritance dispute. When the bemused rabbi asked, “Why me?” the woman replied, “Rabbis are free, and I didn’t want to pay a therapist or a lawyer.”Her success at expanding Judaism’s tent was evident at a recent gala evening at the synagogue honouring her seven years’ service. Mark Fishman, a rabbi in the Orthodox tradition, which historically does not sanction gay relationships, observed that when it came to his own spiritual health, “Rabbi Grushcow is my rabbi.”At the end of the evening, she and her pregnant wife, Shelley, 39, a digital marketing specialist, were taken by surprise when they were called to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read.As a cantor sang “Rainbow Connection,” the first song they danced to at their wedding, the couple waltzed. The audience, which included Holocaust survivors, gay students and several Muslim leaders, beamed.> In addition to officiating at hundreds of bar mitzvahs and weddings, she led a study group for Jewish therapists turning to Jewish teachings to counsel about addiction, death and sexual identityBorn in Ottawa to a Conservative Jewish family and raised in Toronto, Grushcow credited her mother, a management consultant, and her father, the owner of a software development company, for instilling in her at a young age that girls could do anything.Nevertheless, she recalls reading a Torah commentary at age 8 that called homosexuality an “abyss of depravity” and feeling a pang of recognition that “it was talking about me”.After studying political science at McGill University in Montreal, she studied Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman World at Oxford, where she earned a doctorate. In 2001, she married her first spouse, a female rabbinical student; two years later, Grushcow was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Upon graduation, she joined Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a prominent Reform synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side, with 1,600 families. She stayed for nearly a decade – what she calls her coming-of-age as a rabbi.It was a decidedly New York experience. In addition to officiating at hundreds of bar mitzvahs and weddings, she led a study group for Jewish therapists turning to Jewish teachings to counsel about addiction, death and sexual identity. After the 2008 financial crisis, she comforted investment bankers who had lost everything. Judaism, she stresses, is far more accepting than many people realised.“Genesis is the best book ever on dysfunctional families,” she says. “Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac on a mountain – Sarah, his wife, must not have been happy with that.”And while some Orthodox scholars argue that transgender identity is incompatible with Judaism since “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she counters that the Talmud, an ancient Jewish text, did not limit gender to male or female. “In the Jewish tradition, we aren’t born who we become,” she says.Her time in liberal New York, she says, emboldened her with a strong sense of acceptance. “You can’t go 10 city blocks in New York without running into a lesbian rabbi,” she says.A year after she moved to Montreal in 2012, her first marriage fell apart – a painful process, she says, that nevertheless taught her many lessons. She says she better understood that divorce has its own “stages of grief,” and experienced the insensitivity of a society that assumes everyone has a spouse. Dating also proved challenging. “As a rabbinic gay divorcée, no one was coming to me with matches,” she adds.“I had a feeling of failure because I felt, as a rabbi, I am supposed to be an example,” she recalls. “One couple said to me: ‘How are we supposed to feel about marriage if even our rabbi is divorced?’”Soon she found herself juggling being a rabbi and being the primary caregiver to two young daughters, now 9 and 15. “I can give a sermon on Yom Kippur to a thousand people,” she says. “Then I go home and my kids don’t listen to me at all.”She met her second wife, Shelley, online – “on Match.com – not Jdate!” she says with a laugh, referring to the Jewish dating site. Shelley was the first person on the site she messaged, and the two soon discovered a common love of used bookstores and ballroom dancing. They were married last year.Shelley Grushcow observes that being a rabbi’s wife meant that family outings could be interrupted by funerals or hospital visits. But, she adds, “sometimes the community needs her more than we do”.Lisa Grushcow’s inclusive approach was apparent on a recent day when she went to offer condolences to a family in mourning. There were not enough people to say kaddish, the prayer for the dead, so the rabbi rang doorbells in the apartment building, looking for worshippers to join them.According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, 10 men – known as a minyan – are needed to say the mourner’s prayer, and several older women apologised that their husbands weren’t home. When the rabbi invited the women to join the minyan, she recalls, several had tears in their eyes.“They felt for the first time that they counted,” she says.© New York Times

  • In crisis-hit Venezuela, terminally ill children struggle for survival
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    The Independent

    In crisis-hit Venezuela, terminally ill children struggle for survival

    At the JM de los Rios Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, 26 children with cancer and other diseases need bone marrow transplants to save their lives. A few weeks ago, there were 30 of them, but four have since passed away. Their mothers seek a miracle in a country where even getting antihistamines, vaccines and antibiotics is hard. Finding a donor is almost impossible, but these mothers are not giving up. They show strength in front of the camera, but cry silently while recalling the moments in which they have witnessed their children’s conditions slowly worsen.The women and their children, who are aged between four and 17, narrate the daily hell they live at the JM de los Rios, the main public paediatric centre in Venezuela. Each day is a battle against death. “We have been waiting for too long. Someone goes every day,” says Evellyne Fernandez, mother of 15-year-old Edenny Martinez, who was diagnosed with major thalassaemia, a form of severe anaemia that requires blood transfusions every three weeks. The teenager, who dreams of becoming a lawyer, has been receiving transfusions since she was seven months old and ended up contracting hepatitis C. The children need Exaje, a drug that helps reduce iron levels after having a transfusion, but this has not been available since November.Cristina Zambrano, a teenager with thalassaemia who dreamed of becoming a publicist before her condition got worse, has been waiting for a bone marrow transplant since 2014. In 2016, she got hepatitis C after undergoing a blood transfusion. Fourteen-year-old Jerson Torres was diagnosed with severe bone marrow aplasia. His mother Verioska Martinez says he is stubborn and sometimes tells her: “If I have to die, I will.”The lives of these children have been limited, their conditions preventing them from getting involved in everyday activities like playing soccer or going to the beach. Their growth and development have slowed down. Only two centres perform bone marrow transplants in Venezuela as long as there are compatible donors. One of them is public and the other is private, and having surgery at the latter can cost $20,000 (£16,000), which is out-of-reach for the average Venezuelan. The Venezuelan government signed an agreement with Italy in 2006 so that children who do not have donors can be taken to the European country for transplants. The programme used to be funded by the state-owned oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela, but has been on hold since 2018.The government of Nicolas Maduro blames the United States for the programme’s paralysis and says Donald Trump’s government imposed a block that prevents Italy’s Association for Bone Marrow Transplant from paying. But healthcare organisations say the problem goes beyond that. Doctors, NGOs and healthcare professionals argue that the paralysis is a result of sanctions. Delays began in 2015 and hospitals started deteriorating at least a decade ago. According to the latest figures, 1,557 patients have died due to a lack of medical supplies, and there were 79 power outages between 19 November and 9 February at healthcare centres.These mothers have become like family, united around their children’s suffering. They help each out other when their children lack the right drugs. They even offer their homes up to mothers from other parts of the country who have come to the capital for help. Edenny was hosting Norilsa Aparicio and her son Oscar Bautista, a 16-year-old with thalassaemia who needed a bone marrow transplant too.“Moms help each other. Sometimes I go to the hospital to ask if anybody has a drug that I need and if someone gives it to me then I return the favour,” says Jaqueline Sulbaran, the mother of 10-year-old Carlon Rincon, who has Down’s Syndrome and leukaemia. His mother says he has healed, but must have chemotherapy for two more years. His treatment in the hospital is on hold because the air conditioning is broken.Four children have died this month while waiting for transplants. They include seven-year-old Robert Redondo, who passed away due to a complication. He needed two antibiotics for treating severe infections that his mother was unable to find. The deaths of these children have moved Venezuela, and on 26 May healthcare professionals and parents protested in front of the JM de los Rios Hospital, demanding solutions to a health crisis that has been going on for over five years.EPA

  • Cow cuddling: The latest therapeutic trend taking off in the US
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    The Independent

    Cow cuddling: The latest therapeutic trend taking off in the US

    Even without a psychology degree, Bella’s natural talents made her an excellent therapist: she is calm and accommodating of a range of personalities, with the patience to listen to endless problems without so much as a judgmental moo.From a lush, secluded pasture on the Mountain Horse Farm, a 33-acre bed-and-breakfast in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, three-year-old Bella and two-year-old Bonnie are the Highlander-Angus crossbred cows that provide animal-based therapy.Cow cuddling, as the practice is called, invites interaction with the farm animals via brushing, petting or heartfelt chats with the bovines. The experience is similar to equine therapy, with one game-changing difference: horses tend to stand, but cows spontaneously lie down in the grass while chewing their cud, allowing humans to get even more up close and personal by joining on the ground and offering a warm embrace.As more people are turning to a variety of animals – dogs, ducks, alligators – for their mental health, states are cracking down on how and when therapy animals can be used. But cows? You can’t take them with you.“Can you see how quiet she gets?” says Suzanne Vullers, 51, an equine therapist who co-owns the bed-and-breakfast with her husband Rudi Vullers, also 51. “That’s what we’re looking for,” she says. “For the person and the cow.”Hailing from the rural town of Reuver, in the Netherlands, the pair came across “koe knuffelen”, which means “cow hugging” in Dutch, on a return visit to their homeland two years ago. In parts of the Netherlands, cow cuddling is offered as part of half-day visits, and is part of a larger movement to connect people with country life. In the major urban centre of Rotterdam, a newly opened floating dairy farm in the city’s oldest port invites city dwellers to visit the beasts.About a decade earlier, in 2007, the couple – he a former supply chain manager, she a former accountant – traded their corporate lives to set up their farming shop in Naples (population: 2,500. Claim to fame: a grape festival that takes place in the autumn, with a competition for grape pie). The idea of cow cuddling opened the barn gates.> The cows get to live a natural life – they aren’t production animals and they’re not raised for beef or dairyIn May of 2018, they purchased Bonnie and Bella, selecting them for their gentle personalities and lack of horns. “A lot of cows are not suited for it,” Rudi says. “They can chase you out of the field.”Hour-long cow-cuddling sessions, priced at £60 per couple for the hour, are capped at two a day, with a maximum of four participants per session. “It’s not a petting zoo,” says, though the animals are indeed pets in a sense – they aren’t production animals, and they’re not raised for beef or dairy. “These girls get to live a natural life,” Suzanne says.Each session is overseen by two human counterparts: an equine therapist, usually Suzanne, who can read the animals’ moods to ensure a safe, positive interaction with their new human friends, and a second handler, who keeps a watchful eye on the other animals in the field.Neither has a psychology degree, which is kind of the point: “Whatever they’re going through, they don’t have to talk about it,” she says. “It’s not like [conventional] therapy, right?”> Clothing is important – they might slobber on youLike other forms of therapy, the hope is for visitors to foster trust, empathy and connection with the cows and their own emotions. And as with any other kind of therapy, there are no guarantees of successful outcomes: “They’re not trained to lie down,” she says.On a recent Saturday, two pairs of people, an engaged couple from Silicon Valley and a mother-daughter duo from upstate New York, had travelled from opposite sides of the country to cuddle some cows.“Drive five hours to hug a cow?” says Karen Hudson, 57, a construction company manager, who attended the afternoon session with her daughter, Jessica Ercoli, 27, a probation officer.For Hudson, it’s a sort of wish fulfilment, a throwback to the fond memories of visiting her grandmother’s farm. And perhaps a bit of fate, too. The email address she has used for over two decades includes the words “Missy”, which happens to be the name of miniature horse on the farm, and “moo”.Leading the two excited but tentative women onto the field, Suzanne offers guidance on a successful approach before demonstrating the methods herself. “O posture, not X posture,” she says. “Round the body” to appear less threatening. Walk up to the cow’s shoulders rather than its haunches.“Clothing is important,” Rudi says. “They might slobber on you.” (Definite requirement: closed-toe shoes.)For observers: “Stand sideways. It makes a world of difference to them,” Suzanne says.Advice for participants: “Respect them and their world and what they want to do and what they want to give you,” she adds.Number one advice for everyone: remain calm. “The more relaxed you are, the better it will be for you and them,” Suzanne says, because horses and cows alike sense emotions and respond in kind – most of the time.“Don’t rub your snot on me!” says Ercoli to Bella.Colin Clover, 50, a recruiting manager at Facebook attending the morning session, stumbled upon this extracurricular activity the way that many people discover niche wellness trends: the internet. He knew his fiancee Alexandria Rivas, 31, a receptionist, artist and longtime equestrian enthusiast, had fond memories of visiting the dairy farm next to the college she attended.Though he had once trained dolphins and sea lions, the idea of sidling up to a 900lb (400kg) heifer intimidated him. The nerves subsided, he says, when Suzanne framed it in a way he understood. “Think of how you would interact with your dog,” he recalls her saying.In their separate sessions, the pairs have a chance not just to meet the cows, but the entire coterie of characters. In the barn and field: Jaxon, the 1,800lb stallion; Stetson, a gelding, named for the hat; Cricket and Noa, mares rescued from abusive conditions; Suzie Q and Missy, miniature horses with distinct personalities. “Missy is always the first to say hi,” explains Suzanne of her outgoing, plump-bellied friend.For the final surprise of the day, the farmers invite the visitors to hand-feed the cows oat-based treats, which many participants describe as their favourite activity. Even though, Hudson says, the cows’ tongues “were like sandpaper!”Still, it was better than a different kind of surprise: “Sometimes cows drop things,” Suzanne says.Perhaps recognising they are in polite company, the cows only drop themselves. Lowering to the ground, they offer participants what they’ve travelled across state and country to experience: a chance for a warm embrace.© New York Times

  • The TV shows to watch this week: From The Moon Landings Live to Lethal Weapon
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    The Independent

    The TV shows to watch this week: From The Moon Landings Live to Lethal Weapon

    Obviously the “live” bit of Channel 4’s Moon Landing Live actually means “half a century late”, but you know what they mean. It’s as neat idea, to be fair, to replicate the experience of seeing human beings bouncing around the moon for the first time (the last was in 1972, as it happens). OK, you’ve probably already seen more than your fair share of lunar larks over the past month – anniversary journalism starts earlier with every momentous event commemorated it would seem. But this one is the purest of the many reincarnations: the US channel ABC’s original footage, complete with the now familiar exchanges between ground control and the crew of Apollo 11, plus some contemporary vox pops.Should be fascinating retro-futuristic stuff, unless of course you’re one of the 16 per cent of Brits who think the whole was faked or probably faked. In which case, come to think of it, you might think of this live streaming of 1969 as further proof of your conspiracy theory.Geoff Norcott is rarer than an Amur leopard, the rhino or any of the critically endangered species of orangutan. He is, you see, a right-wing stand-up comedian. He happens to believe that the liberal middle classes – Waitrose-shopping, Independent-reading, BBC2-watching types no doubt – have “ruined Britain” according to his hour-long polemic on, er, BBC2, which isn’t supposed to allow this sort of thing to be broadcast, what with it being an arm of an establishment plot and all that.​Norcott’s wide-ranging grumblings in How the Middle Classes Ruined Britain extend to gentrification of formerly working-class districts, a dating app for privately educated singletons, and the disappearance of any authentically working-class voices in British politics. Predictably enough, he himself believes that the Brexit vote “was a wake up call ... it showed one group of people have had their way for far too long”. If the past three years have taught us anything, it is the power of exactly what Norcott argues – but also that those very grievances and discontents will only be exacerbated by the effects of Brexit itself. In other words the poor will get poorer, even if the middle classes get poorer too after Brexit, if it ever happens. Me, I’m waiting for the arrival of a centrist funnyman to our screens, just to add some balance.Talking of living standards, Broke (BBC2) is a timely exploration of the lives of the people that Theresa May, famously and briefly, referred to as the “just about managing” – the JAMs. It was a clumsy acronym, but it was useful and telling one because it spoke to an essential truth about the country, being the way that so many families on middle incomes – say £20,000 to £30,000 – are so stretched and have so little margin between their relatively comfortable lives and penury. His three part series documents what can happen when a JAM loses their footing…Also in case you’d not noticed, the country is about to get a new prime minister. The Boris Johnson Show will be an all channels 24/7 affair next week, representing something of a feast for all you news/politics/Brexit junkies. Channel 5 make their own thoughtful contribution with a personal television essay by Michael Portillio, who, to borrow a phrase, was the future once. He’s not lost his faith, but he’s found it sorely tried. In Portillo: the Trouble with the Tories he does his best to work out how the Conservatives ended up where they are now. Hint: his early virile form of Euroscepticism in the 1990s might have something to do with it. The other big cultural event of the week, spread over BBC TV and radio channels, is the 2019 Proms. On Sunday there’s some Czech stuff – Smetana and Dvorak, Jakub Hrusa conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. While on Friday evening the proms will feature the world premiere of the specially commissioned orchestra version of The Race for Space, the 2015 album by Public Service Broadcasting, blending archive recordings of the Apollo mission with contemporary instrumentation. ITV’s action comedy Lethal Weapon is back on Friday evening, which means gunfights, car chases and explosions, a bit like a quiet night in for Carrie and Boris. It’s loosely based on the Lethal Weapon movie franchise, and is thus set in the LAPD and has similar plot lines and characters. The first two seasons, Lethal Weapon starred Clayne Crawford as Martin Riggs and Damon Wayans as Roger Murtaugh. Now Crawford is replaced in the new season by American Pie actor Seann William Scott, as ex-CIA operative Wesley Cole – a man who “has been everywhere and seen everything”. It’s the third and final run, I’m afraid. Moon Landing Live (Channel 4, Saturday 6.55pm); How the Middle Classes ruined Britain (BBC2, Wednesday 9pm); Broke (BBC2, Thursday 9pm); Portillo: the Trouble with the Tories (Channel 5, Thursday 9pm); BBC Proms 2019 (BBC4, Sunday 7pm, Friday 11pm); Lethal Weapon (ITV, Friday 9pm)

  • The TV shows to watch this week: From Poldark to the moon landings
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    The Independent

    The TV shows to watch this week: From Poldark to the moon landings

    Obviously the television highlight of the week is the return of Poldark. For some of us, the good news is that Sunday night television will, after this “final” eight-week run, be liberated from blokes in tricorne hats and women in bodices. Possibly, that is, for as long as it takes for the BBC to knock up yet another Jane Austen adaption. So, everyone is having to adapt to the death of Elizabeth Warleggan, with her widower, George (Jack Farthing) transmuting from panto villain into painful mental collapse. Ross (Aidan Turner, with the finest torso this side of Love Island) and wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) finds their domestic harmony disturbed once more when Ross receives an urgent call to settle some trouble up in London. Writing by Debbie Horsfield, based on and inspired by the originals by Winston Graham, written in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s remarkable how constant the middle-brow appetites of middle England can be.The astonishing achievement of landing three men on the moon a half century ago is celebrated by a run of documentaries and commemorations. Back in 1969 colour television was in its infancy, the internet hadn’t been invented, and it was a mere quarter of a century since the very first rockets had been developed by Nazi engineers at the end of the Second World War, one of Hitler’s “miracle weapons” that arrived just too late to make much difference. The Russians were first into space, about a decade before, and President Kennedy – then as now the Americans were in constant uneasy rivalry with the Russians – pledged to get an astronaut on the moon by the end of the 1960s.After an eight-day journey the three famous astronauts – Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins – travelled on Apollo 11 and did just that, their soundbites, sometimes misquoted, marking the dawn of the space age. The Day We Walked on the Moon tries to recapture some the wonderment of those moments, with reminiscences by the surviving astronauts and ground crew, with the charming Brian Cox adding some essential explanation. That historic field trip to the moon also marked the first time any human had actually viewed Earth from the moon, of course, wondering at its beauty from the vantage point of our closest neighbour. The dawn of the space age also marked the dawn of modern environmentalism, and it was a moment that helped us realise what an unusual and remarkable and fragile thing life on Earth is. It didn’t, however, stop us from carrying on trashing the place, as we still are. BBC’s Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance to Save the World? is a portrait of some of the people who believe that it is almost too late to save our lovely little habitat, and the human race from extinction, and are, as we see, very determined to do something about it right here and right now.It’s the first film to gain proper access inside the Extinction Rebellion movement. Filmmaker Ben Zand spent some four months following the activists around, as they planned and then executed their project to bring parts of central London to a halt for 10 days. They succeeded, in the sense that they stopped the traffic, caused mayhem and won huge publicity; but they may not have won the battle for public opinion, which is the first one they’ll have to win to achieve their ultimate aims. Still, Theresa May has given the country a 2050 deadline to decarbonise, at a cost of £1 trillion. Easier said than done, then. Sometimes it feels as if the entire world is connected via social media, which I suppose it pretty much is, but despite how many folk tweet and update and instagram and whatsapp and linkedin, and are addicted to doing so, they seem to simultaneously hate the very outfits that have built such an unprecedented human communities, even though they’re only virtual. Inside the Social Network: Facebook’s Difficult Year relates the story of how this global giant with billions of users had to rescue itself and its reputation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For those of us wary of social media, and the web generally if truth be told, the safest thing is to assume that anything and everything you put out there digitally, from your mugshot to your mortgage details, is capable of being hacked, stolen, bought and sold by people with sometimes honourable and sometimes nefarious intent. I’m more amazed that social media users don’t seem to have enough common sense to have seen it coming. Not much of a scandal, in other words, though that’s a minority view. If you like your sport you probably don’t need me to remind you about the treat that is offered over the coming days, but for the sake of completeness I may as well mention a few highlights – Wimbledon finals on the BBC at the weekend; Sunday’s Cricket World Cup final sees host nation England face New Zealand on Sky; the British Grand Prix rolls into Silverstone; and The Open returns to Northern Ireland, Portrush, for the first time since 1951 appropriately enough for Rory McIlroy. Good luck to him.Poldark (BBC1, Sunday 9pm); The Day We Walked on the Moon (ITV, Tuesday 9pm); Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance to Save the World? (BBC1, Wednesday 10.35pm); Inside the Social Network: Facebook’s Difficult Year (BBC2, Tuesday 9pm); Wimbledon (BBC1, Saturday, Sunday 1pm); Cricket World Cup final (Sky Sports, Sunday 10.30am); F1: British Grand Prix (Sky F1, Sunday 1.45pm); Golf: The Open (Sky Sports, Thursday 6.30am)

  • Peter Gynt, National Theatre review: A mighty achievement – but with strings attached
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    The Independent

    Peter Gynt, National Theatre review: A mighty achievement – but with strings attached

    The magnetic young actor James McArdle was in his mischievous/despairing element a couple of years ago as Platonov, the title character in David Hare‘s brilliant adaptation of an early Chekhov play, directed by Jonathan Kent. For the same team, he is now being no less dazzling, owning the Olivier stage for an unflagging three and a half hours as the incorrigible fantasist, who here goes by the Anglicised name of Peter, rather than Peer Gynt.In fact, the show is billed as “by David Hare after Henrik Ibsen”. Authorial hubris? No: for my money, in its black hilarity and acute understanding of how the modern world has demeaned the concept of the “self”, this production offers the most laugh-out-loud, feel-bad version I’ve seen of this astonishing, ahead-of-its-time phantasmagoria. It comes, though, with certain strings attached.McArdle is cornering the market in sexy, irresistible s***s. Platonov is a negiligent lady killer who knows deep down that his amoral behaviour is ultimately doomed. By contrast, McArdle’s Peter is in compulsively prattling denial that ultimate authenticity exists. His talk is a non-stop haemmorrhage of defensively vainglorious yarns. Hare’s version latches fruitfully onto the current fashion for believing that our lives are the “stories” we improvise – an ideological position that lets us off the hook, favouring the accumulation of wealth over the accruing of wisdom.Kent’s production gets majestic measure of the Olivier. Richard Hudson’s imposing design bifurcates the stage. One half looks like one of those lovely Eric Ravilious visions of a rather bleached and closely shaved green-and-pleasant-land. The other gives us slinky and pervy glimpses of a psychic dystopia. The kingdom of the terrifying trolls is staged as a candelabra-lit Oxbridge high table reangled at a steep incline, as if in a jeering travesty of a nervous breakdown. Around it congregate dinner-jacketed toffs, discussing the philosophy to which their gilded sty is dedicated: “To thine own self be true – and damn the rest of the world”.McArdle’s Peter pops up all over the place (head first, say, out of the golf holes on a celebrity golf course, like rabbits in a plutocratic retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). The energy is thrilling, as is the nuance. He understands that it is only a short step from cocky blarney to being trapped in the cling film wrap of solipsism. His attempts to wrestle his way out of this packaging are distressing to watch. On the other hand, his aged Peter does becomes chastened and crumbly, as the character has done in many other performances. He remains ornery and protesting. The plays comes full circle to its starting place, but more in a corkscrew shape than in a quietist implication that it would have been better if he had remained home all along.Hare’s very funny script is richly resourceful in finding contemporary parallels. Spirituality? What earthly use is that? In paunchy middle age, McArdle becomes faintly Les Patterson in aspect, pooh-poohing the difference between the Sunnis and Shiites and shouting it up as, in the main, an opportunity to make money; “After all, what’s the difference between them? An interpretation of theology, that’s all! A prophet who wasn’t clear!” I occasionally wondered if Hare isn’t a bit too much on top of the game. He riddlesthe piece with light at the expense, perhaps, of ridding the piece of some of its irreducibly riddling qualities. But in general, this show – sharply etched across the board by populous crack cast – is a mighty achievement and one of which the NT can be justly proud.To 8 October, nationaltheatre.org.uk

  • Fallen from Heaven, Sadler’s Wells, review: Rocio Molina's return re-establishes her as one of the best Flamenco dancers
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    The Independent

    Fallen from Heaven, Sadler’s Wells, review: Rocio Molina's return re-establishes her as one of the best Flamenco dancers

    There are some dancers – some performers – who are unlike anyone else. Rocío Molina is one of them. She’s flamenco’s wildest radical, punk and glorious, a magnificent dancer whose range takes in the fiery intensity of traditional styles, surreal fantasy and unpredictable humour. In Caída del cielo (Fallen from Heaven), she goes from moon goddess to rock chick, taking in crisps and pollution along the way.Her current tour, appearing at Sadler’s Wells as part of Flamenco Festival London, is Molina’s return to dance after having her first child last year. (Characteristically, she built a show around her pregnancy, adapting the choreography to her changing body). She’s back at full power.She’s the only dancer in Fallen From Heaven, working her way through strange transformations. Her four musicians mix traditional flamenco with rock music and compositions by another iconoclast, Paco de Lucía, a guitarist who branched into jazz and other styles. The show sometimes rambles, losing momentum as Molina pushes at boundaries, but still has her characteristic blend of imagery and powerful dancing.She first appears in an ice white dress, a snowdrift of ruffles around her ankles. Slow as a glacier, she leans this way and that, tilting and morphing from one pose to another. She could be a mermaid, or a sea creature evolving to walk, and dance, on shore.Once she’s got there, all bets are off. She strips off the white dress, then matter-of-factly wriggles into her leggings under a dressing gown, tugging fabric into place. Her footwork is fast and explosive, but she’s a flamenco star who never relies on it: she often dances barefoot, showing off liquid backbends, swinging hips and shoulders, her movement quality as sleek as a cat’s.Elsewhere, she discovers a bondage harness inside a packet of crisps, or dances with a long staff, her feet and the wood setting up cross-rhythms with the intricate clapped and beaten patterns from the musicians. Then she jumps astride the staff, like a witch who has discovered pole dancing.When Molina returns to the mermaid imagery, it’s with a sense of darkness. Pulling on wet plastic skirts, she leaves a trail of fluid behind her, splattering the stage like an oil slick. One of the musicians washes her feet before she changes into a wine red dress. Then she dances perhaps the most traditional solo of the evening, grand and assured, with her knees still muddy.Flamenco Festival London continues until 14 July. Box office 020 7863 8000.

  • Why British artists say oil money shouldn’t fund the arts: Its furthering of the climate crisis is unacceptable
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    The Independent

    Why British artists say oil money shouldn’t fund the arts: Its furthering of the climate crisis is unacceptable

    Accepting money from arms companies has long been unthinkable for most arts organisations in Europe. This year, taking money from the Sackler family, which has been linked to the opioid crisis, became taboo for many of them, too.Now, artists and activists say oil and gas money should be added to that list.Last week, British artists including Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Sarah Lucas said they had called on the National Portrait Gallery in London to cut ties with BP, saying its “role in furthering the climate crisis” made accepting new sponsorship from the company unacceptable.“We believe that, today, the loss of BP as a source of funding is a cost worth bearing,” the artists said in an open letter to the museum.BP acknowledges climate change is a significant problem but is only investing 3 per cent of its available capital in renewable energy, the letter said. This was a “glaring contradiction between words and actions”, the letter added.BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s annual Portrait Award was “lending credence to the company’s misleading assurance that it’s doing all it can”, the artists said.The letter is only the latest protest in recent weeks against UK arts institutions that receive sponsorship from oil companies.At the end of June, Mark Rylance, the Academy Award and Tony-winning actor, resigned from an honorary position at the Royal Shakespeare Company because it accepted money from BP to subsidise tickets for young people.“I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer,” Rylance wrote in his resignation letter. “Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.” Rylance says he would not consider acting with the company until the sponsorship deal with BP is dropped.The Royal Opera House in London has also faced calls to end BP’s sponsorship of outdoor opera and ballet screenings. Last week, Extinction Rebellion, the climate change protest group, staged a small “die-in” outside the opera house, lying down on the pavement outside. The audience who used its main entrance had to step over protesters to get into that night’s performance of Carmen.There have been similar theatrical protests in Britain for years, but many have barely been noticed. The National Portrait Gallery’s annual BP Portrait Award was first protested against in 2003.In 2016, BP ended its sponsorship of the Tate group of galleries, which activists led by a group called Liberate Tate said was a result of a stream of protests that at time looked more like performance art. In 2010, activists poured molasses in front of the museum’s entrance so guests at a summer party arrived to what looked like an oil spill. (When it ended the sponsorship, BP told The Independent that it was merely acting in response to an “extremely challenging business environment”.)In the US, museums’ links to climate change have also been questioned. Last year, curators at the American Museum of Natural History, as well as more than 200 scientists, expressed their concern about the presence of Rebekah Mercer, an influential donor to groups that deny climate science, on its board. The museum batted away the protests and said it did not appoint board members based on their political views, or let funders shape curatorial decisions.But the prominence of the artists and actors involved in Britain in recent months suggests an escalation of the campaign here.The open letter to the National Portrait Gallery was organised by Gary Hume, an artist and one of the judges for this year’s BP Portrait Award, with the help of Culture Unstained, an organisation opposed to fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts. He says he had only realised the urgency of climate change when he visited protests in London organised by Extinction Rebellion in April, long after he had accepted the judging role.“I know how difficult fundraising is,” Hume says, “but I’ve been persuaded this is a real issue.” The fact that people like him, without a long history of activism, are acting now is a major difference from previous campaigns, he says.Sharon Heal of the Museums Association, a British umbrella group, says that artists had become increasingly aware of their ability to influence museums’ decisions. She cites the success of photographer Nan Goldin’s protests against Sackler family funding, including at the National Portrait Gallery, which recently turned down a $1.3m (£1m) donation from one of the family’s charitable arms. All museums will be discussing the appropriateness of oil funding, she says, but it was up to each to decide for itself.None of the four main institutions sponsored by BP in Britain – the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House – will disclose how much the oil company gives them. But BP said in a press release in 2016 that the institutions would receive about $9.4m among them over five years.All four institutions say they continue to welcome the company’s sponsorship. “We recognise the significance and importance of climate change, and we share the goals and concerns of those campaigning for a sustainable future,” says Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive.“Whilst we prioritise meeting our environmental obligations, we balance this with BP’s ongoing support providing free access to our art forms.” Around 1 million people had benefited during 30 years of sponsorship, he says.Peter Mather, BP’s regional president for Europe and the United Kingdom, says that the protests had not diminished the company’s desire to support British arts organisations. The company always discusses such events with the institutions that it sponsors, he says – “We don’t want them to feel uncomfortable” – but no changes are planned.“What our support goes towards is taking the arts out to much, much wider audiences,” Mather says. “It is not an ego trip,” he says, nor was it an attempt to “greenwash” BP’s reputation, pointing out that BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Opera House and National Portrait Gallery goes back to the 1980s.The arts in Britain need private sponsorship, he says. “If you remove companies from the equation, you’re going to rely heavily on government,” he adds. “And I don’t see much spare cash washing around.”Jeremy Deller, a British artist who was a Tate trustee from 2007 to 2011 and served on the museum’s ethics committee when it renewed a sponsorship contract with BP, says he’s unsure whether arts organisations should turn down BP funding. Activists should be targeting the oil company directly, he says.“I always thought that BP was playing a very clever game,” he says. “They’re almost subcontracting the activism and the controversy to these open-minded arts organisations, so they don’t have to deal with it.“I think we’re looking at the wrong side, to be honest,” he adds. “That’s not a popular opinion, I know.”© New York Times

  • This man isn’t a best-selling author, but he did write his debut novel blind
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    The Independent

    This man isn’t a best-selling author, but he did write his debut novel blind

    Joel Burcat’s debut novel, “Drink to Every Beast”, isn’t climbing best-seller lists or getting attention from prominent critics. But it’s remarkable for a different reason.He finished it after he became legally blind.An environmental lawyer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Mr Burcat, 64, had been writing in his spare time for many years and had cranked out several novels, including an early version of this one. But none had found a publisher and gone out into the world.Then, in early 2018, he lost much of the vision in his right eye to the same affliction that a year and a half earlier had ravaged his left.To cope with the physical and emotional adjustment, he stepped away from his legal work and realised that he had extra time to write. More than that, he had extra determination.“I had to prove to myself that I could do something that one would not normally say a blind person can do,” he told me during a recent phone conversation. “It was really, really important to me.”He got dictation software, hired an editor and then sent a polished revision of “Drink to Every Beast,” a legal thriller about toxic waste in the Susquehanna River, to Headline Books, which welcomes writers unrepresented by agents. It published the novel a few weeks ago.No matter the book’s reception, he’s beyond ecstatic. “Now,” he said, “I can claim to be in the same category as James Joyce, James Thurber and other blind authors.”They weren’t totally blind. But Mr Burcat is right about a fascinating tradition of writers with little or no eyesight — fascinating because they affirm human beings’ power to transcend apparent limits, because they show how obstacles can be gateways to epiphanies and because they challenge what it means to see.For that you use your brain — where images are stored, organised, edited and turned into words — as much as your eyes. You use your spirit.Within the densest fog and darkest black, you can find clarity and colour if your imagination is 20-20.That’s the lesson of John Milton, of Jorge Luis Borges and of dozens of less celebrated writers who worked without eyesight, which, in most cases, like theirs, they lost as adults.They needed assistance, but they pressed on. It steeled them. They responded to a world that often marginalizes or condescends to disabled people by demonstrating just how able they were.Mr Milton produced “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” more than a decade after his eyes failed around 1652. “A good argument can be made that he was able to render these masterpieces not in spite of his blindness but because of it,” John Rumrich, who teaches Mr Milton at the University of Texas, told me.> “Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”> > The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks“He himself thought as much.” Mr Milton chose to regard blindness as the price he was paying for “inner illumination,” Mr Rumrich said. It bolstered his sense of mission.It certainly shaped “Paradise Lost,” which teems with the binaries of day and night, darkness and light, and reflects on his own blindness, which he describes as an all-encompassing blank that has expunged nature’s glory.Mr Borges, the Argentine fiction writer, poet and essayist, had Mr Milton in mind when he observed in a 1977 essay that “a writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument: Everything has been given for an end.This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material.” He added that “if a blind man thinks this way, he is saved. Blindness is a gift.”Mr Borges turned the loss of his eyesight into a gorgeous poem, “On His Blindness,” which notes that he can no longer savour “the closed encyclopedia,” “the tiny soaring birds,” “the moons of gold.” “Others have the world, for better or worse,” it concludes. “I have this half-dark, and the toil of verse.”I have a special interest in Milton and Borges — and became aware of Burcat — because of my own diminished eyesight. More than a year and a half ago, I woke up with profoundly blurry, clouded vision in my right eye and learned that I’d had a sort of stroke of the optic nerve. The damage was permanent.What happened to me is technically known as nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, or Naion, which could strike my left eye, too: There’s a roughly 20% chance of that. After I recounted this in a column, Mr Burcat reached out to me. Naion was the culprit in his blindness.He and I have tools available to us — audiobooks, voice-to-text technology, enormous computer screens on which letters can be supersized — that weren’t around decades, let alone centuries, ago.But James Wilson, who was blind, nonetheless produced “Biography of the Blind” in the early 1800s. In the early 1900s, Helen Keller, who was deaf as well as blind, wrote autobiographical books and essays.Homer is often portrayed as blind, though it’s hard to know what to make of that: Scholars haven’t determined whether Homer was one poet or a group of them.There have been enough blind or seriously visually challenged writers that Heather Tilley, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, wrote a book that focused just on those of the Victorian era. It’s titled “Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing.”When I spoke with her recently, I learned about Frances Browne, an Irish poet and novelist in the 19th century who was blind from early childhood but used what she’d heard of the world for literature that betrayed little if any hint of that.I learned about a celebrated, widely read 19th century travel writer, James Holman, who made his treks and fashioned his prose after he lost his eyesight.“Although he relies on the people who are around him to describe things officially to him, there’s also quite a strong sense of smell, of the motion of travelling in a carriage, of how the air feels,” Ms Tilley said. “The writing feels more multisensory.”Blind writers use their craft to make the photo album from the years before blindness permanent. It lifts intellect above flesh, erasing their impediment. It creates a world in which they can move unencumbered.I asked Mr Burcat, who not only finished “Beast” but also wrote an entire other novel after he lost his sight, how his disability influenced his writing. He said that blindness sharpened his memory, caused him to dwell longer on physical descriptions and “made me much more patient, more kind, more understanding.”“I’ve always been sympathetic,” he added. “But now I’m empathetic.”His words remind and comfort me, as I contemplate my own uncertain future, that writing isn’t an act of stenography. It’s a bid for connection. A search for meaning.Oliver Sacks said it well in “The Mind’s Eye,” a book inspired by his partial loss of vision: “Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”The New York Times

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, episode five review: A riveting 60 minutes of spiritual water torture
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    The Independent

    The Handmaid’s Tale, episode five review: A riveting 60 minutes of spiritual water torture

    How quickly we’ve plunged back down the rabbit hole on The Handmaid’s Tale this year. Season two was about physical torture – we bore witness as Gilead literally twisted the screws, sinking its claws into victims. But now, the torment is all emotional, as June (Elisabeth Moss) discovers in this traumatically topsy-turvy fifth instalment.The episode really does take you on a journey. We begin with the heroine monologuing, slightly smugly, in an antiseptic supermarket. Her baby got out. She’s a Handmaid apart – the only one who knows her child will grow up in a sane world rather than a nightmare theocracy. Yet the final scene could not be more different, as June glares at us and out into the abyss, throwing figurative daggers to the strains of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Why inflict Bono and chums upon the citizens of Gilead? Haven’t they suffered enough? Well, the song provides a window into the seething inner life of June, who has just learned she is being made accessory to a plot to force Canada to hand her daughter, Nichole, back to the ghastly Waterfords (in any event, it could have been worse – they could have flayed our souls with Coldplay instead). This is the killer culmination to a riveting 60 minutes of spiritual water torture. Here The Handmaid’s Tale is playing a devastating three-card trick with our feelings. Initially, it seems that it’s Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) who is to be shoved through the grinder. She was instrumental in helping send her daughter out of Gilead. Yet now, she cannot live without her (never mind that Nichole is not actually Serena’s daughter – that’s how it works here). June, who can sometimes be more sure of her position than the facts merit, agrees to assist Serena by contacting her husband Luke (OT Fagbenle) by phone. This all flows from Luke’s foolish lapse last week, in which he allowed himself to be caught on camera, with Nichole, at a street protest in Canada. Now, the Waterfords have a face and name, and this will cause Luke a world of woe. His first hint that things are to change for the worse comes as June calls out of the blue. She’s done so as a bargaining chip: she contacts Luke and then Serena owes her. Her chat is stilted but she delivers the message: she wants – no, she needs – Luke to agree to meet Serena. And to bring Nichole. One sneaky aside here comes via an insight into the personal life of June’s new commander, Lawrence, and his wife. Back in the pre-Gilead days, he wooed her by sending her mixtapes of his favourite bubble-gum punk bands. Leading up to the trip to Canada, June gets to muck about in the basement listening to these old cassettes. Do not adjust your bonnet: The Handmaid’s Tale has briefly threatened to shape-shift into Guardians of the Galaxy. We’re soon back to dystopian first principles. Luke agrees to the meeting. But only in public and with Serena rather than both Waterfords. In the terminal, Serena breaks down weeping. Luke is understandably suspicious, though agrees to taking the keepsake Serena has brought for the child. The biggest jolt here is how different – more human – Serena looks dressed like a civilian, rather than in her usual Stepford flight attendant dark emerald.Later, Luke puts on a cassette and listens to a hidden message recorded by June in the Lawrence’s basement. She still loves him, the child’s father is a man named Nick, Luke has permission to go on with is life. He’s in bits, understandably (hold on Luke – they’re going to make you listen to U2 next). June, too, soon has reason to break down. But she instead maintains a granite-like wall of cold fury. She’s dragged off to chateau Waterford, changed into a nice new gown and then forced to stand in the corner as Fred and Serena go on television and beg the Canadian government to return their daughter. Serena has gone back on everything she promised and made June an accomplice to her and Fred’s attempted baby heist.Did somebody say melodrama? In swoops Bono, howling his lungs out as June stares like the devil herself. A reckoning is coming down the tracks; June will not take this betrayal by Serena lightly. It’s often hard to imagine how The Handmaid’s Tale could get any darker. This week, suddenly and compellingly, it does.

  • 30 artworks to see before you die, from Mona Lisa to The Great Wave
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    The Independent

    30 artworks to see before you die, from Mona Lisa to The Great Wave

    What makes a great painting? Is it one that makes you wonder how on earth the artist reproduced a scene so precisely in paint? Or ones that captures emotion in a single brushstroke? Or simply something utterly beautiful?Art lovers can amble around Paris’s the Louvre, New York’s Moma, Madrid’s Prado, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and London’s Tate Gallery – even Venice’s Sistine Chapel, looking at walls (and ceilings) full of art. But there is something altogether different about going to see one particular artwork – a masterpiece – and examining what makes it special, marvelling at the colours they used, the symbolism in the painting, the art movement their work spearheaded, and even the mystery of the sitter.Of course, some great paintings are in private collections, but here are a selection of some of the best artworks in public galleries and museums, all over the world.Click through to see them.

  • How to protect your freedom in the stupid game of capitalism
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    The Independent

    How to protect your freedom in the stupid game of capitalism

    Eating costs, heating costs. Regrettably, we all have to pay the bills, though our solutions to this problem vary according to how much power over our lives we want – and how much responsibility we are prepared to accept. As an employee you have to show up for work every day and do your job to an agreed standard, or you get fired. If you are self-employed you do not have to show up for work every day and there is nobody to fire you – but you have to assess demand and provide what the market wants, essentially applying for a job with every one of your clients. This is harder than employment initially, then easier if you are successful, when reputation starts working for you.If you want to live as an artist, you will not have to show up for work every day and you will not have to give the market what it wants – which sounds like freedom, although if you are to continue eating and heating you may eventually have to adapt your art to the market, or adapt the market to your art, which can be done but takes a lot longer.“The more abstract the truth you wish to teach,” said the humourist Fred Nietzsche, “the more you need to seduce the senses to it.” As a stand-up I attempted in the early years to communicate my taste in particular little abstractions to audiences variously older and younger and richer and poorer than myself – and my successes and failures hinged indeed on my seduction of the audiences’ senses.Where I communicated an enjoyable foolishness they would willingly picture my hypoglycaemic horses and strain to parse my perversely dislocated grammar. Where I was visibly bummed out by the improbability of building a bridge between us, they would lose faith and I would die.To protect my freedom to do quite good work which people hate – and postpone the day when I have to adapt my art to the market, I have had to do some questionable things compatible with my skillset: adverts, even acting. These activities are of course not real work but a necessary, minimal participation in the stupid game of capitalism we are playing at the moment.In my experience, the more moronic and distant from creative responsibility something is, the better paid it is. My biggest payday as a performer was when my mate Karl and I voiced a pair of computer-animated bees for a mobile network campaign. They paid us so much money. They could have paid us a lot less and we would still have pretended to be bees. We didn’t even have to pretend to be bees that much, as the characters we portrayed spoke excellent English. Not only all that, but we could order anything for lunch.> These activities are of course not real work but a necessary, minimal participation in the stupid game of capitalism we are playing at the momentOccasionally comedians will get asked to audition for acting roles, I don’t know why. The castings are almost always awful. They dangle a very useful sum of money in front of you and you have kids so you go along to the casting office above a shop in the West End of London and sit with other blokes in a cattle pen, your man-about-town bonhomie ebbing until there is none left, at which point they call you in to show them your magic. A stand-up gig, even if it ends with a whimper, always starts with a bang: you are introduced, as yourself, to a round of applause – a fair wind. A casting, by contrast, is a performance of someone else’s material, usually s**t, to a seated, bored audience of one, plus a silent camcorder operator, at midday. I am not conditioned for it, it just doesn’t feel like performance at all without the pressure of the crowd’s expectations. Like Bruce Banner jumping out of a plane and hoping he will transform into the Hulk before he hits the ground, I wait for my irritability to kick in and somehow intensify me telegenically. Occasionally it does and I get the gig.One of these acting jobs was more shameful than all the others, though it remains compelling as a name-drop. In 2006, I appeared as Jesus Christ in the movie The Da Vinci Code, directed by Ron Howard, whose filmography includes Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind. The Da Vinci Code is an exciting departure from this illustrious canon, being virtually unwatchable. Blame for this can hardly be laid at the feet of the filmmakers though; the source novel is the single worst piece of published fiction ever to be read on trains.Look – I was happy to get this part because even though my fee was unspectacular, it was fun to be in a big thing, plus I knew I would make out like a bandit from the royalties. The production flew me out to Malta, which is full of stone buildings both intact and ruined, and accordingly provides locations for all those ancient world blockbusters: most Maltese of working age were extras in Troy or Alexander.The blasphemous wedding of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was filmed on a huge outdoor set with many costumed extras and an enormous crane rig – and then cut from the film because, I was told, the lives of the production team had been threatened by religious zealots with a blind spot for the fifth commandment.But do not worry. I do remain in the film, in a fuzzy dream sequence, for half a second, about twenty minutes in. And I still receive handsome residuals from this appearance, which was the whole point after all – being briefly demeaned in the service of long-term financial freedom. I know you will want to know how much whoring oneself out to Hollywood pays, and I will tell you.My last royalty was in the amount of 13p, which means that by the time an industrial chain of salaried accountants, distributors and agents have ferried it to me, it will have cost quite a lot more to pay me than the payment itself. We’ve all learned something there. The question is, what I am going to do with all the money?

  • Scars on the Middle Eastern landscape bear witness to past peace failures
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    The Independent

    Scars on the Middle Eastern landscape bear witness to past peace failures

    Since the end of British Mandate for Palestine and the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, invasions, wars, armistices, treaties, uprisings, barriers, checkpoints and civil wars have shifted the boundaries of who can travel – and live – where across the Middle East. Yet on the ground there remain fragments of who came and went before.The scars left by wars past haunt the landscape across Israel, the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights. In the far north, on the western edge of the Israeli-occupied area, a decades-old rusting Syrian tank can still be seen lying upside down in a whitewater stream.Across the Golan are other reminders of the wars between Israel and Syria: minefields, foxholes and abandoned armour.Many relics of the British era survive. In the West Bank, a British jail and military buildings still stand in al-Jiftlik, near Jericho. Long abandoned, sheep now wander through the empty buildings.Also Gaza, a tiny Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean coast, is filled with relics of the recent and distant past. In the post-war era, Gaza remained a frequent flashpoint – until the Oslo peace process of the 1990s brought hopes of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.Huge amounts of money were spent creating the institutions of the Palestinian Authority under its first president, Yasser Arafat, who used Gaza's airport to fly abroad on official visits. But the optimism of the Oslo era receded, giving way to mutual recriminations and renewed violence.The airport was an early casualty: Israel destroyed its runway a few months after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, deeming it a security threat during a Palestinian uprising in Gaza and the West Bank.Arafat’s helicopter – the presidential transport of a long-dead president – is now a rotorless relic on public display in Gaza City. And the skeletons of the airport buildings lie gutted and abandoned next to Gaza's southern border with Egypt.Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Reuters

  • Behind the scenes of China’s billion dollar pre-marriage photo sessions trend
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    The Independent

    Behind the scenes of China’s billion dollar pre-marriage photo sessions trend

    Chinese couples used to be satisfied with a single black-and-white photograph taken during their wedding as a memento of their special day. But times have changed dramatically, and wedding photographs, especially pre-wedding photo sessions, have become big business in China.In the main tourist spots in different cities across China, it’s easy to see couples having their pre-wedding picture shoots, which have become the must-have for every Chinese couple before their marriage.Unlike western weddings, where usually couples have their photos taken on the day, for Chinese people it is popular to have day-long photo sessions way before the actual wedding. Sometimes it can be half a year or even a year in advance of the ceremony. To make these pre-wedding photos as unique as possible, lots of couples will select unusual spots as a backdrop, such as a fake field with deer and a sky full of stars, or in an interior scene made to look like one of the largest religious Cambodian monuments, Angkor Wat; all of these spots can be found in photo studios. Some couples even choose other countries for their pre-wedding sessions.Often for their photo shoots couples go for traditionally romantic cities such as Paris. Those who can’t afford such a trip can have their photo taken in front of Chinese replicas of the world’s main tourist sights. Other couples prefer more traditional outdoor locations, like Beijing’s Hutong neighbourhood, or to be surrounded by nature like in Dali, where lots of couples do their pre-wedding photography next to Erhai Lake.These sessions can range in price from a few hundred up to thousands of dollars, with companies providing clients with everything from outfits to make-up and transportation.Brides typically have at least three dress changes per shoot. Inspired by the western style, many choose a flowing white wedding dress, a Chinese-style red gown, and something more modern. The shoots are just one part of a booming industry in China.A wedding for most newly married couples can run from 50,000 yuan (£6,000) to 200,000 yuan, with larger amounts not uncommon in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai.China’s wedding industry was valued at 1.46 trillion yuan in 2017, and it is expected to grow to 3 trillion yuan by 2021.

  • The End of History, The Royal Court review: Lesley Sharp is painfully funny in this clever, intriguing production
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    The Independent

    The End of History, The Royal Court review: Lesley Sharp is painfully funny in this clever, intriguing production

    Oddly enough, not many parents choose to name their children after political heroes. So it's all the more telling that the offspring in The End of History – the latest, highly intriguing piece from the hit-making team of writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany – have been lovingly lumbered with Carl (after Communist Manifesto writer Karl Marx), Polly (after social anthropologist Polly Hill) and Tom (after political revolutionary Thomas Paine).This collaboration between Thorne and Tiffany has already given us a stage version of the Scandi vampire movie Let the Right One In and the mega-successful Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Their follow-up to the latter is set in Newbury, in the kitchen/dining room of a right-on, left-leaning family that would likely be hostile to Hogwarts on doctrinal grounds. Private schooling? The obscurantist escapism of magic as a pseudo-solution to social problems? Baby-boomers Sal and David have risen from deprived backgrounds to the relative security of this nice, roomy, scruffy-at-the-edges abode, without for a moment ceasing the struggle to educate the world towards the freedom of collective progress.Beautifully directed by Tiffany, the piece moves through three decidedly awkward family dinners in 1997 (the winter before the New Labour landslide), 2007 and 2017. The intervening decades are presented in droll, sped-up dance sequences. By the time we meet this clan, the indefatigably sincere teacher Sal has become – in Lesley Sharp's painfully funny performance – an embarrassing cartoon of herself to her long-suffering kids. And she is desperately aware of this. It's touching and awful how much she longs to share a bed again with her 19-year-old daughter Polly (the gawky, clever child who is excellently played by Kate O'Flynn). Polly has come back from her first term at Cambridge for this occasion. Her older brother Carl (Mum’s Sam Swainsbury is pitch-perfect as a ruefully conscious disappointment) is introducing his girlfriend and future wife, whose parents are Roman Catholics who have made their wealth from a string of service-stations. Late to the feast, because he’s been in detention for drug use, Tom (superb Laurie Davidson) is the sensitive, gay sixth former who'd be quite a wag if he weren't so incipiently suicidal.The piece, in its earlier stages, has a clever, accelerated Posy Simmonds-meets-Ionesco air, and throughout is a devastating verbal spree. But in its piercing look at the liabilities (and benefits) of being the offspring of political idealists, it puts you in mind of Tony Kushner's more serious Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism. It's both satire and celebration. David Morrissey beautifully conveys the maddeningly resilient side of the father, and he breaks your heart as he reads a bare, moving, Quaker-style list of his wife's achievements before her funeral. She did so much good for people. But like many idealists, she saw her children as a “legacy project that would protect the values she held dear”. Which is a big ask – sometimes intolerable, sometimes inspiring. I loved this show, though it could perhaps have been a tad more forthright about its intentions. To 10 August; royalcourttheatre.com

  • The TV shows to watch this week: From the moon landings to Agatha Raisin
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    The Independent

    The TV shows to watch this week: From the moon landings to Agatha Raisin

    It is all of 238,855 miles to the moon, and not particularly easy ones either, requiring the traveller to slip the Earth’s gravitational field and, on the way back in, subsist without natural air, and survive temperatures of 1,649C. So that’s like driving round the M25 2,041 times non-stop (provided there’s not the usual blockage at the Swanley interchange). Yet, back in 1969, the Yanks managed to do just that, and to send back live moving images to the earth, beamed more or less directly into the (probably) black and white television set in your living room. Even now, it would be counted an amazing achievement, a technological and human breakthrough, but with the technology around half a century ago the first manned lunar mission is, in retrospect, even more impressive.It took eight days, three hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Collins to make history, and the remarkable story is dramatised for this week’s special BBC commemoration – Eight Days: To the Moon and Back. Although there had been unmanned landings on the moon, by the Russians, as early as 1959, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space in 1961, managing to land human beings on the surface presented a new order of challenges, ones that were spectacularly overcome. The cosmic hopes, fears, tensions, humour and bravery of all those involved are played out once again in a story that always bears a fresh treatment. In retrospect, you might wonder whether it was such a giant leap for mankind after all, in terms not of the fact of it – indisputable – but in terms of the lasting legacy. Most people might be able to identify the invention of the non-stick frying pan as one boon to mankind, and, if you’re a real student of space, that the Apollo programme helped accelerate the miniaturisation of electronics that, in due course, gave us YouTube videos of sneezing cats on our smartphones, but otherwise the benefits seem scant. The sequels, in other words, have been a bit disappointing. An especially gruesome episode in our island story is recalled in Mad Cow Diseases: The Great British Beef Scandal. About three decades ago, the then government conducted one of those periodic wars on red tape politicians are sometimes given to. One of the areas where the rules were relaxed concerned the treatment of animal feedstuffs, and, in particular the way that feed derived from dead animals could be fed to live ones. In the past, a web of complicated procedures had made it difficult for sheep’s brains with the debilitating disease of scrapie to enter and infect the human food chain via cattle, but in the 1990s some highly bizarre, almost comical images of cows tottering and toppling over began to appear on our television screens and in the newspapers. Eventually some cases in human beings were also diagnosed. It was determined that the national herd had indeed been contaminated, that mad cow disease could spread to humans, and that beef was not necessarily as safe to eat as it once was. Then there was a panic.This documentary details this cautionary example of the law of unintended consequences of deregulation – the human misery it caused and the huge damage it inflicted on the finances and reputation of British farming. Of course it has one other malign legacy. Alarmed by the disease, the European Union banned the export of some British beef to the continent, on the precautionary principle. The act enraged the British government, led by John Major, who withdrew all cooperation in the councils of the European Union, even when it was not in the British interest to do so. Beef, then, became something of an emotive and powerful symbol of national defiance against a supposedly bullying European superstate. And we all know where that ended up. Ironically, a no-deal Brexit would decimate British beef exports all over again, but that’s another scandal waiting to happen.Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies is Channel 4’s reminder to us that these peoples have, somehow, managed to survive civil war and industrial incursions, and to preserve at least some of their culture well into the 21st century. Around the DR Congo and Central African Republic these descendants of stone age hunter-gatherers are still living their lives in traditional ways, and film-maker Livia Simoka has joined in with the Mbendjele in the remote forest. She only observes, however, rather than joining in with the teeth-sharpening rituals that the ladies deploy in the name of beauty. Funny old world.Jill Halfpenny stars in Dark Money, which follows Channel 4’s recent The Virtues with a story around child abuse. London parents Manny and Sam (Babou Ceesay and Halfpenny) welcome back their child actor son from his adventures on set for a new sci-fi movie. The magic is soon dispelled when Isaac (Max Fincham) reveals that he has been sexually abused by the film’s producer. It is another four-parter and, like The Virtues, you will find it difficult, if rewarding, viewing. Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure pretty much says everything about this national-treasure-meets-global-treasure set-up, a random juxtaposition of showbiz and natural history, a phenomenon so commonplace we’ve ceased to ask the rationale for any of these random pairings. What next? Phil Tufnell meets the Naked Mole Rats? Ann Widdecombe does the Serengeti? Len Goodman goes scavenging with hyenas? Still, who could fail to be moved by Dame Judi comforting a tiny orphaned baby orangutan? She also meets some snakes, and takes the cue for one of those fine theatrical anecdotes that don’t get the circulation they deserve these days. Asked if this was the first time she had handled one she replies: “No, we had real snakes in Anthony and Cleopatra, they got out one night and frightened Michael Gambon out of his wits”. You can take the dame out of the theatre…Last, a welcome return for the ever-wonderful Ashley Jensen in her screwball detective role of Agatha Raisin. Only Jensen could get away with the fuchsia and tangerine outfits she models for much of the episode, and only she could make the outlandish plots about electric murderers seem perfectly believable. Almost. Eight Days: To the Moon and Back (BBC2, Wednesday 9pm); Mad Cow Disease: The Great British Beef Scandal (BBC2, Thursday 9pm); Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies (Channel 4, Monday 9pm); Dark Money (BBC1, Monday 9pm); Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure (ITV, Tuesday 9pm); Agatha Raisin (Sky 1, Friday 9pm)

  • Sombras, Sadler's Wells, review: Sara Baras' flexible footwork opens London's Flamenco Festival with style
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    The Independent

    Sombras, Sadler's Wells, review: Sara Baras' flexible footwork opens London's Flamenco Festival with style

    Flamenco star Sara Baras stalks on, dressed in a frock coat and trousers. Even in silhouette, it’s clear that the star of the show has arrived: she carries herself with commanding presence, with a sense of the storms of movement she’s about to unleash.Baras’s new show Sombras (Shadows) opens this year’s Flamenco Festival London with style. This month, Sadler’s Wells will host a packed programme of shows, from traditional galas to the gloriously experimental Rocío Molina. Baras stands squarely in the middle, with classic dancing and modern, streamlined staging. Baras is an international name, leading her own company for 20 years. She’s won a host of international honours – even a Barbie doll in her image. For Sombras, she’s joined by seven dancers and seven musicians, all seen at first as shadows on the backdrop, men and women in trousers. In recent years, flamenco has pushed harder at ideas of gender. Baras is more understated, but has made the farucca, traditionally a male style, her signature dance for two decades.She’ll take stark poses, or stand with one hand to her breast, both modest and proud. Her footwork is flexible and astonishingly fast. In perhaps her best known move, she glides across the stage, heels drumming as she goes – sharp and powerful as a pneumatic drill, but purringly smooth.Warmly lit by Óscar Gómez de los Reyes, the show is framed by sliding panels, with sketched outlines of dancers. Within this shifting frame, there are taut unison dances and moments of improvisation.Returning in a satin dress, she whirls and poses, the layers of her skirts making bold shapes around her body, precise as a bullfighter’s cape. For this show, Baras avoids the traditional ruffled flamenco skirt, but shows a classic skill with fabric, from a flowing shawl to the spiky shapes she creates in a fringed dress. In another scene, both men and women wear simple skirts, showing off long lines of movement.In one wonderfully intimate sequence, Baras and her percussionists trade rhythms as if the stage were their own private space. Her tapped footwork weaves in and out of handclaps and percussion instruments – including the mellow sound of a brass gourd – until she’s just listening, still and smiling, caught in the moment.Until 7 July. Flamenco Festival London continues until 14 July. Box office 020 7863 8000

  • In photos: The depth of the refugee crisis across the world
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    The Independent

    In photos: The depth of the refugee crisis across the world

    Fleeing war, environmental disasters and political crises, millions of children around the world have been forced out of their homes.Last year, around 13 million child refugees were recorded as vulnerable – at risk of encountering violence, abuse and exploitation. Unicef has now released a heartfelt photo series to mark World Refugee Day earlier this month. The number of people fleeing conflict, persecution and conflict passed 70.8 million last year, while 69 million refugees were counted this year – more than the population of Britain. The severity of the emergency facing young refugees has not much improved, Unicef data shows. In the first quarter of 2019, 17,300 unaccompanied and separated children were registered in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.The political and financial fallout in Venezuela alone has uprooted around 1.1million children – many of whom lack life’s basics as they travel across Latin America and the Caribbean. You can donate to Unicef’s life-saving work supporting refugees around the world here

  • Abandoned buildings seen reclaimed by nature after humans leave, in collection of eerie photos
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    The Independent

    Abandoned buildings seen reclaimed by nature after humans leave, in collection of eerie photos

    A series of photographs have been released that show buildings reclaimed by after their abandonment by humans.Taken at dozens of neglected sites around Europe, the images show mansions, churches and hotels that have become overgrown with vines and weeds.Roman Thiery, the photographer, has visited over 150 locations across the continent since he began this series in 2009.Thiery started out by identifying the abandoned buildings on Google Earth, but has also relied on help from friends around the world.“I want to show this relationship between abandoned places and time,” he said.“In a clash between man and nature, it currently seems that nature is losing the battle. But when humans are not around – it doesn’t take long before nature starts taking over.”

  • Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale review: The ultimate playground for any James Bond fan
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    The Independent

    Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale review: The ultimate playground for any James Bond fan

    Secret Cinema was given an easy out with Casino Royale. All they needed to do was knock up a few poker tables and keep the martinis flowing to make the night a hit, allowing throngs of Londoners, for a few brief hours, to delude themselves into thinking they ever had the charm or wit to warrant the title of 007. But, that’s never been Secret Cinema’s style. Yes, there’s the opportunity for (fake) gambling, alongside a generous menu of cocktails, but that’s only scratching the surface of this globetrotting adventure. Launched in 2007, with over 70 productions under its belt, Secret Cinema has, by this point, become a well-oiled machine, now routinely offering its signature blend of immersive cinema, interactive theatre, and good old-fashioned partying (tickets have already gone on sale for a winter run of shows, based on Netflix’s Stranger Things). It’s a mammoth operation. Some of the sets used in its latest production, Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale, look like they’ve been air-lifted straight over from Pinewood Studios. It’s all so much bigger and more elaborate than you could ever expect, yet the experience itself remains as intimate and personal as ever. Attendees turn up to a secret London location with nothing but a fake identity, the knowledge that they’ve been tasked with a top-secret mission, and the kind of wired energy that comes from having no idea where the night is about to take you. What looks like a fairly unimposing warehouse from the outside transforms into the ultimate playground for any James Bond fan. In fact, one of the most consistently impressive things about Secret Cinema has always been its feeling of authenticity. It’s not just about the minutiae, though the costumes for the various characters are all impeccable recreations, but the general sense of atmosphere. Their Blade Runner production undercut its neon-drenched, techno-future design with a genuine sense of menace, while Romeo + Juliet descended into a raucous, joyous celebration of love. It’s no different here. The show leans heavily into the Bond franchise’s allure of globetrotting glamour, giving you the opportunity to visit several international locations featured in the film, eventually leading you to Montenegro itself and the newly opened Casino Royale. Yet there’s also the sense that this pristine glamour could explode into action at any moment. You could be idly wandering across an airport terminal in search of the mac ’n’ cheese stand, when suddenly you’ll hear a burst of shouting and see a gun waving in the air. It’s the perfect way to summarise how director Martin Campbell approached Casino Royale, in an attempt to modernise the Bond franchise by adding a sharper, more dangerous streak to the film. This isn’t the place to turn up and start practising your favourite innuendos, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in attempting to keep a straight face when you’ve lost your third poker game in a row and the locals are starting to get suspicious. Yet neither is this a joyless, self-serious event, by any means. If you’re in a certain place, at a certain time, you might find yourself prowling the catwalk to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” before you’ve even realised what’s going on. Granted, there are some small signs of strain here. It’s evident, more than ever, that Secret Cinema has come up against its biggest hurdle yet: how does it continue expanding and creating bigger, more ambitious experiences, when it all still has to fit in between the time people clock out of the office and the last train home? There’s just so much to do: from the locales, the bars, the storylines, the entertainment. It makes for some tough choices and the inevitable feeling that you’ve missed out on something big. Add to that the fact that, after this whirlwind experience, you’re then meant to sit down and watch an entire two-and-a-half-hour film.There’s always the choice to skip the film and continue exploring, eating, and drinking while everyone’s watching Daniel Craig emerge from the ocean in tiny blue swimming trunks, but it’s at the expense of missing a whole host of surprises. With the help of a dedicated cast of actors and a host of technical wizardry, several of Casino Royale’s most memorable scenes play out right in front of the screen (spoiler: no one’s balls get smashed, don’t worry). On top of that, it’s thrilling just to see a packed audience all watching a film that came out in 2006, reacting with the same kind of excitement as if it were unfolding in front of their eyes for the first time. In the end, there’s no single way to experience Secret Cinema, but that’s always been the point. It’s your chance to find your own adventure. Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale runs until 22 September. More details and tickets can be found here

  • From Ed Sheeran to Elton John – why do celebrities find it so hard to play themselves?
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    The Independent

    From Ed Sheeran to Elton John – why do celebrities find it so hard to play themselves?

    Gordon Ramsay playing Gordon Ramsay is a sight to behold,” declared film critic Mark Kermode, reviewing the overcooked chef drama Love’s Kitchen back in 2011. “It’s like he’s not actually human. It is quite the worst cameo acting I think I have ever seen.” Enter Ed Sheeran.The scruffy pop behemoth is rather woeful playing himself in Danny Boyle’s new film Yesterday, which stars Himesh Patel as a struggling musician who wakes up in a world in which The Beatles never existed. Even if you set aside the film’s suggestion that Sheeran is the greatest singer-songwriter of all time, and that he alone is capable of spotting a (fellow) genius, the fact remains that he is, frankly, not a very good actor. It’s not his fault. Granted, you’d think he’d have learnt from his equally disastrous cameos in Game of Thrones, People Just Do Nothing and Bridget Jones’s Baby, but the people truly to blame are those who decided to cast him. Sheeran tries his best, and is game for sending himself up – when his phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone – but it is all just stilted and uncomfortable.To be fair to Sheeran – and to Gordon Ramsey, I suppose – it is surprisingly difficult to play yourself on screen. Many a celebrity has tried and failed to do so. Some are unbearably wooden (think Elton John’s bizarre, overlong cameo in Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle), some are gratuitous, dating the movie before it’s even got a DVD release (2016’s Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie was bafflingly swamped with C-list guest spots – Abbey Clancy, Nick Grimshaw… Perez Hilton?), and others show the celebrity in such a glowing light that it is feels akin to product placement.Celebrity cameos can even, at times, border on offensive. What was supposed to be funny, exactly, about Eminem coming out as gay in Seth Rogen’s catastrophic King Jong-un satire The Interview (2014)? Is the “joke” that the rapper is homophobic? Four years after that film came out, he was still using the word “faggot” in his music. Some people just haven’t earned the right to send themselves up.Occasionally, though, celebrities nail playing themselves. Ant and Dec – or should I say “Ant or Dec”? – did a good job playing themselves alongside Bill Nighy’s outrageous fictional popstar Billy Mack in Love Actually. But almost always, unsurprisingly, the best celebrities for the job are actually actors. Kate Winslet’s un-PC cameo in Extras was not only painfully funny, but strangely prescient. “Do a film about the Holocaust – guaranteed Oscar,” she announced glibly to Ricky Gervais’s struggling movie extra Andy. Three years later, she won an Oscar for doing just that. Michael Cera as a cocaine-fuelled nightmare version of himself in This Is the End was inspired, too, as was Bill Murray as one of the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse in the vastly underrated Zombieland (2009).More recently, Keanu Reeves’s extended cameo as himself on the Netflix comedy film Always Be My Maybe further cemented the cult of Keanu that is currently picking up speed (or should I say Speed?). As the unexpected lover of Ali Wong’s Sasha, Reeves manages to stay just the right side of self-parody. Arriving at an upscale restaurant to the melodramatic strains of Awolnation’s “Sail”, Reeves shakes hands with practically ever diner before greeting Sasha with a flurry of inappropriate kisses and declarations that he has “missed your soul, missed your spirit”. When Sasha’s friend professes to being starstruck, he tells her, “The only stars that matter are the ones you look at when you dream.” If you’ve watched an interview with Reeves, you’ll know that this is just a whisper away from something he would actually say – and yet it is delivered with enough self-awareness that the joke lands brilliantly.Surely the ultimate, though, is John Malkovich in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s 1999 fantasy comedy-drama Being John Malkovich. To explain the plot would be to ruin the weird and wonderful (literal) rabbit hole through which the film takes you, but Malkovich is absolutely pitch-perfect. “Turn it up,” he told Jonze and Kaufman when they first started filming. “Who better to make fun of yourself – your impotence, your vanity, your ridiculousness – and say it’s OK? I am ridiculous – I mean, I am a celebrity. It’s sort of like human sacrifice. To offer yourself up as a subject of ridicule and scorn to make a point about the society we live in, which has this celebrity obsession.”That’s the best approach a celebrity can have to playing themselves – self-aware, undaunted, but without winking at the camera so blatantly that it all starts to feel a bit desperate. Oh, and being able to act helps.

  • The TV shows you need to watch this week: From Glastonbury to Catch-22
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    The Independent

    The TV shows you need to watch this week: From Glastonbury to Catch-22

    Once upon a time Glastonbury was just another British music festival. Some decent bands. A bit of weed. Inadequate toilet facilities. It was an event, but it certainly didn’t dominate what passed for the media in these days – three television channels, plus something called newspapers. Not any more. Now it’s a huge sprawling imperial vampire squid of a thing, If you wanted you could spend the reminder of your life catching up with everything that is going on the various stages, and the stars get flown in to what, I imagine, are luxury hotels, Range Rovers, and on-site special posh mobile loos with scented water, Molton Brown toiletries and no risk of a catastrophic blockage. It’s all over BBC2, BBC4, BBC iPlayer and the web and some of us will doing our best to avoid the whole swampy mess. Jo Whiley, among others, presents.What little broadcasting bandwidth that is left over from Glastonbury is given over to another behemoth of the summer season – Wimbledon fortnight. This year they’ve put another roof over the place, so there is even less chance of some respite from an outbreak of rain and the substitution of a repeat of Teletubbies. Sue Barker, who used to play tennis herself you know, bats off (or whatever the expression should be) on Monday morning. Much more to my taste is Year of the Rabbit, Channel 4’s latest vehicle for the considerable talents of Matt Berry, who should be on TV even more than he is now, if anything. As noted previously, it’s a cross between Ripper Street and The Sweeney with a few crumbs of Toast of London serving as the croutons in this deliciously amusing broth. As usual, Berry and his co-writers (Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil) have succeeded in rounding up yet more superb talent, including Keeley Hawes (criminal mastermind), Alun Armstrong (professional Yorkshireman and copper) and, this week, Sally Phillips and Matthew Holness turn up as some Ruritanian royalty, washed up in London. There’s been a murder, obviously…There are a few decent documentaries, too. For some reason Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, decided to discard decades, not to say centuries, of studied reticence and allow a fly-on-the-wall camera crew to film Inside the Bank of England, and at a time of unusual political controversy. Much of it is the usual harmless stuff – men in pink frock coats and blokes counting £155bn worth of gold as if they were doing the stocktaking at the Co-Op. But we may also see a few moments of tension as Carney tries to deal with the fall-out from Brexit. I’m hoping to hear what he thinks about Boris Johnson. You can imagine, though, can’t you?Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones seems such an obvious thing to do, even before the shenanigans at Gatwick, that you wonder why it’s not been done before. It does seem to be the most obvious and hugely disruptive a weapon a terrorist might easily acquire – the maximum amount of disruption and economic dislocation for a tiny investment, minimal training and, frankly, not much chance of getting caught. Not only that but a simple cheap drone could be used, presumably, to commit mass murder. You probably won’t be entirely reassured by this programmeCatch-22 continues on Channel 4, as an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s acclaimed 1961 novel, which popularised the expression. The story concerns Bombardier Yossarian, in the American Air Force during the Second World War. The catch goes to the slightly absurd situation in conflict zones, where the authorities always express their concern for the safety of their personnel, but nonetheless send them into battle. In Yossarian’s case, his superiors keep increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to avoid his military assignments, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22, a bureaucratic rule which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers which are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind. A man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be relieved from duty. The cast includes Christopher Abbott (as Yossarian), Kyle Chandler, George Clooney and Hugh Laurie.Glastonbury (BBC2, BBC4, from Saturday 3.30pm); Wimbledon (BBC2, BBC1 from Monday 10.30am); Year of the Rabbit (Channel 4, Monday 10pm); Inside the Bank of England (BBC2, Tuesday 9.30pm); Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones (BBC2, Monday 9.30pm); Catch-22 (Channel 4, Thursday 9pm)

  • Earth Photo 2019 competition: Beautiful images capture unique and fragile world we inhabit
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    The Independent

    Earth Photo 2019 competition: Beautiful images capture unique and fragile world we inhabit

    The shortlist has been announced for Earth Photo 2019, the international photography competition specialising in geography and the environment.The Earth Photo prize invites entries from photographers who capture remote or unique parts of the world and especially welcomes pictures that highlight the impact of humans on the planet.Shortlisted pictures range from the floating villages of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake to ancient forests in the Scottish Highlands. All of the shortlisted images will feature in an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London from 6 July to 22 August 2019."The aim of the project is to really draw attention to the number of voices that make up the conversation about our planer and the way we treat it," says competition organiser Professor Joe Smith of the RGS.The Independent has compiled the best pictures from the shortlist in the gallery above.