Tag Archives: Arts Week 2017

Arts Week 2017: Andy Smith dematerialising theatre


An Oak Tree

Evening. The room is white and hung with a lighting rig, the lights are not switched on. There is wine and jaffa cakes coming to room temperature at the back. The performances of Andy Smith are often performed in a space very similar to this. Daragh Carville has just introduced Andy Smith to a room of students, performers and academics.

Andy Smith

Find simple questions, if you just let them hang in the air a little bit/

The entrance of a late arrival interrupts the thought. Andy Smith, who is not a professional actor, has been told that he does not do theatre. Whatever others may say about what it is  that Andy Smith does, or indeed does not do, he is completely clear.

Andy Smith I’m the first audience.

Andy Smith is the ultimate collaborator-facilitator. Whether that is as part of his ongoing work with Tim Crouch or in his own productions, which he hesitatingly refers to as solo work, Andy Smith makes it clear that the audience is very much an active element in his process.

Andy Smith

I can think of millions of examples of theatre where things are taken away. Can anybody give me an example of a theatre that hasn’t got an audience?

The audience remains silent.

Andy Smith

It is inside the audience where the dilemma or the ideas happen. You are what is making this.

It is this logic that informed the dematerialised theatre.

Andy Smith

I’m aesthetically interested in doing more with less.

The act of being present with one another is enough to make theatre.

Andy Smith

I step away up here to make more space for you there. Inviting the audience and making a suggestion about something. Theatre happens inside an audience.

Andy Smith finds that the acknowledgement that theatre is occurring demands recognising, using and manipulating traditions and forms in order to make it real, tangible. Storytelling is central to all of Andy Smith’s work.

Andy Smith

It’s not a very fashionable thing to say but I’m ok with that.

Andy Smith makes the presentation into a piece of theatre. To demonstrate this he brings up a willing volunteer (the writer of this piece) to perform a dialogue that accompanies the artwork ‘An Oak Tree’, the piece that inspired the play ‘An Oak Tree’. In giving his definition of his vision of theatre, dematerialised, an academic forum would be the best form.


Jonathan Parr is studying jointly at Birkbeck and RADA on the Text and Performance MA


Arts Week 2017: Speaking in Brogues

This post was contributed by Hafsa Al-Khudairi, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

broguesMarina Warner opens the event with the definition of a brogue. It is a type of shoe that her father gave her mother, which is popular in England and a symbol of the start of their life in the country. The other meaning is a rustic accent that accompanies rural areas. Though Warner specifically emphasized that it should not be a pejorative word, but an expression of beauty and strength. Brogues at university level is the language people interact with and use to create an environment of integration.

Social Constructions and Burdens in Language:

Maria Aristodemou, who is interested in law, psychoanalysis and society, starts by exploring how alienating language can be for both foreigners and for the native speaker. Humans animals are limited by their use of language to express their desires for not all their wants can be expressed in this manner and they have no other means to do so. This makes all humans immigrants in the house language as even the native speaker has to learn from childhood how to use the language, so they are “doomed” by their restrictions. However, language is also built through a socially-constructed idea of identity that holds the historical and societal desires and expectations.

Language is about Sharing:

Mattia Gallotti, who is working on a project called The Human Mind, where he explores the differences between people of different disciplines, explores the idea that language is about sharing. Specifically sharing minds because it is what philosophers think discussions produce. Sharing minds is most effective when it is produced from sharing stories. There is a power in sharing because it produces difference and power. The more people exchange stories through language, the more they can change the world they live in and empower themselves and others. For him, this helps people create their own sense of self, including identity and culture, wherever they go, producing the feeling of a collective ‘we’.

Photography is a Bridge between Two Languages:

Rut Blees Luxemburg, who is a photographer, used her creative photographs to explore the idea of bridging the gap between the English and the German language. She explored themes of connecting marginality with water, the divine, culture, and poetic meanings. Water is related to how she remembers rivers that can connect places and transfer languages beyond the confines of the arbitrary lines that separate countries. Hence, Brogues is a reference to the ground and the soil, which is an attachment to a nation, but it is a sense of home through language, beyond the actual boundaries of the actual home.

The event ended with a Q&A about identity, the term ‘we’, personality, and strangers in a strange land, and their intersection with language. Identity was clarified as an unappeasable fantasy, but identification is real. Then, how many people associate ‘we’ with negative connotations, however, it does have positive communitive connotations as well. The conversation turned towards personalities and strangers. It was concluded that knowing multiple languages helps create patterns of personalities based on a person’s association with the language. Also, the romance of being a stranger is a privilege for the difference in language capabilities and accents helps categorize people into other beings and it can be detrimental to the sense of belonging. Still knowing different languages can help people communicate and sense a feeling of comradery when people find someone who understands them beyond grammar and syntax.


Arts Week 2017: Grin and Bear It: Peter Fifield on Virginia Woolf’s Teeth

This post was contributed by Professor Martin Paul Eve.

george_charles_beresford_-_virginia_woolf_in_1902_-_restorationOn Wednesday 17 May, as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week, I attended a talk by Peter Fifield on Virginia Woolf’s teeth. As Peter made absolutely clear, this was not some metaphor for her fearsome book reviewing, nor was it any kind of Little Red Riding Hood-esque pun: “my, what big teeth you have, Mrs Woolf”. Instead, he really spoke about her teeth.

Indeed, Fifield traced the curious history of the extraction of a set of otherwise healthy teeth from Virigina Woolf in the early 1920s. The official reasoning given was that Woolf had a “high temperature” and she was told that the extraction of these teeth would help to alleviate this. Unsurprisingly, a few days later, Woolf wrote of how she still had the temperature.

Yet Fifield astutely notes that there was an undercurrent in medical thinking at this time that theorised a set of localised sepses – that is, bacteriological infections – as the potential sources of mental illness. And, indeed, the 1920s was a period of rapid change in this space. The shell-shock victims of World War I had opened the gateway to a new model of mental illness, rooted in the psyche and unlocked by psychoanalysis, rather than in the hereditary or the surgical domains. Certainly, it was a period of change for the authority to speak on mental conditions.

The thesis of local sepsis, as Fifield recounted it, was a way in which a medical, surgical approach attempted to reassert its authority over and ability to help with mental conditions. The list of body parts that could potentially be removed in order to alleviate the mental suffering of the patient – as hypothesised by at least one influential American, who was in touch with Woolf’s own doctors – was extensive, in Fifield’s account. To put it mildly, one could be subjected to a series of medical horrors in the apparent service of healing.

Fifield also examined the ways in which these ideas of mental illness, genetics, bacteriology, and surgery fed into Woolf’s writing, diaristic and novelistic. For instance, in Mrs Dalloway, Fifield notes, Septimus has not only a Latin root for seventh, but also a resonance with the Greek root of “septic”. Mrs Dalloway does not quite say she will “do the extraction herself”, but she is nonetheless also convalescing at the start of the text from a condition with which Woolf believed herself to be afflicted: a tachycardia (rapid heart rate) brought on by influenza.

For me, Fifield’s talk also had a contemporary medical resonance. In the field of auto-immune conditions, contemporary medicine observes correlations between incidences of gum disease and lupus, vasculitis, and rheumatoid arthritis, for instance. Furthermore, it is believed in at least one new but credible theory that stomach bacteria – a local sepsis – could be the triggering cause of a set of epigenetic regulations of gene expression that send the immune system itself into overload. There are also many studies on how patients with these conditions are especially prone to depression and other mental illnesses.

In other words, to this day, the holistic approach that integrates the dental, the stomach, sepsis, genetics, and mental illness, persists. Of course, it is easy for us to look back and laugh at medicine of the past, as we will no doubt one day be looked back upon and laughed at. Further, nobody today, one would hope, is advocating the removal of teeth to help with a serious auto-immune condition. There is, though, more to this old theory than simple ignorance. It simply couldn’t be properly seen or understood at that time.

Finally, Fifield’s talk was also fascinating for its examination of photographs of high modernists smiling, or otherwise. Woolf’s demeanour in many photographs is easy to read as one of the depressed woman; that figure of tragic sadness whose photographed life, we now know, will be lost to that struggle. Yet Fifield did find several of Woolf baring her teeth. The same cannot really be said of James Joyce, although Samuel Beckett was photographed cracking the odd smile (perhaps because, as he put it in Endgame, there is nothing funnier than unhappiness). Nonetheless, in providing metaphorical food for thought, giving the audience something to get their teeth into, Fifield’s story of Virginia Woolf’s teeth was a fascinating tale of how, in the medical culture of her day, there was little for Woolf to do except to grin and bear it.


Arts Week 2017: What goes around. Fifty years of ‘The Third Policeman’

This post was contributed by Professor Martin Paul Eve.

the-third-policemanLast night, Tuesday 16 May 2017, I attended “What Goes Around: Fifty Years of The Third Policeman” as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week.

As its name suggests, this event, hosted by Dr Joe Brooker and Tobias Harris, centred around the half-century of the publication of Flann O’Brien’s extraordinary novel. Brooker and Harris were joined on-stage by a cast of readers who punctuated the evening with performances from the text (even if some were perhaps rightly reluctant to attempt Irish accents).

The evening was paced in such a way as to be accessible to those coming fresh to O’Brien’s work and consisted of a biography, a publication history, and then several passages of close reading and discussion. For instance, Harris began by detailing the strange writerly life of Flann O’Brien (which is, in fact, a pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan, who also wrote under several other aliases, including Myles na gCopaleen). What was particularly interesting here – and that I did not know beforehand – was that that all but 240 already-sold copies of O’Nolan’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, were destroyed due to bombing during World War II. Indeed, over the course of the evening it became clear that World War II was a significant factor in O’Nolan’s difficult publishing career.

With the biographical angle covered, Harris and Brooker then moved to give a background to The Third Policeman; a novel never published in O’Nolan’s own lifetime. This is no mean feat, since the novel features extraordinary twists of logic and physics. In essence, the unnamed narrator is transported to a fantastical realm (a “parish” of sorts) where the police force are obsessed only with recovering stolen bicycles. That the narrator does not possess a bicycle is a source of great concern to them. The narrative features several other curious turns, such as a spear where the point is so sharp that it protrudes invisibly many inches in front of the point we can see. “You’re missing the point”, one of the policeman remarks, as though as much at the reader as the spear. Further, it transpires later in the text that the reason the policeman have so many stolen bicycles to investigate is that they are, themselves, stealing the bikes. They do so since they believe that the longer a person spends on the bicycle, the more he or she becomes merged as some kind of cyborg-like hybrid of (wo)man-bicycle. This is, indeed, a most strange novel.

Discussions with the audience ranged from the novel’s metafictive implications – that is: how much is this is a novel about the acts of reading and writing themselves? – through its resonances with the physical sciences up to an appraisal of its legacy. It was, though, perhaps the latter two areas that received the most attention. For while some aspects of The Third Policeman make sense with respect to quantum mechanics (as popularly broadcast and received), other areas do not work so well. For instance, the logic of the bicycle-melding is somewhat flawed. It seems to insist that gravity is stronger than the strong nuclear force whereas, in fact, at very close range, the forces holding matter together are 10 to the power of 38 times stronger than gravity.

On the other hand, we also discussed the ways in which O’Brien’s fictional philosopher, De Selby’s, parody of Zeno might be a better representation of the debates around quantum mechanics. To briefly recap: in the novel, de Selby is a philosopher who believes patently absurd things. For instance, in a passage we studied on the evening, de Selby argues that motion is an illusion – a “fact” he deduces from observing a cinematograph. So far, the argument is exactly like Zeno’s. One can never reach one’s final destination, argued Zeno, because every time you travel half the distance to an endpoint, there are an infinite number of half-points still to travel; “inter-intermediate” points, as O’Brien calls them. Yet, in our discussion, we noted, there is a distinction between Zeno and de Selby. Zeno made his propositions while not really believing them; a sophist. De Selby seems to want to put them into practice. In many ways, this parallels the developments in quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century. The formulae seemed to work on paper, but some figures, such as Einstein, could not accept that this was a worldly reality: “God does not play dice”, he wrote, referring to the probabilistic elements of the Copenhagen interpretation.

The evening came to a close all too soon. The audience were engaged and many supplied contexts various and diverse in which we might read The Third Policeman. What I was left with, though, was a renewed sense of the novel’s humour. I had not read it for many years, yet in just the few pages that we studied, I felt drawn back in with a desire to reread to the text and its curious logics and languages. It may be, as with the narrator, that this is a text to which I will have to return, time and time and time again.