Guardian Culture

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  1. In Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls, five famous women from history gather for a dinner party. Who would today’s big names in theatre invite?

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  2. From Samuel Johnson to JG Ballard, Madeleine Bunting picks five books exploring Britain’s island mentality

    The crisis over Brexit has deep roots in a central trope of the English imagination: islands. Trace it back to John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II – “this little world / This precious stone set in the silver sea / Which serves it in the office of a wall … This blessed plot” – and then follow the sequence of iconic titles from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe right down to the Lord of the Flies. Being an island has been a central part of English nationalism and generations of children (including, famously, David Cameron) learnt their history from HE Marshall’sOur Island Story,despite the title of that book being based on two obvious mistakes: England shares an island with two other nations, and Great Britain is actually an archipelago of 5,000 islands. English nationalism struggles with plurals, and for writers, the island trope has offered an easy way to pluck the heart strings of English sensibility.

    Islands offer a fantasy of escape, of retreat and of remaking the world anew. In A Journey to the Western Isles, Samuel Johnson, that unsung architect of British nationalism, frequently admitted to Crusoe fantasies. As Boswell reported about one island visit, “Dr Johnson liked the idea and talked of how he would build a house there, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck and then he laughed with uncommon glee.” Johnson’s fantasy is one of development – building, gardening in Crusoe style - an assertion of agency in novel territory, the imperial template. Islands are places of refuge but also a secure base for aggression, as Johnson’s contemporaries were well aware as they embarked on the process of building an empire out of islands from Malta to Singapore.

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  3. Forty years after Joy Division’s seminal debut album, Jon Savage’s oral history, extracted below, sheds new
    light on the band and the city that shaped them

    Read a Q&A with Jon Savage

    Bernard Sumner (Joy Division): I felt that even though we were expecting this music to come out of thin air, we never, any of us, were interested in the money it might make us. We just wanted to make something that was beautiful to listen to and stirred our emotions. We weren’t interested in a career or any of that. We never planned one single day.

    Peter Hook (Joy Division):Ian was the instigator. We used to call him the Spotter.

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  4. How is the great Norwegian artist seen back home? Ahead of a new British Museum show, Karl Ove Knausgaard and other Scandinavian novelists explain what Munch means to them

    Edvard Munch’s most famous creation is a bit of a scream: the funny little figure with its squishy bald head, hands to face as if edified by some particularly scandalous bit of gossip, and all against that glorious flame-red sky. Can Munch be entirely serious? The Scream is cherished across the world and only marginally less famous than the Mona Lisa herself. Yet the anguish compressed in that lightbulb-shaped face is very slightly comic, destined for the frat-house horror movie and the Halloween mask.

    People feel affection for this poor little creature, so alone, whose howl is empathetically echoed by nature but ignored by the callous passersby on the bridge. We are meant to identify with this solitary soul. The fact that he – or she, or they – is so appealing goes to Munch’s radical imagination. With The Scream, he invented one of the greatest archetypes in the history of art.

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  5. Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
    Bill Forsyth’s bittersweet comic drama about a Scottish village’s fight with an oil firm sheds its whimsy in this tougher version, scored by Mark Knopfler

    It is 1983 and there is an American in paradise. Mac arrives in Ferness, a coastal village in north-west Scotland, cradling two briefcases and an injured rabbit. He has flown in from Texas and is in need of a drop of the hard stuff, whisky, and rather more than a drop of the black stuff – oil. Mac’s energy firm wishes to buy the village and beach, and build a huge refinery in their place. But will the villagers sell? What price, if any, can one put on home?

    These are questions posed by Local Hero, a new musical based on Bill Forsyth’s beloved 1983 film. Adapting it for the stage has brought two challenges, the first physical. Much of the original’s poetry came from simply pointing the camera at sea and sky. It was easy to understand how Mac could fall in love with and be changed for the better by such a place. Who wouldn’t be? Such beauty has moral force, and director John Crowley enjoys reasonable success in suggesting it through effects – sunsets, the aurora borealis – projected on to a planetarium-like screen. The darkened auditorium stands for the horizon and lapping Atlantic; during ballads, singers stare out, yearning, above the audience’s heads. It helps that most who see this production in Edinburgh will have personal experience of that landscape. They will know the ache of a Highland twilight, the way that sorrow is an invisible band in the colour spectrum. This cannot be relied upon when the show transfers to London next year.

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