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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Killian Fox

On my radar: Simon Schama’s cultural highlights

Simon Schama
‘I’ve come home to cricket in a big way’: Simon Schama. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

The historian Simon Schama was born in London in 1945. He studied at Cambridge and wrote his first book, Patriots and Liberators, in 1977, though it was with Citizens, his 1989 history of the French Revolution, that he came to wider notice. Alongside a prolific writing career, Schama has made numerous TV series including A History of Britain (2000-2002) and Simon Schama’s Power of Art (2006). Knighted in 2018, Schama lives in New York with his wife, Virginia Papaioannou, a geneticist. On 27 August, he’ll be speaking at Edinburgh College of Art about his latest book, Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations (Jonathan Cape).

1. Theatre

A Doll’s House at Hudson theatre, New York

Okieriete Onaodowan and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House.
Okieriete Onaodowan and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House. Photograph: Courtesy of A Doll’s House

Normally, the prospect of another Ibsen revival wouldn’t have me rushing to the box office. But Jamie Lloyd’s electrifying production in New York remade A Doll’s House for our own time. The stage is stripped of any sort of set, in fact any props, so that even the climactic removal of a wedding ring happens without an actual ring. But the bareness allows Amy Herzog’s brilliant adaptation of the drama of marital suffocation and money angst to bite more deeply than ever. As Nora, Jessica Chastain, a force field on stage, manages to run the gamut of emotions while scarcely ever rising from a chair. Astonishing; unforgettable.

2. TV

Colin from Accounts (BBCiPlayer)

Harriet Dyer and Patrick Brammall in Colin from Accounts.
Harriet Dyer and Patrick Brammall in Colin from Accounts. Photograph: Lisa Tomasetti/BBC

A pitch-perfect comedy series from Oz about an improbable romance, with brilliant acting (especially from the eponymous Colin); a fateful boob-flash; craft beer; a nightmare mother; and impossibly adorable male and female leads (also the show’s writers) who, as if this weren’t enough, claim to be happily married in real life. Sure. Even though very funny, it has really quite startling departures into serious things – the male protagonist is recovering from cancer. So it’s deeply serious at moments, but it has this fantastic, bright innocence about it, which is really wonderful. And it’s incredibly funny.

3. Place

Lord’s Cricket Ground

Lord’s during day two of the second Ashes Test between England and Australia last month.
Lord’s during day two of the second Ashes Test between England and Australia last month. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

The place my dad would take me to in the 1950s so he “could get some sleep” not watching Middlesex v Glamorgan. “Simon, do you love cricket, I mean REALLY love cricket?” were the first things Harold Pinter said to me when we met over whitebait at Sheekey’s, and I thought he had to be pulling my leg-break. I switched loyalties to baseball when living in Boston in the 1980s, little knowing I’d be signing on to the tragic epic of the Red Sox. But courtesy of a generous pal – thank you Andrew! – I got to see the second day of the second Ashes test last month and came back home to cricket in a big way.

4. Art

Anselm Kiefer: Finnegans Wake at the White Cube Bermondsey, London

A detail from Finnegans Wake by Anselm Kiefer.
A detail from Finnegans Wake by Anselm Kiefer. Photograph: Theo Christelis/Anselm Kiefer/White Cube

The coupling of the German master of history’s calamity with Irish riverrunning verbal overspill seems like an unpromising idea. But then you go and see it and… what’s this? Kiefer being playful? In a gallows-humour style, naturally. Lines scissored from the book and given a good scrawling amid sculptural and painted anarchy; entropy and heaving mountains of rusted trash. And yes, it all works! Especially a wholly new medium for him: parched gold grounds against which heart-stoppingly beautiful visions of landscapes, watery and sylvan, emerge, dissolve and resist the fragility of our wrecking times and desiccated climes. Spectacularly dark glory. No one does it like Kiefer.

Thunderclap: A memoir of art and life & sudden death by Laura Cumming

5. Nonfiction

Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death by Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming’s exquisite new book is about the genius Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, whose life was abruptly ended in the great Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 (Vermeer’s numinous townscape is in part, as befits a Catholic convert, an exercise in visual resurrection) but also about much more: her painter father, James, her own life and creative imagination; the capacity of art to make us sense what life actually is. Her pages are themselves lovely exercises in poetic vision and stay with you long after you finish – I was only sorry the book wasn’t longer.

6. Fiction

London Fields by Martin Amis

Martin Amis.
‘Makes you hoot with laughter’: Martin Amis. Photograph: Barry Lewis/Corbis/Getty Images

Badly missing its author, I’ve been wallowing in the unsavoury wildness of one of the greatest English novels of the last century, which should have won the Booker prize in 1989 but wasn’t even longlisted. The city burning up, clapped-out, scarred and punk-pierced, through which caper the death-wish siren Nicola Six and a bad boy that Dickens would have given his eye teeth to have created: king of darts and arch-cheater Keith Talent. And my god, every so often Amis makes you hoot with laughter, even as the phantasmagoria sidles to its cracked-up end.

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