Victoria’s Arts & Culture Round-Up: Human Endeavours and Human Frailties

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This week’s list of new shows explores the light and shade of the human mind – its ingenuity, its brilliance, as well as it limits and its darker sides.

Science

For all the focus on Neil Armstrong and his one small step for mankind, it’s easy to forget that Russia led the way in humankind’s exploration of space. And those brave but terrifyingly risky first steps are documented in the extraordinary – and humbling – Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age has not only brought together an exceptional and unprecedented level of artefacts, including Vostok 6: the capsule flown by Valentina Tereshkova, the first ever woman in space and Voskhod 1: the capsule used on the first mission to carry more than one crew member (unprecedented as all bar one of the 150-odd pieces come from private hands and have never been on public view. Most Russians let alone Brits will have never seen these) but it also grasps the human spirit of these endeavours.

Cosmonauts 1

For example, Valentina Tereshkova was only 26 when she became the first woman to be launched into space, in 1963. Because of State secrecy she couldn’t even tell her family what she was doing – her Mum thought she was preparing for a parachuting championship. And when you look at the damaged, burnt shell of Vostok 6, your admiration just leaps. That she was inside this tiny charred capsule. And that is space exploration – our knowledge built on the foundations of the bravery of these amazing people.

Textiles

The Fabric of India, part of a series of exhibitions and displays at the V&A on India, looks at the skill, beauty and variety of handmade Indian textiles, from historical artefacts to contemporary fashion.

More than 200 objects have been brought together in this show, the first of its kind to explore the dynamic and multifaceted world of handmade textiles from India, including assessing its religious and cultural significance.

The highlight of the exhibition is the lavish tent used by the ruler Tipu Sultan of the Kingdom of Mysore, which has been fully erected in the gallery, allowing visitors inside to examine the incredible decoration up close.

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It’s a stunning, luxurious piece but there are also important messages in this show. Industrialisation and, in particular, Europe’s cheaper machine-made imitations which flooded the market, has damaged this industry, which needs the value of human labour and skill to be appreciated for these unique Indian crafts and traditions to remain and flourish.

Theatre

Ok let’s just come right out and say it – The Father, now showing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, is, in my humble opinion, the best new play of the year. Definitives are dangerous, I know, but this play about a man struggling with the onset of dementia is as tender and heartbreaking as it is shocking and dramatic.

Everything about this production is exceptional, from Kenneth Cranham’s devastating performance as Andre, whose anger and vulnerability as his mind slips away from him is practically palpable, to the brilliant writing that sees the story played out as Andre would see it – fragmented and deliberately confused, with scenes constantly repeating or starting again.

The Father (a) 1 (1075x1280)

But soon we begin to see the world as it is, not as Andre believes, and to witness this unravelling will break your heart. I had my head in my hands at the end, and my friend had started to weep. The Father will break your heart.

Opera

I’m a huge fan of opera. but with its (probably well deserved) reputation as being staid, stuffy and always staged in posh, prohibitive venues, it’s hard to get wider audiences excited by it, which is why I’m always the first to cheer new, contemporary opera productions that look to break down those walls.

The Last Hotel was created by playwright Enda Walsh, writer of Once, Ballyturk and The Twits, with composer Donnacha Dennehy and is on show in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House (not the posh main stage!) and it’s full of dark, menacing themes.

Katherine Manley, Robin Adams and Aoife Miskelly in Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera's  THE LAST HOTEL a new opera by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh photo: Patrick Redmond

Three strangers meet, seemingly pre-arranged, in the car park of an abandoned hotel. But not all of them have suitcases. What takes place in the hotel – where these three are the only guests – is an examination of human motivations, whether it be money or passion. And the decisions we make when these are missing.

It’s got all the ingredients you’d expect from opera, with its focus on life and death, greed and betrayal. There’s a few rough parts to it but there’s plenty of good ideas here. Worth seeing.

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