“Dermot O’Leary does the South Bank Show.”

I’ve been meaning to do a cultural round-up for about a fortnight now, but The Great Tiredness got in the way, and now it’s hanging over my head like a piece of overdue coursework. (18 years since I graduated, and I still get nightmares about unfinished essays, missed lectures, and stern memos flooding out my pigeon-hole.)

So, let’s get the backlog cleared with a lightening quick catch-up session typically long-winded piece, which has been hanging around in draft form for the past few days.

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1. Dracula – adaptation by Liz Lochhead – Derby Playhouse.

draculalrgIt might be stuck in the middle of a grim shopping centre, but Derby Playhouse has been punching way above its weight for the last few years, showing up its larger Nottingham equivalent something rotten by comparison. A superb, imaginatively staged production which stuck closely to Bram Stoker’s original story, freed from all its cheesy Hammer Horror baggage. Like the Gary Oldman/Keanu Reeves movie version from about 10 years ago, only with a decent script and proper acting.

Derby’s current production is Joe Orton’s Loot, directed by Cal McCrystal, which has been picking up favourable mentions in the press. We have to go. We’ve been. Keep reading.

2. Mariza – Birmingham Symphony Hall.

mariza1116The fado goddess had K in tears right from the very first song, and all the way through the rest of the concert; afterwards, he needed wringing out like a soggy dishcloth. Indeed, K was so emotionally tuned into Mariza’s performance that he was even moved to clap along during the happy songs. I never thought I’d live to see the day.

His reaction was entirely justified, though; for rarely have I seen such pure emotion – powerful yet always controlled – so effectively transmitted from the stage. Mariza’s largely melodramatic laments for lost love connected with the whole audience, vaulting straight over any language barrier; you didn’t need any knowledge of Portuguese to understand the nature of the feelings she was channelling. Particularly effective were the mid-song pauses, where she would silence her musicians with a raised hand, then visibly search with her fingers for the next emotion, before bursting forth again with a shuddering wail. She looked stunning, as well: a platinum blonde Amazonian force majeure and diva incarnate.

3. The Cost Of Living – DV8 Physical Dance Theatre – Paris Theatre de la Ville.

dv8costBeautiful creatures in their underwear mingled with an inanely grinning and waving podgy bloke (“I only got this part because I’m fat! I’m worried that if I lose any weight, I’ll be out of work!”) and a powerfully built, startlingly athletic dancer with no legs, in a series of wonderfully inventive and superbly executed vignettes which nevertheless failed to form a suitably cohesive thematic whole. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t love it whole-heartedly – particularly the ludicrously gimpy dancing to Cher’s Believe. Nice to see my own chosen idiom of dance (perfected after many years of practice) represented so accurately on the stage. The show plays in Madrid from November 20-22, and in Leeds from November 27th 29th, and comes highly recommended.

4. Adrian Piper retrospective – Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art.

piperbgThe permanent collection didn’t float my boat one little bit – too dry, rarified, up its own arse – but the building itself turned out to be the real stunner, the breathtaking drama of its cavernous stark white spaces easily outstripping its contents. I didn’t like the Piper exhibition one little bit – by turns wilfully obscure and annoyingly preachy – except for one two-part installation piece, which left me reeling.

A plain white cubic structure stood in the middle of the floor, with an open doorway leading to a darkened interior within. On the right hand wall as I entered, a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power — he’s free again.” Turning left, I found a darkened booth, with a single chair facing a smallish screen on the wall opposite. On one side of the chair, a box of tissues; on the other side, a waste paper basket. On the wall above the back of the chair: an image of a smiling George Bush senior, shaking hands with three or four police officers. As I sat down, feeling like I was entering a pr0n booth (what else could the tissues be for?), I turned my gaze towards the film which was silently playing on the screen in front of me; it was the famous video footage of Rodney King’s beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1990s. The video was looped, giving the impression that the beating never stopped. I had never watched this footage in full before, and sat there open-mouthed, mesmerised by the brutality. Perhaps the tissues were there to dry my bleeding heart liberal tears; or maybe their presence suggested that on some level, I was secretly getting off on my self-righteous outrage. Three or four loop repetitions in, I got up and left King to his fate.

piper2Further down the same gallery, an identically proportioned cube, this time in plain black. In the entrance, the same Solzhenitsyn quote, this time in white lettering on a black background. Round the corner to the left, the same little booth, chair, tissues and waste paper bin, its black walls leaving the area in almost total darkness. No film was playing this time, although I thought I could vaguely make out the image of a black face on the wall in front of me. I sat down; immediately I had done so, a bright light flashed on in front of me, illuminating the booth and revealing the screen opposite to be…a mirror. Rooted to the spot in shock, I found myself staring into my own eyes, my expression frozen. Behind me, and also visible in the mirror: the same image of Bush congratulating the cops. I had joined the group. A few seconds later, the light flicked off and the screen lit up, replacing my reflection with an illuminated monochrome photo of a badly beaten black man. Maybe it was Rodney King himself; I didn’t know. A voiceover started up, relaying a message of mournful defiance – I have completely forgotten what it said. As the tape finished, the light flicked back on again, leaving me staring at my own reflection once more, my fixed expression registering even more stunned shock than before. The message seemed to be: you are complicit in this, whether you like it or not. Take a good look at your reaction.

As I stumbled out of the black cube, feeling like I had been hit over the head with a sledgehammer, I caught sight of one of Piper’s large photo-montages on the wall opposite. A photograph of the hanging victim of a lynch mob was (as far as I recall) juxtaposed with a photograph of Martin Luther King speaking at a rally. Superimposed on these images was some text, which said something like: This may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.

A pity, then, that the power of these pieces was so badly undercut by the knee-jerk, white-liberal-baiting, self-righteous, one-dimensional, overly literal preachiness of much of the rest of the exhibition.

5. Urban Interiors exhibition – London Commonwealth Institute.

Poncey furniture ahoy! K and I took the day off work to surround ourselves with three floors of Ligne Roset sofas, Seventies retro bedroom storage solutions, innovative glassware, simply sumptuous sideboards, and various sundry gorgeous little bits and pieces for the home, spread out over maybe a couple of hundred exhibition stands. In an adjacent lecture theatre, Kevin McCloud from Channel 4’s “Grand Designs” programme, accompanied by the show’s executive producer, talked for nearly an hour about the making of the show. By the end of the talk, we wanted to be his friend even more badly than before (as, I think, did the majority of the largely thirty- and forty-something female audience around us). With his relaxed, smiling, twinkly-eyed charm, off-the-cuff wit (he had us rolling in the aisles), razor-sharp mental agility (the entire talk was improvised on the spot) and his infectiously self-evident enthusiasm and passion for the subjects of his programme (both the building projects themselves, and the people behind them), we were completely won over by the man, and left the lecture wanting to be his friend even more badly than before.

Incidentally: if you remember the recent programme featuring the increasingly red-faced and hopelessly accident-prone guy with the house that stubbornly refused to be built (the one with the huge butterfly-wing roof that got ruined in the rain), then you’ll be pleased to know that a sequel programme will be airing next year. All that Kevin McCloud would reveal is that in the second programme, the building graduates from stubborn refusal to an active aggression against being built. We can’t wait.

6. Turner Prize finalists – London Tate Modern.

We’ve been visiting the Turner prize show almost every year for the past decade, and left in no doubt that, after an extended ropey patch, this is the strongest collection of finalists for years. While Willie Doherty’s video installation (“Re-Run”) admittedly felt a little bit under par, we would be perfectly happy for any of the other three finalists to win the prize next month. If we’re considering the cumulative impact of all their work to date, then in many ways the prize should rightfully go to Jake & Dinos Chapman – particularly on the strength of last year’s “Chapman Family Collection” White Cube show. However, purely based on the work on display, our favourite (and, judging by the hundreds of pieces of paper stuck to the walls of the concluding “comments room”, the clear favourite of a good 75% of the viewing public) had to be Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter from Essex. What particularly came across this year was the high level of skilled craftsmanship involved in most of the exhibits; definitely one in the eye for the “my five year old could have done that” brigade.