Cutting Edges Coming Up
There are two slightly Off-West End plays that I want to bring to your attention if you’re going to be in London during June. The first is Joe Turner’s Come and Gone which opened at the Young Vic on 27 May and runs until July 3 at the moment, though I hear there may be an extension. It’s one of the great August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays and is directed by David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic. Lan is one of the most truly sensitive and imaginative directors working today, and word is that he’s done it again with a riveting and brilliantly moving production. I hope to confirm the buzz myself very soon.
Opening at the same time is Dream of the Dog, a highly-acclaimed South African play by Craig Higginson. This will be at Trafalgar Studios 2 until mid-June and is a transfer from the Finborough Theatre Pub in London. It stars Janet Suzman, too-rarely seen in London in theatre these days, and is one of her projects. It’s about reconciliation and forgiveness – and whether the pressure of the past can ever really be relieved and peace found.
Finally, a good bet seems to me to be La Bete, which won an Olivier when it was first performed in London in 1991. It runs at the Comedy Theatre from 26 June to 4 September. This time, the two opposed male characters are played by Mark Rylance, recently so marvellous in Jerusalem, and the delightful David Hyde Pierce, who not only starred as Niles in Frasier, but led the original Broadway cast so brilliantly in Spamalot. Add to this the enchanting Joanna Lumley and director Matthew Warchus, who recently did such a good job on God of Carnage on Broadway, and I think you should get your tickets now before the critics sell the show out.
And if you fancy a little nostalgia with your cutting- edge experiences, you can always try a new production of The Fantasticks at the Duchess Theatre. Do I really need to tell you about it? Try to remember! …
Hilary Spurling has done us all two favors in writing her biography of Pearl S. Buck. The most obvious one is the book’s cogent and stimulating argument for reviving a reputation that, for far too long, has been at the mercy of academic fundamentalists.Instead of damning Buck because, in an age of modernism, she did not fit in with the now-accepted literary approaches of a Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, Spurling eschews contemporary critical dismissal of the author, and actually examines her real aims in writing those books, fiction and non-fiction. Spurling vividly and thoughtfully recreates for us the context and experiences that inform these amazing books and convincingly shows their power and importance.
In telling Bucks’ fascinating life story (with an emphasis on her Chinese upbringing and her married years in China up to about the age of 35), Spurling immerses us in both the background of the tales that Buck told, and also in the missionary mind-sets and imperialistic snobbery towards the Chinese that the books so valiantly set out to counteract. With an abundance of quotations from Buck herself, which constantly demonstrate the compelling and almost, at times, Biblical intensity of Buck’s very personal prose style, Spurling’s book again and again makes you realize just why Buck was the first American woman to win a Nobel prize for literature, and also why you should read her work today.
Because China is so important a global presence today, it gives us a new and richer context within which to reconsider the background of the super-power. Spurling clearly shows that Buck’s style owes a lot to her Chinese upbringing: Her books were deliberately written as if translated from the Chinese; they set out to echo the most popular styles of Chinese fiction itself. Buck’s writings are (justly) still attacked by critics for their melodrama, but Spurling convincingly explains why Buck consciously chose her populist aesthetic.
Even those who praise this biography still undervalue Buck’s work. It’s universally accepted that Buck was historically important, perhaps, but a lousy writer. This is based on several specious arguments, one of which is simply the sheer volume of the sales she achieved with books like The Good Earth, Pavilion of Women, Dragon Seed, The Patriot, or Imperial Woman, to name but a few.
Yes, she churned them out – but so did Dickens. Yes, she was didactic to a rather uncomfortable degree at times, but so were most of the Victorians we admire today. And as Spurling demonstrates, many of the most preposterous and melodramatic events in the novels are there simply because they actually happened. Buck heard about them from her nanny, or her contemporary Chinese friends, or she witnessed them herself. In an age when “literature” and popular writing were splitting apart, Buck resolutely and very successfully chose to be a populist in the realist tradition.
Flawed or not, Spurling shows the books to be consistently informed by passion and anger, by clarity of vision, and by Buck’s fundamental purpose: to communicate the realities of China as it was, to readers whose idea of the Chinese was Charlie Chan and Chu-Chin-Chow at best, and opium-addicted warlords at worst. Spurling puts the books so firmly in their historic context that her biography also becomes a cogent history lesson. But ultimately, as Spurling points out, the novels and writings of Pearl Buck work because they create a believable world which draws you in so that you become part of it.
Spurling has herself written a compelling story of great interest, and has written it brilliantly. Hers is, for me, a model biography. It’s selective and suggestive in the same way that Lytton Strachey could be. It’s written in a style that is simultaneously muscular and self-effacing, making it a terrifically enjoyable read. And it weaves together seamlessly Buck’s story, the reconsideration of a literary legacy and its impact, the resurrection of a reputation, and the historical context in which the Buck’s life and work occurred. And, as important, it shows the impact of her Chinese years on her later life in America, where she was so energetically outspoken against bigotry in all its forms.
In the end, I can praise this book in many ways and summon many arguments for why you should read it, why you simply shouldn’t miss this one. But ultimately the strongest is that there was not a page or a sentence that I did not find completely engrossing and utterly enjoyable. And it certainly makes me want to get my hands on the rest of Buck’s works to read, or re-read.
Burying the Bones, Pearl Buck in China was published a couple of months ago in the UK by Profile Books (£15.00), and on 1 June 2010 in the USA as Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth ($27.00), by Simon and Schuster). You can read it either way.
Joseph Walsh Rocks in County Cork
On my last trip to Ireland, I stumbled upon some of the most fascinating, unusual and truly exciting furniture I’ve ever seen. So, if you want an unexpected artistic frisson; and if you’re in the kind of income bracket where you can afford bespoke pieces that work in a practical sense (while they also happen to be works of art), check out the designs of artist-entrepreneur Joseph Walsh.
There’s something about the textures and shapes that Walsh creates out of wood and other materials that is simply magical. Every piece seems significant, yet like something slightly not-of- this world; his work always takes you by surprise. When a friend first showed me the finished products in photographs, I was mesmerized. And when I visited his workshops and saw – in the flesh – both the furniture for now, and the experimental shapes and designs he’s working on for the future, I felt I’d been granted special privileges. It’s like coming upon Picasso or Matisse for the first time and having that amazing experience of both surprise and recognition — of absolute “rightness.”
Joseph Walsh began making furniture when he was six – and became a master joiner and carpenter, entirely self-taught, before he was out of his teens; a kind of Mozart of furniture design and construction. Even as an adolescent, his more “ordinary” creations had a charm and individuality that attracted clients – and proved he already excelled at conception and technique. But since then, he has evolved into pure artistry.
Walsh has converted the barns on his father’s farm (that he first worked in as a child) into workshops, and has built a stunning office that I personally wouldn’t mind having as a house! Like all artists, he’s obsessive about his work. He can seem quite shy in person, and has little to say; but if you ask him about the table (inspired by a naval theme) with no legs, suspended by cables from the ceiling while in use (for SOFA, Chicago, in 2007), or his amazing rocking chairs, that look stable, but are meant to move, he becomes enthusiastic, lyrical and unstoppably articulate. He will tell you everything you ever needed to know about shaping wood, creating new forms, and choosing the exact type of materials that you need to fulfill a vision.
“How do I see my work?” he responds when I ask him. “As transcending design and art, guided only by these three things: the sensitive use of materials, excellence in the physical making of every piece, and purity in structure and form.” He experiments constantly with types of wood, shapes, and the engineering of unbelievably fluid pieces. It’s hard to believe some of the ideas he’s managed to turn into reality, even when you see them, and I dream of giving a dinner party at one of his long tables -– especially the one that hangs from the ceiling. Think of the conversation it will inspire as it gently while you eat.
Walsh founded his own studios in 1999, and ten years on has begun training the next generation of furniture artists. His main workshop barn is full of “apprentices” from all over the world who are clearly devoted not only to the work and the learning, but to him personally. You can find his studios in Fartha, Riverstick, Co. Cork, Ireland. To arrange a visit contact: Frances McDonald, Studio Manager, Joseph Walsh Studio, at Tel: +353 21 4771759, Mobile/Cell: +353 87 2420136, or by email: Frances@josephwalshstudio.com They are friendly, welcoming and very hospitable! Because Walsh is now being exhibited all over the world – Chicago, New York, Paris, the Far East – you can also Google him to see when he’s coming to a venue near you.
Something Fishy Fishy
If you do visit Walsh, in County Cork, then be sure also to drive to Kinsale, a gem of a fishing town that seems like the prototype of every New England fishing village you’ve ever fantasized. The trip through the greenest of countryside will also remind you why they call this the Emerald Isle. The mediaeval town, with Norman as well as Spanish and English influences, is beautifully situated; it’s picture perfect, and you’ll come across what I deem to be one of the best fish restaurants in the world: Fishy Fishy.
Fishy Fishy is run by the husband-and-wife team, Martin and Marie Shanahan. The couple began with a small fish shop-deli that still exists, which made them locally famous. From a business for supplying the best catch to the locals and restaurants of Kinsale, they developed their deli into a restaurant that they’ve moved to Kinsale’s seafront. The fish they cook is brought to their doorstep straight from the boats. It could not be fresher – or better prepared.
If you’re in County Cork, don’t miss the furniture or the fish. Or, if you’re anywhere in Ireland, make a special trip. It’s worth the effort, they’re taste-changing in every way. www.fishyfishy.ie/