Some good things, May/June 2022

Books

In the last couple months I read two of the best books I’ve read in a long time: The Dream Machine, on the very early history of Silicon Valley, and Regenesis, on the agricultural future we need to build. Both highly recommended. I also wrote a list of my five favourite books on Silicon Valley for The Economist, you can read that here.

TV

I finally started For All Mankind and it’s as good as everyone says it is.

Restaurants

40 Maltby Street continues to fire on all cylinders. In Cornwall, I had an unbelievably good strawberry and honeycomb dessert at North Street Kitchen, great spider crab croquettes at Pintxo and a phenomenal tartine at Coombeshead Farm. But the highlight of the last month was my trip to Queens Night Market in New York, which somehow managed to exceed my very high expectations. Nansense‘s chapli kebab smash burger was revelatory.

Theatre

The Father and the Assassin was very good, and revived my interest in India/Pakistan history. Ivo’s Age of Rage was also good, but the weakest of his “epic” trilogy. Hans Kesting was great, as ever, but it was very interesting to watch Édouard Louis play himself in Who Killed My Father — I think he probably did a better job than Kesting. The buzziest thing I saw was That Is Not Who I Am, which was very good, but didn’t deliver on the weird gimmick it’s framed as.

Art

The Guggenheim’s Vasily Kandinsky exhibition is great; a rare example of an artist who got better with age. But the best thing I’ve seen in ages was Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain: the art is great by itself, but her intellectual curiosity means it’s even better when you read the accompanying descriptions. Highly recommended.

Some recommended things from the last month

Book: Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino. This is one of the best food books I’ve read. It’s both very poetic and information-dense: I suspect I am significantly more pro-capitalism than the author and I view the Green Revolution as an unambiguously good thing, but Saladino’s writing does make me mourn the diversity we’ve lost and want to help save it as best I can. (Happily, doing so involves buying delicious ingredients.)

Film: Dune in 1.43:1 IMAX. I’d already seen this twice in cinemas, including once in 1.9:1 IMAX. Watching it in full IMAX (at London’s Science Museum) was still breathtaking — the extra height makes a huge difference in conveying the scale of the world. Showings are few and far between but I highly recommend trying to find one.

Restaurant: Brat x Climpson’s Arch. Beautiful tomatoes and cod’s roe on toast; divine burnt cheesecake.

Play: A Number at the Old Vic. More plays should be this short and more actors should be this good.

The best theatre of 2021 (online and in-person)

A lot of the theatre I watched this year was online. In the best cases, this was as good — or even better! — than live theatre. Some highlights:

Einfach das Ende der Welt, Schauspielhaus Zürich

The opening act of this was magnificent. After a short monologue a camcorder gives us a detailed, lengthy tour of the empty set, the main character’s childhood home. It’s intricate and beautiful, and gives you a real sense of the people that lived there and the lives they led, while the absence of actors conveys the main character’s intense isolation. And after you’ve spent a very long time getting acquainted with this house, and building up a picture of the characters, the entire set is deconstructed — and the explosive second act takes place on a practically bare stage. It’s really powerful and very clever.

Kings of War, ITA

I saw this live at the Barbican a few years ago, but enjoyed this rewatch even more. Ivo van Hove’s extensive use of cameras in his plays means they translate extremely well to streaming — shots are framed beautifully and the whole thing feels like a good movie.

A Little Life, ITA

I’ve not read the book, and this play was so devastating that I don’t think I want to. Phenomenally acted (particularly Ramsey Nasr and Hans Kesting), thought-provoking, and beautifully staged. (Ivo’s been my favourite director for a long while, but ITA’s streams this year cemented that for me.)

Ibsen Huis, ITA

This very clever Simon Stone play blended a bunch of Ibsen’s work into one, multi-generational story. It worked really well, playing on themes of trauma cycles and history repeating itself. And it made me want to watch more Ibsen than I have thus far.

But some of the in-person stuff was excellent, too:

After Life, National Theatre

This felt like it was made for me: flashy staging, fun and pacey, while still profound and moving. I enjoy basically everything Jeremy Herrin directs — Best of Enemies at the Young Vic was pretty good, too.

We Are As Gods, Battersea Arts Centre

There hasn’t been a Punchdrunk show in London for way too long, and this did an admirable job of filling the gap. It wasn’t the most polished production, but it was really fun, the music/lighting/set dressing was excellent, and the performances were solid. And the labyrinthine BAC is a brilliant venue for an immersive production. Mostly, though, this just made me very excited for Punchdrunk’s new show next year.

The Invisible Hand, Kiln Theatre // Constellations, Vaudeville Theatre

Neither of these have particularly stuck with me, but I do remember enjoying them both a lot at the time. Not life-changing theatre, but a very fun night out.

Honourable mentions: Rare Earth Mettle; Eulogy; Rockets and Blue Lights; The Lion King; Out West.

Average: Macbeth (Almeida); The Normal Heart; Paradise; Under Milk Wood. (This was the year I decided I’d no longer book everything at the NT because it’s just way too hit or miss these days.)

Waste of time and money: Changing Destiny; seven methods of killing kylie jenner.

Best of Enemies, Young Vic

This was a very good play about the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. I knew nothing about the debates beforehand; according to the play, they were a seminal moment in TV history.

It’s very much a typical James Graham/Jeremy Herrin play: flashy and entertaining, fast-moving with lots of cutaways. It’s designed to be both fun and thought-provoking, a depressingly rare combo in modern theatre. Aside from a few overly didactic lines, the play leaves you to draw your own parallels between the past and the present. That isn’t particularly difficult as the similarities between now and 1968 are quite striking.

The acting is universally excellent, too. Casting a black actor (David Harewood) as William Buckley Jr. was clever. It makes it harder to immediately dismiss Buckley as a racist, and forces you to listen to his ideas. It helps that Harewood is very good in the role. But the highlight of the show is Syrus Lowe’s James Baldwin. In fact, his performance spurred me to go and read some Baldwin.

I have a feeling that this will transfer to the U.S. and be a big hit there. Note that I saw it in previews so things may change by the time it opens.