Monthly Archives: September 2023


(By Boyan Tonchev and Ilian Ruzhin, from Radio Free Europe,  Bulgarian Service, 9/26; Photo: The Washington Post. )

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage face a war crimes tribunal on the stage of the National Theater in Sofia. The play, The Hague, by Ukrainian playwright Sasha Denisov, tells the story of a child from Mariupol who yearns for justice after losing family members in a Russian bombardment.


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In Our Time

In the 1000th edition of In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss arguably the most celebrated film of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007). It begins with an image that, once seen, stays with you for the rest of your life: the figure of Death playing chess with a Crusader on the rocky Swedish shore. The release of this film in 1957 brought Bergman fame around the world. We see Antonius Block, the Crusader, realising he can’t beat Death but wanting to prolong this final game for one last act, without yet knowing what that act might be. As he goes on a journey through a plague ridden world, his meeting with a family of jesters and their baby offers him some kind of epiphany.


Jan Holmberg
Director of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, Stockholm

Claire Thomson
Professor of Cinema History and Director of the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at University College London


Laura Hubner
Professor of Film at the University of Winchester

Producer: Simon Tillotson


(Mark Lawson’s review appeared in the Guardian, 9/21/2023; Photo: The Guardian.)

Marylebone theatre, London
Set in a Polish ghetto, Dmitry Glukhovsky’s superb play explores the terrible choices made by people under occupation

Only the hardest heart would not feel advance goodwill towards The White Factory. Playwright Dmitry Glukhovsky and director Maxim Didenko are Jewish Russians effectively made stateless dissidents by Putin’s dictatorship and invasion of Ukraine. And the subject is the Holocaust, which culture has a duty to keep current.

Warmth towards a drama, though, must be justified by the hottest creativity, which the play achieves by honouring Jewish dead and survivors while also engaging with today’s Russia and wider politics elsewhere.

Bookended by scenes in 1960s Brooklyn, the play is mainly set in Poland under Nazi occupation. It focuses on the Łódź ghetto which, unlike Warsaw’s and others, initially mitigated the scale of genocide by becoming “indispensable” – as Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish elder, put it – to their would-be murderers by turning every building into a workplace, creating products Germany craved. The “White Factory” was an abandoned Catholic church that manufactured feather pillows.

While unsentimental about real-life figures – sexual harassment by Jewish leaders is frankly dramatised – the play accepts, as surely viewers must, that their deals with the Nazis were not collaboration but tactical desperation: whatever it took to reduce the death toll.

The troubling guts of the play, though, are the naivety of believing that the lives-for-goods arrangement would be taken in good faith. This theme of the futility of trusting tyrants seems clearly aimed at Putin as much as Hitler, but viewers in theoretically benign democracies are also invited to chew and perhaps choke on the calm arguments about what should happen to a society’s elderly or industrially unproductive people.

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(Kate Wyver’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/9/23; Photo: The Guardian.)

From the magician who stops his show to serve at the bar to the actor who drives entire plays around in his car, for these theatre-lovers small really is beautiful

When a producer rings up attempting to book a show with a cast of eight, Jasper Blakeley politely suggests they do more research on his venue. Formerly a hairdressers, the Small Space in Barry, South Wales, is the tiniest commercial theatre in the UK, with a stage “no bigger than a parking space”. A cast of eight would be more likely to fit one on top of the other than standing in a row. “People always say: ‘God, it is small, isn’t it?” chuckles Blakeley. “The clue is in the name.”

As long as no one minds getting cosy, 25 people can pack into the downstairs theatre for a show of music, magic and comedy. At the Small Space, bodies adapt to fit the setting, Blakeley explains: “Elbows come in, people move differently.” Like a caravan or a barge, every inch is made use of. When more supplies are needed, everyone in the bar stands up so the seating can be lifted up to get to the drinks, and Blakeley reassures me that you would only bang your head on the freezer hidden above the stairs if you were 6ft 8in or above.

Buoyant and optimistic, Blakeley is one of the extraordinarily determined, almost foolishly ambitious people running the country’s smallest theatres, a group who aim to create wonders with very little room for error. He likens his theatre to the London Underground: “That shouldn’t work, yet somehow we always manage to get in. And there’s loads more room in our theatre than there is on the tube.”

In a climate of budget cuts and the cost of living crisis, keeping a theatre alive is a gargantuan task even for the smallest of spaces. When Simon Carr took over the Little Theatre, a 90-seater venue in Doncaster, in 2014 there was “about £87.40” in the bank, he remembers with a strain in his voice. One more show without a rapid rethink of the finances would bankrupt the volunteer-run space. “I didn’t sleep for three nights,” Carr groans, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “We begged people not to file their receipts until we could pay them.”

The theatre managed to stay afloat. “Financially at the moment, touch wood, we’re doing quite well,” says Alan Clark, who took over as artistic director of the Little Theatre in June. “Every show we’ve put on in the last year has made a profit, however small.” As well as ticket sales of their own productions and the running of a youth group, external hires of the theatre have been a huge success. Musical tribute acts, they’ve found, do stunningly well for both box office and bar, although “you don’t want to be alone on the bar on one of those nights,” warns Jo Chorlton, a former nurse and member of the theatre for the last five years.

The volunteers at the Little Theatre not only act and direct but cover the bar and front of house, too. Last weekend, Clark explains proudly, the team had hosted two sold-out shows and been told that the audience reported never having had a friendlier welcome; they were gobsmacked when they found out the place was run and staffed by volunteers. “For me,” he smiles, “that’s as good a testament as: ‘Oh I saw that play there, it was brilliant.’”

“No one’s ever going to make a lot of money from it,” affirms Sara Ratcliffe, half of the husband-and-wife pair who run the near-miniature Tom Thumb theatre in Margate. “Yes we all have to make a living, but it’s not about that. It’s more about the space being really special.” An old coach house dating from 1896, the Tom Thumb has been an independent theatre for almost 40 years. People clamber over one another to reach the far side of the balcony that rings the Japanese-Alpine architecture. Pictures cram the inside, while a ballooning sculpture of a mushroom sprouts off one wall.

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(Miriam Gillinson’s article appeared in the Guardian 9/15.  Photo: Sensitivity and restraint … Kasper Hilton-Hille and Ruby Stokes in That Face. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Orange Tree theatre, London
Revelatory performances fill this devastating production of Polly Stenham’s play about a family ripped apart by addiction and loneliness

Polly Stenham’s devastating play is about an affluent family ripped apart by addiction, loneliness and love directed in all the wrong places. This is the first major revival since That Face premiered to huge acclaim in 2007 and it’s an almost sickeningly intense experience, lit up by some stunning performances and Josh Seymour’s finely calibrated direction, which manages to be both stylised and punchy but intimate and truthful too.

In the original production, Lindsay Duncan played mum, Martha, with a hazy glamour – but there’s not a whiff of that here. Niamh Cusack’s Martha is an unequivocal mess. She’s wired, restless, always on the move as she scurries about the stage in a slinky nightgown. Her eyes dart about nervously and her hands reach out automatically for wine, pills, cigarettes and – above all – her son. Cusack’s Martha never asks for our sympathy and, because of that, she gets it. If only for a moment.

‘The remnants of something good’ … from left: Niamh Cusack, Kasper Hilton-Hille, Ruby Stokes and Dominic Mafham in That Face. Photograph: Johan Persson

Martha’s dazed and damaged children are played with sensitivity and restraint by two actors, Ruby Stokes and Kasper Hilton-Hille, on their stage debuts. Stokes keeps her voice flat and her tone resolutely unimpressed, as rebellious and neglected teenage daughter Mia. She buries her emotions down deep but they occasionally give her away as the young girl she so obviously still is – no more so than when she longs for her dad to fly back home from Hong Kong, where he’s shacked up with family “number two”, and save the day.

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(from StudyFinds, 9/5; via Drudge eport)

RAMAT-GAN, Israel — Kevin Bacon, this study is for you! In an exciting breakthrough, researchers from multiple countries have unraveled the mystery behind the “six degrees of separation” phenomenon. You know that game where you try to connect people through acquaintances? It turns out, on average, it really does only take about six handshakes to link any two random individuals in our vast human society. Now, scientists have mathematically can explain why this magic number exists.

Back in 1967, Professor Stanley Milgram from Harvard University conducted a fascinating experiment. He sent around 300 identical packages across the United States with instructions to pass the letter within social circles to eventually reach the intended recipient. Through this experiment, he discovered that social paths connecting people were astonishingly short, typically just six handshakes away.

Since then, similar studies on various social networks, including Facebook, email users, actor networks, and scientific collaboration networks, have consistently shown that the average number of handshakes to link any two people is six. But what drives this pattern?

A recent paper published in Physical Review X by researchers from Israel, Spain, Italy, Russia, Slovenia, and Chile sheds light on the mechanism behind this phenomenon. It all comes down to human behavior and the constant balance between the costs and benefits of establishing new social ties.

People naturally seek prominence in social networks, strategically choosing connections that place them in central positions. However, forging new friendships requires effort and maintenance, which comes with a cost. So, individuals in social networks constantly play the cost-benefit game, breaking old ties and forming new ones to achieve an equilibrium that balances their desire for prominence and their limited social budget.

“When we did the math, we discovered an amazing result: this process always ends with social paths centered around the number six. Each individual acts independently without knowing the network as a whole, yet this self-driven game shapes the structure of the entire network, leading to the small world phenomenon and the recurring pattern of six degrees,” lead author Baruch Barzel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, explains in a statement.

Breaking down cost and benefit of social connections

The study focused on a network of nodes—each representing a “rational agent” or individual—interacting within a game. These agents can decide to form connections or “links” with others based on two factors — as mentioned, cost and benefit. The “cost” aspect is straightforward. Maintaining a connection with another individual incurs a cost, which may be constant or could vary depending on the size of the network. On the flip side, the “benefit” is measured in terms of an agent’s influence within the network, calculated by a metric called “betweenness centrality.”

Betweenness centrality essentially gauges how essential a node (or person) is in facilitating connections between other nodes. Imagine you’re friends with both a filmmaker and a film critic; you’re central in the connection between these two people. The study adds an innovative twist to this measure by considering the “length” of the path through which an individual connects others, thereby giving a weighted importance to more direct connections.

‘Within this game, every agent continually evaluates whether forming new connections will improve their network influence or if maintaining existing connections is more beneficial. They make these decisions based on a balance between the associated costs and the projected benefits, aiming to maximize their influence within the network.

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