Category Archives: Commentary

STORYTELLING MAKES HEARTS BEAT AS ONE ·

(Susan Pinker’s article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 10/9; Illustration by Thomasz Walenta; via the Drudge Report.)

Research shows that listening to the same narrative leads our heart rates to rise and fall in unison

A human heart is so much more than an organ. No one says they left their pancreas in San Francisco, for example, or that two kidneys beat as one. Yet most of us believe that two hearts can beat as one, and that the heart reveals our unedited emotions. Now there’s some evidence that such folk wisdom is true.

When people listen to the same story—each alone in their own home—their heart rates rise and fall in unison, according to a new study published last month in Cell Reports. “The fluctuations of our heart rates are not random,” said Lucas Parra, a professor of biomedical engineering at City College of New York and a senior author of the study. “It’s the story that drives the heart. There’s an explicit link between people’s heart rates and a narrative.”

This finding aligns with a mountain of research showing that our brains sync up when we interact in the same location, participate in the same activity, or simply agree with each other. The new study goes one step further; it tests whether our heart rates become synchronized while taking in the same narrative—even though we’re not in the same room nor even listening at the same time as other listeners.

How faithfully do our hearts clock our mental lives?

The paper describes four small studies, each one with approximately 20 to 30 participants. In all four, subjects’ heart rates were monitored via EKG while they listened to or watched various types of stories, which included short audio segments of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” excerpts from educational videos, and prerecorded children’s fables.

The goal was to see how much heart rate coordination there was among participants within the same study, all of whom had listened to the same type of content, though at different times. Did the peaks and valleys of their heart beats match up on the EKG? How faithfully do our hearts clock our mental lives—while we are reading a book, or listening to the radio or a podcast, or watching video content on our phones?

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JOURNALISTS FROM RUSSIA AND THE PHILIPPINES WIN NOBEL PEACE PRIZE ·

(Jake Cordell’s article appeared in the Moscow Times, 10/8/21; Photo: Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, BBC.)

The editor of the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper won the prestigious award with journalist Maria Ressa from the Philippines.

The editor-in-chief of one of Russia’s leading independent newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The awards committee, based in Oslo, Norway, handed the prestigious prize to Dmitry Muratov, 59, for the paper’s reporting on human rights, freedom of speech and other politically sensitive topics.

“Muratov has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said during the presentation on Friday.

Muratov said the prize was completely unexpected, and that he initially thought the incoming phone call, from a Norwegian number, was spam.  He said the prize is a recognition of the increasing pressure being placed on journalists inside Russia.

“Russian journalism is being suppressed right now. We will try to help people who are now recognized as ‘foreign agents’ and who are being attacked and expelled from the country,” he told the Podyom news site.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov congratulated Muratov as “courageous” and “talented,” following the announcement of the award.

“He is committed to his ideals. We congratulate him,” Peskov added.

Russia has launched a sweeping crackdown on independent media outlets over the last year, branding many “foreign agents” — a label critics say is designed to hamstring the ability of critical publications to continue operating.

Novaya Gazeta has not been named a “foreign agent,” unlike other leading critical outlets such as the TV Dozhd broadcaster, Meduza news site and investigative outlets iStories and The Insider.

‘For those who died’

The paper has been Russia’s leading investigative newspaper for decades and is known for breaking stories on the downing of flight MH17 and human rights abuses in the southern republic of Chechnya, including gay purges.

Muratov said the award was the achievement of the whole Novaya Gazeta team, including the six journalists who have been killed since the paper launched in 1993. 

“I can’t take credit for this. This is Novaya Gazeta’s. It is for those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech,” Muratov was cited as saying by Russian news agency TASS. 

“It is for Igor Domnikov, Yura Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Nastya Baburova, Natasha Estemirova, and Stas Markelov,” he said, naming the slain Novaya Gazeta reporters. “This is for them.”

The murders are believed to be linked to the reporters’ investigative work, particularly in Chechnya in the cases of Politkovskaya and Estemirova. 

Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of Putin and the Kremlin’s wars in Chechnya, was shot dead on Oct. 7, 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 54th birthday, in the entrance hall of her apartment block in central Moscow. She was 48 years old. 

A 15-year statute of limitations to charge those who ordered the killing passed on Thursday, and human rights activists in Russia and around the world have slammed Russian authorities for not properly investigating the murder.

“I hope this prize will help us to protect ourselves against attacks from the authorities. This award is important not just for us, but the whole of the Russian journalism community,” said Pavel Kanygin, a veteran reporter at Novaya Gazeta.

Muratov won the award alongside journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines.

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AGE OF ANTIGONE: SOPHOCLES’S ARRESTING TALE OF THE DEBT WE OWE THE DEAD ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/4; In fatal thrall … Christopher Eccleston as Creon and Jodie Whittaker as Antigone in the National theatre’s 2012 production of Antigone. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

 

With three new versions on stage this month, the ancient Greek classic – and its reflections on authority and devotion – remains as compelling as ever

This October sees a rash of productions based on Sophocles’s Antigone. Given that the heroine defies the Theban king, Creon, by burying her dead brother, Polyneices, maybe the collective noun should be “a disruption of Antigones”. Both Merlynn Tong’s version at the Mercury in Colchester, which has a female Creon, and Hollie McNish’s at the Storyhouse in Chester emphasise the play’s modern relevance. But the most radical rewrite appears to be that by Freedom Studios in Bradford. Entitled Aaliyah (After Antigone), it shows two office cleaners challenging authority when they find their brother is being deported to Bangladesh by a recognisably vicious home secretary.

Before culture warriors start fulminating about desecration of a classic, one should point out that Antigone has always been open to adaptation. Jean Anouilh did a famous version, staged in occupied Paris in 1944, in which the heroine became a symbol of the resistance. Brecht’s adaptation, staged in Switzerland in 1948, showed Creon as a Hitlerian tyrant who finally takes Thebes with him down to destruction. And in The Island, memorably performed by John Kani and Winston Ntshona and co-written with Athol Fugard, we saw two prisoners on Robben Island using Sophocles’s play to express their opposition to apartheid. So, far from being theatrical graverobbers, today’s Antigone adapters are in distinguished company.

All that raises an obvious question: why is it that this particular play has acquired such mythic status and encouraged so many rewrites? George Steiner put his finger on it when he wrote: “Antigones proliferate in an age which has known live burial and the obscene refusal of sepulchre to enemies and victims.” Look around any modern warzone and you will find parallels with Sophocles. But this is also a play that raises fundamental questions about the conflict between civil and religious law, political expediency and common humanity. Hegel had a point when he described the play as “a collision between the two highest moral powers”.

Today our sympathy naturally lies with Antigone, the rebel and the martyr. But, in my experience, the play works best when Creon is also seen as a tragic victim: the embodiment of state power who ultimately sacrifices his wife and son to an inflexible principle. And Edmund Wilson raised a fascinating point in an essay in The Wound and the Bow when he suggested there was something pathological in Antigone’s excessive love for her brother.

Wilson seized on a famous passage in which Antigone says she wouldn’t have broken the law for a husband or a son; she’s willing to do it, however, for a brother. However much we admire Antigone, is there not something morbid about her sibling fervour? The best productions I’ve seen transcend moral melodrama – good versus evil – and recognise the play’s endless complexity. Polly Findlay, using Don Taylor’s translation, directed a modern-dress version at the National in 2012. Jodie Whittaker, long before she became Dr Who, was a compelling Antigone: a genuine subversive who believed nothing was more important than the debt we owe to the dead. But Christopher Eccleston, one of her predecessors as the time-travelling doctor, was a charismatic Creon dealing with a state in crisis: less a brutal tyrant than a figure fatally in thrall to the idea that authority is somehow sacrosanct.

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HERODOTUS (ON BBC RADIO 4) ·

(from BBC 4)

HERODOTUS

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Greek writer known as the father of histories, dubbed by his detractors as the father of lies. Herodotus (c484 to 425 BC or later) was raised in Halicarnassus in modern Turkey when it was part of the Persian empire and, in the years after the Persian Wars, set about an inquiry into the deep background to those wars. He also aimed to preserve what he called the great and marvellous deeds of Greeks and non-Greeks, seeking out the best evidence for past events and presenting the range of evidence for readers to assess. Plutarch was to criticise Herodotus for using this to promote the least flattering accounts of his fellow Greeks, hence the ‘father of lies’, but the depth and breadth of his Histories have secured his reputation from his lifetime down to the present day.

With

Tom Harrison
Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews

Esther Eidinow
Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol

And

Paul Cartledge
A. G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge

Producer: Simon Tillotson

(view on BBC 4)

VÁCLAV HAVEL, DISSIDENT PLAYWRIGHT TURNED STATESMAN, BORN 85 YEARS AGO ·

(from Radio Prague, 10/3/2021; Photo: Václav Havel|Photo: Filip Jandourek, Czech Radio.)

Born into a prominent wealthy family, Václav Havel came of age after the Communist coup of 1948, when to be “bourgeois” was to be part of a despised social class. As a young man, his criticism of the regime and status as a “dissident playwright” would soon land him in prison.

From those dark prison cells, Havel also gained prominence in international politics. He moved from a sort of private asylum at his country house in Hrádeček to the most important presidential and royal palaces in the world. The once-banned author saw his plays and essays published by the world’s most influential publishing house. Such was the life of Václav Havel. We will commemorate the 85th anniversary of his birth on 5 October 2021.

Few people have lived a more varied life than did Václav Havel. He was born into a privileged Prague family. What could have been good fortune soon turned to a burden. After the Communists came to power, inappropriate (i.e., “bourgeois”) origins became a major obstacle.

All his attempts to study the humanities at university were unsuccessful: without the recommendation of the local Communist Party branch, it was impossible. He was eventually accepted to the Czech Technical University, where he studied economics. It was also a small miracle at that time (1955). He was not admitted to the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU) until 1962; for distance learning, which was considered less valuable.

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10 RUSSIAN OPERAS BEING STAGED AROUND THE WORLD IN THE NEW 2021–22 SEASON ·

Damir Yusupov/The Bolshoi Theater

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the headlines, 10/21/2021.)

Russia gave the world not only ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘War and Peace’, but also some larger-than-life operas, as well. Don’t miss a chance to see them in the new season!

1. ‘Boris Godunov’ at the Metropolitan Opera (New York City, United States)

In terms of the depth and subtlety of psychological analysis, Modest Mussorgsky could definitely rival Fyodor Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy.

In ‘Boris Godunov’, he proved himself not only as a great composer and librettist, but also as a visionary far ahead of his time. Mussorgsky broke new ground in that he actually chose to highlight the dramatic conflict between the tsar and the people in this historical operatic blockbuster. The Russian composer went as far as to actually give the people the lead role in ‘Boris Godunov’. 

The Metropolitan Opera aptly describes Mussorgsky’s masterpiece as “a pillar of the Russian repertoire”, noting that the performance has been staged in its original 1869 version. Stephen Wadsworth’s production, with German bass René Pape as the title character in Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, depicts the “hope and suffering of the Russian people as well as the tsar himself”.

2. ‘The Queen of Spades’ at La Scala (Milan, Italy)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s grim tale of passion and greed is widely considered the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. With the libretto composed by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, the masterwork is based on Alexander Pushkin’s mystical short story, ‘The Queen of Spades’.

It has it all: passion, obsession, fear and fire. 

The opera is set in 18th century St. Petersburg and revolves around an unfortunate young man named Herman, who is obsessed with gambling. Herman also seems to be in love with the charming Lisa, whose grandmother, an old Countess, knows the secret of the “three winning cards”. Herman takes his obsession with gambling too far and things quickly go off the rails. 

Staged by Matthias Hartmann, ‘The Queen of Spades’ stars mesmerizing Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as the Countess and Russian tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov as Herman.

Russian tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov

In the new season, Tchaikovsky’s grandest opera will be conducted by Maestro Valery Gergiev.

3. ‘Sadko’ at the Bolshoi Theater (Moscow, Russia)

‘Sadko’ is, by far and large, Russia’s musical answer to Homer’s ‘Odysseus’. All modesty aside, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov gave his work quite an unusual genre definition – an epic opera.

'Sadko' at the Bolshoi Theater

Indeed, the prolific composer created a musical score of epic proportions, which requires an exceptional cast of performers and a nontrivial solution to setting the blockbuster opera. In ‘Sadko’, dramatic mass scenes alternate with heartfelt lyrical episodes, characterized by the exquisite beauty of the melodies. The opera focuses on Sadko, a young musician who dreams about incredible adventures and overseas travel. Sadko decries wealthy merchants for boasting and bluster, but the wandering artist will have to put his words into action after the fateful with the Tsar of the Sea. Charismatic tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov, who has performed at the Royal Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, nails it as Sadko in the trailblazing production staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov.

4. ‘Eugene Onegin’ at the Vienna State Opera (Vienna, Austria)

Tchaikovsky was a true original, who never followed the crowd. So, instead of a story boasting “tsars, tsarinas, uprisings, battles and marches”. Tchaikovsky said he needed an intimate human drama with universal appeal. With the inner world of the characters in mind, Tchaikovsky created his signature “lyrical scenes in three acts”, featuring an ideal combination of pathos, drama and dignity.

‘Eugene Onegin’, based on Pushkin’s famous novel in verse, focuses on a young and sentimental woman, Tatiana Larina, who naively declares her love to a self-centered man. Eugene Onegin, who is cold as a fish, rejects Tatiana’s love and continues to live his life to the full. When he realizes that he might have missed the love of his life, it’s already too late. 

Andre Schuen as Onegin and Nicole Car as Tatyana.

Cutting-edge director and set designer Dmitri Tcherniakov creates an atmosphere of dramatic movement at the Vienna State Opera, with baritone Andre Schuen’s Onegin and Nicole Car’s Tatyana sharing charisma on stage.

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***** ‘DRACULA: THE UNTOLD STORY’ REVIEW – A WILD GOTHIC THRILL RIDE ·

(Nick Ahad’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/30; Photo:  Hi-tech horror … Riana Duce as Mina Harker. Photograph: Ed Waring.)

Leeds Playhouse
For a tale of the undead, Imitating the Dog’s inventive blend of live theatre and tech is bursting with life

Having tackled zombies in its most recent production, Night of the Living Dead – Remix, the Leeds company Imitating the Dog now takes on Dracula. The smart money would be on Frankenstein next to complete a diabolical trilogy.

For a show about the undead, this is bursting with life: theatre as intensely popular culture, with influences from movies such as Sin City, graphic novels including Watchmen and Constantine, and a sensibility heavily redolent of the Cumberbatch Sherlock.

The company, made up of co-artistic directors Andrew Quick, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright, has always pushed the boundaries of technology and theatre. Here the blend of live performance and digital is perfect. In their version of Night of the Living Dead, the balance was out of whack, the tech getting in the way of the show. In Dracula: The Untold Story, a co-production with Leeds Playhouse, equilibrium is achieved.

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IRINA BROOK’S STAGE OBSESSION: ‘IT’S BEEN 50 YEARS – THEATRE, THEATRE, THEATRE!’ ·

(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/28; Photo: The sunshine that blasts away the shadows… Irina Brook, director. Photograph: Amanda Lane.)

She grew up in an artistic dynasty and was once rejected for a part by her dad. Now the director is turning her life into an epic new project. She reflects on Chekhov, Shakespeare and Iggy Pop

What are memories? Stories we tell ourselves? Do they occupy neatly filed compartments in the brain? Perhaps – as Cicero and others argued – memory is a sort of palace or theatre: an atmospheric space filled with objects pregnant with meaning, or a realist stage set on which figures are forever materialising and disappearing.

Inside a swaggering 18th-century palazzo in Palermo, Irina Brook is trying to find answers to these questions – at least some of them. The project is entitled The House of Us. Three years in the planning and writing, the first piece she has created from scratch, it is a melange of autobiographical installations, photographs, video, music and theatrical performance. The audience will wander through it all, trespassers in Brook’s memory.

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RUSSIAN BALLET THROUGH THE EYES OF NINA ALOVERT (PHOTOS) ·

(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 9/25.)
An Emmy-winning Russian-born photographer shows her view of the
magnificent world of Russian dance and its most renowned artists.

Nina Alovert (b. 1935) started her photography career in the Kirov Theater, today called the Mariinsky Theater, and which is St. Petersburg’s and Russia’s most famous ballet venue. Nina emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, but she kept taking pictures of Russian dancers while they were on tour abroad. She was a photographer for the Emmy-winning TV movie, Wolf Trap Presents The Kirov: Swan Lake (1986). 

Nina has also been trying to build bridges between Russian and American culture, and was also celebrated with several international ballet prizes for her humanitarian mission. Meanwhile, her photos can be found in leading American ballet books, and she has also published several solo albums that feature leading Russian ballet stars from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Nikolay Tsiskaridze. Let’s take a look at some of her brilliant photos..

Natalia Makarova in La Bayadère by the American Ballet Company, 1980

Mikhail Baryshnikov in El Penitente by Martha Graham Dance Company, 1988

Andris Liepa in Boston, 1988

TONY AWARDS 2021: ‘MOULIN ROUGE!’ ‘THE INHERITANCE,’ ‘A SOLDIER’S PLAY’ BIG WINNERS IN EMOTIONAL SHOW ·

(Brent Lang’s article appeared in Variety 9/26; Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy.)

‘Slave Play’ Shut Out Despite Record Number of Nominations.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” a stage adaptation of the poplar movie, dominated an unorthodox and highly emotional 74th Annual Tony Awards on Sunday, winning ten prizes, including the statue for best musical (full winner’s list here). Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” a sprawling epic about the AIDS crisis, won four statues and was honored as best play, while Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” a murder mystery that unspools during segregation, was named the best revival of a play.

In a stunning upset, Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” a provocative look at racism, gender and sexuality that was embraced by critics and received 12 nominations, a record for a non-musical, was entirely shut out. Among the other major awards-winners, “A Christmas Carol” earned five prizes, all of them in technical categories.

The four-hour event unspooled on both broadcast television and the Paramount Plus streaming platform. It served as both a commemoration of the best of Broadway and a salute to the return of live theater after 18 months of COVID-19 shutdowns. In fact, many of the shows that were nominated closed more than a year ago. “Slave Play,” for instance, played its final performance on January 19, 2020 at a time when much of the world was just waking up to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.

The second part of the evening, the one that unspooled on CBS, was billed as “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!” and featured performances from the likes of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “Jagged Little Pill.” Leslie Odom, Jr. hosted the concert portion of the night while Audra McDonald emceed the earlier ceremony, a marathon affair in which more than 20 statues were handed out, along with performances by the likes of Jennifer Holliday, belting “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls” and Matthew Morrison and Marissa Jaret Winokur singing “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from “Hairspray.”

“You can’t stop the beat of Broadway, the heart of New York City,” McDonald said in her introductory remarks. “I’ve always thought of the Tonys as Broadway’s prom, but tonight it feels like a homecoming.”

The idea that “Broadway’s Back!” might be more wishful than factual. Certain shows have reopened, such as “Hamilton” and “The Lion King,” and other major productions such as “Six” and “The Lehman Trilogy” will welcome audiences in the coming weeks, but the tourism industry, which provides the bulk of ticket sales, is still sluggish. Many producers and insiders believe the recovery will be a gradual one, particularly if Delta and other variants continue to delay the U.S.’s economic rebound. Throughout the evening there were nods to the new pandemic reality, with audience members remaining masked throughout the broadcast.

One winner was virtually assured of victory before the final votes were tallied. “Moulin Rouge’s” Aaron Tveit was the only nominee in the best leading actor in a musical category and managed to triumph over the complete lack of other nominees. There were plenty of surprises and upsets, however. Mary Louise Parker nabbed best leading actress in a play for “The Sound Inside,” besting the heavily favored Joaquina Kalukango (“Slave Play”) and Laura Linney (“My Name Is Lucy Barton”). “The Inheritance’s” Stephen Daldry also nabbed a best director prize, his third, over fierce competition from the likes of Kenny Leon (“A Soldier’s Play”) and Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play”). While Andrew Burnap, who starred as a callous playwright in “The Inheritance,” beat out such major stars as Jake Gyllenhaal (“Sea Wall/A Life”), Tom Hiddleston (“Betrayal”) and Blair Underwood (“A Soldier’s Play”) to win best leading actor in a play. As expected, Adrienne Warren nabbed the best leading actress in a musical prize for her chameleonic performance in the title role of “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical.”

“Moulin Rouge!” earned honors for its director Alex Timbers, as well as for its scenic design, costume, lighting, sound design, and orchestrations. “Jagged Little Pill,” which is inspired by Alanis Morissette’s mega-selling album of the same name, earned two prizes, for Diablo Cody’s book and for Lauren Patten’s supporting performance. The show has been embroiled in a controversy in recent days after two former cast members accused the show’s producers of inflicting harm “to the trans and non-binary community” and alleged that stage management and key creatives were not receptive to concerns about their healthcare.

Patten appeared to acknowledge the furor in her speech. “I believe that the future for the change we need to see on Broadway comes from these kinds of conversations that are full of honesty and empathy and respect for our shared humanity,” she said. “And I am so excited to see the action that comes from them, and to see where that leads our future as theater artists.”

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