cultural heavyweights

I was reading how we all have a basic need to have our emotions regulated. Ideally, by our mothers. But if that was a problem – then by someone or something else. For example, art.

A child cries because its nappy is wet and a mother holds him, comforts him, tells him, “there, there, let’s get you out of those wet things and make it better”. The emotion of discomfort is not denied – it’s taken up, made sense of, giving a space to move on into something else: dry pants.

I feel grim because I’ve broken up with my boyfriend and I go to the opera because a friend happens to invite me. And I discover that sitting there in the dark, the music takes up my sadness and does something grand with it and gives it back to me: full heart.

In the last few weeks I’ve been to see some major cultural events. All of them have taken my emotions, made them big and heady, given them back to me with a communal name.

First, I went to Peter Grimes at the ENO with Simon and Rachel.

I know this opera pretty well and I was enjoying it all through Act One. Then it got to the bit where Peter breaks into a weird, visionary aria in the middle of the bawdy pub. All the drinkers go quiet and then he rushes out with his new apprentice into the rain.

At this point I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was the same sort of snotty, gutsy crying I experienced once in Brazil. It came from my innards somewhere. And wouldn’t stop. I cried as we got up and as we moved into the crowded foyer. Real streaming tears. People stared…

When Rachel met up with us and saw my face, she smiled kindly and put her hand on my shoulders: “Could it be that those tears are multi-tasking?”, she asked, referring to my bruised heart. She was right, of course. The opera itself was peripheral – though its themes of loneliness, endless striving, battling the world all seemed pertinent at the time.

A week later I was at the 02 arena in the former Dome, waiting for Beyoncé to come on.

I’d bought the ticket with Dominic for his Christmas present and although I tried to wiggle out of it, we thought it would be weird not to go. I was resistant and grumpy because the tubes weren’t running and we had to book a boat to get there. Plus, I barely know 2 Beyonce songs to rub together.

However, the minute the show started I was transported.

I haven’t been to a big stadium show for ages and they’ve evolved. The whole thing was like a 2 hour funfair ride. (And I really scream and shout a lot at funfairs). I couldn’t sit down and stop jumping up and down. The lights, the massive LCD screen doubling, trebling, kaleidoscoping Ms. Knowles, the sexy dancers, the music.

It was enormously life-enhancing. I LOVE Beyonce now.

At one point she flew out over the crowd in a 15-ft gold lame dress (as you do) and landed on a little stage 2 rows behind us that I hadn’t even noticed. She then did about six songs less than 5 metres away from me and Dominic. She’s profoundly beautiful. If I was going to get it on with a girl, it’d be her. (Or maybe one of her dancers…)

It struck me quite forcibly how “high art” is almost always about death or sadness. The sadder the better. Peter Grimes is a depressing account of a loner driven to suicide by his complex relationship to young boys.

Popular art, on the other hand, has almost always been about sex and love and energy and dancing. And the great majority of human beings have preferred it. Beyoncé’s “I Am” tour is a perfect container of those things: light, colour, loudness, dancing, sex, inspiration, longing. It takes our longing for togetherness, joy, wildness and says “yes, we all feel this. It’s good”.

And it’s not only pop goddesses – two days ago I finally got to go to Glyndebourne, the boutique opera house nestled in the Sussex countryside. It’s been putting on world class opera (initially in someone’s country house) since the 1930s. Famous for its picnicking on the lawn, I always wanted to see something there but have never had the opportunity. But circumstances conspired to get me there this week when I saw the dress rehearsal for Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.

I know Purcell and I knew that FQ was a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I wasn’t prepared for the lavishness of the whole experience.

Glyndebourne is incredibly beautiful and very, very English. People bring full tables of picnic for the 1 hour interval and sit in amongst the statuary and gardens, looking out of the lake and the cows, digesting the music they’ve just heard indoors.

And the music was beautiful. William Christie conducting my favorite orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and some exquisite soloists. And to boot, we got pretty much the whole of Shakespeare’s text performed by fine actors. But it was the opulence and extravagance of the production which dazzled me: fairies with voluptuous black wings; haystacks that exploded into dance; full size golden, winged horses lowered from the flies in amidst painted clouds. There’s no whiff of the credit crunch at Glyndebourne this summer. A dizzying massing-up of beauty on beauty on colour on music.

And Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably my favorite Shakespeare. It’s the perfect play. Three interlocking worlds, playing their way out from discord to harmony in a miraculous puzzle. As a child I was enchanted by Oberon and Titania. A little later I loved the humour of the Mechanicals. More lately it’s the comedy of the Lovers lost in the wood that makes my heart buzz. Such wonder.

I’m not sure what emotion it was regulating for me – but it sang of exuberance. Which is something I am in need of.

And last night, more Shakespeare. This time Hamlet.

I’ve only seen Hamlet once before on stage. I’ve always rather shied away from its massive, gloominess. But sat right at the front, looking up at Jude Law’s jutty jaw, I was struck – as always – by how bloody brilliant Shakespeare is. Along the clonky wire of the Revengers Tragedy he threads the most profound meditations on procrastination, the reverse-Oedipus, death and co.

At the start I was rather siding with Claudius… “Can’t he just lighten up a bit? All this huffing and puffing.” But Law swung me round by the time he was playing antic in Act 2.

He really speaks verse incredibly well. Those soliloquys are easy to fudge but he brought out their sense perfectly. I understood them better than ever before. Certainly better than when I was meant to be studying them at University.

I guess I never really identified with Prince Hamlet but Shakespeare never fails:

I haue of late, but wherefore
I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custome of exercise;
and indeed, it goes so heauenly with my disposition;
that this goodly frame the Earth, seemes to me a sterrill Promontory;
this most excellent Canopy the Ayre,
look you, this braue ore-hanging, this Maiesticall Roofe,
fretted with golden fire: why, it appeares no other thing
to mee, then a foule and pestilent congregation of vapours.

What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in
Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing
how expresse and admirable? in Action, how like an An-
gel? in apprehension, how like a God? the beauty of the
world, the Parragon of Animals; and yet to me, what is
this Quintessence of Dust? Man delights not me; no,
nor Woman neither…

Where was Beyoncé when he needed her?


  1. Марко Фризия

    June 20, 2009 at 2:38 am

    I had an experience with gutsy snotty crying once when
    I was a soldier (on a U.N. Peacekeeping stint).
    That shitty day I was overcome and overwhelmed with
    human cruelty and human suffering, decided I couldn’t
    take any more of it, dropped my rifle, and sat down in the middle of
    Avenue John Brown in Port-au-Prince, and began to sob.
    We were getting shot at so my team mates scooped me up
    into a vehicle and we drove away. A gay fellow
    soldier popped in a cassette of Gloria
    Gaynor singing “I Will Survive.” Then he reached
    over and gently held my hand. This wasn’t culture on a loftyt
    level like Shakespeare (or even Beyoncé in a gold lamé
    frock soaring over a crowd). But I think I can
    understand your own experience. I am sad to hear
    about your sadness and stress. I am glad you have
    good friends and music to lift your spirits.


    June 20, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Hey Alistair
    It s really good you could cry-crying can be such a relief when the soulgoes to a period of Dark Night.
    As for sadness and despair : I know what it is really. Ialso know and so do you THAT THIS TOO WILL PASS.
    I know from experience that the loss of a beloved brings you really down to the bottom of the valley, but the Alistair the only thing you can do is watch yourself and yourSelf, look up and start climbing the mountain again.
    Your lucky, you know what meditation is and this willhelpyou on the right moment.
    The way of the meditator,the way of the Shaman is sometimes a lonely way, you have to go it allone, but allone is also ALL ONE.
    It s nice to see you have good friends that support you and between crying do a laughmeditation too, anyway if everything is One, who is there to be sad, it s not so easy for me toput into English what my soul wants to say to you-my mother language is Flemishdutch.
    But what i wrote to you comes out my Heart.
    From Antwerp with love, Toshi

  3. Jeff

    June 22, 2009 at 12:58 am

    I am very sorry to hear that you and Dominic have parted ways. Breaking up os a very hard thing to do.

    I, too, and getting to like Beyoncé. I posted a song of hers (Halo) on June 11.

    I bid you peace.

  4. Jeff

    June 22, 2009 at 12:59 am

    I am very sorry to hear that you and Dominic have parted ways. Breaking up is a very hard thing to do.

    I, too, am getting to like Beyoncé. I posted a song of hers (Halo) on June 11.

    I bid you peace.


    June 22, 2009 at 3:46 am

    Hi Alistair,
    Jude was the fourth Hamlet I have seen, i thought he was one of the most passionate and aggressive Hamlet. I also liked the underlying homo-erotic relationship with Horatio.
    The others was all at the R.S.C. which I reviewed for the Midland Press, Mark Rylance, (sensitive prince}. Kenneth Branagh {The most regal prince especialy with that beautiful voice}. David Tennant {The Mad as a March Hare Prince, which I think was my favourite.}
    I am a big fan of ‘Cash In the Attic’ , and I am thinking of applying for the next season, as I have two special projects in Mind. I am also a friend of David Barby as we are both from Rugby, he was kind enough to let me interview him for a Dvd project promoting Rugby, which can be seen on my Spotlight page as my showreel.
    Take Care

  6. flying lotus

    June 22, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    It is interesting to see how we all are similar
    and connected beings. I am going through exactly
    the same thing at the moment, only attending different
    cultural events with friends to fill the void created
    by the exhausted relationship.

    By the way, you and Beyonce???? 🙂

    I went to see ‘Flying Lotus’.

    Don’t be sad, Alistair. I am certainly not crying
    anymore. After the initial grieving period and
    dealing with some dark fears lurking in the corners,
    it is possible to enjoy a massive sense of freedom,
    a mystery of paths yet unknown and an overwhelming
    anticipation of the future.

  7. Duane

    June 23, 2009 at 6:12 am

    Multi-tasking cry. I like that one!

  8. elise

    June 23, 2009 at 10:56 am

    It looks like you made a good choice with the opera…

    I hope your heart is on the mend. x

  9. lori

    June 25, 2009 at 3:26 am

    I’ll join the chorus of condolences over parting with your
    partner. May you find a greater guy.
    It’s quite disagreeable lining a pop tart (albeit talented one0
    with the greats, Shakespeare, Purcell, Christie. I have to
    pooh-pooh you. Maybe that’s what drove your man away?
    Just don the golden lame youself next time.:)

  10. Elaine

    June 27, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Hi Alistair, just watching you down here in NZ, Place in the Country I think it is. How does it feel to be such an international face! I, too, and sorry about your seperation. But, as trite as it sounds, It’s better to have loved and lost… etc etc. Just letting you know that you’re appreciated and regarded fondly on the other side of the world. All the very best, (and am pleased you liked Beyonce… my ‘makes me cry’ music is Mama Mia. (Don’t ask me why).
    Kindest regards,

  11. Martin

    June 28, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    Alistair, listen to the 3rd movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony or the final of Mahler’s Ninth. They usually get me through the bad times. All the best, Martin

  12. Sachin

    August 7, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    “Multitasking tears” is such beautiful English! Might use it (with attribution of-course). Great example of what I always say about the most versatile language known to man. People of other languages often point out that the unsurpassed volume of our vocabulary is largely built from either poaching that of others or modern technical terms. They ignore the fact that sooner or later, people combine jargon with the oldest words to forge such eloquent, deep metaphors. It amazes me that jewels such as these are just lying around on random blogs all over the Web. Thanks!

  13. Deb McMahon

    December 22, 2009 at 1:51 am

    I like what you said here. There are some great artists singing today, especially some of the sisters! I was just reading about learning to sing like Taylor Swift, her voice is so amazing. Do you like her? Of course nobody is like Beyonce! Visit my site if you’d like to read more. There’s also a game there u can play – it’s here! Thanks again for this blog – it is really well-done.

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