David Lister: The Week in Arts

Willy Loman can tell you why the arts matter

For the moment, it's a case of put away those West End in Crisis headlines. After an enormously well-received Billy Elliot last week comes the first black British musical next week. The box offices are also grateful for a good smattering of celebrity with Kevin Spacey in The Philadelphia Story and, shortly to come, David Schwimmer from Friends in Neil Labute's Some Girls.

But, rather more quietly, the best of the season occurred this week, a shattering and mesmerising production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which reduced grown men to tears (I hold up my hand and my handkerchief here) and provided a masterclass in great acting.

There were two unusual theatrical footnotes during the curtain call at the first night. First, a huge bouquet of flowers was brought on stage by a flunkey for Clare Higgins, powerfully affecting as Linda Loman, wife of the salesman, Willy Loman. Flowers are common at opera and ballet but rarely seen at West End theatre. Ms Higgins had clearly rarely seen them, because she, along with the rest of the cast, left the stage and left the flunkey alone, still holding the bouquet, and looking mightily embarrassed.

Fortunately, the second unusual footnote came to his rescue. Though the house lights had come up and the ushers had opened the exit doors, the standing ovation continued so long and so loudly that the cast was forced to come back for one last bow. Even in the artificial atmosphere of first nights, that doesn't happen often. And Ms Higgins did get her flowers.

While all this was going on, my mind turned to a forthcoming book. Next month, John Carey, emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford University, publishes What Good Are the Arts?. One can assume that Professor Carey will conclude that the arts are a good thing. It would be a little difficult to hold down a job as emeritus professor of English literature if he didn't. The book has already, sight unseen, been seized upon by various cultural worthies. They have welcomed an intellectual justification of the arts and have added their largely platitudinous twopennyworth. And there is sure to be more debate when the book is published.

I don't deny it might be a good thing for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to be presented with copies when it's time for the budget allocations. An intellectual justification of the arts has its uses. After a Downing Street summit last year, Sir Nicholas Serota, head of the Tate, admitted that he and his colleagues had been unable to put across a convincing explanation of why the arts were vital and needed a funding increase. Politicians and civil servants perhaps desire a written justification of why the arts matter.

But I shan't be reading it.

Watching Arthur Miller's classic exploration of the effect of the American dream on one family, watching the disintegration of a man spat out by the system, watching his frailties and delusions which force the spectators to contemplate their own and to contemplate the nature of society - that, more than any book, tells you what art is for. A dissertation may make the intellectual case. But the intellectual case will never compare with a life-enhancing or even life-changing moment that art at its most powerful can be. And was - this week.

Even the right-on can get it wrong

A fascinating insight into the making of sex scenes in movies was given yesterday in this paper's publication of an extract from the forthcoming biography of the film director Spike Lee. Rosie Perez, who appeared in his film Do the Right Thing, described her experience. Gone was the usual quote that there are a lot of people on set and the lights and everything, so it's not really how it looks. No, Perez, above, told it how it is for a young actress.

She said that the actor (who happened to be Spike Lee himself) took an ice cube to various overheated parts of her body. "The ice cube sequence was very disturbing to me," she said. "I mean I had just lost my virginity in college. I found it much more exploitative than what I'd read [in the script]. Eventually, I burst into tears... And I felt bad, like, 'Oh, I disappointed him, oh God, I don't understand what's going on'."

Exploitation? Tears? Bewilderment? It's the most genuine interview with an actress I have read. I hope the American actors' union reads it, too.

¿ I'm surprised that the producers of Billy Elliot have allowed a page of "translation" of Geordie phrases into standard English in the programme. It's hard to know who is being patronised more - Geordies or London audiences. Surely even a Japanese tourist would have fathomed that, to quote from the helpful guide, "Cannut means Can't". I trust that, in a spirit of equality, future productions of Oliver! in Newcastle will contain a glossary of cockney terminology in the programme.

I am, though, pleasantly surprised by the justification for the translation given by Billy Elliot's producer, Jon Finn. He says it was necessary because Americans in the audience were having difficulty with some of the phrases. It's good to know that at last producers take on board audience comment and make changes to their programmes accordingly.

The price of the programme is £4. I think that's too much. Please amend in the next print run, Mr Finn.

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