David Lister: The Week in Arts

What a summer of cultural disappointments
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The Independent Online

What's in a name? In the arts, I would suggest, not a lot any more. This summer has seen some of the biggest names in world culture come to Britain - names that quicken the pulse. From Russia came not just the Bolshoi or the Kirov - normally a visit by either is a cause for celebration and box office queues - but the Bolshoi and the Kirov.

What happened? The Bolshoi received adequate reviews, the Kirov received a bunch of stinkers. Fortunately the latter has reverted to its old name of Mariinsky, so we are spared the shock of the words stinker and Kirov going together. But for those who had been aching to see the Bolshoi and the Kirov, the plain truth is that it would have been cheaper and more satisfying to pop into Sadler's Wells and take pot luck. You can't trust that a famous name is going to come up with the goods any more.

At the Edinburgh Festival there was another case of famous name blues. The legendary German director Peter Stein brought his four-hour production of Troilus and Cressida to the festival. Writing in this paper three weeks ago, the festival's artistic director Brian McMaster could barely contain his excitement at the prospect. He said that this was the play Stein had always wanted to direct, and it was something he could not do anywhere but Edinburgh.

How the audience wished he had been able to do it anywhere but Edinburgh. On the first night there was a technical fault that meant the performance ended halfway through. On the second night, the critics seemed to regret that there was not a similar technical mishap. The name of Stein does not resonate in cultural history as much as the Bolshoi or Kirov, but expectations were high, and they were disappointed. The great international names can no longer be guaranteed to deliver. Much has changed artistically in the great Russian companies since the fall of communism; they now have unpredictable highs and lows.

I don't think I'll plan my summer holidays round the Bolshoi or Kirov again. So, who are the safe bets of today? After the enthralling Frost/Nixon, the play about the David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews, staged at the Donmar this week, I'd say that this latest success from that theatre makes it as safe a bet as there is in the arts. Michael Sheen, who played David Frost, is not a household name despite his TV (and shortly movie) portrayal of Tony Blair, but he is an actor I would also class as a safe bet. So too is the greatest stage actor of the day, Simon Russell Beale, again not a household name, but one can book for The Alchemist at the National Theatre next month in the knowledge that he won't disappoint.

I'll be booking too for Sylvie Guillem, the astonishing dancer, still tantalising in her 40s, who has a new show at Sadler's Wells in September.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's Great Works festival has thrown up some exceptionally good productions. And two of the best, Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra will be playing more performances in Stratford and then transferring to London. The RSC, too, has become again a company one can rely on.

That's the ironic thing about culture at the moment. We wait eagerly for the visits of the huge and historic international names, the names that resonate through the cultural history of the 20th century, the companies that you queue in the rain for just because of the name on the billboard. But they're not necessarily that good any more. And the real musts are here, accessible and not terribly expensive.

Made in Iowa...

The correspondence in The Independent this week about great Americans who hail from the little-lauded state of Iowa mentions the likes of Glenn Miller and John Wayne, Buffalo Bill Cody and even the fictional Captain Kirk.

I'm pleased that, in the quest to find Iowa's most famous son, a reader eventually came up with the name of my old Independent colleague and later best selling author, Bill Bryson. Bill, who is shortly to be the subject of a profile on The South Bank Show, always wore his Iowa badge with courage. On one occasion during his Independent days, a few of us were walking around the corner to lunch when one of our party spotted some dog's mess on the pavement, and warned everyone to avoid it. We all carefully stepped over it, except for Bill, who stepped straight in it. Seeing our quizzical looks, he merely shrugged and said: "I'm from Iowa."

It was at that moment that I realised that this state produces a remarkable body of men.

* The Department for Culture, Media and Sport says that one of its big initiatives this autumn will be to tackle the problem of ticket touts. They will isolate and stop the offenders from operating, we are assured.

I might be able to help here. If Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, would care to accompany me to any rock concert (or football match, come to that) I will happily point out to her the touts.

I've grown to recognise them over the years. Indeed they were all present and correct at the recent Madonna gig at Wembley Arena. It's really not that difficult, Tessa. They are the ones saying: "Anyone got a spare ticket?" It's a cunning ploy. They don't really want to buy, they want to sell.

But, despite government policy, never does a police officer disturb them from plying their trade. Perhaps Tessa Jowell will make a citizen's arrest to start the autumn initiative rolling.

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