Arts Entertainments

Highlights of a year when art mattered as much as ever

What, in the end, is art really worth? That is the question at the heart of “Indecent”, a play (by Paula Vogel) about a play (by Sholem Asch) that was staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London this year. “Indecent” (pictured) tells the story of “God of Vengeance”, a melodrama in which Asch, a Polish Jew writing in Yiddish, depicted a passionate affair between the daughter of a brothel-keeper and a prostitute. “Burn it!” he was advised by luminaries of the once-vibrant Yiddish theatre.

He didn’t. First performed in Berlin in 1907, “God of Vengeance” transferred to New York, where it reputedly featured the first kiss between two women on an American stage. In 1923 the entire cast was convicted on obscenity charges (the verdicts were overturned on appeal). Adapting real events, “Indecent” recreates a defiant staging of Asch’s work in the Lodz ghetto during the second world war. In the face of such suffering and prejudice, Ms Vogel’s play asks, what can a single, made-up love affair—an affair in art—count for?

The past year, like the one before it, has posed a similar question, if in diluted form. In a pandemic-stricken world, in which the future seems precarious and loved ones are often off-limits, what comfort can the imaginings of strangers offer? Especially when seeing those strangers in the flesh has been forbidden or risky. Surveying his highlights of the year, your Back Story columnist’s answer is: a lot of comfort. As much as ever, or more.

Laughter is a gift in a bleak world, and “Mother for Dinner”, a raucous novel by Shalom Auslander, supplies it in abundance. The mother of the title is Cannibal-American, and at her deathbed her children must decide whether to observe their people’s ancient rites and eat her corpse. Amid the edgy gags—the Can-Am Remembrance Day commemorates “the most tragic thing that ever happened”, only no one can remember what it was—Mr Auslander’s savage satire on identity politics also makes you think. Since life is brief and a vale of tears, should you spend it in the service of atavistic traditions, or just renounce them? That old quandary has rarely been expressed so cuttingly.

Sometimes, as in “The Power of the Dog” (pictured), a haunting new film by Jane Campion, art can say things that are hard to put into words at all. Adapted from a novel by Thomas Savage, the story involves two rancher brothers in Montana in the 1920s, one of whom (played by Jesse Plemons) marries a local widow (Kirsten Dunst), much to the displeasure of the other (Benedict Cumberbatch). The actors and director show in movement, framing and expression how bullies are often needy, violence and desire can become entangled, and ordinary household objects—a piano, a rope—sometimes take on explosive significance. Finding new angles in a genre as venerable as the Western, as Ms Campion does, is, in its own artistic way, an assertion of freedom amid constraints.

The film takes viewers marooned at home to wild landscapes and enormous skies (mostly shot in New Zealand rather than Montana). Art’s ability to straddle time and space has remained precious in 2021. So has the consoling sense it can provide that feelings and longings are understood and shared—between readers and writers, viewers and characters, or, in the case of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London, between two contrasting artists. Curated by Tracey Emin, it juxtaposed her work with that of Edvard Munch. Both dwell on lust and loneliness, the power and vulnerability of bodies and the spectre of betrayal. These themes are raw and fierce in Ms Emin’s art, sublimated into shape and colour in Munch’s. They are the same and opposite.

And, in the window between variants, the risk and electricity of live performance surged again. A stunning “Rigoletto” at the Royal Opera House enabled another sort of escapism—into the soaring music and emotions of Verdi’s opera, in a production that transmuted grief into elation. With its onstage klezmer band, dance numbers, back-wall projections and leaps in time, setting and tone, “Indecent” likewise demonstrated, in a humbler forum, what theatre can do that screens never will.

Throughout, reference is made to a rapturous scene in “God of Vengeance” in which the lovers embrace in the rain. At the very end of “Indecent”, after the horror, the scene was performed in Yiddish beneath a shower of real raindrops. It was a high-stakes moment: the idea that art could be redemptive, even during awful hardship, depended on its impact. Movingly and beautifully, the actors pulled it off.

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