Culture critic Alice J Kiff is impressed by the RSC's captivating and funny production of the Alchemist, reviewing it in Stratford-upon-Avon before its upcoming London run.Written by Alice J Kiff on 28th July 2016
The City is a Work of Art
In recent years, there has been some unerring connection between the city and creativity
In recent years, there has been some unerring connection between the city and creativity. What started in the decades following the Industrial Revolution as a projection of the exhilarations and anxieties of a more modern era, made tangible by a breed of authors like F.S. Flint and Ford Maddox Ford and their giddy clamour of clauses, had, by the turn of the twenty first century become something cemented as a symbol of a modern ideology. Conceptually, the city is seen as the centre of the creative universe.
There is a quote unapologetically emblazoned on the wall of a building in the Custard Factory complex, which reads ‘The City Is a Work of Art.’ To merely look at the industrial block at the back of New Street station or the vomit infused streets of Selly Oak is to miss the point of this great city. For somewhere so often written off as ‘cultureless’, there is an abundance of artistic institutions that pepper the seemingly perennially grey landscape. The Birmingham Royal Ballet is at the very height of its game and The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is world renowned. Even as a university, you can barely move for falling over the city’s cultural heritage, with our ties to talents from Edward Elgar to David Lodge and Victoria Wood, not least the situation of one of the world’s best small art galleries, The Barber Institute, on the campus itself.
Even in terms of aesthetics, to brand Birmingham as an uninteresting or crass city feels false and entirely unfair. There’s an awful lot to be said about the University’s architectural merits, not least it being the original redbrick. There is a resounding grandeur to the Chancellor’s Court and Old Joe has become synonymous with university pride. And further out, the Jewellery Quarter exhibits some exquisite buildings, the unique charms of Moseley and as a city, we have more trees than anywhere else in Europe and more canals than Venice. Fittingly even Spaghetti Junction, whether you love it or loathe it; whether you’re inclined to see it as a concrete monstrosity or a piece of pioneering engineering has become iconic, somehow. I would argue that it also contains parallels to the arts scene within Birmingham, both in its jarring concrete beauty, and in the interdependence of the differing threads connecting North and South, East and West. Birmingham holds a pivotal position geographically; we’re right in the centre of things.
Whilst the city’s past is certainly impressive, to me, it seems that the future looks set to keep the bar unwaveringly high. The street art scene in Digbeth is growing rapidly; the monthly Hit The Ode events augment the accessibility of performance poetry and the reopening of arguably the city’s most innovative institution; The Rep, in 2013 looks set to ensure the theatre within Birmingham remains razor sharp.
Potentially somewhat ironically for an Arts editor, one of things I love most about Birmingham and its inhabitants is the intrinsic sense of self-deprecation and the mistrust of pretension. Art is taken off its lofty and unreachable shelf, and becomes something through which important and universal things are said. One of the city’s most prestigious galleries, The Ikon, is situated just behind Broad Street, and on the outside of The Bullring, our shopping Mecca, a wall boasts a poem ‘Everything Is Here’ written by Simon Turner and Polarbear and commissioned by the performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes. Equally, the use of the former warehouse, the A.E Harris Building by various theatre collectives seems to cement the city’s unabashed rejection of preconceived ideals of art as something to be kept for the elite few.
In our pocket of this vast city, art is no less integral. As a nation that so often adheres to a rigid cynicism it’s important never to overlook the beauty and the power of youth. Rather than frostily tarring student with the ‘amateur’ brush, we should hold on to the fact that we are privileged to be surrounded with an immense wealth of talent. In the opening throws of On The Road, Sal Paradise asserts ‘the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’
To be surrounded by so many of these ‘mad people’ is something marvellously rare and inexplicably valuable. University is undoubtedly a life altering experience, and I will be forever proud that Birmingham is a part of mine. And with that, on behalf of Alexander and myself, I want to thank everyone who has made our time as the Arts editorial time one that I’ll treasure forever and we’re proud to leave you in the wonderfully talented and exceedingly capable hands of James Kinsey and Rebekah McDermott.