Shakespeare trumps politics, as Israel's Habima theater faces protests in London

Matt Wolf, New York Times, 5/30/12

At Shakespeare's Globe on Monday night, The Merchant of Venice spectators were met with airport-style security, advance notices of "conditions of entry" and a note by the box office informing patrons that missiles, among other items, would not be allowed. The reason lay in the visit to London of the Habima Theatre from Israel, amid fears of further disruptions of the sort that have lately greeted other Israeli cultural emissaries to the United Kingdom . Last September, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra arrived at the capacious Royal Albert Hall only to field repeated vocal protests from within the auditorium. And here, nearly nine months later, was Israel's national theater finding that many a distinguished cultural figure in Britain wanted the troupe's visit to the Globe called off because [they are] incensed Habima had performed in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The context for the Hebrew-language production of Merchant, therefore, was clear: Shylock's wasn't the only trial in town. What's more, how would a troupe from Israel tackle a play seen by many to be anti-Semitic? The show went on in something resembling triumph, with a robust standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for the happy, relieved-looking cast. But there were protesters in evidence within the tiered ranks of the house and among those standing in the courtyard of the Globe. One man waited for a climactic moment in Shylock's humiliation before revising the "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech to incorporate "Palestinian" instead. He was quickly hustled away. After the show, police kept various belligerents apart on the street immediately outside.


South African protestors claim victory as satirical portrait of president is removed

Jean Liou, Agence France Press, 5/29/12

About 1,000 supporters of South Africa's ruling African National Congress marched on an art gallery Tuesday to protest a painting depicting President Jacob Zuma's genitals. The ANC, which mobilised the protest against one of the most controversial artworks in the country's post-apartheid history, said the gallery has agreed to pull the painting from its website. The row erupted when the Goodman Gallery put up a collection of works by satirical artist Brett Murray taking a harsh look at the ANC. But the piece that sparked the greatest outrage was the painting of Zuma mimicking a pose by Vladimir Lenin in a Soviet-era propaganda poster -- but with his penis exposed. Critics branded it racist and a violation of Zuma's right to dignity, arguing it is deeply offensive in African culture to expose an elder's genitals. The ANC claimed victory after two vandals last Tuesday smeared the work with red and black paint, prompting the gallery to pull it from its walls. The saga surrounding the painting appeared not only to underline some racial tensions and cultural misunderstanding, but also worked to galvanise support for Zuma, analysts said. The gallery, which was closed last week, had on Tuesday taken down all materials from the exhibition. "Goodman Gallery respect your right to protest," read a sign posted on the gallery's shop windows in big capital letters. Protesters sported T-shirts with messages such as "President has the right to human dignity and privacy" and "We say no to abuse of artistic expression".


Russia's Mariinsky Theatre shocks audience with Putin protest opera

Agence France Press, 5/29/12

Russia's legendary Mariinsky Theatre has surprised audiences with a new production of a classic opera that draws parallels between a ruthless 16th century ruler and Russia's current regime. At one point in the new production of Boris Godunov the stage at the St. Petersburg theatre is swarmed by riot police and protesters brandishing slogans, in a clear reference to the street demonstrations against Vladimir Putin's rule. The 19th-century opera chronicles the rise and fall of Tsar Boris Godunov, who ascended to the throne at the turn of the 16th century after murdering the rightful heir. The plot, which focuses on the rift between the tsar and his own people, caused the opera to be censored multiple times by the imperial authorities and then in the Soviet Union. It has now been put on by British director Graham Vick at the Mariinsky, premiering Friday evening as part of the Stars of the White Nights festival. It is extremely rare for major Russian opera houses to make contemporary political references in their productions. The starkest reference to present-day Russia comes in the uniforms of riot police, or OMON, who protect Tsar Godunov and his family from a throng of angry fist-shaking citizens. "None of the protesters expected that the latest trends of Russian Twitter would be voiced on the conservative opera stage," the Izvestia daily wrote Monday, saying the production "delivers a swinging blow." The Mariinsky's internationally renowned music director Valery Gergiev is known as a Putin supporter and was one of the celebrities who recorded a promotional clip for his presidential campaign this winter.


Gaga cancels Jakarta gig after protests, but most Indonesians love raunchy shows

Robin McDowell, Associated Press, 5/29/12

Titin Karisma parades onto the stage wearing a rhinestone bustier and matching bottoms. Preteen boys watch as she straddles a speaker, whipping her long hair wildly. She licks the microphone and drops to the ground, repeatedly thrusting her pelvis toward a camera. Lady Gaga's onstage antics are almost tame compared to this act, known as dangdut, the most popular genre of music in this predominantly Muslim nation of 240 million. But while the pop star's show was effectively banned from Indonesia, tens of thousands of young women here put on performances like Karisma's every night. The apparent double standard highlights divisions between Indonesia's largely tolerant majority and a vocal minority of Islamic hard-liners. Members of the notoriously thuggish Islamic Defender's Front, better known as FPI, are quick to say they go after provocative dangdut performances. But they know this won't get them the kind of attention they crave, said Andrew Weintraub, author of the book Dangdut Stories. "Lady Gaga is a big name," he said. "It's a big stage for conservative Muslim organizations to promote their own agenda. They'll get a lot of attention internationally -- which is also what makes the state nervous." All 52,000 tickets for the concert Lady Gaga planned to give June 3 sold out within days, but members of the FPI had vowed to meet her at the airport if she dared step off the plane. Others bought tickets to her show saying, if it went ahead, they'd wreak havoc from inside the packed stadium.


China's most famous artist says protesting government saps his creative energy

Mark Mackinnon, The Globe and Mail, 5/28/12

After barely speaking to him during his 81 days of solitary confinement last summer, the men who held China's most famous artist and dissident captive came to him with a suggestion: Stay away from politics, and you're free to make as much money as you can. Ai Weiwei admits it was a tempting idea. [One of his works] sold this month for $782,500 at Sotheby's. But the deal Chinese police were offering is one Ai says he could never take: "I tried to explain to them that I'm artist, and expressing myself is my job, my duty." Wu Yuren, another dissident artist who recently spent nearly a year in jail after leading a march by Beijing artists protesting against the demolition of their studios, [said:] ""Art can be a kind of weapon in our current time. It has the function of pushing progress in social justice, fairness and reason. The most interesting thing about Ai is not his artistic side but his personal behaviour....when the government persecuted him groundlessly, he was able to reverse the situation and put the public spotlight on it. He turned it into a citizen movement. That's why people support him." Ai acknowledges the government's overreaction to him has helped fuel the international interest in him, and by extension, his art. But he also says that being a political activist saps much of his creative energy. "If I walk in the park I see...secret police, peeking from the woods, taking pictures and photographs from far away. It's very strange. Why do they still do that? I have been detained. All my activities are so open and transparent. I speak all my mind in the media. Why do they still have to spy on me or peek in on me? Sometimes I get very frustrated," he says. "People always ask me, 'How much time do you have for art?' I have no time for art, is the truth." 

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