Content warning: The first section of this week’s Creative Sensemaker contains some upsetting content around the issue of rape.
Ten days have passed since the finale of Killing Eve dropped on BBC iPlayer and fans bade farewell, after four seasons, to the exotic, psychotic assassin Villanelle, memorably played by Jodie Comer. In her long dance of love, death and psychological antics with Eve (Sandra Oh), she transfixed audiences around the world, and transformed a potentially two-dimensional part – the beautifully dressed, globe-trotting contract killer – into a fully formed character, whose undoubted darkness was matched by fragility and emotional need.
Initially scripted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve was a sensation when it hit our screens in 2018 – remember the sheer menace of Comer’s first scene, in which she smiled at a young girl in a cafe and then flipped the child’s bowl of ice cream over her? – and, for three and a half years, retained a loyal hard core of viewers (especially in the UK and the US). To say that its concluding episode was controversial is an understatement: social media is still ablaze with fan fury at the manner in which Eve and Villanelle exited the stage.
Already, however, Comer has moved on to her next project – and one that brings her hurtling down from the hyper-real world of the erotically charged spy thriller to the terra firma of a profoundly serious social and political issue. In Prime Facie (Harold Pinter Theatre, booking until 18 June), the Liverpudlian actress makes her West End debut in Suzie Miller’s brilliant, gruelling exploration of the gap between law and justice in the treatment of rape victims (the text of the award-winning play is available here, and repays reading).
Though Comer shot to fame in a role that oscillated between couture glamour and comic amorality, she has already demonstrated her capacity to bring formidable power to drama rooted in social realism. Nobody who has seen her performance in last year’s Help (All 4) – set in a Liverpool care home in the first, horrific phase of the pandemic – will quickly forget her closing monologue: a ferocious indictment of Britain’s collective indifference to the vulnerable.
In Prima Facie – which was first produced in Sydney in May 2019 – she plays Tessa Ensler, a defence barrister and rising star of her chambers who relishes the performative arts of the court-room and what she calls the “game of law”. She knows how to corner a witness, knows when he is “fucked”, knows how to keep winning. Tessa has all the angles covered: “One of [my clients] has PTSD from Afghanistan so I can milk that if he goes down – make sure he’s not potted, sent away.”
Then – in a shocking dramatic gear-change – Miller’s play shifts from swagger to horror, after Tessa is raped and suddenly finds herself quite differently located within the justice system. Used to the manoeuvring, position-taking and thespianism of her profession, she is now at the mercy of the “game” she once adored. She is, as Miller has written, “thrust into a situation where she tests the system for herself… the walls of this trusted watertight structure start to crumble, and there is nothing safe to cling to.”
As a consequence, the second part of Prima Facie is an unflinching dramatic inquiry into the failure of what we call “due process” to deliver justice to rape victims. As Tessa tells the court, she is herself an expert at picking holes in the testimony of a witness: “But this is not a car accident, a home invasion, this is rape. A crime against the person. And now I know that when a woman says ‘no’, when her actions say ‘no’, it is not a subtle unreadable thing at all.”
The relentless quest for “consistency”, she says, is a structural injustice: “As a victim-survivor, let me tell you that the rape and perpetrator are vividly recalled, the peripheral details not so clearly. If a woman is rattled by reliving the nightmare in court, if a woman’s experience of the rape is not the way the court likes it to be, then, we conclude that she is prone to exaggeration. And it is because of this that she is so often disbelieved.”
In this respect, the statistics speak for themselves. In the year to September 2021, police in England and Wales recorded 63,136 sexual offences, the highest annual figure to date. Yet only 1,557 prosecutions followed in the same period, compared with 2,102 in the previous 12 months. In the past four years, rape prosecutions in England and Wales have fallen by 70 per cent. On 12 April, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee was highly critical of the government’s rape review, which, it said in its report, “lacks ambition” and “focus”.
As Comer told the Sunday Times: “Something isn’t working.” This is undeniably so – and all the more alarming when considered against the broader social backdrop of structural misogyny in the police service, the horrific murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, and fears that the initial momentum of the #MeToo movement, so powerful in 2017, has been lost. Miller’s play is, amongst other things, a reproach to liberal complacency and the delusion that systemic change can be achieved by slogans, hashtags and good intentions alone. (Do check out Tortoise’s own Policing Inquiry and Louise Tickle’s most recent Slow Newscast, Fallen Women.)
Though Justin Martin’s production is still in preview, Comer’s performance is already dazzling and capsizing audiences with its sheer candour, emotional impact and furious demand for justice. Determined not to squander that energy, she and Miller are collaborating with the Schools Consent Project, which sends expert speakers into schools to teach 11-18 year olds the legal definition of consent and of sexual assault, and to discuss the practical implications for their lives. The play has also sparked interest in Westminster and Whitehall.
As we have seen so often in recent years, cultural prominence and political clout are increasingly intertwined and sometimes indistinguishable. As well as a prodigious achievement by one of our finest dramatic performers, Prima Facie has the potential to be a consequential intervention in a crisis of justice that could scarcely be more pressing. Don’t miss it.
There are just 50 days to go until Kite festival. Tortoise members can get 20 per cent off tickets here for the two day event in June which includes talks from Ai Weiwei, one of the world’s most famous artists and activists, actor and author Minnie Driver and technology analyst Azeem Azhar, politicians David Miliband, Rory Stewart and Mandu Reid, celebrated cook and author Delia Smith, Brit pop star Jarvis Cocker, eminent historians David Olusoga and William Dalrymple, writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day and so many more. The music programme for the weekend stars Grace Jones, TLC, Self Esteem, Saint Etienne and Tom Misch. Team Tortoise will be there in force, running ThinkIns and interactive sessions in our pop-up newsroom all weekend. See you there.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (general release, 22 April)
How badly wrong could this film have gone? So badly. The idea of a star playing themselves in a movie is nothing new: Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) set a high bar, below which have slid (for example) Jean-Claude Van Damme in the atrocious JCVD (2008), Eric Cantona in Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric (2009) and most of the cast of This Is the End (2013). But Nicolas Cage, it turns out, is absolutely brilliant at playing Nicolas Cage. Tom Gormican’s terrific comedy thriller opens with the actor struggling to get the parts he wants and to be a successful father to his (fictional) daughter, Addy (played by Lily Sheen – whose parents are Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale… yes, I know). Presented with an opportunity to make a fast million dollars by attending the birthday celebrations of a wealthy superfan – Javi Guttierez (Pedro Pascal, fantastic) – Cage heads for Mallorca with a weary shrug. On the island, he is intercepted by two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) who claim that the kidnapped daughter of a politician is being held at Javi’s compound and recruit Cage to their rescue mission. Unexpectedly, his supposedly wicked host turns out to be a delightful companion and a true cineaste: his dialogue with Cage is hilarious, reminiscent of French arthouse rather than Hollywood blockbuster. As the actor wrestles with his dilemma – should he betray his new friend, who wants to make a movie with him? – the references to his past work pile up: Guarding Tess, The Rock, Face/Off, The Wicker Man (“Not the bees!”) and, God help him, The Croods 2. He is haunted by a CGI version of his past self, “Nicky”, from the Wild At Heart era. All of which is very camp and meta – and then, a single shot of Cage drinking from the bottle at the bottom of Javi’s pool recalls Leaving Las Vegas, the Mike Figgis masterpiece for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award. Which, in turns, reminds you that, in last year’s Pig, Cage delivered another Oscar-worthy performance (see Creative Sensemaker, 2 September). A self-effacing jester or a dramatic genius? This movie shows we can have both. As the man himself would say: rockin’ good news.
Hive (video on demand)
Having triumphed at Sundance last year, Kosovan director Blerta Basholli’s superb debut movie (based on a true story) now has a chance to reach the wide audience it richly deserves. Set in Kosovo in 2006, Hive depicts the village community of Krushë e Madhe – still reeling from the death or disappearance of nearly 250 men and boys during a Serbian attack seven years previously. What remains is a sisterhood of bereaved women, many still awaiting DNA evidence that will confirm the death of their husbands and sons (“Lucky her!” says one such presumed widow, when another has received the bad news. “She’ll no longer get startled every time there’s a knock at the door.”). In the absence of her husband Agim, unable to scrape a living for her family from the hives he built, Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) takes the initiative, learns to drive and establishes a women’s collective making ajvar, the Balkan sweet pepper condiment. To the widows’ solitude is added misogynistic attacks upon their enterprise: many of the surviving men do not approve of Fahrje’s cottage industry and try to sabotage it – without success. Though it offers no glib solutions, Hive is a quietly magnificent study of the incompleteness of grief and the search for a bearable life after traumatic loss. It is also a reminder – with tragically contemporary resonance – that the wages of conflict are paid for many years after the guns fall silent.
Noughts + Crosses, season two (BBC One, 26 April; all episodes iPlayer)
Based on Malorie Blackman’s best-selling series of YA novels, season one of Noughts + Crosses – first broadcast two years ago – envisaged a “flipped” history, in which 21st-century “Albion” has been colonised by the darker-skinned people of Aprica for seven hundred years. In a reversal of real-life white privilege, Jim Crow and Apartheid, indigenous Europeans are a lower class, categorised as “Noughts” (or in bigoted slang, “blankers”), inferior to the minority ruling caste of “Crosses”, who preach a social doctrine of “unity in difference”. As the second season begins, Sephy (Masali Baduza) the daughter of Prime Minister Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph), is on the run with her Nought lover, Callum McGregor, and pregnant with his child – planning to flee, with the help of human traffickers, to “Muscovy”. The white paramilitary group, the Liberation Militia, becomes increasingly violent in its methods as Hadley reaches for the death penalty to quell the disorder. Meanwhile, he tries to strike a deal with Sephy: terminate the pregnancy and he will spare Callum. Though Blackman’s alternate history is often described as “dystopian”, the whole point is that the roles and power allotted to different ethnicities have simply been switched: a brilliant but simple device that generated a publishing sensation and has now inspired a compelling and thought-provoking television series that looks set to run.
Elizabeth Finch – Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)
The high seriousness of Julian Barnes’s fiction is often confused with solemnity. In his 14th novel, he mischievously throws a bait to the reader: is Elizabeth Finch, the austere but inspirational teacher remembered by the narrator Neil, based upon Barnes’s friend, the late Anita Brookner? And does Neil speak, at least in part, for Barnes himself? Possibly. Probably. But this short novel is not really a roman-à-clef so much as a plea for difficulty, intellectual intensity and ambiguity not to be lazily vacuumed out of contemporary culture. Neil gets to know Elizabeth – or “EF” – after signing up for her adult education class on “Culture and Civilisation” and, after many years of friendship, becomes her legatee. In the course of discharging this responsibility, he includes a 50-page essay on the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, who tried and failed to restore Rome’s pagan religion: like Gibbon, EF blamed the decline and fall of practically everything on Christianity. As Neil recalls, she “obliged us – simply by example – to seek and find within ourselves a centre of seriousness”, promising her students “rigorous fun”. And this is (as in all of Barnes’s work) the heart of the matter: an unapologetic commitment to complexity, high art and philosophical challenge. Such a commitment was not so very unusual when Barnes’s breakthrough novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, was published in 1984. One finishes Elizabeth Finch bleakly aware of how defiantly counter-cultural it has become.
The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-53 – Jeffrey Frank (Simon & Schuster)
Thirty years after David McCullough’s masterly biography of the 33rd US president, Jeffrey Frank, a former senior editor at the New Yorker, delivers an account of Truman’s years in office that is full of nuance and fresh insight. The question, as ever, is how an apparent mediocrity – the beneficiary of T.J. Pendergast’s corrupt political machine in Missouri – made it all the way to the Oval Office. Part of the answer lies in Truman’s readiness to surround himself with remarkable people such as Dwight Eisenhower, James Byrnes, and George Marshall. Lacking Roosevelt’s charisma, he was nonetheless blessed with a lower-wattage charm that inspired loyalty and – in 1948 – electoral confidence. The chapters on Hiroshima, MacArthur and the Korean War are especially strong. Striking, too, is the extent to which much of the modern global order – the United Nations, Nato and the International Monetary Fund – was established in the Truman era. “I’m a homegrown American farm product,” he told one audience. “And I’m proud of the breed I represent – the completely unterrified form of American democracy.” The battle to defend that particular allegiance from its foes, domestic and foreign, continues to this day.
Rarely has a poet been so well served by their biographer as John Donne is in this wonderful book. We are used to the contrast drawn between the sacred and the profane in his life; between the swaggering young man who sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh and the formidable preacher who, in 1631, delivered his own funeral sermon from the pulpit at St Paul’s. Katherine Rundell discourages this binary analysis, proposing that we instead see Donne as a man who wrestled intellectually, spiritually and materially with the paradoxes of a full human life: the sexual chancer who wrote The Flea was also the preacher who deployed sublime religious language to speak of “an infinite, a super-infinite, an unimaginable space, millions of millions of unimaginable spaces in heaven”. Capable of the most unashamed social climbing and flattery, he was also exhaustively honest with himself and others about sin, sex, God and love. And, in all this, he insisted upon the power of human agency. In Donne’s version of the cosmos, it is for each person to build a meaningful life amid all the disorder: “be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail”.
“I’m as hard as Stormzy and Dave, what a statement to make, but I say what I say and I mean it,” declares Digga D on ‘Statement’, the 11th of 16 tracks on this, his third mixtape. “But you will not agree and say I’m too in these streets and the act that I got I should clean it.” The preternatural confidence of the Ladbroke Grove rapper – AKA Rhys Herbert – is indeed matched by an expectation that he will be challenged by those who seek to thwart or scorn his work. And this is not just rhetoric: in 2018, he and the other members of the drill group 1011 were subjected to an unprecedented criminal behaviour order that imposes significant restrictions on what they can and can’t say in their lyrics (watch the BBC documentary Defending Digga D for more on this and the artist himself). Undaunted – and deploying blurred sounds and DJ scratches to stay on the right side of the law – he has forged ahead to become one of the most promising rap stars of his generation. With the help of Moneybagg Yo, B-Lovee, AJ Tracey, and Maverick Sabre, he continues to emulate the model of 50 Cent (much-sampled on this album), intertwining accessible beats and often witty lyrics with an uncompromising loyalty to the hard core of his creative sensibility and sense of self. A musical phenomenon in the making.
You don’t have to understand the ancient esoteric philosophy of the deity Hermes Trismegistus to enjoy Joep Beving’s fourth solo album for Deutsche Grammophon – though I am sure it would do no harm. Composed during the pandemic, these twelve tracks have, as the pianist himself has put it, “a comforting and communal effect”, whilst still being full of subtlety, nuance and a sense of loss that is both universal and very much of its time. In a field dominated by former child prodigies, Beving is remarkable – having only truly begun his career as a soloist at the age of 38 (he self-released his first album, Solipsism). There is an appealing eclecticism to his work – Radiohead being as much an influence as Chopin and Satie – that translates vividly into its ambient, spiritual power. Now a star of the performing circuit, Beving is one of the most glorious examples of the power of streaming technology to pluck genius from the crowd, and enable talented musical artists who have not climbed the traditional institutional ladder to flourish nonetheless.
Less than a year since Paradise, their triumphant reworking of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, opened at the National Theatre, Kae Tempest returns with their fifth studio album: a soul-piercing exploration of identity, resilience, memory, love and much else. Against a soundscape of electronica, hip-hop and trance, the great polymath speaks their lyrics with an urgency worthy of Eminem and a grace reminiscent of Joni Mitchell or Billie Holiday. The premise of the project – overseen by executive producer Rick Rubin – is overtly melancholic: “The whole sky is broken. It opens upon me” (‘These Are the Days’); “Nothing to hate but life” (‘Nothing to Prove’). But the album’s emotions are far from static and, as Tempest says on ‘Grace’, “There are things I have to say about the fullness and the blaze/ Of this beautiful life”. I especially loved ‘Salt Coast’, a subtle and beautiful exploration of what it is to be British: “Ancient/ Slick clay, rock-formed, wet sand, moss-borne/ What camе before/ And what will come aftеr/ Beneath the orderly queues, the bad moods, the nice views/ The have-nots and have-twos, the night shifts in flat shoes/ The discarded masks, the empty tubes/ The colds, the flus, the reds, the blues, the Buy-to-let, the Play-to-lose/ The White Ace, the Grey Goose, the Michelin-starred, the fast food”. An artist at the very peak of their powers – and not to be missed on tour.
RIP Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who died on Monday aged 87
On my wall hangs a foyer poster of the 2008 Royal Opera House production of The Minotaur, one of the most thrilling operas I have ever seen. Sir John Tomlinson, who played the title role, said of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s music: “It’s like a religious experience. You have to give yourself over to it.” The composer – a member of the so-called “Manchester School” that also included Peter Maxwell Davies, John Ogdon and Alexander Goehr – was indeed deeply preoccupied by myth, religion, ritual and the mystery of the landscape. His breakthrough came in 1986 with The Mask of Orpheus at the ENO, and this 2012 production of that masterpiece, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, is a good place to start for those interested in his often complex but hugely rewarding work.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Helen Murray/Empire Street Productions, BBC, Channel 4, Karen Ballard/Lionsgate, Netflix, David Levenson/Getty Images, Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images