Reclaiming history: Dreadnought South West’s The Cause

Michelle Ridings, Remi Oriogun-Williams and Ruth Mitchell in The Cause. Photo: Jim Wileman

How far would you go to win your rights? Break the law? Risk your health? Risk others’ safety? The Cause – the latest production from Dreadnought South West – wrestles with just these questions.

Over the course of 100 intense minutes, The Cause imagines a fractious meeting between two historic figures – Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and Suffragist Millicent Fawcett – each occupying an opposite side of the play’s central dilemma: is peaceful protest or direct action the appropriate response to injustice?

In one corner is law-abiding Millicent Fawcett (Ruth Mitchell): robust, dignified, elegant, fighting her own inner battle with the frustration borne of a lifetime opposing the system from within. In the other, fire-raising, hunger-striking Emmeline Pankhurst (Michelle Ridings): frail, bloodshot, trembling, her white Edwardian dress more like a Bedlam straightjacket so close to psychological breakdown is the actor’s portrayal – indeed the Pankhurst of the play’s promotional photographs is almost unrecognisable from the ghost-like apparition of its winter tour, as if the months of inhabiting this spectral reimagining has physically infused the actor’s body.

Language of war abounds. Suffragettes are ‘soldiers’, ‘warriors’. And yet the most explosive scene sees the peaceable Fawcett refuse to pick up the stone of direct action, unleashing instead a battery of repetitive word-fire that sends the audience discomfited into the interval.

If the play hinges around a single central question – whether it is better to pursue justice through legitimate or non-legitimate means – then it is testament to the writing that The Cause explores argument and counter-argument with no hint of repetition. There are so many subtle shifts in each character’s sense of their own position that I was transfixed, as each fresh nuance was opened up and interrogated from multiple angles – personal, political, rational, emotional.

The focus on these historic figures in their later years feels like a masterstroke. Far beyond youthful militancy, the physical and psychological cost of decades of activism is writ large on these characters’ bodies. If their sacrifices are evident – and they are – their aging bodies ask important questions about what radicalism can mean in later life.

Returning home afterwards, coincidently on the night of the US midterm elections, to news of a ‘wave of women’ winning seats in the House of Representatives, the importance of this play, and this still-young story, was manifest. It seems unthinkable that the fight for universal suffrage is not taught in UK schools. Compelling, intense and personal, The Cause restores this lost history: we should be proud of our foremothers.


The Cause is written by Natalie McGrath and directed by Josie Sutcliffe.

Autumn/Winter tour dates for The Cause

New Union Flag by Gil Mualem Doron

New Union Flag (2017) by Gil Mualem-Doron. Part of ‘Who Are We?’ project with Tate Exchange and Counterpoint Arts

Nothing to do with what I’m working on, but I had to share this wonderful work by Gil Mualem Doron as part of the Tate Exchange Who Are We? project with Counterpoint Arts. The project website says that it ‘includes designs of former colonised communities and of various ethnic and national groups that live in the Uk today.’

Counterpoint Arts seems to be doing some inspiring work.

More about Who Are We?

More about Gil Mualem Doron

How diverse is MA’s ‘Manifesto for Tolerance and Inclusion’?

Image courtesy The Museums Association

21st-century museums use the material culture of the past and present to encourage discussion and debate, right? To share ideas and open up conversations. So why then, does the new Museums Association ‘Manifesto for Tolerance and Inclusion’ (February 2017) respond to the US Travel Ban by adopting an unequivocally pro-immigration stance?

Bear with me…

If museums and other cultural organisations are serious about inclusion, we have to recognise that last year 52% of our potential UK audience voted to sever ties with our European neighbours in order (so the argument went) to halt inward migration. The seismic shock of discovering that progressives are suddenly in a minority cannot be assuaged by simply shouting our liberal values ever louder above the voices of those who have genuine, if to us misdirected, concerns. Of course we need to do this too, now more than ever. But culture has a deeper and more powerful role as well.

It’s of all our responsibility to challenge prejudice and ignorance – and it matters how we do this. If we become organisations that promote a particular, liberal viewpoint only, we’ll do little to include the 52% of people that felt so ignored that they voted to overturn decades of progress, however flawed.

Perhaps we should invite contemporary rightwing populist viewpoints, hateful as they are to many of us, into museums, galleries, theatres. Explore with empathy. Look objectively, in the same way that we now talk about the origins rather than the causes of Europe’s lurch to the political right in the 1930s. Or perhaps even in the same way that psychology brings thoughts into the open, where they can be comprehended, challenged, addressed. If museums seek to understand history, including the history that is happening now, surely we have to open up and not close down debate?

And yet there remains a tension between head and heart, between intellectual ideal and lived experience. The challenge is how to admit these conversations safely and without causing harm. No-one entering a cultural space (or indeed any public space) should feel less valued, attacked or afraid as a person. In our pursuit of knowledge and understanding we have to remain true to our most humane values.

And on a personal note, as someone who grew up amid 1980s Section 28-sanctioned hatred, I wish just one trusted person or authority, perhaps at school, or even at sixth form college, had declared themselves against the dominant bigotry and ignorance, as the Museums Association has now done. Only when we feel safe and valued – all of us – can we begin the process of understanding, let alone creating, a diverse and exciting culture.

We cannot look away

A message to my fellow participants in Culture Shock Chapter 1 next week

Two young women in the US watch the election results
Two young women in the US watch the election results






Artists, scientists, fellow human beings, we cannot look away while the ugliest side of us rolls back all that is good in us. Everything our parents and grandparents worked for and fought for is threatened.

In a post-truth world, where a proudly ignorant, misogynistic, white supremacist, homophobic climate change denier can speak to so many, historic dangers are resurfacing like some foul regurgitated toxin.

Our grandparents defeated fascism (or so we thought). Our parents made a society that cares for those in need and treats the sick with the latest science, regardless of ability to pay at point of access. We ourselves created a culture that values all human beings equally, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, identity. It’s a society that understands we cannot continue to put intolerable pressure on our planet. It’s a society that enables the arts and science to make great leaps forward, and these great leaps move society forwards.

As it’s almost November 11, I’m reminded of Jeremy Deller’s ‘We’re here because we’re here’. We are indeed here because we’re here, and there is something about the way that that art installation came among us all, sacrifice and progress; past, present and future, that feels even more urgent and necessary now.

As artists and scientists, arts people and scientific people, our role is the same: we are here for our humanity, to fight ignorance, to question (and encourage questions), to seek to understand and to build hope.

This is a new Conradian Heart of Darkness. We cannot look away.

Copyright: Claire Gulliver (2016). May be reproduced for non-commercial purposes only, provided that credit is given.

Questions about quality

Egg Paintings (2015) Uta Kögelsberger. Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria. Courtesy New Expressions. Photograph © Jane Hobson.
Egg Paintings (2015) Uta Kögelsberger. Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria. Courtesy New Expressions. Photograph © Jane Hobson.

“The first line, perhaps even the first word, makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up”. That’s what Booker Prize winning novelist Ben Okri once said, when asked about great writing.

It’s a wonderful description of the magic of great art: that point where an artist’s vision, endeavour and execution meet relevance and meaning, striking deep and surprising connections with people and the world around.

As arts professionals, we’re loath to break this magic down into things that can be measured. And yet in our resistance to measuring quality perhaps we make it difficult for ourselves: difficult to articulate quality and therefore difficult to strive for the art that we make, or enable others to make, to be the best that it can be. Making great art is, after all, not a process of creation alone. It’s also a process of questioning, of asking what can be done and to what effect, a dialogue between creating and dispassionately criticising. Artists, authors, composers, all ask these questions, so why shouldn’t we?

The New Expressions programme establishes a structured approach to collaboration between contemporary artists and museums: an approach specifically designed to raise the quality of work in this field. In its third iteration, 15 museums across three English regions partnered with 20 lead artists to create new work over a two-year period. The idea of structuring projects simultaneously is to create a shared forum in which to explore and extend possibility, inspiring critical awareness and creative risk-taking.

But how could we tell whether this structured approach was indeed nurturing quality? First, we had to describe what we meant by ‘quality’:

We wanted to see work that was adventurous and challenging and that provoked a response. We wanted to see work that enhanced its context. We wanted artists to push the boundaries of practice and to pursue work with the rigour needed to follow through an artistic enquiry or realise a core idea.

We broke these down into generic (or intrinsic) quality and contextual quality. Generic, or intrinsic, aspects of quality are integral to all types of great art and culture, from drama to visual art. These acknowledge the capacity of art to make one’s hair stand on end. Among these, we described: ‘Adventure’, the extent to which art deals with something unusual or unexplored; ‘Challenge’, the extent to which art stretches the mind beyond day-to-day thoughts; ‘Activity’ or ‘agency’, the extent to which art prompts thoughts or feelings; and ‘Transformation’, the extent to which art changes ways of thinking and feeling.

Contextual quality, on the other hand, considers attributes of an artwork that are unique to its particular context. Here, we wanted to understand the degree to which the artwork stimulated rethinking a historic collection or space (‘Contextual stimulus’), and the extent to which it opened up that collection or space in a surprising way (‘Contextual distinctiveness’).

We were then able to develop a logic model to frame our investigations. We drafted key questions that we would need to ask, in order to discuss quality objectively. For example, in order to better understand how adventurous an artwork was, we asked how far it dealt with something unusual and unexplored. By combining artists’ and museums’ self-assessment (through surveys and interviews) with audience feedback, we built a rich and multi-dimensional assessment of artistic quality.

We asked artists whether they had pursued similar lines of creative or critical enquiry before, and what made their line of enquiry new. These questions teased out ways in which artists were building on their existing practice and taking core interests in new directions.

At the start of New Expressions 3, 82% of artists had pursued similar lines of creative or critical enquiry before. Some had worked with the same media or materials, while others referred to ideas, themes and approaches to practice.

At the end of the programme, we discussed with artists the extent to which their commissions had indeed pushed their practice in the ways that were envisaged, or indeed in new ways that they had not anticipated, resulting in new understanding. Eight out of nine artists said their project had stretched them creatively, and seven out of nine said that it had stretched them critically.

Among audiences, 64% made a link between the artist’s work and the historic collection (‘contextual stimulus’). Of those, 77% agreed that the artist’s work opened up the collection or building in a surprising way (‘contextual distinctiveness’).

60% of audience respondents agreed that the artists’ work stretched their mind beyond day-to-day thoughts (‘challenge’), while 52% said the encounter had prompted new, external connections and ideas (‘activity’/ ‘agency’).

A final question asking visitors to indicate the subjects that the artwork had triggered thoughts or feelings about suggested that visitors found it easier to connect the artwork to its historical and geographical context (‘contextual’ quality) than to find personal meaning and relevance (‘generic’ or ‘intrinsic’ quality).

Ultimately, quality is about thoughts and feelings as well as facts. Passion and dispassion. But to keep moving the discussion (and art) forward, it’s worth trying to understand what it is about great art that makes one’s hair stand on end, whether that hair belongs to audience or artist.

First published at 13/10/2016

Olympic gold and thinking about value: The stories we tell and the stories we don’t

Diving at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre, Rio 2016
Diving at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre, Rio 2016

In the beginning, I was enjoying the Rio Olympics: none of your Premier League football primadonnas demanding obscene wages; just ordinary self-effacing folk competing in sports more commonly ignored by the media. It’s been a breath of fresh air to watch outdoor diving (probably my favourite event) against a backdrop of the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, the intrusion of emergency sirens a reminder that this is theatre, after all, real and yet not real.

But as the medal tally for Team GB mounts (and the uninvited alerts on my phone app come in thick and fast, presuming to trigger a patriotic response that seems increasingly required), something has shifted for me, amid the achievement and adulation. As the parade of perfectly-honed young bodies, focussed minds, golden couples and extended, specialist support teams grows, I’m left wondering about who and what we value and why.

Let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t about questioning the achievements of Olympic athletes, of all nations and none. They are undoubtedly impressive. Instead it’s about asking why our notion of achievement seems so narrowly defined. The ‘league table’ of all-time British gold medal winners, as featured by BBC Sport yesterday, makes it explicit: five of the top six medal winners are Sirs. Indeed, so well-trodden is the medal-winning route to royal recognition that, with a slip of the tongue, presenter Clare Balding, accidently made the talented cyclist Laura Trott a Dame at 24 years-old.

Of course, I work in the arts and I would love to see media coverage of creativity and cultural experience come anywhere near the level enjoyed by sport. I’d love to see public celebration of artistic achievement in the same way that athletes at the top of their game are celebrated.

And if we’re talking about who and what we value then we have to talk about money. Unlike the bloated world of Premier League football or the higher echelons of tennis, UK Olympic sport shares with UK arts and culture a reliance on public funding, particularly from the National Lottery. Public funding for elite sport was increased fourfold when the right to host London 2012 was won. It’s an investment that has clearly paid dividends. And thanks to more number crunching, we now know the exact price of a medal of any colour for Team GB in Rio 2016: at the time of writing it stands at £5.5m.

Gold, silver and bronze medals from the Rio 2016 Olympics
Gold, silver and bronze medals from the Rio 2016 Olympics

But what is the value of that medal costing £5.5m? What is the value to individuals outside the athlete’s immediate circle, the value that justifies the funding and the celebration? What is the value to society? And why aren’t more people asking?

Day in and day out in the arts (and other sectors too), we’re asked to measure, to prove value (bear with me here, this isn’t, or isn’t only, a rant for the arts). And because measuring value is inherently difficult we try to talk about impact instead. It’s easy to count medals and perhaps that’s the secret of elite sport’s apparent funding success. It’s relatively easy, too, to count bums on seats at a play, visitors to an art gallery or participants in a festival. But we’re still not getting anywhere near to an understanding of, or a way of articulating value: value to others, value to society, value to self.

As creative freelancer, every single day, almost every hour in fact, I’m weighing up what I’m doing against what someone is prepared to pay for it (often not much). But I digress. This really isn’t about me. At least I don’t think it is.

Winning events, winning medals. It all takes hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. Undoubtedly it inspires others and creates a sense of national pride. It deserves to be celebrated. And yet it seems a simplistic and reductive way of thinking about human achievement.

It’s a wider, more social question than simply sport versus (for example) art. Is the dedication of an athlete more valuable, more worthy of celebration, than the dedication of an outstanding carer of others, an extraordinary teacher or a volunteer giving time to make the world a better place? Is sporting triumph a greater achievement than devotion to others, or overcoming personal trauma, or learning to live with adversity?

The trials and possibilities for us as human beings are surely far richer, in all their messy, uncomfortable complexity, than the Olympic media circus would have us believe. They’re unsanitised, difficult, far less easily packaged. But no less triumphant.

As we rightly enjoy the glow of sporting success, what million other stories of dedication and hard work, adversity and heroism, remain untold?

At the tip of a precipitous platform above Rio, a diver prepares herself. As the sirens scream past the Olympic diving centre, my attention falters. I wonder who is in the ambulance.


Copyright: Claire Gulliver (2016). May be reproduced for non-commercial purposes only, provided that credit is given.

Brexit, Culture and Local Government: A Peasants’ Revolt Foretold?

As in other things, the cultural sector seems to have been ahead of the game. As we all struggle to come to terms with the UK’s vote for Brexit, and the enormity of what it says about our country, I’m left wondering whether our own sector, in its own small way, offered an early warning that there was a problem.

2013 saw the publication of ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ (Stark, Gordon and Powell, 2013), a report that infamously found that public arts spending in London was 15 times greater than outside the capital.

And as the Brexit vote now threatens to tear our country apart, dividing the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’, another factor seems worthy of attention: between 2009/10 and 2014/15 spending by England’s local authorities was cut by a fifth (source: Financial Times Research, 2015).

The map of areas worst affected by local authority spending cuts and the map of areas in which a majority voted for Brexit bear some striking similarities. The Bristol/Bath corridor, a strongly ‘Remain’ area, saw small gains in Council spending in 2015/16, as did the other ‘Remain’ cities, Manchester and Liverpool. Huge swathes of non-metropolitan England saw further cuts.

The Brexit vote (Blue=Majority Leave; Yellow=Majority Remain)
The Brexit vote (Blue=Majority Leave; Yellow=Majority Remain)
Change in council spending power, 2015-16
Change in council spending power, 2015-16

The maps aren’t carbon copies of one another: Pro-remain London authorities saw large spending cuts – although London, as ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ showed, gets the lions share of national funding – while Brexiting Kent and certain areas of the East Midlands saw small gains.

However, what does seem clear is that the sustained central government assault on local authority funding has created a country in which a majority of the population has suffered steady degradation of services, prospects and quality of life in their local communities. Opportunities to experience, participate in and create culture are just one part of what is being lost.

And, as rival candidates now set out their stalls in a bid to secure a democratic mandate, I hope they can’t have failed to notice the geographical divisions unleashed by the last 10 years of austerity. And to those supercool metropolitan areas with their own elected mayors, hoping to negotiate their own deals with the EU, might we say: ‘Who is trying to pull up the drawbridge now?’

All views expressed in this post are personal.

Words © Claire Gulliver

Maps: 1. Department of Communities and Local Government; 2.