Letter from London, Hamish Tristram

Without any doubt the most intellectually stimulating London event of the moment is Michael Frayn’s new work Copenhagen at the National Theatre. By some perhaps prescient coincidence this play about (in part) the responsibility for the creation of nuclear weapons opened in the week Pakistan tested its thermonuclear capacity. It begins in the house of Niels Bohr, (the Danish physicist and father of modern quantum mechanics), with him and his wife reflecting on the meaning of the wartime visit of the German scientist Werner Heisenberg. This meeting between nuclear physicists, between teacher and former pupil, between father-figure and son, between conqueror and conquered, puts into play the nature and consequences of human relationships. The Copenhagen encounter is re-enacted several times. The three protagonists question motive and intention, probing what was thought, may have been thought, was intended, may have been intended. There is a nice – if that is the word – conjunction between the uncertainty of historical record and the concept of uncertainty in quantum mechanics. What is not now uncertain is the consequences of the abstract endeavours of Bohr and Heisenberg.

Until I saw Copenhagen I would have said Tom Stoppard’s Invention of Love was the best London play of the year. Stoppard, like Frayn, asks searching questions about intellectual endeavour. His play is agonisingly exact about unfulfilled love and unacknowledged accomplishment. A E Houseman, scholar, classicist, poet and homosexual revisits his life from the sombre perspective of the Styx. These are two plays which deal with the difficult and the profound. Anyone who might ask whether there is any point in going to the theatre in London, after say a drenching in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s saccharine melodies, need only cross the Thames to the National.

This year’s BBC Proms began in July and run to end-September. There are two themes: music and magic and music and politics. Both strike me as curiously apposite. The political theme moves from the ancient to the modern. It encompasses works commemorating the atrocities of the Holocaust, such as Martinu’s Memorial to Lidice and four Shostakovich symphonies illustrating a painful contemporary reality: namely, that nothing today can be separated from politics, not even music.

The Proms performances include a variety of work with magical themes, but the most interesting may prove to be Szymanowski’s opera King Roger, written 1918-24. This piece blends Apollo with Dionysus and in a thoroughly modern way celebrates the dark frenzies of the latter more than the rationality of the former. Likewise a whiff of paganism has surrounded the rituals of the World Cup. Mass bacchanalia accompanied the series, both at the Venues and in the pubs where many supporters watched the games.

“Cool Britannia” is a slogan creepy enough to make you cringe on the other side of the world. Behind the posturings of our politicians there is, however, something interesting, even exhilarating, in the summer air of London. Catch it now before it is noticed by Mr Mandelson (he of the Millenium Dome), because you can be sure that what he regards as cool has already reached its sell-by date.

Go to the Royal Academy to see Andrew Gormley’s sculptures. The craftsman of the “Angel of the North”, the magnificently brutal guardian of the A1, has created a disturbing counterpoint to the gentility of the Summer Exhibition. His executed torsos dangle from the façade of Burlington House and are explosively scattered across the courtyard. They are not like the often archly kitsch creations of the metropolitan artists in the recent Sensations exhibition. They are hard-wrought, vigorous pieces like the Angel, recently honoured with a Newcastle United shirt.

A signal of a change of mood is the recent emergence of the Neurotic Realists. Yes, neurotic. The adjective is almost as surprising as the noun. The Saatchi Gallery will mount an exhibition from January and has published the catalogue in advance. Mr Saatchi, a harbinger of artistic trends, is always alert to a shift in tastes and the opportunities it presents. As with Gormley, these artists make things which touch and hurt. There is a demotic sensibility and an open appeal, absent from Damien Hirst and others who have held sway in recent years. Photographic images, often adopting advertisings slick effects and technical expertise, provide a teasing realism.

Photography is much in vogue here. If you like something fresh but well-founded, visit the impressive new photography gallery at the Victoria and Albert and then the galleries of Shoreditch, the new W11, in particular those in Hoxton Square.

Another current in the flow of change in Britain is Asian. Perhaps etiolated in the cerebral work of Anish Karpoor at the Haywood but vivid in the bangra music and Bollywood nights of fringe London clubland. A recent film version of a Hanif Kureishi short story in his collection Love in a Blue Time may disappoint, but the clash between the accommodating posture of the first Asian immigrants and the fierceness of their children is worthy of remark. If you do go to Shoreditch, walk down the Brick Lane to Banglatown and the mosque on Commercial Road. Here Friday prayers spill out onto the street and the five daily calls are answered by young Britons making sense of the disturbing reality of being British, Moslem and poor – next to that great carbuncle of international capitalism, the City.

Hamish Tristram is a New Zealander who has lived in London for some 20 years. He is a lawyer currently working at the University of London.

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