Lucy Popescu

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Book Review – Refusing the Veil

Posted by lucypopescu on November 30, 2014

refusing the veilYasmin Alibhai-Brown describes herself as a “leftie liberal, anti-racist, feminist Muslim” and undoubtedly there will be many fellow Muslims and leftie liberals who take issue with her incisive repudiation of the veil.

She fully expects to cause controversy – in her preface she points out that the book is “political, not personal”. But needs must. As she observes, “the version of Islam that is spreading all over the world is getting more misogynistic and pushing back against female egalitarianism”. Given the increased pressure on women worldwide to cover up in the name of religion, Alibhai-Brown’s short, eloquent treatise is both topical and necessary.

Refusing the Veil is divided into three parts. In the first, Alibhai-Brown looks back to the early days of Islam and reminds us that the women in the Prophet’s family were “conspicuous, active and powerful”. His first wife, Khadijah, was a successful merchant, his second, Aisha, led an army. Women in the Prophet’s household were required to dress differently from other women to signify their status. Rich women copied the elite religious family to distinguish themselves from the less well-off: “It was not piety but vanity and snobbery that made them do it.” It is a shocking indictment that today women in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim-run territories are more disadvantaged than women were during the Prophet’s lifetime.

In the 1970s, when Alibhai-Brown arrived here from her native Uganda, British Muslim women did not wear headscarves or cover their faces. What has gone wrong? Why do women agree to cloak themselves in “a moving cell without a window or small opening – a space of absolute darkness”. Alibhai-Brown blames “brainwashing perpetrated through religious dogma” and Wahhabist doctrine; in particular, she asserts, the Saudi regime’s repression of women is being imported into Britain and becoming embedded in our culture. She believes today’s revivalists “not only claim these garments for Islam, they do so to silence women”. She criticises the British Government for its continued alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fully aware that they “fund ideologues and terrorists”.

Children are also being made to cover up. John Lewis even stocks hijabs in its school uniform department. As Alibhai-Brown remarks “the gowns impede free movement; they are an encumbrance …. The children thus clad can’t play properly in playgrounds – they will trip over as they run. By the time they are teenagers the indoctrination will be complete.” In some schools, Muslim parents refuse to let girls swim, take physical education, play music or perform.

Alibhai-Brown uses various examples to illustrate and support her arguments. She reminds us of the appalling death of 15 school children, killed in a fire in Saudi Arabia after the sinisterly named Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice prevented fire fighters from rescuing them because the girls were not properly covered. Her mother’s perspective is also poignant. Jena, born in 1920, a devout Shia Muslim follower of a liberal sect, describes the resurgence of women wanting to wear the veil as like “going into a grave before you have to”.

One of the hardest arguments to counter is when women say they cover up of their own free will. Alibhai-Brown’s blunt response is that they are “acquiescing to and projecting religious misogyny and cultural disdain”. In the final part, she summarises her main arguments for refusing the veil. These range from gender equality to protecting women against sexual violence (veils hide bruises); and health (women who are covered from head to foot will suffer vitamin D deficiency); to security and safety (niqabs offer the perfect disguise for those who want to commit acts of terrorism).

Alibhai-Brown does not go so far as to call for an outright ban. At one point she writes “bans are cudgels. They punish or frighten veiled Muslim women or, worse, criminalise them, as in France”. Her solution is to insist on dress codes that apply to all in school, other educational establishments and the workplace. Yet she quotes the European Court of Human Rights that upheld the French law banning niqabs in public spaces and suggests Britain should take the declaration seriously.

The situation, she says, has become untenable and she feels duty-bound to confront those “hard Muslim men” who want “to banish the Muslim female from all shared spaces, including mosques and malls, gardens and streets, schools and colleges, even hospitals and government buildings. They want them walled up, kept indoors cooking and cleaning, making babies, uncomplaining, silent and grateful.” The fact that Alibhai-Brown is Muslim makes her stand the more courageous. Those interested in equality, justice and the emancipation of all women should buy this accessible, forthright book, talk about it and share its central message.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday 

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Book Review – The Seasons of Trouble

Posted by lucypopescu on November 26, 2014

Seasons of troubleIn May 2010, after almost three decades of conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan government declared victory. But peace came at a high cost to the Tamil minority. Rohini Mohan, a Bangalore- based journalist, spent five years recording the experiences of three Tamils scarred by this brutal conflict.

In 2008, Sarva, a nautical engineer, was picked up by anti-terrorist police in one of their notorious white vans. He was badly tortured and imprisoned without due process. When he was eventually acquitted, the police claimed not to have received the paperwork. Sarva fled and spent the next two years in safe houses unable to visit his family and friends. Eventually, he decided exile was the only option.

Sarva’s mother, Mohan says, never gave up trying to protect her son. After his “disappearance”, she spent weeks trying to discover where he was held, employed a lawyer and subsequently visited her son every day in detention. Years earlier, she had risked her life and sanity to rescue him from the Tigers’ grip. There were, of course, atrocities on both sides, and one of the strengths of Mohan’s book is its exploration of the grey areas. Sarva’s training with the Tigers is “not easily compartmental- ised as voluntary or forced”. Despite never having engaged in combat, he was illegally detained and tortured, and his family was persecuted.

The third protagonist in this engaging account is Mugil, a committed Tiger who signed up when she was just thirteen. Towards the end of the war, injured and alone, Mugil decides to return to her family and two young sons. She witnesses the shelling of civilians and hospitals and other atrocities in the final months that left up to 40,000 civilians dead. After surrendering, Mugil and her family were detained in Manik Farm refugee camp. The insanitary conditions resulted in her father’s death. As former combatants, Mugil’s brother and husband were held in a “rehabilitation centre”, enduring torture and interrogation. On their release they were unable to get decent jobs and became increasingly alienated. Once reunited, they could only watch as the military appropriated their land and built hotels.

In large part a chronicle of war and its after- math, Mohan’s impressive study is also a Kafkaesque story of survival in a society riven by ethnic tensions and mutual distrust.

Originally published in the TLS

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Book review – West

Posted by lucypopescu on November 6, 2014

WestDuring the Cold War, refugees from communist Eastern Europe were often sent to the Marienfelde transit camp in Berlin. There they received housing and food while being interviewed by intelligence agencies. They might remain there for months, or even years. This is the setting for Julia Franck’s powerful novel.

After obtaining a visa, supposedly in order to marry a West German, Nelly Senff leaves her fiancé and arrives at Marienfelde with her two children. She refuses to cooperate with the CIA agents investigating her past in the German Democratic Republic. The agents are particularly interested in the father of her two children, Vassily Batalov, who had apparently committed suicide three years before. One of them, John Bird, becomes erotically obsessed with Nelly. In the camp, she is befriended by Krystyna Jablonovska, a Polish cellist, who has travelled west to seek medical help for her brother, and Hans Pischke, an actor who was imprisoned in East Berlin for attempting to deface a statue of Lenin.

Franck weaves their stories together to create a vivid sense of how persecution, deprivation, and loss leave terrible psychological scars. Nelly becomes increasingly paranoid in the camp while Hans, who professes to be “incapable of love”, slides into depression. Krystyna has sacrificed her career for her family, works in appalling conditions, and suffers taunts for being “a podge”.

We know it is 1978 because the radio stations are forever playing Boney M’s “By the Rivers of Babylon” and John has just been to see The Deer Hunter. But what is most striking about Franck’s novel is how little has changed for those fleeing repression, who find themselves just as helpless on the other side. As Nelly observes: “A hand comes down from above on each one of them, picks them up or waves them on.”

Franck slyly reveals the West’s hypocrisy. The transit camp is effectively an open prison with its own laws, prejudices, and pecking order – the Poles are labelled “gypsies” while the children are treated as outsiders at the local kindergarten, “strangers who spoke differently and used different expressions, didn’t wear snow suits, had different boots and school bags from the rest of the class”; their poverty is treated with contempt. The housing is cramped and the food rationed.

Franck’s spare prose evokes an atmosphere of claustrophobic menace. Her unflinching gaze at lives in limbo, seamlessly translated by Anthea Bell, is a compelling and resonant read.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday 

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Theatre Review – Free Fall

Posted by lucypopescu on November 6, 2014

Free fallTwo lonely souls meet at the Dartford Crossing: Andrea (Molly Roberts) is contemplating throwing herself off the bridge. Roland (Maynard Eziashi), a night watchman who supervises the toll machines, is her unlikely saviour.

Over the course of a night they discuss their pasts, hopes and their fears and realise that they have more in common than they first suspected.

A 23-year-old single mother, Andrea suffers from depression and has done time in prison. Her young son lives with his gran.

Vinay Patel’s engaging, bitter-sweet play, presented by Poleroid Theatre, turns on whether Roland will manage to dissuade Andrea from her suicidal mission.

At first, he suggests alternative bridges (away from his turf) and other means of suicide (asphyxiation in her car). He even offers her money for a therapist. Andrea, meanwhile, tries to save Roland from his dead-end job and prompts him to attempt reconciliation with his estranged son.

Patel makes some interesting observations about loneliness, the current climate for white-collar workers, the mechanisation of jobs and the increasing alienation of the poor. However, the stacking of dominoes, ready meals and the references to popular TV drama series feels rather downbeat material for the stage.

Bethany Pitts offers solid direction and Petra Hjortsberg’s versatile set cleverly conceals various props. Eziashi is hugely sympathetic as Roland but Roberts’ portrayal of an angry young mum feels slightly forced leading us to feel exasperation rather than compassion for her plight.

It’s an uneven but affecting production.

Pleasance Theatre – running until 1 November

Originally published by the Camden New Journal

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Film Review – Grace of Monaco

Posted by lucypopescu on November 6, 2014

GraceOlivier Dahan’s uneven biopic, Grace of Monaco (2014), about the marriage of Hollywood film star Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and Prince Reinhart (Tim Roth) is beautifully shot but lacks depth and tension. When Grace married Prince Rainer III of Monaco in 1956 it was like a fairy tale come true:  iconic beauty gets her prince. But Grace sacrificed a successful career for her marriage and Dahan’s film opens six years later when the cracks have begun to show.

While her husband is absent from the palace, embroiled in a row with France and dealing with affairs of state, Grace finds it increasingly lonely bringing up two small children. So when Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) turns up to offer her a part in his next film, she is sorely tempted. Charles de Gaulle (André Penvern) is threatening to annex Monaco because it offers a tax haven to French companies and wealthy individuals. Rainer is understandably tense, but takes it out on Grace – telling her off for speaking her mind and publicly ridiculing her new haircut. He becomes even more irascible, when he discovers that Grace is thinking of returning to Hollywood and that two close members of his retinue have betrayed him.

Grace struggles with her personal desires and priorities – Maria Callas (Paz Vega) advises her to stay true to herself and stick to what she’s good at. Fortunately for Rainer, Grace’s indecision is short-lived and she decides to throw in her lot with her husband. Unfortunately for us, any remaining dramatic tension is leached from the film. In an attempt to win over the Monaco people and embrace the role of a princess, she receives an intensive training in royal etiquette from Count Fernando D’Aillieres (Derek Jacobi). Grace then holds a lavish banquet aimed at saving Monaco’s interests and, at the same time, manages to charm the bolshy French president.

Grace of Monaco is good on period detail, there is plenty of eye candy (accentuated by the frequent close-ups of Kidman’s face and body), and fashion aficionados will undoubtedly enjoy Gigi Lepage’s stunning costumes. But even a stellar supporting cast, including Frank Langella (Superman Returns, Robot & Frank) as Grace’s confidante, Father Francis Tucker; Robert Lindsay (My Family, Spy) as Aristotle Onassis; Parker Posey (Superman Returns, Broken English) as Grace’s lady-in-waiting; and Geraldine Somerville (Harry Potter) as Rainier’s sister Princess Antoinette can’t salvage a clunky script, low-level drama and a schmaltzy denouement.

Originally published by

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Film Review – Of Horses and Men

Posted by lucypopescu on September 30, 2014

Of horsesBenedikt Erlingsson’s acclaimed debut feature, Of Horses and Men (2013) is as unique and clever as its subject – the Icelandic horse. As well as their expressive faces, shaggy mane and tails, these small, sturdy beasts have two specific gaits – in between a trot and a gallop. Although pony-sized they are always referred to as a ‘horse’ so there is much comic potential to be had from pairing a long-legged Icelander with this diminutive equine exhibiting the very fast ‘flying pace’.

Set in a small rural community various stories overlap, each featuring a specific horse. Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) proudly rides his new grey mare to have coffee with his neighbour, Solveig (Charlotte Bøving). They are clearly attracted to one another. This is reflected in the excitement her small black stallion displays towards his mare with disastrous consequences. Another Icelander grabs a wild horse and leaps into the sea to purchase vodka from a passing Russian trawler. One farmer’s partitioning of public land with barbed wire causes bad relations with a neighbour and ends in tragedy. A young Swedish girl proves her skills as a horse-woman and trainer. A Spanish tourist nearly dies after becoming lost in a snow storm. The farming community avidly follow their neighbours’ fortunes and failures, even going so far as to spy on each other through binoculars.

Although not all the four-legged creatures meet a happy end, Erlingsson’s film is a tribute to the fortitude and spirit of this trusty steed and, at the same time, offers a delightfully skewed portrait of his country and culture. By the end, the locals have forgotten their various resentments and unite for herding season. It’s a glorious spectacle watching them ride together in order to drive the wild horses into a corral where they are then hand-picked for breaking-in.

Throughout, cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson trains his camera on the horses offering close-ups of their hair, mane and finally their eyes which reflect their owners and imply we are being given the animal as well as human perspective. Of Horses and Men is full of surreal tableaux – a horse mounting another while its owner is in the saddle; rider and horse swimming in the ocean; a young man emerging from the stomach of a slaughtered horse; and a couple copulating in a valley as their horses look on. The Icelandic landscape forms a dramatic backdrop to these memorable, blackly comic tales about love, obsession, and equine passions.

Originally published by

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Theatre review – Ghost from a Perfect Place

Posted by lucypopescu on September 29, 2014

ghostYou can see why Philip Ridley’s Ghost from a Perfect Place would have shocked audiences at Hampstead Theatre when it premiered there twenty years ago. The play encompasses the sexual abuse of children, torture and murder among other examples of human cruelty. At the time, the Guardian‘s Michael Billington called it “degrading and quasi-pornographic in its use of violence”. This is its first major revival to date and Ridley’s searing drama has lost none of its power.

Mobster Travis Flood (Michael Feast) has returned to his East End stomping ground some twenty-five years after his hasty departure. He visits Torchie Sparks (Sheila Reid) in her dingy, fire-scorched flat with a view to meeting her grand-daughter Rio (Florence Hall). Back in the 1960s, Travis ruled the roost, extorting protection money. He was known for his sharp suits and the white lily he always wore in his lapel. His careful grooming was in sharp contrast to the casual violence meted out by himself and his gang. Travis clearly wreaked people’s lives but glorifies his past, proudly handing Torchie a book about his reign of terror.

Travis can’t recall having met Torchie before so she attempts to jog his memory with a series of anecdotes. Gradually her recollections become darker. The “heydays” of the past were not such a “perfect place”, after all, and Torchie is keen to tell Travis about her own share of heartache. Finally, she reveals how their lives were connected and remain irretrievably intertwined.

In the play’s second half, Rio, head of a girl gang, and two of her followers, Miss Sulphur (Scarlett Brookes) and Miss Kerosene (Rachel Redford), proceed to taunt Travis, who is now gagged and tied to a chair. As Travis is forced to receive a taste of his own medicine, Ridley drives home the point that violence begets violence.

Russell Bolam rises to the challenge of directing two very different halves. In the first, he uses the characters’ dialogue and their sly humour to create an atmosphere of Pinteresque menace. The tension is only unleashed in the second half with the girls’ high octane performances.

Ghost from a Perfect Place is about the fetishisation of violence. Ridley combines stark prose with allegorical flourishes: In a clever twist, he turns the memory of a dead teenager into a quasi-religious cult while the elements of fire and water are a recurring motif. Aptly this revival is at the Arcola, within spitting distance of the play’s setting.

Originally published by TheArtsShelf

Running at the Arcola until 11 October

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Theatre review – Land of Our Fathers

Posted by lucypopescu on September 23, 2014

land of our fathersMARGARET Thatcher effectively destroyed Britain’s coal mining industry so it’s particularly apt that Chris Urch has set his acclaimed debut play down a collapsed mine shaft in South Wales on the eve of her rise to power. Given the recent mining disasters in Turkey and Chile, Land of Our Fathers also has a topical resonance.

An electrical explosion has left six miners trapped underground. As they await rescue, various tensions come bubbling to the surface. Urch perfectly captures the machismo and bluster of the old hands as they attempt to hide their fears from the younger men – Mostyn (Joshua Price) on his first day down the pit and Chewy (Taylor Jay-Davies) who dreams of being an artist and moving with his girlfriend to Hounslow.

We learn about their pasts and hopes for the future and the sheer hard graft of mining. The men sing to keep up their morale, tell jokes and share confidences, but as the pressure mounts their camaraderie begins to sour and allegiances shift.

Signe Beckmann has transformed Trafalgar Studio’s smaller space into a claustrophobic underground vault, cocooned in coal, allowing director Paul Robinson to exploit silence and darkness to great effect.

The play feels a tad long and the pace falters in the second half with too much unnecessary character exposition, but terrific performances from the ensemble cast more than make up for any flaws.

Running at Trafalgar Studios UNTIL OCTOBER 4

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Book review – The Blue Room

Posted by lucypopescu on September 23, 2014

the blue room“I was never going to get out on my own,” says the narrator in Hanne Ørstavik’s searing portrait of a young woman’s sexual awakening, “someone was going to have to help me.” Given her dependence on and inability to separate from her mother, this is something of an understatement.

Johanne, a psychology student at Oslo University, wakes up to find herself locked in her bedroom. Through flashbacks we learn of her sheltered upbringing with her overbearing mother, Unni. They are both churchgoers and Johanne often sleeps with the Bible under her pillow. Two weeks earlier, she had met Ivar, a warm, laid-back musician who works in the university canteen, and experienced a dramatic transformation.

Ørstavik explores Johanne’s masochistic response to feelings of guilt. Because of her passive disposition, her attempts to be “good” and refrain from sin, Johanne is unnerved by the ferocity of her sexual desire. She feels God is forever “watching”, together with her mother, and the two become fused in her mind as she tries to please them both. Her repressed emotion manifests itself in intense back pain while her erotic fantasies of masculine domination become increasingly violent.

There are hints of domestic abuse in the family’s past and Unni is vociferously dismissive of men – a cutting pinned up in their apartment reads: “The Woman most in need of liberation is the woman that each man holds prisoner in his soul.” But this rings hollow. Unni is in a relationship with Svenn, a married man and, confident in her sexuality, often dresses provocatively. By contrast, Johanne wears long skirts and baggy tops that conceal her figure.

At first we see Unni as just a caring, over-protective mother worried about her daughter finding the right man. Using taut, spare prose, Ørstavik gradually reveals Unni’s controlling nature – through her sly comments about Johanne’s hair and weight, the plate of food she drops on learning about Ivar and the textbook she casually removes from her daughter’s bag. Johanne is strangely complicit in Unni’s behaviour; naively attempting to relate her academic studies to insights about herself and others, she remains blind to her mother’s oppression. Things come to a head when Ivar asks Johanne to join him in America for six weeks and she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life.

Ørstavik is well known in her native Norway. Thanks to Peirene Press she is published in English for the first time. Psychologically astute and deftly translated by Deborah Dawkin, The Blue Room is a brilliant examination of a young woman struggling to own her sexuality, to break free from guilt and forge her own identity.

Originally published by The Tablet

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Film Review – Before the Winter Chill

Posted by lucypopescu on September 23, 2014

Before the winter chillPhilippe Claudel’s noirish thriller, Before the Winter Chill, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Daniel Auteuil, follows the fortunes of middle-aged couple who find their marriage threatened by a troubled young woman. Paul (Auteuil) is a successful surgeon, popular with the staff at his clinic and his patients. His wife Lucie (Scott Thomas) spends her days tending their impressively large garden, baby-sitting their grand-daughter and visiting her depressed sister.

When red roses start arriving for Paul at the clinic and at home, the cracks in their marriage begin to appear. Lucie is obviously bored and isolated by her husband’s career and long hours. Paul becomes convinced that he is being stalked by a beautiful young woman. Lou (Leïla Bekhti) works in a bar and claims that Paul once operated on her. He begins to see Lou everywhere: at a concert, in his clinic, on the street and at a local flower shop. Paul becomes increasingly irascible and after a melt-down during an operation he is signed off work and told to take a rest.

When Paul confronts Lou, she denies stalking him but appears keen to see and spend time with him. Paul is flattered by her interest and in return is curious about her Moroccan background and studies as an art student. They share confidences about their pasts. Increasingly, he finds himself drawn to her and gradually this turns to obsession. He claims to love Lucie but she feels betrayed.

The central metaphor of Before the Winter Chill feels a little trite – Paul and Lucie are in the autumn of their marriage and their watershed takes place as the trees’ leaves begin to colour and fall. Both Auteuil and Scott-Thomas have previously starred in films about couples in crisis so their roles feel familiar, but this doesn’t spoil our enjoyment of their performances. Scott Thomas perfectly captures the pain and fear of a faithful, loving wife who fears her husband’s betrayal. Auteuil is also convincing as a once confident man on the verge of losing his bearings while Bekhti is an alluring femme fatale who elicits both our sympathy and distrust.

Claudel ratchets up the tension and keeps us guessing about Lou’s true identity and motivations until the film’s chilling denouement. Before the Winter Chill is an affecting drama about male vanity, the comforts of love and the need to be desired even in old age.

Originally published by


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