Lucy Popescu

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Theatre review – Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

Posted by lucypopescu on April 14, 2016

The cast of Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes

DON’T Sleep There Are Snakes, based on former missionary Daniel Everett’s memoir, is a powerful mediation on colonialism, anthropology and language. In the 1970s, Everett began his decades-long research into the Pirahã, a hunter-gather tribe from the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. He set out to convert the group to Christianity. Instead, he learned their language, realised that their way of life had lessons of its own and abandoned his faith.

Simple8 utilise the conventions of “poor theatre”, favouring physicality and performance skills over set and costumes. Co-directors Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton have deftly condensed Everett’s work into just 90 minutes. Played out on a bare stage, the six actors convey Everett’s (Mark Arends) flight into the jungle using a miniature aeroplane and simple sound effects, while a twisted rope suggests an aerial view of the rivers below.

The Pirahã live in the now and wholeheartedly reject Everett’s religious beliefs. There are some harrowing moments – for instance when a Pirahã baby, whose mother has died in childbirth, is killed by the father. The tribe’s easy-going attitude towards sex, penchant for body-licking and love of alcohol provide some other hair-raising moments for Everett. Ultimately, though, at the point the Pirahã come to accept him the drama loses its edge.

Nevertheless it’s an engaging evening. Arends captures Everett’s passion for his subject and ensuing bafflement when out of his depth.  The cohesion and fluidity of the ensemble, playing multiple roles, is also impressive.
Park Theatre 020 7870 6876

Originally published by Camden Review

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Speed Reading – Inequality

Posted by lucypopescu on January 1, 2015

InequalityBritain’s richest 1 percent owns as much as the poorest 55 percent. In Equality and the 1% (Verso) Danny Dorling explores how being born outside the 1 percent affects not just educational and work prospects (people able to access “top” education gain an unfair advantage) but health and life expectancy (in 2013, 8,350 more elderly people died in Britain than in 2012 – “the prime suspect was austerity”). Dorling illustrates how the economy is effectively controlled by an elite determined to protect its interests. He advocates a slow revolution against “an overpaid and under achieving 1 percent…a non-violent war of attrition on concentrated wealth” which means “high taxes at high incomes”. Dorling offers many persuasive arguments, his impeccable research supported by useful stats and infographs.

RevolutionsRussell Brand also offers pertinent examples of untenable inequities in his own call for revolution. Already in the Bestseller lists, his book will inevitably reach a far wider and younger readership. While he freely admits that he is in Britain’s 1 percent, Brand makes many of the same points as Dorling – reminding us that worldwide, “the 85 occupants of the bejeweled bus of privilege” are better off than the poorest three and a half billion. The solutions proposed in Revolution (Century) are less clear and Brand’s frequent digressions, namely to do with his personal fight with addiction, and occasional foul-mouthed rants, become irritating after a while.

sans papiersSans Papiers by Alice Bloch, Nando Sigona and Roger Zetter (Pluto) explores the experiences of young undocumented migrants who are at the bottom of the heap in Britain – isolated, their “cheap and flexible labour… easily exploitable”.  Sans Papiers gives them a voice and reveals the contradictions of harsh government policies designed to “regulate migration”.

All three books offer useful insights into inequality today and advocate a more compassionate society.


A shorter version of this review was originally published by The Tablet.



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Film review – Tracks

Posted by lucypopescu on August 19, 2014

TracksTracks (2013) John Curran’s award-winning film, starring Mia Wasikowska (Lawless, Stoker, Jane Eyre), tells the true story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who in 1977 trekked across almost 2,000 miles of Australian desert with only four temperamental camels and a dog for company. Adapted from Davidson’s bestselling book, Marion Nelson’s screen adaptation opens with Robyn attempting to find work training feral camels. Her plan is to earn her own dromedaries for the trip. She also needs to be financed and this comes in the form of a deal with National Geographic magazine who agree to fund the trek in return for exclusive photographs. These are taken by American Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) who meets Robyn at various stages of her journey and manages to irritate and comfort her in equal measure.

Robyn’s mammoth, nine-month journey takes her from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. She encounters various obstacles including dehydration, sunstroke, a dust storm, loneliness and the near loss of her camels. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of her tragic past— the death of her mother at an early age and Robyn’s ambivalent relationship with her father who was also an adventurer. Asked about her reasons for the trek Robyn claims “I just want to be by myself.” She is clearly wary of close human relationships and prefers the company of her beloved dog Diggity.

It’s a rite of passage of sorts as Robyn comes to terms with bereavement and discovers that she needs human companionship and the support of others as well as having to draw on her own inner strengths. Rick proves surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful, depositing vital water canisters along her route, and offering her encouragement when she becomes overwhelmed by doubt. Driver and Wasikowska work exceptionally well together on screen. The aborigines Robyn meets also prove kind and helpful. There’s a wonderful encounter with one, Mr. Eddy (Rolley Mintuma), who accompanies her part of the way across sacred ground and scares off some overly inquisitive tourists. It’s Wasikowska’s film, though, and she carries it with panache.

Inspired by Smolan’s photographs, Tracks is skilfully shot. Mandy Walker’s cinematography perfectly captures the parched terrain and heat haze of a desolate landscape. Her framing of massive expanses of red earth is contrasted with close-ups of Robyn’s blistered, sun-burnt face while the aerial shots of the scorched environment serve to accentuate her isolation, the hazardous nature and true scale of her endeavour.

DVD released 18 August 2014

Originally published by

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Book review – Syria Speaks

Posted by lucypopescu on June 19, 2014

Syria speaksSyria Speaks is essential reading for anyone interested in human rights or a better understanding of the current conflict. Comprising essays, stories, poems, songs, photo- graphs and cartoons, this impressive collection shows how artists and activists operate under repressive regimes and how their work can become “tools of resistance” in war.

Four decades of rule by the Assad family has wreaked untold havoc on Syria and its people: dissidents describe horrific methods of torture and claim that the testing of chemical and biological weapons on political prisoners was routinely practised by Syria’s Air Force Intelligence.

When Dr Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in July 2000, he appeared keen to modernise Syria and expressed a desire for “creative thinking”, “constructive criticism” and “transparency”. The “Damascus Spring”, was short-lived, however. As the accounts and artwork in Syria Speaks amply demonstrate, Bashar has not only matched but far surpassed his father Hafez’s brutality in the past three years alone.

Given the silence that followed Hafez al-Assad’s devastation of Hama in 1982, it is fitting that the anthology begins with a veiled photomontage of victims of the massacre. Since the start of the revolution in 2011, many artists have revisited the events of 1982 in their work and compared the killing in Hama with current atrocities. A poster from the anonymous arts collective The Syrian People Know Their Way, depicts a child underlining the words “It will not happen again” next to a waterwheel, a landmark symbol of Hama. This also powerfully recalls the fact that it was the arrest of schoolchildren for painting anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Deraa that sparked the first protests in March 2011.

The difference between the uprising in Hama and the current conflict is that ordinary Syrians now have access to mobile phones and the internet. However, people quickly become inured to images of violence and, as the academic Miriam Cooke observes, the opposition needed to find new ways to retain the outside world’s attention. Many Syrian artists have risen to the challenge. After one massacre, the filmmakers’ collective Abounaddara posted a piece that depicted corpses wrapped in shrouds and joined by flowers. Artist Sulafa Hijazi vividly contrasts life and death in her illustration of a pregnant weapon.

Interviews with former political prisoners sit alongside work from the raft of citizen journalists who have come to the fore in recent months. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a prominent writer imprisoned for 16 years, compares the role of the intellectual then and now. Meanwhile, the Syrian activist Assad al-Alchi talks to co-editor Malu Halasa about the role of local  co-ordinating committees. This network grew out of the early protests in March 2011 and serves to teach activists non-violent civil disobedience.

Much of the writing explores the effects of imprisonment and torture. Especially poignant is “Lifetimes Stolen” by Yara Badr who was imprisoned like her father before her. After listing “the dictionary of torture techniques” she describes what it means “to live on the verge of death … you are lost, as though drifting in the sea, waiting for the wind to bring you a sail that will take you back to life”. Her husband, Mazen Darwish, remains in detention and Syria Speaks includes an extract from his “Letter for the Future” smuggled out of jail, in which he wishes his torturers “happy lives for your children, with no fear and no torture”.

The anthology also documents the importance of revolutionary songs as a means of resistance – the popular Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoush was murdered after inspiring crowds in Hama with his song “Come on Bashar, Get Out!”. As one activist explains, folk music has largely escaped censorship and “has therefore become a means by which street protesters have proclaimed their Syrian identity in the face of government claims of an ‘international conspiracy’.” Similarly, cartoons and comic strips can convey “subversive narratives” and, like mobile-phone images, are easily uploaded to social media sites.

This then is the central message of Syria Speaks. Artists and activists have had to find new ways to communicate and protest from the frontline. One of the most humorous and imaginative creations must be the popular internet series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator”, available on YouTube and described as a “modern-day morality play”. It’s reminiscent of the British satirical television series Spitting Image, although far braver – finger puppets are used so they can be smuggled through checkpoints. Syria Speaks pays tribute to many extraordinary acts of courage and shines a light on the dark deeds of a brutal regime.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book review – The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

Posted by lucypopescu on August 29, 2013



Horses are increasingly being used to help young offenders, troubled adults and difficult children. In Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, fifteen-year-old Thea is sent to an elite summer camp, come boarding school, ostensibly as a punishment for her sexually precocious behaviour with a cousin that ends in tragedy.

It’s 1930. At the riding camp, improving one’s equestrian skills is considered just as important as the obligatory classes in etiquette and deportment – the girls’ prowess with horses is put to the test during the annual Spring Show. One senses that Thea’s mother, herself an accomplished horsewoman, believes the camp may help to calm and focus her daughter as well as saving her reputation. The headmistress Mrs Holmes who, Thea learns, is a friend of her mother tells her “if you notice anything unusual, anything… bodily, please come and see me at once.”

DiSclafani’s epic tale is a lot more complex than just one girl’s sexual rite of passage. Thea’s family are from Florida and the camp is in the remote Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Many wealthy Americans are beginning to feel the bitter sting of the Depression. Some of the girls are forced to leave the school when their families lose their fortunes. And yet subtle snobberies, mainly based on wealth, persist. Thea realises that her background does not match up to those of her peers – her father is a doctor while her mother inherited her family’s fortune in oranges. It is Thea’s horsemanship that sets her apart and gains her the respect of the other girls.

The occasional dances with boys from a neighbouring school are always met with feverish excitement. Despite Mrs Holmes watchful eye, love blossoms in the camp. However, Thea finds herself set apart from the girls once more when she is hopelessly drawn to the handsome, young headmaster Henry Holmes.

I am always wary of the inevitable clichés in literature about pony-mad girls who are supposedly sublimating their sexual desire every time they approach a horse. Although DiSclafani connects Thea’s fearlessness around horses with her sexual boldness, thankfully she is more interested in exploring Thea’s journey into self-awareness.

Thea is an odd mix – headstrong, open, but also cold, calculating and immoral. At first, she acts on her desires without much thought for the consequences. But her attempt to control and dominate others is, in part, a response to her feelings of powerlessness and the sexism of the time. Her mother tells Sam, Thea’s beloved twin brother, “she doesn’t matter like you do”. Although Sam is complicit in their cousin’s ruin, it is Thea who is sent away. Horses do not save Thea so much as they help her to better understand herself, the contradictions of her family and the conflicts of youth.

Originally published by

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Book review – Bitter Experience Has Taught Me

Posted by lucypopescu on August 23, 2013

Bitter ExperienceNick Lezard is one of our finest book critics and his insightful reviews in The Guardian are a pleasure to read. He also writes a jocular, blokey column in the New Statesman called ‘Down and Out’, describing his exploits as a recently separated, middle-aged bachelor behaving badly and looking for love.  Lezard’s self-confessed tendency towards laziness is demonstrated by the way Bitter Experience Has Taught Me has been assembled – this “memoir” is literally Lezard’s collected columns with little attempt to turn his journalistic discourses into a more free-flowing book form, link the segments or remove irritating repetitions.

There is a whiff of misogyny in Lezard’s patronising reference to “ladies” and in his efforts to score cheap shots against his former wife . Although the tone is self-depreciating, he is careful to advertise only the sort of failings one would happily share among friends in order to raise a smile – indolence, untidiness, smoking, being addicted to red wine and a hopeless dancer. Lezard is less open about why he was kicked out of the marital home by his wife just a few months short of their twentieth anniversary. One can only presume that she had been extremely long-suffering.

Lezard is prone to name-dropping; there is a lacklustre essay on the art of using a toaster; and his charm deserts him when he comes to write about the women who have rejected him. Caveats aside, there is much to divert and admire. Lezard is an matchless raconteur when it comes to penury, tax-returns, slobbishness, male vanity, Boris Johnson or anything that makes his blood boil (and that’s quite a lot). He’s good company, has plenty of friends, and adores his children – in one hilarious episode he sacrifices all self-respect when (against his better judgment) he goes paint-balling on his son’s birthday. Other memorable anecdotes include the arrival at his new home, “the Hovel”, which he describes as “the saddest place I have ever seen” (it’s dilapidated, yes, but it is the salubrious location of Baker Street), and a drunken night spent playing cricket with Razors, his flatmate and best friend, equally down on his luck.

Despite his frequent laments, you know Lezard will always bounce back. Hate or love the character he projects, he is a talented writer and this lively and entertaining apologia will surely attract further fans.

Originally published by The Tablet

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Theatre review – Beasts

Posted by lucypopescu on September 11, 2011

Chile, 1974. The previous year General Pinochet had overthrown Allende’s democratically elected socialist government and seized power in a bloody coup. A brutal crackdown swiftly followed. Set in the country’s remote Andean foothills, Juan Radrigán’s Beasts (Las brutas) is based on the true story of three sisters who were found tied together at the waist and hung from a rock. At first it was not clear if they had been executed for helping fugitives from the military regime or whether this was a ritual suicide.

Radrigán’s evocative play (in a new English translation by Catherine Boyle) explores the devastating effects of isolation and a fear of the unknown on three women. They are sisters, the last of an indigenous Andean family, and the only life they have known is tending goats and sheep. As they bicker amongst themselves we learn of the various hardships they have endured. Justia, the eldest sister, was raped at the age of seventeen by a stranger prospecting for gold in the local mines. None of them were able to go to school, manage to put down roots or enjoy normal family lives.

Instead, the three women have co-existed together, oblivious to progress and the wider world. So much so, that they cannot comprehend that in the cities there are now boxes that talk or branchless brooms that sweep or that you can capture “a piece of sun in a glass jar”. All they know for certain is that they have found it increasingly difficult to barter their goods and there’s no longer anyone around to buy their goat’s cheese.

It is only when travelling salesman, Don Javier (a great cameo from Sean O’ Callaghan) arrives with his suitcase of second-hand clothes that they learn of the recent events that have caused their neighbours to sell their stock and move to the cities. Wild rumours, hinting at political unrest and horrors to come, have caused the mass exodus. The sisters have been left behind, they realise, like animals. Tired, weak, prone to illness and fearing the changes that will come from outside (over which they have no control) they decide that it’s finally time to move on.

Carolyn Pickles and Claire Cogan give excellent performances as Justia and Lucia respectively. They vividly capture a sense of lives worn down by endless toil and deprivation; Anne Marie Cavanah is slightly less convincing as the younger, more naïve sister, Luciana. The best moments, when they all shine, come with the arrival of the cavalier Don Javier. Sue Dunderdale’s direction is assured, although the pacing of production is sluggish in places.

Lorna Ritchie’s set effectively conveys the dilapidated mountain shack that contains so much of their world, but there are times where the production seems wary of stillness; there’s an awful lot of scrubbing of floors, fiddling around with water jugs and mending broken wooden boards. This can prove distracting from the power of Radrigán’s words and imagery (it’s no surprise to learn that he is also a poet) and sometimes weakens the impact of an essentially powerful play about the marginalised struggling to survive against the odds.

Originally published by Exeunt magazine

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Book review – The Tiger’s Wife, By Téa Obreht

Posted by lucypopescu on March 26, 2011

Originally published in the Independent on Friday, 25 March 2011

Pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

Téa Obreht’s stunning debut novel is all the more remarkable when you realise it was written when she was just 25. Born in 1985 in former Yugoslavia, Obreht covers 60 years of this war-torn region’s history through a series of enchanting, surreal tales.

Natalia, a young doctor, is travelling “over the border” to inoculate the children of an orphanage; children “orphaned by our own soldiers”. En route, she learns of her grandfather’s death, in an unknown town, apparently on his way to meet her.

Natalia’s grandfather, also a doctor, beguiled her with stories from his childhood. The most resonant is that of the tiger who escaped from the local zoo after it was bombed by the Germans in 1941. The tiger arrives in her grandfather’s village and is befriended by a deaf-mute Muslim girl who becomes known as “The Tiger’s Wife”.

Another tale involves her grandfather’s encounters with “the deathless man”, who warns people of their imminent death and guards their souls for 40 days. His claims of immortality result in a wager that is to cost the doctor his most beloved possession, a childhood copy of The Jungle Book. Some of the richest folklore in Europe, including the vampire myth, comes from the Balkans. Obreht capitalises on this and, like a magician, conjures up a host of larger-than-life characters that become the stuff of modern legend: the disappointed butcher who aspires to be a musician, the apothecary with a shady past, and the bear-man with a passion for embalming.

Obreht knits together these stories to create a colourful tapestry that illuminates her native country’s recent past. On war and ethnic cleansing, she is incredibly astute: “When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unravelling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it…”

The book is about the rituals of love and hate and how life and death stalk each other. Obreht highlights the superstitions and stories we concoct to free us from our fears: “When confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.” Beautifully executed, haunting and lyrical, The Tiger’s Wife is an ambitious novel that succeeds on all counts. It’s a book you will want to read again and again.

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No gain without pain

Posted by lucypopescu on July 11, 2009

…So they say although I worry that the pain often outweighs the gain. Yes, I am back in Mexico. And Jaime is on strict diet and trying to visit the gym every day. And so I immediately felt the pressure to get my heartbeat racing again. I lurched back into my exercise routine after many weeks of doing little in the way of physical activity. I sometimes wonder if there might be a more dignified way of shedding those additional pounds than running red-faced around a tennis court, playing with someone half your age and triple your agility… This was followed by an eye-watering masaje reductivo by my old friend Erica. When I complained of the pain, I was told it would get easier the more often my fat bits were pummelled. I have to admit, I have not yet found this to be the case.

The lifestyle I lead here, so different from that in the UK, seems right for me at this time: I need to get fit again and knuckle down to some serious writing. The sheer range of what I can do – tennis, yoga and Pilates are my personal choice – for just a fraction of what it would cost me in the UK helps with the motivational side of things (in fact I sometimes feel like a small child let loose in a sweet shop).  Best of all, I have found that exercise and creativity complement each other rather well.

This country does wonders for my written productivity. In May 2009 the Economist ran a short piece about how living abroad gives you a creative edge.  Apparently two psychologists ran a series of tests that proved that there is a statistical relationship between living abroad and creativity. So it is now official. I guess it has a lot to do with having to think imaginatively when you are in unfamiliar surroundings. But more importantly, here you have to be on your toes at all times. The levels of danger range from falling down one of the many pot holes in Mexico city’s uneven streets to being the victim of an armed kidnap.

I was distressed today to find a dead dog on the sidewalk. It looked as though it was merely resting in the heat and the dust. But as I stepped closer I saw a small pool of blood around its mouth. It had evidently been knocked down by a car. I found this pitiful bundle of fur so profoundly sad and shocking; it has strengthened my resolve to volunteer with one of the animal charities that are, sadly, so thin on the ground in Mexico. It also reinforces what a land of extremes this is. So much to praise and delight in; but equally too much to despair of and weep for.

My wonderful discovery since being back is mamey ointment – from the mamey sapote. The tropical fruit not only tastes delicious (somewhere between an avocado and a date) but its oil appears to be a miracle face moisturiser – reducing all signs of blotchiness and jet lag within minutes of application. Apparently it is also good for curling the hair. I was rather alarmed, however, to read that the mamey seed is toxic, and that “extracts are used in a variety of applications, including as an insecticide”.

I will keep you posted.

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