On my radar: Indira Varma's cultural highlights

The actor on Tove Jansson’s adult fiction, eclectic French radio and Gordon Parks’s groundbreaking photography

Indira Varma grew up in Bath and graduated from Rada in 1995. Perhaps best known for playing Ellaria Sand in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Varma’s first big role was in Mira Nair’s 1996 film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. On stage, she has excelled in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pinter and Coward – she received a best supporting actress nomination for her performance in Present Laughter at the Old Vic at the cancelled 2020 Oliviers. Varma will star alongside Michael Sheen and David Threlfall in a live-stream performance of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer from London’s Old Vic, from 16 to 19 September.

1. Book

Tove Jansson: The Summer Book

Tove Jansson in 2001, next to a self-portrait.
Tove Jansson in 2001, next to a self-portrait. Photograph: Erkki Raskinen/Rex

We all know the Moomins, but I think Tove Jansson’s adult fiction is really overlooked. I read some of her short stories for BBC radio a few years ago and was captivated. The Summer Book, which I’ve just finished, deals with a grandmother on a tiny island off the coast of Finland and her relationship with her six-year-old granddaughter, whose mother has recently died. Those two age groups often have a directness in their way of interacting and I found Jansson’s treatment of it really touching. They talk about life and death and friendship – the big themes – but in a very sideways, delicate way. It’s brilliant.

2. Music

Fip

Madison Cunningham.
‘A young, folky, Andrew Bird-type of singer-songwriter’: Madison Cunningham. Photograph: Diego Donamaria/Getty for SXSW

Fip is a French radio station that I’ve been listening to a lot during lockdown. They play an extremely eclectic range of music – folk, classical, funk, reggae – with very little chat, aside from the occasional sexy French voice, which we can easily cope with. Their selection reflects my musical tastes. I’ve loved hearing Madison Cunningham, who is a young, folky, Andrew Bird-type of singer-songwriter, but also Ghostpoet, Tame Impala and some classical Indian music. Instead of wondering what to listen to, I just turn it on and I’m always pleasantly surprised. It’s not the obvious stuff but it’s good for pretty much every situation.

3. Theatre

Beat the Devil, the Bridge, London

Ralph Fiennes in Beat the Devil.
‘It was incredibly emotional to go back to the theatre’: Ralph Fiennes in Beat the Devil. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

I was fortunate enough to see the new David Hare play at the Bridge, the first indoor theatre event in London since lockdown. It’s a one-man show with Ralph Fiennes delivering Hare’s monologue about getting Covid-19 while watching the government wrangle with the pandemic. What a brilliant play to kick back off with and it felt really helpful to have all the facts laid out – who said what, the U-turns, the euphemisms – in the space of 50 minutes. It was incredibly emotional to go back to the theatre. You felt that you were bearing witness and there’s something about the shared experience of live theatre that’s just so powerful.

4. Food

Floral Hall, Crouch End, London

A chilli margarita from Floral Hall, Crouch End, London.
A chilli margarita from Floral Hall, Crouch End, London. Photograph: Instagram/@nickel143

Going out to eat feels very special at the moment. It’s so nice to sit at a bar and shoot the breeze and see other people enjoying themselves with their friends. My new find, and the first restaurant I visited after lockdown, is Floral Hall, which is local to me in Crouch End in London. The food is all locally sourced and ethically produced and their menus are small and change all the time. Also, they do amazing cocktails and really delicious, unusual wines. It’s got a lovely atmosphere.

5. Gardens

American Museum and gardens, Bath

‘Nature kept me going during lockdown’: the American Museum, near Bath.
‘Nature kept me going during lockdown’: the American Museum, near Bath. Photograph: americanmuseum.org

I’ve visited the American Museum near Bath many times but they’ve restored the gardens recently and they are sublime. They are set in the most beautiful bit of countryside in Somerset, not far from where my mum lives, and the planting is breathtaking. There’s a recreation of a part of George Washington’s garden in Virginia. Other bits of the garden are much wilder and really colourful. It was such a treat to go back this summer. Nature’s one of the things that kept me going during lockdown. I do a little bit of gardening in my tiny patch in London. It can’t help but recharge your batteries and lift your spirits.

6. Documentary

Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC iPlayer)

‘Incredibly moving’: Once Upon a Time in Iraq.
‘One of the best documentaries about war’: Once Upon a Time in Iraq. Photograph: Gus Palmer/BBC/Keo Films

This is one of the best documentaries about war I’ve seen in a very, very long time, perhaps ever. It’s very simply done. It consists of pieces to camera by civilians, soldiers, journalists and other people who were involved in the Iraq war. These are really personal interviews and it doesn’t feel manipulative, though the testimonies can sometimes be contradictory. And it’s incredibly moving. I would recommend it to anybody. We’re fed so much information when these things happen and sometimes you don’t know what to believe – are we being manipulated? – but this has been so sensitively done.

7. Photography

Gordon Parks (Alison Jacques Gallery, London)

Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.
Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, by Gordon Parks. Photograph: Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks was the first African American photographer to work for Life magazine, back in the 1940s, and this is his first solo show in the UK. Part one has already been and gone, but I’ll be going back for part two, which runs until 1 October. Parks photographed Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X and the civil rights movement, but also looked at everyday life. It feels important right now to show African American stories documented from the inside, rather than by an outsider looking in. Parks was also a composer and a film director (he made the original Shaft) and his photographs have an almost musical quality. They’re amazing.

Contributor

Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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