by Jacob Warn
As the darkening sky pretends to put a curtaining end to the day, so do the lights keep burning – on and on – at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It was the final Friday of January, and at the termination of the William Blake festival that has raged around Oxford for the past two weeks, it was decided that its end would be not a slow fading of the light, but rather an extravaganza of theatre, dance, poetry and song.
The Ashmolean LiveFriday events invariably constitute some of Oxford’s finest evenings; they no doubt play an essential part in marking out the Ashmolean as one of the finest museums not just nationally, but globally. After the enormous success of the October LiveFriday – Egytomania – which saw huge crowds unable to enter on account of the swarms of people already filling this huge museum, the Heaven & Hell LiveFriday was hotly anticipated.
Churros, served hot with chocolate and sugar fed full the stomachs of those made ravenous by the riot of the museum”
Nor were those attending to be disappointed. Braziers of fire lit the entrance; the frantic melee of live New Orleans Polypony jostled the outside air, offering just a taste of that Dionysian atmosphere, just behind those doors, to those outside; churros, served hot with chocolate and sugar fed full the stomachs of those made ravenous by the riot of the museum, come to life in a way that only Ben Stiller properly knows.
On entry, you might find yourself in a long gallery of whitened classical statues, and as you stand admiring their nocturnally-enhanced forms, ethereal music invades your dominant visual-sense and you find yourself taken away, lifted high, as polyphonic, slowly-mutating chords arrest your aural capacities. This was the effect of Schola Cantorum’s renditions of Blakean song settings, as they paced, solitary and smoothly, among the dispersed crowd.
Hence you move through the vibrant paintings of Ed’Paschke and engage and gaze at the sensory tricks presented by LottoLab studio, whilst for those who have visited the ongoing exhibition centred around Blake, the artist’s own theories concerning humanity’s Doors of Perception comes to acquire a different, deeper yet ultimately less comprehensible meaning in light of these optical and aural illusions. All this goes on whilst upstairs the infamous, hellishly fast Oxford Imps give performances abounding in audience participation and laughs – attracting such crowds that at one point, Health and Safety demanded the cessation of the performance and the radical eviction of a proportion of onlookers so as to avoid the purportedly potential descent of many-a-soul to a paler world if, as feared, the floor was to sag under the appreciative weight of the massed audience.
All around the museum, human traffic moved with admiration and fascination. On the most heavenly floor, lovers of Blake perused the exhibition, and as one got lower and lower, the sounds, excitements and visions of those enjoying this night – whether watching dance or puppet-shadow theatre, whether designing printer’s hats, crafting silhouette cuttings with experts, learning more about the great man himself in a number of talks, or just wandering around amid the countless actors who nomadically roamed the various levels and galleries of the museum – grew more and more impassioned.
The Ashmolean truly has to be commended for the execution of such a phenomenal night. Only the Ashmolean knows how to put on a party suitable for children, students and adults alike. Only the Ashmolean knows in what direction to take the museum in 21st century, western culture.