City of Stories campaign: Norwich through the eye of the beholder
11:24 18 August 2014
The first work of flash fiction, written by a Writers’ Centre Norwich contributor on the theme of Through the Eye of the Beholder.
At first glance, you might think Norwich is a sleepy, pretty little city: a charming maze of cobbled streets and churches, pubs and bookshops, a place where life is sweet and uneventful.
You couldn’t be more wrong.
Behind Norwich’s tranquil façade is a torrent of creativity, flooding through every corner of the city and welling up in the most unexpected places. Here there are artists living and working, actors taking to the stage each night in the city’s theatres and playhouses, curators dreaming and collecting until their exhibition is a perfect whole. Together, they are making Norwich one of the most exciting cultural destinations in the UK.
If there’s one name to mention when talking about Norwich and the visual arts, it’s Sainsbury. Voracious collectors of art, Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury accumulated vast numbers of works by European artists including Picasso, Degas, Bacon, Giacometti and Modigliani, before their fascination with historical cultures led them to start travelling the world in search of ancient art and artefacts.
By the 1970s their collection was over a thousand pieces strong, spanning more than 5,000 years and every populated continent on earth.
The Sainsburys donated their still growing collection to the University of East Anglia in 1973, and five years later the Sainsbury Centre was opened on a quiet corner of the campus grounds. Students, professors and the visitors alike can contemplate the Sainsburys’ collection at leisure, far from the madding crowds of a city centre museum.
On the other side of the city, 1,500 artists, designers and illustrators are honing their craft at Norwich University of the Arts.
The art students’ influence can be seen all over Norwich, from the paintings displayed on the walls of cafés and bars to the posters pasted throughout the streets. This September, the NUA students will come together to paint a great mural in the city centre in celebration of Norwich’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature.
It seems that as Norwich’s cultural reputation grows, so blossoms NUA – as actor John Hurt, the university’s chancellor, said: “NUA is going to be the most impressive arts university in the world.”
In the north of the city near the river is another blossoming institution, albeit one that practices a rarer art form. The Norwich Puppet Theatre is one of the strongholds of puppetry in the UK, and from the moment you enter the building you know you’re in a special place.
Puppets – ethereal, comic, frightening, beautiful and bizarre – hang from the walls and ceiling, while in the theatre itself there are regular performances by some of the world’s greatest puppeteers.
It’s a magical place for children, with puppet making workshops themed around heroes and villains, outer space, mythical creatures and almost anything the imagination can conjure.
Another arts venue that stirs the imagination is the Norwich Cathedral cloisters. Without doubt one of the most atmospheric places in Norwich, these arched walkways create a hallowed backdrop for the performances that take place there.
Never is the power of the Cathedral cloisters clearer than during Norwich’s annual Shakespeare Festival, when actors from Shakespeare’s Globe dart among the arches, performing to a rapt audience on a balmy summer’s eve.
Theatre lovers, and especially theatre loving families, will also be drawn to Norwich’s Theatre Royal on Theatre Street, known to some as “the West End of the East.”
With a history dating back 250 years, the Theatre Royal has been through several incarnations, from a playhouse disguised as a concert hall in the mid 1700s to a cinema showing the latest black and white films. Today it is returned to its theatrical roots, and hosts some incredible touring theatre productions.
Most recently its stage was graced by the casts of One Man, Two Guvnors, Oliver!, The Woman in Black, Dirty Dancing and Les Miserables.
Another of Norwich’s venues that specializes in big names is the Norwich Arts Centre on St Benedicts Street. The NAC is no grand concert hall, yet it has been voted the ‘NME Best Small Venue in the Eastern Region’ three years in a row. Appearing to the untrained eye as nothing more than an old church, the NAC has been a stage for the likes of Coldplay, Nirvana, Muse, Kasabian and the Manic Street Preachers, as well as comedians Dylan Moran, Jack Dee, Josie Long, David Baddiel and Rob Newman – proving once again that in Norwich appearances can be deceptive, and that you never know what you’ll find behind the city’s charming façade.