Thursday, 23 December 2010
Wednesday, 15 December 2010
3 hrs 30 mins. Superfluous smoking alert.
Time Out's Caroline McGinn reckons Rory Kinnear's Hamlet was the best she's seen. Personally I'd rather be guided by the audience reaction: silence during some of the set-pieces (like the play) but a cannonade of coughing during the soliloquies. That to me suggests a decent production but a leading actor who, while perfectly intelligent and speaking the words in a way that enables one to follow his train of thought with beautiful clarity, lacks the necessary charisma.
A decent production (by Nick Hytner) but derivative: reminded me an awful lot of Greg Doran's similar modern dress production with David Tennant for the RSC last Christmas, especially the idea of surveillance (CCTV cameras in Doran's version, secret service operatives with earpieces in this).
David Calder strong as Polonius and the gravedigger. Ruth Negga the most convincing Ophelia I've ever seen -- I thought she was a genuine teenager but it turns out she's 30 or thereabouts and highly experienced. (She's also half-Irish, half-Ethiopian; Alex Lanipekun who plays Laertes is also mixed race' so presuambly this wasn't colour-blind casting but a suggestion that Polonius's late wife was black.) James Laurenson interesting but underpowered as the Ghost and the Player. Patrick Malahide definitely underpowered as a Machiavellian Claudius: a piece of very effective screen acting totally lost in the Olivier's vast spaces. Clare Higgins tottering about on a pair of very high heels playing Gertrude as a hard-bitten old party who's seen it all. (She was also very clearly miked, which in this theatre is a bonus, though I couldn't spot anyone else who was.)
The smoking? Hamlet lights up twice, the first time on his student-style mattress in a room full of piled up books... and takes no further puffs.
2 hrs. Preview of the new film about George VI and his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue: a fine piece of British heritage film-making and a hot tip for the Oscars. I'd just read the book by Logue's grandson Mark and the Sunday Times journalist Peter Conradi and (perhaps as a result) was slightly disappointed by the movie, despite the great praise it garnered at the London Film Festival.
The central performances (Colin Firth as the Duke of York/King, Geoffrey Rush as Logue) were strong. So too were Helena Bonham-Carter as the Duchess/Queen/Queen Mum and (perhaps surprising this) Guy Pearce as Edward VIII (even though the supposed older brother was played by the younger actor). But I didn't care for Michael Gambon's George V: the bullying was historically apt but he seemed to lack aristocratic polish. Claire Bloom was unrecognisable as Queen Mary. Anthony Andrews looked and moved like a waxwork as Baldwin. Derek Jacobi was implausibly reptilian as the Archbishop. Timothy Spall was frankly embarrassing as Churchill.
At times I drifted and played spot the location. The old Naval College at Greenwich stood in for wartime Whitehall, I think. I'm told Logue's distressed basement consulting room was in a house in Portland Place rented out for events and locations. The Duke's home at 145 Piccadilly was also a house in Portland Place. The Logue family home was in that tenement block behind Kings Cross which is often used for filming... and looked a very far cry from The Boltons where they actually lived in middle class comfort before moving to a rather grand villa in Sydenham.
And some of the compromises with historical truth needed to make a decent film irked me. The timescale is compressed, which is fair enough: everything happens between 1934 and 1939 in the film, whereas in fact Logue first treated the Duke in 1925 or 6. There's a nice scene in Westminster Abbey before the Coronation in which the king (who's been listening to the Archbishop and his scheming Establishment cronies) confronts Logue with his lack of qualifications, which allows Logue to respond with a bit of handy backstory about treating sufferers from World War One shellshock and never claiming to have qualifications because there weren't any for a new discipline he was helping to pioneer. There's another scene in which Logue starts asking the Duke about his childhood -- a primitive type of psychoanalysis, perhaps -- and meets resistance from the Duke which probably reflects reality. And the significance of the Duke's problems is emphasised by supposing that many more of his speeches were broadcast than was really the case and conjuring up a wonderful BBC control room with equipment cabinets carrying brass plates with the names of the countries of the empire to which they transmitted which had a certain bravura splendour.
But Logue is made out to be a failed actor. He calls the Duke "Bertie" whereas in reality he was always "Sir". And the Logues are shown as a good deal poorer than they were in reality. No doubt the aim is to emphasise the contrast between the privileged royals and the "common colonial" Logue, but the changes rather diminish Lionel as an historical figure.
What's more, to make sense of the Abdication crisis Edward VIII's supposed Fascist leanings are frequently referred to (I suspect no-one knew about them at the time and, if they did, those in the know were a good deal more perturbed by the religious question), and at one point a radio in the background carries what sounds like Abdication news when in reality it was all a terrible secret until the deed was agreed.
But looking back at that list I see there are many more positives than negatives (and I could have named several other positives) so no doubt I'm just being picky.
Sunday, 28 November 2010
Thursday, 25 November 2010
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Monday, 15 November 2010
1 hr 45 mins. No interval (there was one in the original production at the Royal Court in 1995, someone said, but the audience walked out in droves; this way they lock you in for the duration).
The notorious Sarah Kane shocker, and we've seen it at last. And frankly, none of us much enjoyed it. It owes a big debt to King Lear, to Beckett, to schlock-horror splatter movies and to reports of the war in Bosnia, but lacks the profundity and universal resonance of the first two, or the visceral impact of the third, and imports the fourth unconvincingly to Leeds.
The chief difficulty is that it's impossible to empathise with the characters, who seem drawn from stock and equipped with a repertoire of tics and verbal routines that don't quite add up. Beckettian bafflement and boredom was the result.
Some of the shock moments were pretty shocking. A soldier eats the eyes of a man he's just raped. A dead baby is eaten (truly revolting, that). But we wanted it to end not so much because it was shocking but because the violence made us uncomfortable without justification. And perhaps it's a reminder that the most powerful things are sometimes left unspoken or merely hinted at.
The scene is a hotel room. There are the sounds of civil unrest outside but the hotel seems to function normally, with room service and hot and cold running water. It's quite plush, though one of the first lines is "I've shat in better places than this".
There are just three characters. A middle-aged, alcoholic journalist (Danny Webb) apparently dying of lung cancer, a noisy boor who wears a gun in a shoulder hoslter. A girl (Lydia Wilson, whom we saw in Pains of Youth) of indeterminate age (16? 18? 21?) with whom he seems to have had a (presumably underage) sexual relationship at some point in the past. And a soldier (Aidan Kelly), who bursts in half-way through with a gun, abuses, rapes and mutilates the journalist (the girl having escaped through the bathroom window, apparently) and then lies dead during the last few scenes, though how he died we're not told and we don't see.
The characters have rudimentary backstories. The journalist has a wife and child. The girl has a mother and a younger brother with learning difficulties and, implausibly given the civil war outside and her apparent lack of education, she is hoping to get a job as PA in an advertising agency. The journalist scoffs at this, brtually, as he does virtually everything. We know he's a journaslist because at one point he phones through his story to a copytaker. It's about some tragic death abroad and he has presumably been to see the family, but the story he phones over is the kind of finished piece, including quotes from a Foreign office spokesman, that only a sub in the newsroom would produce, not a reporter on the road. The soldier too has a backstory: a girlfriend or wife who was brutally assaulted and killed. We are given the details though curiously I have forgotten them.
The dialogue, which is interspersed with long periods of silent action, is brutal, allusive and sometimes repetitive. The girls says she loves the journalist though what she means by that, and what we're meant to believe she means, is unclear. At the start he takes all his clothes off, grabs his willy and sasys "Suck on this". She refuses (too disgusted?) though later she does give him a blow-job. In bed overnight it seems he rapes her because she complains next morning of pain, struggles to get dressed and says she can't piss or shit; on the other hand, when they woke uop she was still wearing her bra and knickers. Was the assault imagined? Or does the actress not do nudity?
Halfway through there isd a massive explosion which destroys the hotel room leaving only a dark landscape of beams and struts, and the hotel bed. (Maybe it's this that kills the soldier??).
Towards the end the journalist, blinded, helpless and starving, is visited by the girl (why?) carrying a crying baby she's found. The baby dies and she buries it under the floorboards. At the end he digs the corpse up and starts to eat it, then climbs into the hole so that all that we can see of him is his head. It's immediately beneath a hole in the roof through which rain comes down to soak him. The girl returns (why had she gone? why does she come back?) and sharesd a morsel of food with him. By this stage the lights have gone down, leaving only a spotlight on the journalist's head. He says "Thank you". Blackout.
Redemption of sorts, I suppose, in an otherwise profoundly nihilistic play, though one that nags away at you demanding explanation and elucidation, which may be the mark of an effective piece of theatre.
Friday, 5 November 2010
Written by Penelope
We all look back. We all look forward. But how much time do we spend in the present? And do we enjoy looking back? That, partly, is what Samuel Beckett’s play, Krapp’s Last Tape, is about. But the Beckett afficionado who accompanied me laughed when I asked, just as the curtain went down, “So, what’s this about then?”. His answer was “Life”.
Michael Gambon plays Krapp – a curmudgeonly fellow, in a scruffy grey suit, with dirty white shoes, and a shirt tail, untucked, with a huge hole in the back. There is a desk on stage, a chair, and biscuit tins with tapes in them. Not much else. Gambon doesn’t speak for about the first 20 minutes but it’s a measure of his acting abilities that you’re not bored. You watch as he rolls his seat on wheels back and forth, opens and closes drawers, eats a banana and looks through tins of tapes. Gambon has enormous, pale hands, which seem to hang in a hopeless, almost useless way at times. He uses his large ungainly frame well.
Box 3, Spool 5. That seems to be the most important tape. He fast forwards the tape and reaches a section that he plays over and over again. Krapp is looking back on a love and we hear the yearning in his voice as he says “I lay over her, my head in her breasts. My hand on her”. Gambon’s Irish lilt and velvety voice make this little speech incredibly poignant. Is this the most significant moment in his life? As he listens to the tape, he seems bitter, he laughs and berates himself for looking back 30 years. He takes this spool off, puts it in a drawer and starts recording a new one, which he says will be the last. But he doesn’t continue. Instead, he gets Spool 5 out again and listens all over again. By now, we can remember the words too.
The play is only 50 minutes long and on first viewing, the structure seems loose. But Beckett was very precise in his plays – writing very detailed stage directions, down to the last gesture and piece of furniture. So it’s not loose at all but very controlled.
Whenever I go to Beckett, I always try to find meaning. He is ruthless, bitterly comic and dark. He is a pessimist's dream. But I think one of the things he’s trying to say here is to enjoy the moment, take the time to sit and stare, to look around you and enjoy what you have. When you look back, as Krapp does, even with nostalgia and longing, you won’t enjoy it as much as you could have done at the time.
A note about the venue – the Duchess Theatre has seen better days, and even though this play is short, it’s still £30 a ticket. Sadly, the evening I went, less than half the seats were occupied. Beckett isn’t easy, but he is rewarding and the theatre could re-think its pricing policy.
Friday, 22 October 2010
Teenage boy on the way out: "That was so athletic." Teenage girl: "This may sound really gay, but the health and safety on that must be really intense."
The latest from the (highly athletic) Icelandic company Vesturport, this time directed rather than starring Gisli Orn Gardarsson. A version of the Faust epic -- in English rhyme, no less -- as performed by the inmates of an old people's home including an ancient, broke actor who played every tragic part in his time except Faust and whose attempted (successful?) suicide sparks the arrival of Mephisto and his henchpeople Asmodeus and Lilith and the telling of the familiar story. The love interest is Greta, the virginal nurse with an overly-protective elder brother, who also works at the care home; in the old actor's dream of Faust she turns up not in her white nurse's uniform but a white basque and tutu-like skirt, and v sexy she is too.
The whole thing played out on a wide stage with a mesh back wall and three windows, allowing us to see through to the snow falling outside, and with three traps, from one of which Lilith first appears bursting through the floor and flying on a rope which deposits her on a black net stretched right across the auditorium ten feet above the stage, on which actors and acrobats disport themselves from time to time (at the end of the interval the audience returns to find a silent actor in a dressing gown performing rather laboured silent film-style stunts with a runaway folding wheelchair). Actors fall backwards onto the net from the flies in sudden flashes of light. They swing from a trapeze above it. They somersault over the edge and hang by their hands to drop onto the stage. In the love scene the happy couple spin above the stage on ropes twined round their wrists.
Vesturport are really good at integrating the physical into serious drama, but less good at the straight acting. The first scene in the old people's home drags. Not helped by the fact that English is not the cast's first language: they speak it well, but often with intonation just that little bit "off".
There are a number of meta-theatrical gags. The silent oldster is warned to "mind the pit" as he walks towards one of the on-stage traps: he steps into it and literally bounces out. At the end of the first half there's a gag about forgetting one's lines and having to be prompted by one of the care home residents with the text... who then comes on with the same text a minute or two later and reads out (in rhyme) the announcement of the interval.
There are some nice gags generally, indeed: the care home residents keep fit by doing synchronised dancing in their wheelchairs to a George Michael track.
The general aesthetic is grungy. Mephisto wears a string vest with blood stains, and a frock coat and white leggings.
It all ends in tears. There's a Walpurgisnacht orgy (with only one witch, but then the cast is only nine strong) during which Greta loses her inhibitions to the extent of removing the basque, downstage centre, before matters are broken up by her furious brother who is put to sleep with a potion only to awake once more to break up the subsequent aerial love ballet. By this stage, in a move typical of the rough and ready approach, the older actor playing Faust has switched bodies with the younger actor playing Asmodeus, to make him both a more convincing suitor for Greta and a more capable acrobat.
In all this the moral issues raised by the Faust legend, or this version of it, get a little lost. Mephisto is infuriated by Faust's insistence for much of the time that however much he lusts after Greta he intends her to remain pure.
The music was by Nick Cave.
Ian McKellen was in the audience.
A month on and I could remember absolutely nothing about this production. Nada. Zilch. That's what comes of not writing 'em up at the time.
Then I found half a page of scribbled notes and it started coming back to me. Nice middle-class couple's son goes missing on his gap year in the Far East. The mother has resorted to a "medium", a clearly fraudulent old woman, in an effort to find out what happened. The grandfather (ex-Labour Cabinet minister) has called in a 30-something TV producer who wants to feature the boy in a missing kids programme. Everyone's going spare. Then news comes through that the boy's turned up in a hospital. The embassy are putting him on a plane to London. Act 1 ends with the boy's appearance and a shocked cry from the grandfather of "Who the fuck are you!?"
In Act 2 the boy, apparently some lost soul whose memory has gone awol and who assumed he was the son because he had his rucksack when he woke up in hospital, has been taken in by the family. Gradually he turns from a sympathetic waif, with a wrily humorous take on his amnesiac predicament, into a mendacious monster who has clearly played this kind of trick before, a frightening cuckoo who has to be ejected from the nest.
I'm at a loss to explain why all this left so little impression. Among the many reasons to like and remember it: it was wittily and thought-provokingly written by Shelagh Stephenson; we have personal experience of the student-aged child on a gap year travel in the Far East; the TV producer, though a grotesque caricature and a gross libel on the profession, behaved in ways I have seen TV producers behave; it was generally well-acted by a very classy cast (my scribbled note reminds me that there was a lot of listening in this play and the actors listened convincingly and well, which isn't necessarily easy to do: I spent a lot of time watching and enjoying their reactions).
I liked especially the way it played with ideas of truth and mendacity and performance. The boy (Tom Weston-Smith) starts by nicking things (the missing son's T-shirts, the father's socks) and brazenly denying it (and the parents of course believe it). Then he gets drunk and vituperative in a scene with the mother (Julie Graham)... except that after he's gone she smells the wine and realises it's Ribena, so he was just shamming. The TV producer (Daisy Beaumont) lies from the start, quite casually: she seeks the mother's sympathy by saying "As a mother myself..." when she has no family. She asks to film the reunion and when told she can't does so anyway, with a hidden camera. And when she rumbles the boy and tries to alert the parents he turns her past lies back on her, undermining her credibility.
The father (Richard Clothier) is actually the step-father. He is a sceptic, in contrast to the mother's desperate need to know what happened to her son. He mocks the medium (Polly Kemp), and we see that he is right to do so, until towards the end the old biddy turns out to be pretty shrewd -- a successful exponent of what Terry Pratchett's witches call "headology".
The grandfather was Paul Freeman, a veteran. Old-fashioned style (watch the way he stands) but a powerful stage presence. A nice exchange when he introduces the TV producer to his daughter. "Are you sleeping with her?" she asks. "No!" he instantly replies. Then it emerges that they've "had a few lunches". To begin with he seems pompous and vain and a bit of a clown; later he's the only one with the sense to cut through the crap and make things happen.
All in all a sophisticated piece of theatre. Not everything worked. It was a play of two halves, evidently deliberately, but they sometimes jarred. There may have been a shade too many gags in the first part. Dr T had a friend visiting from Canada who remarked on the number of four-letter words: there was only one in the first act (see above) but loads in the second. There was a bit too much shouting in part two as well. And the set (by Francis O'Connor) was a problem: all white, with only one proper entrance. Things like occasional tables emerged from the floor, there was a staircase down through a hole in the floor, and there was a big window to one side of the curved back wall which also served as an occasional entrance/exit. All a bit of a mess. There were also, my notes tell me, overhead projections but I don't remember those.
Directed by Edward Hall, is first play as the new artistic director at this address. The critics were critical. Maybe the first night was a disappointment. I reckon it wasn't half bad. And somehow appropriate that I should so completely have forgotten a play about amnesia.
It turns out I did write it up at the time. I've just found the text...
This has had mixed reviews and I went fearing the worst. In fact it was a thought-provoking evening, though it had its longeurs.
Shelagh Stephenson play about cuckoos in the nest, identity, loss, truth and falsehood etc etc.
Middle class couple (her daddy a Cabinet minister) have lost their son: he went missing in the Far East while backpacking during his gap year and no-one has the faintest idea what's happened to him. He (stepfather, university English teacher) is sceptical; she (researching the life of a Victorian woman who lost her son at Lucknow during the Mutiny and ended up living in India and going native) is distraught. They are first seen with a medium, a fraudulent old busybody. Then grandad turns up with a young television producer who's going to make a documentary about the boy. Cue phone all from the Embassy in Bangkok, or wherever it is. The boy has turned up. Act One ends with his appearance at the airport and the horrified reaction of parents/grandparent when they realise it's not him.
Act Two charts the boy's progress from hapless and rather charming victim (lost his memory, no idea who he is, woke up in a hospital bed with the missing son's backpack next to him, assumed that was who he was, a waif and stray they take pity on and invite into their home) to a manipulative monster who lies routinely, uses aggressive language and violence and eventually has to be expelled.
It was well-acted, mostly well-written and mostly intelligently directed by Edward Hall (first play in his new job as artistic director at this address).
Tuesday, 19 October 2010
I was too tired for this, really. I found it hard to engage, and the quieter, more rhythmic passages sent me to sleep.
A concert of two distinct halves by the Houston Symphony, conducted by Hans Graf (who he?).
The first half was conventional. We had Samuel Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, originally written in 1945 as a Martha Graham ballet score, reworked in 1947 as a suite for full orchestra, re-reworked in 1955 into a single, shorter piece for an even larger orchestra. And then we had Stravinsky's Le chant du rossignol (le rossignol, of course, being a nightingale), which started life in 1914 as an opera premiered by Diaghilev's company in Paris and was then reworked in 1916 as a ballet score-cum-work for the concert hall.
The orchestra was big, almost 90-strong for the Barber, crammed onto the Barbican stage. Medea started very slowly and softly to the accompaniment of a great deal of coughing but got much noisier: the climax was pretty crashing. I listened attentively and made several mental notes, which I'd entirely forgotten (along with every note of the piece) by the interval. I do remember the percussionists, of whom there were five, who assisted one another in a way I've not seen before (for instance by nipping over to dampen the sound of the neighbouring player's cymbals after he'd banged 'em together). The Stravinsky I preferred (though the others seemed to take the opposite view). Basically I thought it was fun, with lots of rhythmic passages and snatches of what sounded like syncopation; the nightingale's song made a number of appearances on piccolo, flute and solo violin. There was also a solo trumpet but I'm not sure it was playing the same melody. But once again I have forgotten much more about it than I have remembered.
The second half was a performance of Holst's The Planets accompanied by digital images of the planets themselves projected onto a vast screen above the stage. The orchestra was even bigger (the brass and winds in particular were augmented, though there were once again five percussionists) and the playing authoritative.
Being a person with a visual rather than musical imagination I enjoyed this much more, though putting visuals to music always seems to devalue or diminish it (though adding live orchestral music to, say, a silent film has quite the opposite effect) and even this couldn't keep me from nodding off now and then.
The music was robustly familiar and played robustly too. Though in fact it's not as familiar as I thought: after Mars, the opening movement, which is very noisy, the audience applauded; they then applauded after every other movement; I sat disdainfully on my hands having been brought up to believe that you don't clap until the very end; so I didn't put my hands together until Jupiter. At which point it occurred to me that there still seemed to be an awful lot of music left in front of the players, and they duly went on to play two more movements (Neptune and Uranus) which I had no idea existed.
The problem with the visuals was twofold. Firstly, we know a great deal more about the nearer planets and so there's a correspondingly greater array of imagery available of Mars (on which rovers have landed... we saw Nasa's animation of one on the surface, as well as some of the pictures it took) and Venus (through whose atmosphere craft have apparently flown sufficiently close to the surface to build up detailed images of the planets' volcanoes). The outer planets by contrast are scarcely known at all: they're just spheres, with or without rings, though their rocky, pockmarked moons are perversely much better imaged because the spacecraft flew much closer to them. All this meant there was a lot less visual interest towards the end of the piece than at the start.
Second problem: the editing. Perhaps because they simply had too much stuff to choose from, the film-makers habitually cut out of pans and zooms and travelling shots before they'd settled, often into the middle of another zoom or pan; one of the first things you learn from TV video editors is that this is unsettling for the viewer and should be avoided, or at least softened with dissolves between shots. There was also a certain amount of split-screen, which I didn't like, rendering the images entirely abstract. The film-maker, Duncan Copp, a Brit who started life as an academic geologist/space scientist working on the volcanic activity on Venus and became a TV programme producer, came on and took a bow at the end.
I'd like to say I'm a purist who prefers my music neat and unaccompanied by visual stimuli. This isn't actually true. Neat and unaccompanied music which is unfamiliar I find very difficult to get a handle on. Which may be why I like opera a lot. But adding pictures to an orchestral concert seems like cheating.
We had two encores. Something German and noisy which Mr Graf announced from the podium (I couldn't hear). And something quiet and tuneful which he didn't announce but which I think was Mozart.
Saturday, 16 October 2010
3 hrs 15 mins. Handel's tale of a defeated prince (Radamisto), his loyal wife (Zenobia), the tyrant who defeats him and covets his wife (Tiridate) and Tiridate's own downtrodden wife (Polissena), the type of the willingly abused and submissive partner. Oh, and R's father Farasmane, Tiridate's prisoner; and Tiridate's ally, Tigrane, who is in love with Polissena and turns out to be a decent enough cove after all despite a not-always-successful penchant for interfering. Symbolised in this production by dressing him as a seedy representative of the Empire in rumpled white linen suit while all around are in exotic "Oriental" gear of one sort or another, including Japanese-style armour for Tiridate and harem pants for Zenobia. (Some reviewers had him down as a wily Armenian, and I grant the fez is suggestive, but I prefer to see Radamisto-land as Afghanistan and Tigrane as a representative of the British, Russian and American empires, all of which have meddled in that godforsaken land to disastrous effect.)
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
A special exhibition of symbolist works arranged around Burne-Jones's monumental Death of Arthur, which he worked on for decades and never finished. It's full of tall, draped, angular figures, almost all turned towards the recumbent figure of the king in his temple-cum-tomb in Avalon.
There's Burne Jones's Sleeping Beauty sequence which obviuously made an impression on me at the time since I wrote it down in my notebook but which now conjures up no memories at all.
There's Leighton's Flaming June, whose seductive appeal lies partly in the beauty of his sleeping model, partly in her bright orange drapes and the sensuous curve of her thigh which fills the centre of the frame but mainly, I think, in the gold of the sunlight on the sea in the distance which positively shouts at you to be joyful and dream of some Mediterranean paradise.
Also Walter Crane's book illustrations, and a Rossetti of a Roman widow, all long neck and impossibly long tapering hands.
Another of Vienna's spectacular museums. This one comes in two parts, each one a massive neo-classical pavilion, facing one another at either end of a long, sloping formal garden of gravelled walks and parterres and water features, built on a low hill overlooking the city by Prince Eugene (or Prinz Eugen).
Here they have Klimt's The Kiss, an image whose familiarity can't disguise its perfection, nor the impact all that gold has when you see it in the flesh. They have a lot of ther Klimts too: a portrait of a lady with a spectacular peacock-eye motif cloth on her chair, early impressionist landscapes, and unfinished paintings that are oddly swirly and tentative.
They have lots of Schiele too, the later ones rather gentler than some of the more turtured earlier ones. Among the later pictures there's a nude portrait of a man and a woman and a child squatting, the woman with her legs apart, and a portrait of Schiele's wife.
The gallery puts both Klimt and Schiele into the context of late 19th century Symbolism and of some of the earlier academic work against which the Symbolists and Secessionists and Impressionist and the rest of them were reacting. So there's David's Napoleon (Why here? Victor's spoils?) as well as some proper French impressionists, including Pisarro landscapes, Manet portraits and Monet's garden.
And there's a Kolo Moser picture of an avenue of trees leading to a house, all blue outlines, which could be Cezanne.
This place makes the V&A look modest. There's a circular entrance hall, tiling, a black and white floor, leading to a grand staircase with enormous frescoes by Klimt and others. One woman gasped audibly as she walked in and saw it, and well she might.
And then there's a spectacular collection of Old Masters. A whole room full of Breughels... really, really famous ones: Winter, the Tower of Babel, Children's Games, a painting of Christ Being Taken to Be Crucified which I think is another version of the one in Nostell Priory written up here in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/interactive/2010/nov/12/procession-to-calvary-pieter-bruegel-the-younger
And I haven't even mentioned the Conversion of Saul (actually that may be the painting which in composition resembles the Nostell Priory Procession to Calvary), the Massacre of the Innocents, the Peasant Wedding... They're all full of incredible detail, chunky figures, the wintry scenes so effective because there's so much white in them.
There's some pictures by Holbein the Elder -- decent but uninspired -- alongside Holbein the Younger's Jane Seymour, Dr John Chambers and two pictures of young merchants, greatly superior to his dad's stuff.
There's a vast painting by Albrecht Altdorfer of Lot's daughters, their father an old man with yellow skin looking lecherous, one daughter fully nude lying alongside and largely obscuring his withered body, the other kneeling by a stream in the distance; and there's a Cranach of the same scene in which the daughters are discreetly clothed.
There's a memorable Durer of Maximilian I in a fur cape.
And a whole room of Dutch group portraits from the great era of Rembrandt and his contemporaries. It was a temporary exhibition so I should have given it more attention, but by that stage I was glutted.
Vienna's museums are large, numerous, imposing. The Leopold Museum is a collection of 20th century, largely Viennese works housed in a handsome modernist building in the Museums Quarter, which was once I think the Imperial stables but now houses several exhibition spaces including two modern structures dramatically inserted into the courtyard (this is one). Plus cafes and all the usual paraphernalia. We sat out in the autumn sun and ate.
My notes (this is written up two months later) talk about Klimt and Schiele as the Jekyll and Hyde of the Viennese Secession. In Klimt's Death and Life a collection of largely naked figures, including a baby, float among Klimt's signature patterning (which always looks like a patchwork quilt) on a plain background, while off to the left a skeleton with a club wrapped in a darker patchwork leers at them. The subject matter is dark but the treatment glittering and seductive. Klimt is a beautiful draughstman (especially in his early portraits).
Nearby is Schiele's Levitation: a predominantly brown picture of dead figures with staring eyes, in a landscape of flowers painted to look like wagon wheels. It's an image that prefigures scenes of the Western Front in World War One. A dark subject, darkly treated. Likewise a Schiele full-frontal self-portrait, with legs akimbo, all browns and yellows but for the nipples, eyes and genitalia, all an eerie red.
You get some idea of how Schiele transformed what he saw by a small portrait of his mistress Wally, thin and wide-eyed, close to a portrait of what she looked like in reality (very different). The painting, which is mesmerising, was the subject of a long-running dispute between the Leopold and descendants of its original owners after it was sent in 1997 on loan to New York for an exhibition at Moma and seized by the authorities: the legal dispute was only settled this year. Details here:
Kolo Moser was new to me. A very diverse figure. I noted Wotan and Brunnhilde. A series of mountain landscapes including one with a bright yellow house, some very straight, some playing triks with light and colour. His later works were straighter, in some ways, his earlier figurative ones very bold and expressionistic.
And then there are the architects. Otto Wagner designed the U-bahn stations. But Joseph Maria Olbrich was the revelation, not least for his Secession Building of 1897 which is utterly extraordinary and staggeringly original (the Secession were so called because they seceded from the National Academy of Art).
Too many of them died young, Olbrich of leukemia in 1908 aged 41, the other three in 1918: Moser of cancer aged 50, Klimt of a stroke aged 56 (the stroke brought on perhaps by fathering no fewer than 14 children on various women, I read in Wikpedia) and Schiele at just 28 of influenza.
Friday, 10 September 2010
1 hr 30 mins. Late-night Prom featuring the new incarnation of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, fronted by Arthur Jeffes, son of the original's founder-composer, Simon Jeffes. An 11-piece, joined by Kathryn Tickell (on both Northumbrian small pipes and fiddle), playing lots of Simon Jeffes' tunes and a handful of Arthur's, including a solo piano piece he wrote for his father's memorial service (SJ died in 1997) which he played as an encore.
Most of the old favourites were there, and they haven't lost their catchiness. We had Music for a Found Harmonium, Perpetuum Mobile, Giles Farnaby's Dream, Telephone and Rubber Band, all of which we have on disc at home. Plus some I didn't know like Organum (on which Tickell played the pipes) and Swing the Cat (in which she joined in some very fast fiddle ensemble playing, folk-style, much better in this performance than in a recording we've heard).
The line-up is very different from the original, which only had one ukelele (not three on occasions), didn't have a double bass, did have a trombone etc etc. This had two percussionists and Jeffes on piano, with only one guitarist. It meant the sound had a very different texture, and crucially was poorly served in the hall by the mix (it might have been different for listeners at home...). To begin with we could hardly hear the cello and the other strings, and though it got better it still wasn't entirely satisfactory.
Also Arthur's pieces (with the exception of the piano solo) aren't in the same league as his dad's, while some of the slower pieces had me drifting off (it was late night...)
All the musicians were pretty straight with the exception of one of the violinists who wore black plus-fours or jodhpurs and a black top hat and pranced around centre stage in a very "look at me" kind of way.
I'm glad we went but I think we'll stick to recordings of the original in future.
Monday, 6 September 2010
2 hrs 20 mins. Ulster Orchestra with Paul Watkins and pianist Stephen Osborne. Orchestra all in black except for Watkins in a lounge suit with white shirt and tie. A good night for the brass, with fanfares and marches galore. But the hall very empty, despite the crowd-pleasing nature of the programme, perhaps because there'd been a free Prom all afternoon recreating (with the addition of a 2010 world premiere BBC commission!) the last night of Henry Wood's 1910 Proms. The arena in particular very sparsely filled. This programme all works which had been premiered (or at least introduced to British audiences) by Henry Wood at the Proms.
There was a fanfare by Arnold Bax (or Sir Arthur Bliss?) written for Henry Wood's 70th birthday in 1944, noisy and brassy, and then A London Pageant by Bliss (or Bax?). It's a piece of light music really, a march, very silly. It comes to a crashing brass climax twice, only for the violins to keep going underneath very quietly; there's a discordant shift to the minor halfway through but it doesn't last, it's purely for effect. At the end there's an enormous climax with all the brass, the kitchen sink and the Albert Hall organ (the organist was wearing ear defenders)! It made me laugh. The string sound very English (ie sub-Elgar).
Then we had Dorothy Howell's Lamia, premiered in 1919 when she was 21. I'd never heard of her. She lived until 1982, dying at the age of 84 after a blameless life teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. So why, on the evidence of this, did she not compose more? It starts very softly and discordantly with just two flutes. It ends very softly on a dying fall played by the strings, just after a rather haunting solo by the leader. In between some lovely string music and colourful orchestration, plus the odd melody. Passed 12 minutes very agreeably.
Then Osborne played Rachmaninov's first piano concerto. I don't know this, but I suspect it was a rather spiky interpretation of the slow movement, which I'm sure is supposed to be lusher and more tuneful than the version Osborne gave us. The slow movement is also very short, but then the final movement has a crashing false start followed by a thoughtful piano solo before the finale proper starts, so you get two slow movements in effect. D liked it very much. Osborne played with a score and a blonde page-turner: the first time I've seen a soloist using a score in a piece from the core repertoire.
Part 2 started with Sibelius's Karelia Suite. Not as driven as some performances I've heard, but in the finale there were numerous swoops and twiddly bits from the horns and the brass I've never been aware of in recorded or broadcast performances. One quiet bit was ruined by coughing.
Parry's Symphonic Suite was inoffensive and rose to a suitable climax (brass-heavy, of course, and rather Elgarian) but my quota of concentration available for unfamiliar music was exhausted.
Then Tchaikovsky's waltz and march from Eugene Onegin. Familiar, tuneful, noisy: what's not to like? (Hard to credit that this was "new music" in Henry Wood's time.)
The Prommers may have hoped for an encore, but Watkins marched on after two or three curtain calls, looked pointedly at his watch and dragged the leader off.
Sunday, 5 September 2010
1 hr 55 mins (no interval). Buchner's 1834 classic in a new version by Howard Brenton. Directed by Michael Grandage of the Donmar with Toby Stephens as Danton and Elliot Levey (very good) as Robespierre.
You can see why Grandage wanted to do it. It's about politics, which clearly fascinates him (Camus' Caligula, von Kleist's Prince of Homburg), and about Romantic/tragic views of the individual, history, fate. It pits the extremist Robespierre, who equates virtue with terror, against the sensualist Danton, now sickened by revolutionary bloodshed (though whether that's on ideological grounds or because he's overhwelmed by Romantic ennui isn't entirely clear).
The ideas are interesting. Danton describes himself as an epicurean and wrestles with questions of how to find meaning in a world from which the revolutionaries have banished God; Robespierre and St Just are Maoists ahead of their time, committed to permanent revolution.
But it's just one damn speech after another, static and dramatically inert (despite the dramatic premise). Robespierre and Danton only have one scene together: there should have been more. I wanted the clash of ideas, not just their presentation, one after another, in ordered sequence.
The climactic scene of Danton's trial is a series of speeches. D is in the well of the court, holding the jurors spellbound before being silenced and bundled off. But Robespierre and St Just hold the high ground, literally, at the centre of a balcony which runs round the entire back of the curved set. We liked the set by Christopher Oram very much: stained wood, with several doors at ground level and the balcony, entered from either end, with shutters that could be opened and closed to reveal floor to ceiling windows.
There were some interesting interventions by the women: a prostitute near the start with whom Danton consorts and (am I remembering this correctly?) who tells him her sad life story; Danton's wife, who tries to save him and poisons him when she can't; and Camille Desmoulins' Lucille, who goes fetchingly mad in a white high-waisted dress.
A combination of cinema and theatre. A fascinating idea which turned out to be profoundly disappointing in practice. See Guardian review, with which I largely agree:
It seemed pointless, alienating to no good effect, the actors locked into a mechanical presentation with no room for interpretation or to respond to audience reaction. Also the lighting was poor, presumably because bright lights would show through the front screen or wash out the back projection.
And the story, such as it was, was a farrago of Latin American magic realism which required a good deal of patience to take seriously.
Do Theatre: Russian mime. Very disappointing.
Started well. Three women in white lying sleeping at the back of the stage, another in brown downstage left in a hollow cube with red strands of wool going up into the flies and then back down to the sleeping women (who held the ends in their mouths). A man, very old, moving slowly and with great difficulty, enters through the auditorium with four scythes tied together acting as crutches and as supports for a sieve above his head which deposits fine drifts of flour/snow as he moves and shakes it. A second man does the music downstage right, his equipment including a theremin and an amplified box on which he dances. The woman in brown pulls the other three up by the red strands of wool; they waken and dance. The old man is stripped of his overcoat and scythes and turns out to be a young man in a suit, no shirt and shaven head.
After that... I lost track. There was a lot of rather random activity. The scythes were swung. The women changed dresses. The muso did a solo. The man was tied up in a cat's cradle of red wool hooked up to the edges of the stage by the women, and then cut free. There was continuous droning music. I lost interest, the thread and the will to live.
The hall barely a quarter full, and this on bank holiday weekend in one of the venue's bigger spaces. Word may have got around that it was boring. But there was also a piece in the Scotsman next day saying that, though overall ticket sales were up for the Fringe, some of the bigger venues were reporting thin attendances suggesting that some kind of ceiling may have been reached in terms of numbers of show outstripping the available audience.
A real cracker by a company that calls itself Pants on Fire, a staging of Ovid's tales of transformations and (mostly) frustrated love, thwarted, unrequited or otherwise problematical. Endlessly inventive, witty, touching, superbly-drilled, it scarcely flagged.
Directed by Peter Bramley, who is head of movement at Rose Bruford College and was among the last batch of students to train with Jacques Lecoq before his death. He clearly knows all there is to know about movement, mime and physical theatre. The cast are all recent Rose Bruford graduates, who act, sing, play instruments (trombone, piano, flute, drum, accordion) and in one case operate puppets.
The conceit had the stories updated to World War Two, a sort of homage to Powell and Pressburger, and one scene (Theseus in the labyrinth) was a pretty straight lift from A Matter of Life and Death with the addition of a routine involving nurses and an inert patient who needs to be given a bed bath and a change which (judging by a video on the company's website) is something of a Pants on Fire signature.
Daedalus and Icarus were in fighter pilots' flying jakets; at one point three girls in 40s evening dress crooned into a microphone (Did I mention the music? Original songs in the style of the 1940s by Lucy Egger); Narcissus was dressed in a fetching fedora and great coat (in a video projection); Tiresias was in evening dress like a 1930s Berlin cabaret turn; the nymph Salmacis wore a blue swimsuit; Echo was a talkative cockney char in Rosie the Riveter-style scarf; etc etc etc.
There were remarkably quick changes, using moveable screens (upright and horizontal), appropriately for a series of stories about shape-shifting. Cupid was a surly little boy puppet with the (female) puppeteer providing his face and voice.
One might quibble that the Narcissus projection was a bit samey, that the actors struggled with the cut-glass 1940s accents sometimes, that it flagged a bit two-thirds of the way through and that the Semele episode looked distinctly under-developed after repeated recent exposure to Handel's version. But these are quibbles. I spent most of the time with a stupid grin on my face.
Unquestionably a company (and a director) to watch.
Recommended by A, who'd seen it and thought it very funny. Four young people (three girls, one guy) playing adolescents, members of the Stokeley Christian Club, prepare to enter the local talent competition with their gospel rock band: drums and guitar initially, then accordion ("Er, hello, this is my dad's") and finally flute.
I took my producer, E, poor woman, who was polite about it but would probably much have preferred some decent stand-up. She also thought young Christians would have been deeply hurt by it, though I thought the satire was aimed more at adolescents generally than young Christians in particular (indeed, I'd hazard the cast are/were young Christians themselves).
It was episodic, cartoonish, with lots of short scenes capturing adolescent gaucheness and interspersed with music. The drummer was pretty good, but not much of an actress (she gabbled). One girl, with goggle eyes, pretended to be French. The other twisted her mouth into a curious shape to convey teenage self-consciousness. At one point they all put on paper masks over the top halves of their faces, the boy's a cartoon devil, the girls' with glamour-girl eyes, and two of the girls snogged in slow motion. What was all that about?
It could have done with much tighter direction, let down as it was by poor staging, with loads of fiddly props, and four chairs which were endlessly arranged and re-arranged in the centre of the statge.