Saturday, 30 June 2012


30/6/12, Punchdrunk at the McKitterick Hotel, NYC

Macbeth hath murdered sleep.  That's two hours of our lives we won't get back.  It was expensive ($100), they took two unopened bottles of water off me before we were let in and I never saw 'em again, meaning we were dying of thirst by the end, we had to wear uncomfortable (with glasses) Eyes Wide Shut-style masks throughout and it was confusing, just as I remember previous immersive, site-specific theatre experiences to have been (with the exception many years ago of a production in the cellars underneath Edinburgh Old Town which moved sequentially from one site/scene to another and thus provided what these things lack, namely narrative).

Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death was a great hit at BAC, and this had good things about it, in particular the immensely elaborate sets over four floors of a rambling building which I think was originally a warehouse (the "hotel" bit being a polite fiction).  But we were constantly stumbling across segments with live actors just before they finished; and when we caught them sufficiently early to follow their development they were exceptionally hard to decode, involving as they did no dialogue and a lot of studied, repetitive action.  The best bits were impressively aggressive dance: two men in a phone box; a woman in a revealing green dress kept on with sticky tape and a prayer being thrown around a hotel living room and over a table by a man who may have been a porter or a barman.

The cast were in 1920s garb, which has become something of a cliche.  The action was supposedly based on Macbeth but, with the exception of the grand finale at a Last Supper-style table in the "ballroom" which brought together the whole cast, a lot of elaborate lighting effects and slow motion, plus Banquo's ghost, and a scene which might have been Duncan's murder, it all bore precious little relevance to Shakespeare.

One of my beefs about this kind of thing is that it's inherently frustrating: you never get to see all of it, which means you end up feeling you've missed something crucial or fascinating or fantastic.  It's not like a smorgasbord, where you can see what's on offer and make a choice; the choice is forced upon you from a menu you're never shown.

As a technical achievement, eight out of ten; but for artistic content, three.

NY Times review here:


30/6/12, NYC


29/6/12, Duke's Theater on 42nd Street

Friday, 29 June 2012


29/6/12, Sleepy Hollow, New York

We took the train from Grand Central up to Tarrytown and Philipse Manor, running along the East River looking across to a surprisingly green and hilly northern tip of Manhattan, and then beside the mighty Hudson, which really is huge with formidable cliffs on the far side.  We were intending to visit a reconstructed 18th century farm and mill and then go on to Washington Irving's house, Sunnyside, south of Tarrytown, but abandoned that after spending so long and having such fun at the farm, Philipsburg Manor.  We walked there from the station at Philipse Manor through a very upscale Stepford Wives-type housing estate (our only mistake to go up to the main road at one point, only to retreat when it had no sidewalk: they don't really do walking here. When I asked the woman at the visitor centre for directions to Tarrytown station she advised me not to walk in the heat: it took all of 15 or 20 minutes).

There's a restored house; kitchen garden; rebuilt working watermill; 18th century farm brought down from somewhere upstate and reassembled; and farm buildings where they show you how to spin wool and work wood using 18th century techniques and technology.  The interpreters are all in period costume.  It ought to be toe-curling but actually it was fascinating, largely because the first interpreter we encountered was a highly-knowledgeable graduate in performing arts who's now an expert in historic cooking techniques and with whom we fell to chatting over the kitchen garden wall.  There were very few visitors so we were her only customers when she came to give us the tour of the house.  We know lots about the Philipse family, who were among Manhattan's richest, and about this estate, which in the mid-1700s covered 52,000 acres, mostly growing wheat for export to the Caribbean to feed slaves on the sugar plantations there, and a reasonable amount about their slaves.

I learnt a lot about how slavery worked, when it was abolished in New York State (formally in the 1820s, though informally people were still effectively enslaved in the mines and elsewhere until after the Civil War) and about the barter economy of this part of the state in the 18th century, not to mention the fact that virtually all the European settlers' food crops and medicinal herbs came with them from Europe, there being next to no cultural interchange with the native Americans, while the slaves' African foods probably came over as seeds in the detritus of slave ships (the "nitty gritty", though she didn't use the term) and were rescued by slaves cleaning them out.

We saw the cornmill working, picked wool (to get out all the bits of organic matter still left even after a fleece has been washed three or four times) and finally got to understand how a spinning wheel worked.

All in all a most satisfying and informative visit.


28/6/12, Mint Theater, NYC

A 1946 play about women war correspondents written by two women war correspondents, Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles, involving lots of sub-Hecht and MacArthur wisecracking and some execrable English accents.  A
fascinating period piece.

Set in a temporary press camp a few miles behind the front line in Italy, where the British are running the show for a largely American contingent of hacks who seem intent principally on stealing one another's stories, it reminded me of Flare Path, but without the luminous, transformative performance of Sheridan Smith.  Indeed, though perfectly competently done, for me it never quite took off.

In many respects it was of its time: three act structure, slow to start, elements of farce, stock characters (ditzy British ENSA chanteuse; hard-bitten mid-Western hacks; stuffed shirt British officer), slightly cavalier attitude to realism (we're told several times that it's bitterly cold, and some of the jokes turn on the fact, but then people wander round quite happily in shirt sleeves and there seems to be a constantly open door to the outside world at the back of the set), allusions to some of the problems war correspondents have always faced (notably military censorship). But the modern journalistic trade's fascination with the ethics of the whole business was largely missing, probably because in the immediate wake of WW2 everyone still had a pretty black and white view of the war and everything connected with it.

It was also highly autobiographical.  The unscrupulous but charismatic correspondent to whom one of the correspondents was briefly married, and under whose spell she once again falls when they meet up again, who stole all her scoops on the pretence that he was protecting her from danger, is Ernest Hemingway, to whom Gellhorn was for a time married.  The uptight Yorkshire squire and major given the thankless task of acting as PR to the correspondents is Aidan Crawley, the upper middle class Brit who helped found ITN and who Cowles married.

A lot of the comedy turned on the assumption on the part of the special men in their lives that both the women needed protecting not only from the risks of their chosen profession but from any kind of adventure or paid work, and should really be at home knitting socks. Satirising such attitudes seems unexceptionable now, but thinking back to the general state of society in the 1940s I imagine the women in the audience nodding inwardly, but biting their tongues as their menfolk laughed heartily at the absurdity of women riding jeeps to war.

We were about the only people in the theatre who didn't belong either to a huge gang of teenage girls (they
loved it, especially the comic Yorkshire servant with a Midlands accent -- not that they'd have known that -- and the love scenes, which they found hilarious) or to the party celebrating the wedding of what we took to be one of the theatre's trustees, who was sitting with his new husband in the front row. the pair of them looking dapper in matching dark suits and white button-holes (don't know what they thought of the love scenes).

One of the leading ladies was a substitute: the wonderfully named Heidi Armbruster was presumably indisposed.  She seemed a pretty adequate substitute.


28/6/12, New York

Where do you start?  The Met's collection is simply overwhelming.  We stopped by the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, rescued from the rising floods of the Aswan High Dam, which I recall from my previous visit, en route to the American Wing.

There we saw lots of reconstructed interiors of 18th and 19th century houses, some enjoyable American Impressionist paintings (including a series of women and women-with-children by a talented woman called Mary Cassatt), and some earlier landscapes, plus the vast and famous picture of Washington Crossing the Delaware among the ice-floes, which fills an entire wall.

There were a couple of galleries filled with John Singer Sargent (who it turns out painted rather fine genre paintings as well as the well-known portraits), including his scandalous picture of Madame X, whose drily-phrased label I enjoyed:

Madame Pierre Gautreau (the Louisiana-born Virginie Amélie Avegno; 1859–1915) was known in Paris for her artful appearance. Sargent hoped to enhance his reputation by painting and exhibiting her portrait. Working without a commission but with his sitter’s complicity, he emphasized her daring personal style, showing the right strap of her gown slipping from her shoulder. At the Salon of 1884, the portrait received more ridicule than praise. Sargent repainted the shoulder strap and kept the work for over thirty years. When, eventually, he sold it to the Metropolitan, he commented, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done,” but asked that the Museum disguise the sitter’s name.

We moved on to the modern galleries -- Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko in profusion -- and then a simply stunning collection of French Impressionists.  Rooms-full of Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, Sisley, Seurat etc etc.  So much indeed that you couldn't take it in.  Which is why one prefers the Frick, in a way: more manageable.

We found some striking Georgia O'Keeffes, but when we went looking for photographs by her husband Alfred Steiglitz there were none to be seen, which was a pity.


27/6/12, American Ballet Theatre at Metropolitan pera, NYC

  I fell asleep during the famous Act 1 Pas de
Deux.  My body insisted it was 3am.


27/6/12, New York

What a gem.   Henry Clay Frick may not have been a very nice person (he made a fortune out of coke; there was a partnership with Andrew Carnegie; and a bitterly-fought strike at one of his steelworks) but by heck he knew his old masters. It's a small collection, but virtually every one's a winner, all housed in Henry's Fifth Avenue mansion facing Central Park which was built to show off the art and extended after his death to provide a second large gallery, a circular music room, a rather grand entrance and a memorable glass-roofed internal courtyard with a pool full of water lilies).

The collection includes definitive Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Cromwell, looking like a butcher (one of several versions, apparently: this one thought to be the earliest and best), hung on either side of a fireplace with a stunning El Greco of St Jerome in what looks like a pink cardinal's cape between them.

There's a stunning Ingres of a girl in a grey-blue dress leaning against a table, chin in her hand, staring intently or perhaps quizzically out of the frame (apparently bought after his death by Henry's daughter).  There's a whole room panelled with Fragonards (yuck, chocolate box), ditto a room full of small paintings by Boucher (even yuckier, even chocolate box-ier -- though K claims his stuff was actually very naughty and rather subversive).

There are several fairly "safe" Turners of boats at sea and two spectacular pictures of boats in harbour, each a forest of masts, bustling activity on the quays and the most glorious golden sun reflected on the water.

There are three Vermeers (including the Girl with a Pearl Earring), which must represent around 20 per cent of the world's entire holdings.

There are several Gainsborough portraits of elongated aristocrats, a Degas of an elderly bearded dancing master with a stick facing a line of ballet dancers of various ages standing around the walls of the rehearsal room in a great arc, Italian Renaissance stuff and one of the world's most famous Renoirs, though that, like the Fragonards and Bouchers, veers towards the saccharine (it's the one of a wealthy mother in dark blue cape ushering two little blonde girls in matching pale blue fur-trimmed capes and muffs through the park).

Apparently the only American painter Frick rated was Whistler: he bought several.

And that's just the stuff on display.  A quick glance at the website suggests there's lots of other stuff we didn't see.


A clue to what keeps places like the Frick going financially may be found online: searching for Frick Collection in Google images throws up even more pictures of New York socialites and ridiculously elegant young women than it does of the collection itself.


22/6/12, New Orleans

A modern, airy exhibition space on three floors on the edge of the Business District devoted, as the name suggests, to work by artists from the southern states (mainly Louisiana and Florida), none of whom we'd ever heard of.

The standout was a man called Michael Messersmith, who paints big canavases in rich, almost lurid colours full of hyper-real images of animals, birds, reptiles, many eating each other, many on carved boards shaped like bird's wings or beaks or foliage.  They reminded me of 1970s rock album covers.  Full of blues, reds and yellows, they're images of the Florida wetlands, many painted with a thick impasto. They stand just the right side of extreme kitsch.  In one gallery he'd also filled a wall with a batch of identically-sized unframed canvases of wetland landscapes painted en plein air: did Hockney steal the idea from him or he from Hockney?  

On the other hand, there was a woman called Alexa Kleinbard whose work shares many of Messersmith's tropes -- Florida wetlands wildlife as a subject, shaped panels, bright colours, hyper-real approach -- who strayed over the border into kitsch.  Her subjects were swamp flowers known to the Indians for their medicinal properties, along with birds and insects, all framing landscape views, and painted on irregular panels with trailing roots like twisted legs dangling down.  I assumed she must have studied with Messersmith (who teaches at some Florida academy) but there was no acknowledgement of any connection.  Her later picutres featured more raptors like owls around the frames, meant to symbolise the increasing depradations of man.

There was also a top-floor display of striking giant photographs of the wetlands, the Gulf and the delta, many of them aerial pictures, many referencing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Many looked like pure abstracts, though all were of natural phenomena or the modifications to nature made by man.

There were some traditional 19th century landscapes by "American impressionists" which had an antiquarian interest but were neither especially memorable nor impactful.


22/6/12, New Orleans

Just north of the French Quarter in the largely-black and rather scruffy Treme, and just round the corner from St Augustine's Roman Catholic church, which at its foundation in 1842 by a congregation of whites and free men and women of color also, uniquely, set aside some pews for slaves, and which today has a memorial to slavery in the churchyard made of an anchor-like cross forged from giant chain links and festooned with shackles.

It's a museum devoted to New Orleans black street culture: Mardi Gras Indians with their immensely elaborate and startlingly bright-coloured costumes; Second Line parades; jazz funerals; the history of New Orleans brass bands; the social clubs which run the parades.  The Indian costumes are the most striking, with masks and body drapes covered in sequins and motifs, with elements of Aztec and Inca art and Liberian and Sierra Leonean masked devils and huge, garishly-dyed ostrich feathers.  They must be unbelievably hot to wear, as well as being outrageous, absurd, flamboyant and unrestrained.

The collection's housed in a former funeral parlour and was put together by a man called Sylvester Francis, a photographer, who's been collecting this stuff since the 1990s.  His wife showed us round.  Divided by a common language, I found much of what she said hard to follow but she said it enthusiastically.  If I understood her correctly, the collection survived Katrina because it was in store at the time, but the museum was flooded and so was the Sylvester's home -- they moved into the museum building for a time.

I also get the impression all these things were dying out in the 50s and 60s with the rise of television, and that they've been deliberately resurrected.

The place is run in the kind of laidback fashion one might expect.  It's supposed to open at 10; we arrived at 10.30; a man who came round with some provisions told us to come back in half an hour.

A couple of days later K took us to a Second Line parade (which took some finding in a taxi, driving round the neighbourhood following the route on a photocopied sheet we'd been given at the Museum).  Very noisy, very, very hot, the Uptown Swingers swaggering along in a lime green suits with sashes and hats and what not, behind a truck with a sound system and a line of convertibles with ladies ("queens") of all ages sitting up in the back, and a small and raucous brass band.  When we arrived they were taking a break at Joe's House of Blues, the followers milling around in the street outside, with stalls selling cold drinks and barbecued food and a man with a megaphone selling rum off the back of a pick-up truck.  After a time they set off three or four more blocks before taking another break.  It was chaotic though not undisciplined and everyone seemed to know everyone else, though many of the participants looked a bit bored, I thought.


18/6/12, Tricycle


14/6/12, Royal Court Upstairs


9/6/12, Longborough

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


6/6/12, National (Olivier)

Simon Russell Beale as Stalin, Alex Jennings as Bulgakov in a transfer from the Cottesloe.  A first stage play by John Hodge (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) reminiscent of Stoppard at his finest in its mix of politics, humour and stagecraft.

Friday, 1 June 2012


1/6/12, Adelphi

Sondheim's wonderful black comedy about a gruesome serial killer, starring Imelda Staunton (very funny, and revealing what to me was a hitherto unknown ability to sing rather well) and Michael Ball, once a heartthrob, now somewhat overweight and looking deeply saturnine and scary (there's never been any doubt about his ability to sing).  Seen for the very first time.  Production transferred from Chichester.

I realised a few minutes in that this is the first time (with the exception of a childhood trip to see A Little Night Music) that I've ever seen a Sondheim musical in a big theatre, with the inevitable aircraft-hangar amplification.  All previous exposure has been in small houses with only modest amplification or none at all, where you can hear every word and see the actors' expressions up close.  This may, I now realise, have partly accounted for a willingness to except Sondheim from a general anathema against musicals.

Nonetheless, his merits were evident even in the cavernous Adelphi.  Wonderfully witty rhymes.  Complex, surprising harmonies and a few good tunes.  First-class story-telling.  A willingness to take on subjects others would run a mile from: Sweeney Todd really is a very black tale indeed.  A focus on drama and character rather than sugar-coated sentimentality or spectacle.

What I thought this one lacked was the subtlety in characterisation that you find in some of the others (like Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park and Passion).

The production (by Jonathan Kent) had its weaknesses as well.  It was updated to the 1920s, for reasons not entirely clear (I wasn't aware they were still sentencing criminals to transportation after World War One), though it did mean they could bring the rival barber and hair-restorer salesman, Pirelli, on in a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw.  Sweeney's barber shop was atop a square structure which wheeled forward when required and turned on a revolve, which seemed cumbersome.  The love interest Johanna had neither the looks nor the voice for the part (a harsh and screechy soprano).  The boy Tobias was too quiet and tentative.  Johanna at her window was wheeled on at the top of a metal staircase.

But there were some very good things too, apart from Staunton and Ball, including Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford.  The ensemble were seen at the start engaged in all kinds of convincing drudgery (cleaning floors, hauling sacks of coal).  And they narrated and commented from time to time from a first-floor gallery/gantry, looking down on the action: the people of London.