Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Top drawer

To the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, for Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's The Underpants. It's nice to see that Steve has actually been doing something apart from not making movies. Has he made anything decent since Father of the Bride?


A woman’s knickers fall down in public. Hardly the crime of the century, you might think. Somewhat embarrassing, yes, but nothing beyond that. Well, you’d be right, but this particular pair of knickers falls down in front of the Kaiser in Germany of a hundred years ago. Shame! Disgrace! Hilarity! ensue.

The descending drawers cause all sorts of trouble because their owner’s husband is a priggish petit bourgeois civil service clerk who now fears social humiliation and the loss of his uber-respectable job. Theo (Owen Brenman), the clerk, self-righteously and cruelly berates his wife, Louise (Dolly Wells), but has not realised the intense interest her slip has caused. In double time, a louche poet called Versati (Michael Jayes) and a Jewish barber (Ian Angus Wilkie) turn up at Theo’s flat, apparently wanting to rent the spare room but really hoping to get closer to the entrancing underwear-dropper.

With the aid of nosey neighbour Gertrude (Erika Poole), who thinks Louise should have an affair and reclaim some joy beyond her drab marriage, marital and sexual complications ensue as Louise tries to work out which suitor she wants and how she can avoid her husband finding out.

The play is laugh-out-loud funny several times, especially when adulterers and accomplices are nearly caught by Theo and so have to dance their way out of their awkward positions. The double entendres are deliberately crass (“Is the sausage in the oven?”) but no less funny for it, while Erika Poole as Gertrude channels Julie Walters to great effect. Think Dinnerladies but all they’re serving is bratwurst.

There is some nice self-reference within the play and Versati has a wonderful, pompous self-delusion which causes him to go, “Oh well, society’s loss,” when he doesn’t write down lines he’s composed. Most of the time you’re gently amused if not doubled in your seat with tears in your eyes.

What makes The Underpants interesting, as opposed to just mildly diverting, is its modern context. When it was written, in 1911, the Nazis were not on the horizon – the First World War had not even been fought. Yet what Steve Martin has brought out in the character of Theo – and what we can only see given our sixty years’ hindsight – is a definite proto-Nazi; Steve Martin could hardly have been unaware of this when he adapted the play.

When Cohen wants to move in, he gives Theo his name but hurriedly adds, “It’s Cohen with a ‘k’.” While this is funny for its obvious deceit, we see it also as a harbinger of things to come. It does not help that Wilkie as Cohen resembles actor Anthony Sher as concentration camp survivor Primo Levi.

Theo wants to toughen up Cohen, who constantly complains about having a weak constitution (tell that to the Weimar Republic). In fact, Theo is obsessed with physical health and perfection, making Cohen clasp his thigh and feel his chest to demonstrate his health, oblivious to the homo-erotic aspect. This emphasis on physicality cannot help but recall later ideas of Aryan perfection.

Versati, as the poet, is interested in art, philosophy and theology, all things Theo scorns as the province of the weak. From our perspective, when you see a poet and a Jew being harangued about the ideal man (“I know what a man is!” says Theo) by an oddly narcissistic and chauvinist German (it’s women’s fault for being desirable – they should cover up, he says, strangely presaging a modern-day debate), you feel troubled. When the Nazis do eventually roll around, despite Theo’s craven loyalty to the Kaiser, it seems like he would be among the first to agree with them.

We cannot, however, say that this was Sternheim’s intention – he could not see into the future. He was writing about the hypocrisy of the contemporary bourgeois, using a Brechtian lack of subtlety to point out that the middle classes were secretly no better than those they criticised. This point still holds true, even if it is not now hugely astonishing. What we take away from The Underpants is a new layer that a hundred years of terrifying history have added.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dangerous painting

To the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery for their Manet to Picasso exhibition, which is mostly their permanent collection on holiday in the new wing.

Impressionism is terribly unfashionable now. If it's not competing with Velazquez (see review below) and Holbein (at Tate Britain) for public adoration, it is coming in for ridicule because of its complete chocolate-boxing.

You can now get 'Sunflowers' on tea towels and 'Waterlilies' on mugs and most of Renoir on actual chocolate boxes. This process has distracted our attention from how wonderful and actually dangerous these paintings are.

This rehang is a perfect way of reminding us about why Impressionism was so important in the first place. After centuries of mythological representations and court portraits and grand public life scenes, the Impressionists followed Manet (1832-1883) in depicting the personal, the intimate, those below kings.

The show starts with Manet's 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens' (1862) alongside Menzel's 'Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens' (1867), which illustrate the gulf between the traditional and Impressionist styles: Manet is much freer in his brushstrokes and is less concerned with edges, i.e. things are not as clearly defined as in Menzel's. Menzel's picture feels much more like a Constable. (That's not a compliment.)

The same room has Caillebotte's 'Man at his bath' (1884), which was shocking in its frankness - a male nude and an everyday scene. Unthinkable!

The second room was Monet, who is my passion, despite unwarranted notices about his 'cheesiness'. The sheer aesthetic pleasure to be derived from his paintings is unparalleled by anyone, but to see his pictures with their increasingly loose brushwork and disdain for exact representation is to become aware of how revolutionary they were.

This is the very disintegration of the image - painting no longer meant exact copying (as in the rest of the Nat); here it is really the impression (clever, eh?) which counts. The Impressionists' works were so shocking they had to stage their own show in Paris.

These paintings are dangerous because they rejected the dogma of Renaissance painting and struck out in a new direction; whereas we are now virtually vaccinated against shock at whatever art now has to offer, the Impressionists turned art on its head and rejected its past. Understanding this revolution is key to understanding the brilliance of Impressionism.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Zadie, Zadie, quiet lady

To University College School, Hampstead, to see Zadie Smith, bright young author of White Teeth and Forster-esque On Beauty.

This week has been UCS's post-literary festival, Beyond Words, and it ran the gamut from gossip-meister and occasional actor Rupert Everett and Lord Chancelloricious Charlie Faulker to in-a-hurry Maureen Lipman ("I've got to be up at 6 for filming") and gold-bedecked Sir Matthew Pinsent.

Zadie, elegant and petrified, started by reading extracts from her three novels, noting the UCS connection with her second, The Autograph Man - its main character is based on an Old Gower (sic old boys, as I am indeed). For someone who knew the words intimately, she came across as if seeing them for the first time. Her tone was totally devoid of nuance or variety or personality.

She seemed terrified at being in front of - count them! - a hundred schoolboys and some NW London mothers, repeatedly enjoining us to say something. Given that she was reading and we were laughing at the appropriate points, for us to 'say something' would pretty much have involved heckling her. Not that we would want to, obviously.

Afterwards she took questions but they were sparsely offered and somewhat verbose in the main. The most interesting thing to come out of them was her response to the question, "Are you happy with your books?"

I'm not even slightly happy with my books. The joy of writing them is quite strong. [When I read them] it's a kind of nausea. I haven't read any of them in their entirety since I wrote them.

And when asked what she would give up first, reading or writing, the swift answer was writing. Zadie also said that she was good at working with literary models but bad at her own ideas and had almost run out of things to say. Weep/rejoice? Reader, it's up to you.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

National Gallery [hearts] Velazquez. I don't

To the National Gallery, for their blockbuster Velazquez exhibition. 13,000 tickets sold in twenty seconds, don't you know?

Now, I'm sure I'm going to enrage a fair number of people (and why not?), but I have to say I wasn't wild about it. I had two main problems, one artistic, one curatorial.

Perhaps dispense with the arbitrary one first. (Arbitrary not because it's a baseless objection but because it's to do with the choices made when hanging.) You cannot really object to four rooms stuffed with Velazquezezez, and indeed the first two rooms were rather nicely done, being a chronology of his early career. However, there was a huge gap in the paintings c.1640-50, jumping you from relatively youthful work to his mature stage.

Add to this the fourth's rooms odd and rather desperate groupings of 'mythological' scenes (a whole four of them) and portraits of intimes (three) and you end up with a mishmash of gappy chronology and messy themes. Either theme it or don't.

My bigger problem was with the quality of the paintings themselves. The little handbook the Nat provided had a miniature rapture over most of the paintings, each one being splendid or masterful or possessing the psychological depth of a year in Freudian analyis. I paraphrase.

Frankly, some of the painting seemed extremely variable, if we're being kind. Velazquez, in his early career, had a fabulous way of representing cloth in almost three dimensions; in 'Christ at the House of Martha and Mary' and 'Joseph's Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob' (the brothers to the left) you can see fabulous examples of this. These clothes practically glow. They look real. But there are so many paintings where this light effect is completely avoided in favour of a dull, flat colour.

I'm not talking about paintings like 'Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver', where Velazquez's proto-Impressionist technique of blobs and blurs is very effective; there, clearly, he is going for a different effect. So many other times he seems off his game, and I fear the tendency to lionise certain artists and everything they do has claimed another victim.

Some of the paintings are incomplete, which detracts from their beauty. I love the left half of 'Joseph's Bloody Coat' but it gets less and less finished as you navigate rightwards; you can see its potential beauty, but this is not its actual beauty. The cuckolded 'Mars' has had his inner thigh retouched in a crosswise direction, while one of the royal portraits has the shadow of a moved hat.

These may seem like trifles but when taken together, they left me unsatisfied. You can't fault the Rokeby Venus, which combines his luminous-clothes technique with erotic mystery and philosophical conundra, but so often the paintings feel uninspired. Naturalism is one thing, but spirit is something else.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Romeo, Romeo, wonderful are thou, Romeo

To Sadler's Wells, where I was expecting to be lulled into a gentle sleep by the patter of ballet shoes and some rather soporific symphonic music at Romeo and Juliet; I was in fact totally transfixed. The night of boredom anticipated dissipated as soon as the marvellous dancers took the stage, and it only got more interesting.

I confess that my critical vocabulary is rather limited when it comes to ballet, so what you are reading is the opinion of a layman fresh from his first evening of dance. This will please those who are similarly new to dance and were dreading a review full of pas de deux and rond de jambe. Rest assured, I have no idea what those are.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performance of Prokofiev’s most famous ballet score had the benefit of a familiar story, which made the lack of words much easier to cope with. But it also had the most incredible dancers, conveying emotions in single steps that would require speeches to articulate, and a powerful score.

The dancing beautifully created moods, tensions, feelings. When Romeo (Robert Parker) danced to entice Juliet (Nao Sakuma), he put on his best peacock display, showing off his light feet and nimble moves. Juliet did both innocence, when shying from her suitor, Paris (Dominic Antonucci), and dreadful fear, when facing Lord Capulet’s wrath (David Morse) over her refusal of Paris.

There were several wonderful individual scenes. The ballroom scene, with music you’ll recognise as soon as you hear it, showed dozens of dancers as one, all with the same movements, perfectly expressing the ritual, restrained qualities of the occasion and yet thrilling the audience with its synchronicity. The market place scene, where a wedding’s celebrations overtake the whole stage, is exhilarating with the speed and complexity of the mandolin dance; it is breath-taking. The extraordinary costumes only make the mood grander.

The balcony scene is tender and cast in moonlight, with the dance verging from virginal to passionate, and its closing motif of the lovers’ hands unable to touch because of the height is redeployed in the final scene, in the crypt, when the dying Juliet lies across the tomb and can finally clasp Romeo’s hand.

I would complain that the third act is rather abbreviated, especially the crypt scene. Romeo sees Juliet and almost immediately kills himself, then Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead and almost immediately kills herself. There is very little time for the audience to recall or build up the requisite emotion. We feel rather robbed by the pair’s swift dispatch.

If economy sometimes paid off, it was particularly in Prokofiev’s score. Instead of dancing the whole ‘A plague on both your houses’ speech, Mercutio points to his Capulet killer Tybalt and the cello thunders, then to his Montague kinsman Romeo, and the cello thunders again. This was far more effective than a drawn out piece – it succinctly and terrifyingly carried across the sense of the curse.

I now confess myself a convert to the cause of ballet. If much other ballet is as moving, as well-danced and as fabulous to listen to as this Romeo and Juliet, then I – and you – have many happy evenings ahead.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

That was a long coffee break

I've decided to resurrect this blog, 'inspired' by my experiences on I'm not wholly sure anyone is reading this (including me most of the time), but I figure if I can rant and analyse on one blog, I can do it on another without too much effort. From now on I'm going to put up on here some articles et al, anything I've been up to, reviews and so forth. We'll see where it goes - per ardua ad astra.