Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The long and the short of it: drama on R4

Ever since I nearly swerved my car off the road listening to Radio 4's adaptation of Dr Zhivago in the Sunday afternoon Classic Serial slot (is vivid infanticide really tea-time programming?), I have been semi-glued to their choices. What I appreciated most about Dr Zhivago is what I like about The Archers: plenty of space is given to the story to develop.

This seems not to have been the case of late, to the detriment of the adaptations. I enjoyed Jamila Gavin's Coram Boy over the past fortnight, with Jonathan Slinger as the narrator, posh yet wounded and soulful, but it seemed like an awful lot was crammed into two hours. Indeed, the last ten minutes featured a chase, shooting, kidnapping on a ship, escape from said ship, a burial and a happily ever after (not to be too specific).

Or take that well-known short story, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. This came in four episodes, which means the adaptor put three of Powell's books into each hour of airtime. I have not read the sequence, but I am certain they are not this thinly populated.

While I can well understand that contractions must be made to keep up the pace, allow more productions and avoid over-complications, I am not certain that every book is well served by being filleted. I know that the radio is not a book, with its infinite opportunities for digression and expansion, but if you can guarantee one thing about Radio 4's listeners, it is that they are patient, patient people. There is no danger of losing your audience by constructing a more detailed, more eventful, slower-paced drama.

Turning the other cheek: Renaissance Faces

The National Gallery has a quite incredible exhibition on at the moment: Renaissance Faces, Van Eyck to Titian (until January 18). There is no shortage of masterpieces, both familiar - Holbein's The Ambassadors and Titian's Philip II - and less well-known - Vermeyen's Portrait of a Man (c.1540) with his delicate fingers and Gossaert's allusive A Little Girl (c.1530).

As with other shows (such as Citizens and Kings at the Royal Academy), you cannot fault the art on display, but there is one aspect of the curating which lets the show down. The thematic arrangement (identity, courtship, love, etc) is useful for comparing the various uses of portraiture, which can often seem like one face after another, so many ornate playing cards.

This failing aspect is the neglect of much of the artistic and art-historical theory (as opposed to social, political or historical purposes) behind these portraits. In the first room ('Remembering'), which shows the evolution of the portrait from side-view to Botticelli's divine Portrait of a Young Man (c.1480-5), a frontal slide of a youth the colour of fine porcelain, what seems to be a fundamental point of this changed technique is ignored: artists did not just turn the head after the fashion of Classical busts (tho' obviously this is important) but because it engaged the viewer.

The real revolution in portraiture is the third dimension, you might call it - to painter and sitter is added viewer, in a much more realistic manner than previous passivity for side-on portraits. By turning the face towards the viewer, we are forced to search the face and to consider ourselves relative to it. It is more than a medallion - it is a challenge. To demonstrate this change from 2D to 3D with such great paintings but such a theoretical motivation is to sell it short.

The aspect of symbolism and physiognomical convention is explored but not pursued as far as it could be. Pisanello's Portrait Medal of Leonello d'Este (c.1441) has a kingly lion, while the Gossaert features the ubiquitous symbol, the armillary sphere, representing temporal power. Women are shown with fine noble features to emphasise their own nobility, and vice versa as with Quentin Massys's ugly, lusty crone, An Old Woman (c.1513).



The questions this leads to is, How far can we trust portraits, and how far is their purpose even to represent? The opportunities for deception are noted, and Titian's Pope Paul III, bareheaded, bowed, broken, is a good counterblast to the idealism elsewhere, but limbo feels like the default state: the balance between nature and stature is not that often considered. As time passed, are we meant to assume that portraits became more accurate? It would be nice to have heard some critical voices on how important accuracy even was.

These are, as I said, not cavils with the quality of the art. It just seems that with such serious works on show, a more serious approach - instead of easily digestible thematic chunks - would have rounded out the exhibition.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ham/let

I sat next to an odd young gentleman at Hamlet last night. (No, not Edward Bennett kicked out by David Tennant, back from his sickbed.) He arrived 15 minutes late, which is understandable since it started at 7.15, not 7.30, but didn't come back for the second act. Who comes for the Ham but not the let?

I slightly feel this way about the play, which Greg Doran and the cast had trimmed down, losing Claudius' speech about the subservience of England, Hamlet's piracy narrative and a lot of the jokes about lawyers in the gravediggers' scene. 'To be or not to be' was also reassigned to the nunnery scene, making him (to me) far too introspective too early.

These subtractions feel like they were there to speed the second act along, making it more palatable to the public, and I get this sense from other choices: interjecting the interval just as Hamlet stands over Claudius with a dagger (a dubious position - is he really on the verge of striking?) is a cliffhanger, not a wholly credible character choice.

The programme too is perhaps less wordy and thoughtful than for other productions - nothing on the issues of the play, just on the rehearsal process (which is certainly interesting). If this is all to please the public drawn to it because of David Tennant, it is rather patronising.

This aside, the acting was excellent. Edward Bennett was raw and youthful, almost childlike in some of his cruelty and buffoonery. Patrick Stewart's Claudius is a calm diplomat, whose occasional cracks are soon papered over by a supercilious assurance. I particularly enjoyed Penny Downie as Gertrude, because her role seems to have been enhanced in this production - rather than being the typical underwritten cipher, she was played with passion and prominence. (I did spot Tom Davey's Laertes being fed his lines by a priest at the beginning, but this is understandable as another link in the understudy chain.)

What really struck me in this performance was how important a theme unquestioning obedience is: servants obey royals, the queen her husband, Polonius the king. The smooth operation of the world is predicated on an almost mechanical principle - the king is the wheel, of course, in the famous phrase - of obedience. It is the struggle for freedom (of action and thought) which traps Hamlet in his uncertainty, which is at least authentic. This is the void Hamlet seems to stare into: a certain servitude or an uncertain freedom.

Quite a brief exposition of a rather complicated theory, but I know some people I shall be able to argue this with for hours.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Art is for Life

From spearswms.com

--

Art is for Life

If a de Kooning or a Duchamp is out of your league (not for long, perhaps, given the plummeting prices of art), at least something mid-range might suit for a Christmas gift. Herewith, some dos and don'ts for buying art for Christmas gifts:

Do consult trade newspapers and magazines (the Art Newspaper, Frieze) to see who is in esteem at the moment.

Don't buy because someone is the latest young thing - fashion will always be succeeded.

Do ask about (or at least ascertain) the recipient's taste: there is no point buying them a video installation when they long for watercolours.

Do spend time with the artist if you're very taken by their work: by talking to them you will understand their art much better.

Don't buy it as soon as you've seen it: as them to keep it on reserve so you can go away and think about it.

Finally, and most importantly, do buy something because you will be able to spend time with it, not because you see pound signs.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

My day job

Just in case anyone is sceptical enough to believe that my illusion of busyness is just, in fact, an illusion, here are links to my articles written for Spear's WMS, of which I am Senior Editor.

How to Spend It (Where to put any money you may have right now)
Payback Time (The new arena of philanthrocapitalism)
Reality Bites (I eat a £1,000-a-head meal and live to tell the tale)
From Russia With Loot (How Russians can best escape Russia)
Haven on Earth I and II (The world's best and worst tax havens)
Ticket, Please (A profile of the London Library)
Help! (How to deal with one's staff)
Twilight Zone (An interview with Bill Henson, Australia's greatest living artist)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Clint against the system

Never has an older dog been less keen to learn new tricks than Clint Eastwood, on the evidence of his latest film, Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie. A superb, subtle, unsettling tale of a woman whose child is snatched and replaced (with the police's connivance) by someone else's son, Changeling embodies the same individualist philosophy as all Clint's early westerns.

Jolie, who puts her wide eyes to tearful use as the desperate mother in 1920s America, is told by the police that they have found her son, and despite maternal feelings and objective facts which tell her that they are wrong, she is forced to accept him by official pressure. When she puts up a fight and proclaims the truth, the snakelike police captain has her thrown into an asylum.

Now, this may seem about as far from the wild west as one can get - Angelina Jolie's character wouldn't have lasted a minute at the OK Corral - but the theme of an individual fighting against the oppression of the state is the same liberal spirit that animates most westerns. The rugged cowboy trying to overcome the corruption of the brutal sherriff and liberate the people from fear is a trope second to none, and one which applies equally here.

It is Jolie's heroic resistance which gives Changeling its spirit, but it does not take much to see Eastwood behind the camera.

Friday, December 05, 2008

August rising

August: Osage County, Tracy Letts' new play at the National Theatre, grew on me as it progressed, and it had nothing to do with the interval champagne. Indeed, sitting in the stalls watching a play about the addictions (pills, the sauce, drama) made me think twice (but not more) about taking another sip.

August is more of a blender-drink play than a champagne, for that matter: if you threw Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee into a liquidiser and hit 'squish', you'd end up with August. There are some fairly obvious references to the greatest hits of twentieth century American drama - a poker game, a warring intellectual couple.

This is not wholly to denigrate the play, although it is far from perfect: each line can almost be predicted from the one before, and the ending is far too explicit - the audience, credited with intelligence, could easily supply it for themselves, maintaining the tension.

Set in a family home in Oklahoma largely deserted by the family, Violet and Beverly Weston (Deanna Dunagan and Chelcie Ross [he is in fact a man, despite real and fictional Christian names]) tear strips out of one another, until Beverly disappears. Sharp-tongued Violet, who is dying from (what else?) cancer of the mouth, was built to fill the phrase 'pill-popping shrew' and has apparently driven her husband away with her pilled-up rages and bemusements.

By stages their dysfunctional dependents arrive: the dutiful daughter (Sally Murphy), the runaway daughter (Amy Morton), the sister taken straight from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Rondi Reed), and so forth. Secrets are revealed - a standard litany of unmentionable sins - and a family dynamic becomes a family diabolic.

This would all be ordinary except for a blistering set of central performances. Deanna Dunagan is superb as the alternately vulnerably befuddled, viciously bitchy Violet; a lesser actress would not be able to carry off these mood swings with any degree of conviction. What is most pleasing is that despite the opportunity to take chunks out of the scenery, Dunagan resists, not camping up what could just be another sacred monster.

She receives strong support from her daughters, especially Amy Morton as Barbara who moves from peace-maker to warlord to caretaker. What worked best was the way in which Barbara was transfigured into the hated figures of her parents, the passage of time indicated by clever use of lighting (by Ann G Wrightson). Because this represented what Barbara most feared, her worn-down face hits hardest.

There have been, apparently, grand claims for the play to represent the downfall of the American empire, and indeed one character is involved with private contractors [i.e. mercenaries] in Iraq, but this is the only indication. If Letts wanted to make August stand for a moral, global harvesting season, the text could have touched more on these issues; otherwise, one could map any situation onto the Weston family.

It is not hard to see August entering the repertoire as a twenty-first century Grand Guignol, but without striking performances, it is hard to see what there will be to watch.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Branagh beats all

From my blog on spearswms.com:

Branagh beats all

I had the privilege of meeting Kenneth Branagh last week at the Evening Standard Drama Awards. Not just meeting him, in fact, but eating his dessert. (How many people could - or would want to - claim that?)

Branagh had been nominated for Best Actor, for his role in Chekhov's Ivanov, where he inhabits a very lonely space, a depressed man drowning in debt who pushes away his virtuous wife and torments his well-meaning friends. Despite being one of the great stage performances, Branagh lost to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was Othello. Ejiofor deserved it, but so did Branagh, and Branagh was nothing but gracious afterwards.

Branagh stands so prominently in the canon of great British actors precisely because he is not prominent in any way: he submerges himself in every role. Whereas it is impossible to distance the person from the performance with so many other actors, Branagh folds himself into his character.

Last night's Wallander on BBC1 was an example. Based on a series of Swedish crime novels, Branagh played the lonely, depressed (perhaps a theme here?) police detective. His acting was natural and unassuming, quietly taking you into his psyche. Amid a production of great subtlety, Branagh stood out (if this is not an inappropriate metaphor) for his humanity and insight.

Branagh will soon be off the stage, but if you can get a ticket to Ivanov, or have the time to watch Wallander on the iPlayer, I urge you to do so: Ken is king.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hope in the Courvoisier Future 500

After an inexcusable period of absence (excuses include new job, weekend job, love life, lack of love life, Law & Order [all three types] and celebrity-fuelled parties), I'm determined to return to blogging, so keep visiting for all your artsy needs.

But in the mean time, I'd like to share some good news: I've been named in the Courvoisier Future 500 as a rising star (indeed, in the top 100 supernovas: flick to Josh Spero). Which is nice. Lucky I like Courvoisier really. Pick up the Observer today to see the full list.

And come back soon - plenty of theatre, art and general mischief to be made here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama must recultivate America

From my blog at spearswms.com:

Obama must recultivate America

No, this does not mean that I think that America lacks culture: from my time in New York earlier this year I can tell you that it has culture in abundance. But that's New York, which was never going to let Bush stifle it. The rest of the country, and the example set from the centre, is another matter.

As we have learnt, Barack Obama is a ferocious reader: from Philip Roth to Toni Morrison to Shakespeare. Anyone who has heard his speeches must be convinced of his hyper-literacy. After eight years of Bush, rarely found reading (except to children when the planes hit the World Trade Center), Obama needs to show that reading is not just done on cereal boxes.

This could be part of a general programme rehabilitating the arts, extending outwards from Washington. Instead of making the Kennedy Center Honors the only time politics and the arts interact, why not bring back the era of the Washington literary salon? Staffers mix with creatives, with approval from on high, and the lessons of art (not that it ought to be didactic) permeate back into politics.

President Obama can visit the symphony in Chicago and urge schools to supply instruments to all their pupils; music is well-known as an aid to study and for boosting mental processes. The same goes for theatre: run a competition for the best in school drama and dole out tickets to the community.

If the President engages with the arts, on a (continuing) personal level and reintroducing them into the political discourse, he could restore some dignity and thought to an all-too aggressive and atavistic political culture.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gawker-in-Chief

From my blog on spearswms.com

Gawker-in-Chief

How should you react when faced with a hero/idol/legend/object of devotion? I only ask because I was lucky enough to go to the RSC's gala this week, where I met two of my favourite actors, Jonathan Slinger and Chuk Iwuji. They both blew me away when I saw them as part of the RSC's histories cycle, the Glorious Moment.

Happily I had had a glass of champagne, so my natural responses (gawk/be silent/cry) were suppressed, and I think I managed some decent conversation, or at least did not just stutter like an unleashed Uzi.

One question is whether you should admit that you are a fan. I felt that, since their performances had moved and enthralled me, it would be nice to say so, and I feel I came off with at least some of my dignity remaining. After all, they do not perform in a vacuum and surely must want to hear they've touched someone.

With a plastic Hollywood megastar, it's bound to be a different matter. They have (in my experience) such shields up that it's impossible to say anything and have them listen, or indeed to say anything and have them take you even a little seriously.

Perhaps the best strategy is not to lead off with slavering adoration, but mention it if the time feels right. Don't faint (not me) or scream (not me) or stammer that the New York Times wrote a really great article on them (sadly me). Above all, keep your cool - no-one likes a hysteric.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Now or Later: Never

From my blog at spearswms.com

Now or Later: Never

I find it hard to believe that the burghers of Chelsea are so politically and psychologically unaware that they can give Now or Later a thunderous ovation. Nevertheless, I was proved wrong last night as the play, which is as facile as it thinks it is deep, was sent off with plentiful applause.

Now or Later, by Christopher Shinn at the Royal Court, is set on American election night, as the son of the Democratic candidate sits in a hotel room, watching the results roll in and a scandal concerning him grow. He has been photographed dressed as Mohammed at a college party, and despite the entreaties of staffers, friends and family, refuses to back down.

These arguments form the body of the play, with characters tossing back and forth ideas of freedom of speech, religious and sexual equality and political principles. This would all be well and good if we had not already seen The West Wing, which did the exact same thing in greater depth with infinitely more style. This shallow man's Republic wants to deal in heavy issues, yet it only does so in cliches and speciosity.

Eddie Redmayne, the rising star playing John, the gay pseudo-Mohammed, would have his talents served so much better if he had lines with intelligence. His ability is clear, and the final image of him looking out of a window, broken and tearful and reflected back at himself, is a powerful one, which he handles well. But to be left spouting commonplaces about Islamic fundamentalism and American hypocrisy is an error.

I wish I had returned to my DVD player and seen what real insight into American politics was like, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin and Martin Sheen, instead of having to wade through the treacle of contrived debate, courtesy of Christopher Shinn.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sex and the City and me

After two weeks of tortuous waiting and half an hour of more tortuous adverts and trailers (why advertise so many cars before the ultimate chick flick), the plinky-plink of the Sex and the City theme tune started and my mind slipped (largely) into neutral. It stayed there most of the time, but did it ever have fun.

All the criticisms made by people who want to treat the film as a serious exercise in cinema are valid. Yes, its morality is vapid. Yes, there are more labels than in Topshop's factories. Yes, it does feel like five episodes tacked together. But yes yes yes, it is fabulous, and isn't that really what's important here? If you want 'satire' on fashion, watch Robert Altman's unwatchable Prêt à Porter.

The cast are all back, with public problems of catfights and pay gaps sufficiently submerged under an awe-inspiring wardrobe (as indeed is the one Big builds for Carrie). To the left is Sarah Jessica Parker in a Vivienne Westwood wedding dress, plus exotic cockatoo sur la tete. Characters are still delineated by clothes: Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is fierce in primary colour, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) does virginal chic, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) seems to have been clothed largely by GAP casuals.

It is this simplicity of approach which largely prevents any particular complications evolving, other than the obvious ones. Someone is going to cheat on someone, someone will have commitment issues. The only interesting plotline is Samantha's, because she has always been the one with hidden depths and a great range of sensitivity, which is the more affecting for its few appearances.

I felt sorry for Cynthia Nixon, since she was taken back to her early, inconsiderate, over-businesslike persona just to have her shaken out of it. Since the show ended with her as a forgiving, more selfless woman, her cruelty (and it is quite cruel) is a straw (wo)man.

You have to hope that the actresses enjoyed making the movie, since it gives them lustre but fails to develop or explore their personalities as the six-year series allowed. Indeed, writer and director Michael Patrick King seems to glory in (inadvertently?) parodying his characters - when Samantha surprises the girls with not one but (gasp!) two bottles of champagne, you get the sense that someone is being mocked.

There are a few laugh-out-loud lines, even fewer of which are as smart as in the series, but there is plenty of fun to be had gliding over the surface of Louis Vuitton handbags.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Laura Solon: just listen

I don't want to say too much about Laura Solon's new programme on Radio 4, Talking and Not Talking - it's too funny for description. Okay, it's also quite clever, so maybe discussion later. But now, just listen.

A Shrew tamed by laughter

The Pantaloons, whose name could easily be a conflation of pantechnical and lunatics, are a troupe of former City high-flyers who turn the comedies and problem plays of Shakespeare into, well, problematic comedies.

Performing last week at The Scoop, an amphitheatrical basin next to the Greater London Authority's testicular home and in what is preposterously known as 'More London' (as if a small plot of new glass offices on the South Bank added something to the city), their Taming of the Shrew is now touring around the country. Good job, too - exposure to a knockabout, commedia dell'arte style of the Bard could well interest children, as well as amuse adults.

The Pantaloons' approach is for all five them of them to play as many roles as they can possibly conceive of, with perpetual on-stage costume changes, and to have a simple set, but dozens of props to be battered about. Using a more comic, riotous style, drawn from all genres of performance (including slapstick and silent movies), they hope to bring out energy that could otherwise be lost.

It is fair to claim that they do indeed bring a great deal of energy to the play, and the laughs (so easily missable in Shakespeare's comedies) are plentiful. They also include lots of material devised by them to soften any edges they think are too rough or inject a contemporary feel. This works humour-wise - bringing back Gremio, who feels excluded from the play was fine - and in fact even helps take your mind off what is a rather lumpen plot.

The obvious concomitant problem is that it is very hard to inject seriousness when people keep pulling their trousers down, and there is no less seriousness in the Shrew than anywhere else. It becomes quite difficult to appreciate Kate's pain with a sudden jack-knife into drama. The constant comedy runs the risk of underplaying the other elements.

Having said that, the comic elements were certainly enjoyable, despite the best efforts of three future young offenders (no older than 12 now), whose idea of hilarity was to ride their bikes into the Scoop and yell 'pillock' at the actors. One shouted something about magic mushrooms, which implies he may actually have been a child since the 60s.

Caitlin Storery was a wonderfully versatile Bianca and Gremio (with a Methuselah-esque beard), and Don Conway and Mark Hayward made a handsome, suave Lucentio and a tough Petruchio. Martin Gibbons was hilariously nerdy, and Sarah Norton a surprisingly violent Kate. Particularly well played was the scene when Lucentio and Hortensio are trying to teach Bianca.

The Pantaloons have a noble ideal and a novel concept, and it would be wonderful if they could tour all year, all about the country. But - and I can only imagine this, having seen just this - there are only so many plays, and so many times, this knockabout approach will work. Just like any other theatrical concept, its strength will be seen in its flexibility.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Savaging Grace

Incest is evidently the new black, which is bad news for haute couture. As well as Polly Stenham's That Face, which I'll be able to review in a couple of weeks, the movie Savage Grace is out soon. Sadly, while awards bodies salivate over That Face, they'll be spitting on Savage Grace.

Based on the true story of the wealthy Baekelands - Barbara (Julianne Moore), a social climber; Brooks (Stephen Dillane), the heir to a plastics fortune; and their son, Tony (Eddie Redmayne) - Savage Grace follows the dysfunctional trio across the world as they hurt each other and make us miserable. Incest ensues, but not interest.

Instead of a plot, there are three beautiful people sleeping around and Julianne Moore acting hysterically. The only semblance of a plot comes in far too late, when Moore decides that the best way to 'cure' her son of homosexuality is to sleep with him. It's an effective scene, in that it makes your stomach churn, but after all the meandering, it's little recompense for the previous 75 minutes.

Director Tom Kalin has an assured hand, which is surprising since his last movie before Savage Grace (and directorial debut) was in 1992. He captures beautiful locations and beautiful actors (Redmayne has quite amazing lips), but where is the drama? Self-obsession naturally excludes an audience, but even the vain can be made interesting and given something to do. Instead, Kalin lets them get on with the tough business of being pretty, only fitfully prompting them TO DO SOMETHING.

When the projectionist failed to put on the fifth reel, there was an audible cry of relief. (It may or may not have been me.) But it got a laugh, and captured the sour feeling of the room. Savage Grace is a film that thinks it is showing you something profound about the capacity of humans to love and hurt each other; what it really does is show you how shallow and dull they can be.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The next greatest Shakespearean actors

The RSC's Glorious Moment has been one of the triumphs of modern theatre, as fairly acknowledged by countless critics. It is not just the rapport between the cast, developed from two years in rehearsal and rep, nor the clever staging nor even Will's words.

These productions (of which I have seen five, and dreadfully regret not seeing the other three) have introduced me to those who I am convinced are the most brilliant Shakespearean actors of their generation: Jonathan Slinger and Katy Stephens.

Jonathan Slinger is evidently one of the stars of the company, since he opens and closes the series as Richards II and III. His Richard III hit most of the psychotic notes and an entire octave of original ones, giving him a wounded cruelty and a shiver of sadism, a faux vulnerability and joy in his cleverness. It was a monumentally memorable performance, not at all monotonous but highly entrancing (almost).

What really won me over was his Richard II (which, perversely, I saw last of all). I wasn't wild about the play, whose plot doesn't seem fully Shakespearean in its refinement, but there is absolutely no denying the complexity of Richard, which Slinger exploited with skill. The capriciousness which plunges his realm into trouble, the self-examination in his cell, the defiance, the joy, the anger, the cruelty, the rage - Slinger makes you feel every emotion and understand quite how Richard's mind is working.

It is not just with words and face that Slinger succeeds. His hands are constantly moving, as fast as his thoughts, playing out in the air what whirls through his brain. During his last, great speech in his jail cell, as he ponders time, the mind and the body, he focuses you on his words with his body language. In a word, captivating. In more words, he has an ultimately indefinable quality which shoots his vision into your mind and heart.

Katy Stephens has equally significant parts, as Joan la Pucelle in 1 Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI and Richard III and the Duchess of Gloucester in Richard II. These require more energy and passion than you would think could be offered by one actress, let alone the first two roles (less RIII) all in one day.

The turnabout from the violent, liberating maiden of France, down in the dirt and sharp as her knives, to the imperious, calculating queen, requires careful delineation, and Stephens' skill is both to unite but separate her characters, both contained at once in one figure. Her emotional breakdown over her son's body is traumatic, but watching Stephens build to this pitch throughout the last four plays gives it especial punch.

Slinger and Stephens should bestride our [Shakespearean] world like the colossi they are. They turned in epic, brain-branding performances of depth and yet clarity. Memories of them are what will stay with me the longest.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I spy...

We spy on others – and are spied on by others – all the time. From conventional eavesdropping and peeking where we should not to the high-tech surveillance of the government and the measures of stalkers or peeping toms, uncovering the lives of others has an illicit fascination. The arts are well-versed in this voyeurism.

This week I had the misfortune to see Contains Violence at the Lyric Hammersmith. A show of almost breathtaking inanity and dullness, it places the audience on the Lyric’s terrace, equipping them with headphones and binoculars so we can spy into a building opposite and consume the play.

But instead of a Rear Window-esque thriller (more on which below), we are left dangling without an obvious plot (woman murders man several times) or credible characters. Instead of our voyeurism giving us a pleasurable, shameful thrill, the play holds your attention so little that it becomes more interesting to see what is going on in the other buildings around the theatre, which is actual voyeurism. Contains Violence is a perfect missed opportunity. It turns what could be a clever theatrical device into a gimmick, unnecessarily invoking voyeurism as a substitute for drama.

Hitchcock knew what to do. The tension of the immobilised James Stewart becoming involved in lives (and deaths) of others in Rear Window works perfectly. He gave us snippets which mount up into terror, brief glimpses and low-tech spying. It makes us just as voyeuristic as Stewart, desperately craning to see what comes next, and this double implication of actor and audience in the scene makes us think about our own voyeuristic desires and culpability. It is not something we are proud of, but we cannot turn away.

In serious works of art, the voyeurism is never solely – or at all – pleasurable. Compare Sliver with The Lives of Others. The former is a high-tech soft-porn movie where William Baldwin gets to spy on Sharon Stone’s breasts. (Why he didn’t just rent Basic Instinct is anyone’s guess.) The latter examines how we interact with those we spy on, through the eyes of a Stasi agent in late 80s East Germany; without exploitation, the morality and effects of spying are played out, with drama and humanity.

And of course paintings have been taking up voyeuristic perspectives for centuries. Think of Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, where we are introduced to Venus as she examines herself in a mirror. The genius of this is that not only are we voyeurs of her, but she seems to be looking at us too from the mirror. It is a private moment but one in which our spying is thrown back at us.

The thrill of what we might see – and the fact that we are not supposed to be seeing it – will be an eternal prompt to voyeurism. While it may be immoral, it is also endlessly fascinating. The art that makes us feel all of these contradictory emotions at once surely succeeds in being valuable, whereas – as with Contains Violence – the work that merely seeks to exploit voyeurism ends up without even the thrill.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Small but perfectly formed

An experiment in scale and ambition, The Miniaturists presented an evening of five short plays at the Arcola, a taster menu of drama where what's good is savoured momentarily and what's bad is gone quickly.

The score card stacks up in favour of the Miniaturists, 3-2. There were three very interesting plays, perhaps the best of which was For a Button, by Rachel Barnett, which tells of two friends who are almost obsessively close. When one meets the man of her dreams, what will the other do? If this sounds a bit Basic Instinct-esque, it is in the furious, roiling, passionate subtext - the overt signals are comic, but there is a lot going on beneath the surface about over-intimacy and possession. With a very well-staged climax, For a Button was a small treasure, and the rapport between Rebecca Everett and Daisy Brydon was layered.

The other two successes were a moving monologue - one half of a phone conversation with an ex-boyfriend - by Declan Feenan (What About the Rent?), the emotion of which was largely ruined by someone's loud mobile phone ringtone, which they kindly neglected to deal with, and Shelter by Hilary Bell, featuring a daughter who comes up with an odd plan to help her neglected, acting-out mother. By painting this pairing quite sparely, it allowed us a lot of space to imagine the true, difficult nature of the bond. Ann Firbank as the mother was dry yet wounded.

The spare quality of Shelter was distinctly lacking from A Late Goodbye and Cadillaxing. The former was the entire breakdown of a relationship and was intended to show off a great grasp of human psychology, I think, since the writer, Paul Chadwick, is a professor of clinical psychology, but really just showed a deaf ear to drama and language. There was nothing which has not been tackled infinitely more subtly even on television soap operas.

Cadillaxing (by Christina Balit) was a scene from Drunken Yobville, Kent. The characters were stereotypes, from their high-heel-short-skirt trashiness to their unsurprising revelations, which were in fact exactly the kind of revelation you'd expect.

These are in fact short plays, rather than works in progress, so I don't expect we'll be seeing expanded versions any time soon, but an evening with the Miniaturists has made me eager to discover more of these playwrights.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mahler's Second (to none)

I have very little of edification to offer about Mahler's Second, conducted by Gergiev, at the Barbican, except my experience. I've heard the symphony several times on CD, but to have the floor rattle underneath my feet at the cellos thundered was utterly transporting.

For ninety minutes, I sat there transfixed, possessed in the way only music can. The funeral march roars, the quiet beauty of the Urlicht section, the bells and brass of the finale - I have never quite felt so ecstatic, in the true sense of the word - standing outside oneself, quite without self-possession or self-consciousness. It was more moving than I could have believed, more powerful than I could almost stand.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Art rage

Tapping into the same furious vein that brought you road rage and air rage is the new middle class ire of choice: art rage. Going round a gallery or museum – supposedly a calming and intellectual experience – is turning into twelve rounds with a bruiser from a leafy suburb.

Greig Angove, a graphic designer from London, witnessed a near punch-up at the high temple of art-as-relaxation, Tate Modern, on a busy Saturday afternoon. “People were pushing and shoving. There was a German tourist and a Southwark homeboy who nudged each other; they had a face-off and the homeboy said he was going to batter him, but the German stood his ground.” Given the Tate’s five million annual visitors, it’s surprising there isn’t a St John ambulance on permanent stand-by.

The Guardian’s own Jonathan Jones thinks it’s only a matter of time before blood is spilled: “It can be so annoying to visit art galleries that I’m surprised there are not more incidents of violence. Personally, if I didn’t have the outlet of writing about the some of the stuff that goes on, I might be getting into fights regularly.

“A couple of years ago, I watched a teacher look on complacently while a school group on a visit to the Hayward Gallery fooled around with, and sniggered at, an artwork that portrayed Jews being forced to wash the streets of Vienna in 1938. They obviously thought it was just a nutty conceptual art piece, a bit of fun. Their teacher couldn’t give a toss. I wanted to hit him.”

My first taste of the sharp end of art rage came at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Da Vinci exhibition in 2006. I was admiring some of the extraordinary drawings of hearts and horses when a middle-aged gentleman and his well-coiffed wife took offence at how long I was spending at the cabinet. Instead of a genteel excuse-me, a genteel jab in the ribs and some muttered remarks about my parentage sufficed. The wife stalked across the room with a nasty smile.

It’s not just the museum end either. At the private view for FAILE – an international collective of artists who had done paintings on wooden crates – at Soho’s Lazarides Gallery last March, patrons were grappling over the crates, trying to yank them out of rivals’ hands like wild dogs who had got their teeth into the same juicy steak. My shame-faced source was one of these desperate grapplers.

Major galleries and museums were not forthcoming about incidents within their own precincts, presumably unwilling to create the image of pensioners slapping each other silly in front of the Elgin Marbles or ASBOs banning accountants from going within a mile of a Mark Rothko. Nonetheless, an undercurrent of tension is clearly perceptible among the harried visitors stuck on the conveyor belt of the modern gallery. It seems that today, even a Turner seascape is an incitement to violence.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Harry Potter and the Unspeakable Themes

Among all the headlines about how she was too British to cry, JK Rowling in a New York court room dropped another small hint about just how her novels have dealt with adult themes. The lycanthropy of her character Remus Lupin, one of Hogwarts’ professors, was an allegory for Aids.

This is not the first time that Rowling has dealt with issues of sexuality and Aids, just as Philip Pullman has also done. Children’s literature has taken on a serious sub-text of sexuality. Lupin’s affliction was in plain sight, unlike the bombshell of Dumbledore’s homosexuality which was so subtle as almost to be non-existent, but which Rowling wanted to publicise nonetheless.

Rowling’s aim, she said, was to explore how people with Aids have been treated. It does make sense when you look at it: Snape’s bitchy remarks about Lupin’s concealed illness and Lupin’s own isolation from others can easily recall the hatred and fear of the 80s. Despite his wolfish disease, Lupin is loved by the heroic characters and welcomed into society.

Philip Pullman approached this much more openly. Some of the most touching scenes in His Dark Materials are those with the pair of gay angels. Their relationship was doomed not by prejudice or violence (as was the prevailing tendency in Aids-era literature) but by self-sacrifice and love. Pullman introduces them without fanfare, befitting a more sophisticated generation of children.

The achievement of Rowling and Pullman in dealing with issues of sexuality and Aids in a non-preachy manner for children is important. No doubt there are gay kids out there taking some small sign of hope and acceptance from it.

Apologies for absence

I'm sorry not to have posted in a while - things are v busy at the moment.

Do not fear, tho' - when I return, there are plenty of pleasures to be profiled:

>>> From Russia at the Royal Academy, including the collection of a man who owned an entire wall's worth of Gauguins.

>>> Gergiev conducting Mahler's Second with the London Symphony Orchestra.

>>> Vivat Bacchus, a restaurant with a £1,000-a-head tasting menu.

And much, much more.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vanity. No Fair. Just Vanity.

You can take it that I wasn't wholly impressed with my former inamorata's solo show at the National Portrait Gallery. It's not that there weren't nice pictures in good frames with lots of pretty colours, but Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 really does justify the inanity of the title.

If I'm being fair, the first section of work - from VF's inception in 1913 to its very timely demise in 1936 - is fascinating and thoughtful. The celebrities caught by such luminaries as Steichen, Beaton and Man Ray are really ordinary writers and artists - from Thomas Hardy to Virginia Woolf - with clearly no interest in media stardom and glossiness. They stare off into the distance, pondering something other than whether Steichen has lit them right.

These pictures - black and white, plainly set - are studies in art and psychology; no doubt one could say that the subjects are projecting a view just as later stars would do, but this is overly cynical. The interest is interior, in the subject's thoughts. There are early examples of personalities and style taking centre stage, such as in dear, crazy Isadora Duncan's Greek-tragic pose in shadows on the Acropolis, taken by Steichen, but they do not dominate.

The change in the modern incarnation of VF (1983-present) is immediately obvious, hideous and damaging. Yes, we are living in the era of the beauty-shot and VF had to compete in glossiness, outrageousness, star wattage (Deneuve and Loren in one picture! Surely the camera must blow!?), but it is at least as much a perpetrator as a victim.

This has produced some artistically arresting or high-powered images - the Hollywood covers, whose grasp of longevity in the movie business is acute; Ronald Reagan and Nancy dancing away; that Demi Moore shot. The majority on show, however, are vapid and worse - faux-important. Hilary Swank striding across a beach like a thoroughbred after a Derby victory has nothing on Steichen's layers. What does a naked Mariel Hemingway tell us? Does a slightly wacky photo of Jack Nicholson do anything for the art? VF has made itself the medium for classy self-creation of a celebrity's image - and we buy into it.

Perhaps worst is the deification of the photographers in VF's personal stable. Annie Leibowitz is not that good an artist, given that her main achievement is assembling celebrities and shooting them glamorously. At least with Mario Testino and Bruce Weber (two other VF regulars) you get what you see, without any undeserved aura of importance. If the point is that there is no interior, it's self-defeating and vacuous. Leibowitz is simply the official recorder of the bullshit.

I do like VF as a magazine, especially its extended political and cultural articles, and I do enjoy the glossy campiness of the celebrity portraits. But when this least worthy part is granted the sort of seriousness that an NPG exhibition confers, it sinks too far into its own hype.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Human Smoke ought to burn

A good review is all well and fine, but a bad review delivered with real scorn and poignancy is something to be apprciated; herewith, a piece from the New York Times on Nicholson Baker's 'Human Smoke', a pacifist history of the road to World War II.

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HUMAN SMOKE

The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

By Nicholson Baker

566 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.

In 1939 the editor of a Zionist newspaper in New York sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi pointing out that in Nazi Germany “a Jewish Gandhi would last about five minutes before he was executed.” Gandhi stuck fast to his nonviolent principles. “I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators,” he replied.

The actual number, of course, was six million, a figure that haunts Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke,” a pacifist interpretation of the events leading to World War II. As Mr. Baker sees it, the United States should never have entered the war; France made a civilized decision when it decided not to fight on; and Roosevelt and Churchill deserve equal billing with Hitler as the grand architects of history’s most destructive war.

Presented as a chronology, with events large and small retold in snippets as brief as a sentence or two, the book begins in 1892, with Alfred Nobel making the prediction that his explosives might very well put an end to all war. It ends in December 1941, shortly after the entry of the United States into the war. In between Mr. Baker arranges his brief dispatches to develop, in contrapuntal fashion, several grand themes: British and American racism and blood lust, Jewish suffering under the Nazi regime, and the brave but futile protests of pacifists and other antiwar activists.

Events and incidents are presented out of context, with no authorial commentary and separated by lots of white space. Often an entry ends with a date, flatly and portentously intoned. “Mary Taylor, a woman from Liverpool, walked to London, holding a banner,” Mr. Baker writes in a characteristic entry. “The banner said: ‘For the sake of children everywhere, I appeal to men to stop this war.’ It was September 1939.”

Muddled and often infuriating, “Human Smoke” sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican congresswoman from Montana, was good, because she cast the lone vote opposing a declaration of war against Japan. It was Dec. 8, 1941.

Mr. Baker’s title, a grim reference to the crematoriums at Auschwitz, effectively demolishes the edifice he tries to construct. Did the war “help anyone who needed help?” Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.

Almost unbelievably, he includes multiple instances in which Churchill and Roosevelt rejected the idea of negotiating with Hitler. Although he offers no commentary on the matter, the reader is forced to draw the conclusion that negotiation was a sensible idea cavalierly tossed aside by leaders who preferred war to peace.

On Nov. 10, 1941, Churchill delivered a ringing speech declaring that Britain would never negotiate with Hitler or with “any party in Germany which represents the Nazi regime.” Mr. Baker, in a rare departure from his affectless delivery, writes, “There would, in other words, be no negotiation with anybody in Germany who was actually in a position to order an end to the fighting.”

Mr. Baker recounts a meeting in Berlin in late 1938 between a delegation of American Quakers and two Gestapo officers. The Quakers read a statement of support for suffering Jews. “We noted a softening effect on their faces,” one of the Quakers later said. Workers at the American Friends Center in Berlin reported that for a short time, after the meeting, they had an easier time making legal and financial arrangements to get Jews out of the country.

Missions of mercy, Mr. Baker implies, might have worked better than threats and bombs. At the same time he dutifully records Hitler’s remark to a Croatian leader that Europe must be purged of every last Jew. Even one surviving Jewish family would constitute “a source of bacilli touching off new infection.”

Writers are free to take on any subject they please. But Mr. Baker’s decision to tackle World War II seems curious. By talent and temperament, on brilliant display in novels like “The Mezzanine” and “Vox,” he is an obsessive miniaturist, a painter wielding a brush with a single hair. In turning to nonfiction, it was completely in character for him to delve into the intricacies of library card catalogs and newspaper archives, the subject of “Double Fold.” War and peace are something else entirely.

He attacks it in little bits and pieces, an approach that allows him a few Bakeresque touches. He notes that a roundup of Italians in Britain netted, on one occasion, “the manager of the Piccadilly Hotel, the head chef of the Cafe Royal and two clowns in the Bertram Mills circus.”

Elsewhere, mordant humor fails him. The sneering identification of an Allied bomber pilot as “a former Australian sheep farmer” seems pointless. Is it absurd, or more reprehensible, if a sheep farmer rather than a dentist or a welder drops the bombs? Outrage sends Mr. Baker racing off in all directions simultaneously. The right emotional tone eludes him.

World War II was a deeply unfortunate conflict in which many lives were lost. Mr. Baker is right about that, but not about much else in this self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book. In dedicating it to the memory of American and British pacifists, Mr. Baker writes, “They failed, but they were right.” Millions of ghosts say otherwise.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Observing the Observer's observer

Chris Riddell, the Observer's cartoonist, has spent a dozen years picturing the world and the week in a single frame. His new exhibition at the Guardian's Newsroom complex (opposite the main building on the Farringdon Road) showcases his choice of clippings, from poking the Major government in black and white to Blair's technicolour farewell.

There are some funny, pointed images: Blair and Chirac embracing, each holding a dagger to the other's back; Blair holding the fish hook of Hutton while caught on the giant hook of WMD. There is also a strong strain of the tragic (or bathetic) - the Hizbollah vulture safe atop the flaming tree of Lebanon is a good example of this.

We can also see the evolution of Riddell's style. His detailed line drawings date from the days when you were lucky if black and white printing brought out what you had created, and these are full of the complex shading and slight lines characteristic of the genre until colour became possible; the detail seems quaint now, fussy even. It is when allowed to use colour that Riddell's artistic ability really shines, with beautiful scarlet curtains framing Blair walking off into a yellow sunset, or the subtle, varied blues of his skies.

He is by no means a bad artist, taking the sharp lines of David Low and Ralph Steadman but more cartoonish than the first and less than the second. What I find annoying is his use of labels and captions to explain things which the pictures can easily represent. We can understand Brown's Bounce from the springing lines, while the poisoned chalice with Blair's face gleaming on it doesn't need the No 10 label. It is either that he underestimates his audience or the conveying capabilities of his own art.

It is an odd - but not unexpectedly so - show. A little like watching old Have I Got News for You, you are taken back to concerns which were so important at the time but now are nostalgia pieces, shaded by recent history. Cartoons are just as valid a statement of the time as news articles and comment pieces, but just like them, once they have had their day, their full measure of wit and weight is lost.

Minghella remembered

The early death of director Anthony Minghella has brought to a sharp end a career which had so much more to give. He was not prolific, releasing a film every three years, but he was ambitious and sensitive in his work, drawing outstanding performances from his cast.

His debut was the ghost-romance Truly Madly Deeply (1990), which managed to steer the right side of mawkishness, unlike Ghost, and produce deep tenderness from Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman.

The great triumph of his career came with the English Patient (1996), a project of epic sweep which took in the North African campaign of World War II but did not lose sight of the romance at its heart, between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas. The grandeur and the intimacy clearly appealed to the Oscars, since he left with nine, including Best Director.

It is this combination of the personal amid the global which was a hallmark of his work. Cold Mountain (2003) set the relationship of Jude Law and Nicole Kidman against the American Civil War, and despite the emotional honesty of the acting and the evocation of the war, it was a critical and commercial failure.

Minghella’s latest – and now last – project is based on the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, starring soul singer Jill Scott and due to be shown on BBC1 this Easter. It is a new departure for the director, both in geography and in tone – the gentle comedy of a Botswanaian mystery is far from Breaking and Entering’s cold Kings Cross – but in his skilled hands, it will certainly be an accomplished tale.

It is the English Patient which means most to me of his films: I saw it as a teenager when it first came out and it inspired me not just with the harsh poetry of the contemporary scenes – a Tuscan villa, a north African square under the Nazis, the sweeping sands of the desert – but with the way film can embrace the personal and the political in the same frame. His death deprives the film world of a wise and humane craftsman.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Red for blood, red for China

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

In a country of a billion people, regimented and homogenised by a stern government, the death of one does not make even a speck in statistics. It is only duty and pity which make poet-policeman Chief Inspector Chen give the dead girl fished out of the canal a second thought, but it is the Communist party's warnings to Chen to desist which make him persevere with - at first sight - a hopeless case.

The girl was one of the Party's model workers, shining examples of probity and productivity for the nation, but her private life - when Chen finally manages to pry beneath the tightly-drawn surface of Communist devotion and a life bare of comfort - is a roiling mess. A Party official is implicated, and when the irresistible might of the government consequently bears down on Chen, he must decide whether to put Party and career before justice.

While the mystery is not especially compelling - the investigation is methodical and there are no sharp turns on the last page - what distinguishes Death of a Red Heroine is its involving and evocative creation of early nineties Shanghai, complete with the bald poverty of the masses, the reality of an omnipresent government and the imposing protocols which govern all behaviour.

The inner life of the city - just at the point of opening up to the world and its antithetical values - is brilliantly conveyed, such as the alleys where people are stuffed without name or distinction; all are poor alike and the details of this poverty - outdoor stoves, a single telephone for dozens - do not idealise it, as the government would wish. Instead of raucous openness, as represented by some visiting Americans, there is ceremony for all occasions, repression of the individual.

Life is as precise as Chen's poetry, full of dreamy imagery, contrasting with the mess of a policeman's work and the only place for creativity, although even this the government looks over. The forms for addressing a guest are long-established, there is a rule for talking to colleagues. People speak with the formalised, frozen respect which is alien to Britain and which makes frustrating reading until you are swallowed up by the culture.

Xiaolong certainly manages to swallow up the reader. The sounds and smells - even the sweating - of the city surround you, from gaudy bars for foreigners to quiet teahouses. Death of a Red Heroine so fully immerses you in its humidity and landscape that it is a shock to look up and find yourself at Kings Cross.

The oppression of poverty, tradition and government make the book claustrophobic but this does not seem inappropriate or detract from the intrigue: it is hard to imagine China was not, even if under all the strictures, human passions still ruled.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mad Men: back to the future

When men were men, women were women and cigarettes were just about to start killing you, the Madison Avenue ad agencies directed America's behaviour. (La plus ça change...) The fifties promised a revolution in technology, a brighter future after the war years, so what else can a former Sopranos writer do but undermine this?

Matthew Weiner, an alumnus of the David Chase school, has harked back to an era which must be all but mythical to most of his audience. Weiner can thus grasp the style of the fifties - thin ties (back again), Lucky Strikes (still here), drinking at work (come back) - while evoking both contemporary and eternal concerns. How do you sell cigarettes?

Since I've only seen the first episode, it is hard to make too far-reaching a judgement, but we at least have sufficient characters for drama: sensitive war hero ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm); his rivalrous upstart Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser); new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss); and a full collection of associates, lovers and clients. Tensions are clear and troubles (in love and business) are lining up beyond the Coronamatic.

What impressed me was the subtle(ish) way we are led in - instead of the screaming dramatics which would be so out of place in the fifties tv show but are perfect fodder for Wisteria Lane - things are clearly going to have to build. Insecurities are hinted at as layers of atmosphere and place are created. Instead of screaming out 'racism!', it's acknowledged in behaviour; a closeted gay man tries too hard; the mores of marriage are inferred by the viewer.

The opening credits are also revealing. Parodying the style and values of James Bond, a man of shadow falls off a tall building, past glamorous women in full colour, drinking and laughing. We are not going to be in the simplicity of our imagined fifties - it looks like Mad Men will be selling us drama for some time to come.

Apologies for absence

I'm sure you've felt it terribly too. Alas for the busyness of business! But there are goodies to come:

>>> Review of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3 in Stratford-upon-Avon.

>>> Mad Men: Madison Avenue in the 50s - the new Sopranos?

>>> Hamlet on CD: Simon Russell Beale gives his all as the doubting prince.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lords of the Dance

From the Guardian.

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When art forms collide, the results can be ambiguous - plays on film are usually stagy, but films inspired by music can be epic. Perhaps the oddest combination is dance and visual art: how do you attempt to represent an art derived from movement in one that is immobile?

This has been a challenge artists have taken up over the centuries, and the latest to do so is Nasser Azam, who last week unveiled his sculpture The Dance outside County Hall on London's South Bank. The Picasso-inspired piece by Azam, County Hall Gallery's artist-in-residence, will be a permanent fixture, next to Dali's Space Elephant.

Perhaps the most prominent image of dance in art at the moment is the Royal Academy's poster of Matisse's The Dance, visible around London. Where Matisse is so successful in representing the motion is in his use of curving lines: the figure on the left is created by a curve stretching smoothly from ankle to armpit, giving the twist that suggests sinews straining. The varying positions of the dancers' legs imply that we have caught them mid-movement.

The most famous artist to depict dancers has to be Edgar Degas, who captured them in painting and sculpture. Sculpture is perhaps more immediately successful, since it is easier to conceive the object as a person frozen in movement, plus all aspects of the moving body can be represented. Having said that, only someone with Degas' skills could really make a permanent object feel like an energetic split second.

Painting is a little trickier, then, since you can only have one angle - at least until Picasso. Here Degas is equally interested in the technicalities of the dance - foot positions, the barre, the stage - as well as the calm or flurried atmosphere of the room. The paintings feel very different from the precise, lively sculptures, and if I wanted an evocation of what it feels like to dance, I would look to the sculptures.

Picasso's 1925 The Dance relies in many ways upon the same things as Matisse's does - the arch of the back rising up to the arm, the legs in motion, the vibrant colours - but he adds extra energy by presenting the dancers from several angles at once, as cubism allowed. These angles - and the shapes, colours and patterns - pull the eye everywhere at once, which in itself creates a sense of movement.

These masters - Picasso, Degas, Matisse - presented themselves with a challenge, that of giving the stationary mobility. It throws up all sorts of conceptual and practical difficulties, but as they show, there is no reason why dance and art cannot mix. When they do so successfully, it is a miracle of motion.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Much ado, Much Ado

It is always easy to denigrate Shakespeare's comedies as distinctly uncomic, and if we're talking about Measure for Measure, I'd probably agree. A lot of the difficulty arises from text vs staging - what is funny on the stage is not necessarily funny on the page, and it can require a thoughtful production to create this. Nicholas Hytner's Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre has laughs to spare.

Starring the best actor of his generation, Simon Russell Beale, as an arch Benedick, and the fine comic actress Zoe Wanamaker as Beatrice, the sparks which fly are less sharp, more heartfelt and heartsore. Their former amour convincingly underlies their duelling, and these two actors can hit every note required, imbuing sadness as well as scorn. Their lines are not emptily barbed, nor the actors unaware.

Hero (Susannah Fielding) and Claudio (Daniel Hawksford) are expectedly annoying as the supposedly principal lovers and it is Shakespeare's cunning plotting that makes them interesting at all. The irony of having the lovers plot to entrap Beatrice and Benedick even as Don John entraps them is pure Shakespearean dramatic sophistication, adding interest as well as understanding.

Not that I go to the theatre to have my ideas reinforced - I'm all for a challenging evening - but I certainly felt about Much Ado as I did about the far more insistently verbal and punning Love's Labours Lost. Shakespeare uses wit as a front - whoever is jesting with rich puns is inevitably false, hiding their emotions or creating an unreal world. Just as in LLL, the jokes stop when reality invades and Beatrice and Benedick admit their feelings. As Benedick puts it,

Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is they wit.

Hytner has a terrific go at evoking what humour there is, with a beautifully simple yet multifaceted set (by Vicki Mortimer), more like a Chinese terrace than a Sicilian garden. Having Beatrice and Benedick - played by statuesque actors - hiding behind thin wooden supports is a guaranteed laugh, and the inventive use of a pool brings the house down (not literally, alas). While there would certainly be humour without staging, Much Ado would not be nearly as funny without Hytner's imagination.

Finally, a small note on the 'Was Shakespeare a Catholic?' question. When Hero and Claudio are about to be married, Leonato begins the scene by saying:

Come, Friar Francis, be brief; only the plain form of marriage, and you shall recount their particular duties afterwards.

Much more Lutheran than Lateran, I feel.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

BAFTAs: losers and winners

From asmallworld.net.

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Golden glory fell on the most unexpected places in London last night as the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) anointed its annual favorites.

Atonement was the surprise loser of the night: it won Best Film, but missed out in 12 categories, only taking one other award. Best Actor went – as expected – to Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood, but in the night's biggest shock, Best Actress skipped veteran Julie Christie for Marion Cotillard's performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.

La Vie en Rose picked up three other awards (music, costume and make-up), making it one of the most successful foreign language films at the BAFTAs ever. It was The Lives of Others, however, which took home Best Foreign Language Film. The story of a relationship cracking under the strain of late 1980s Stasi spying in East Germany, it can add last night's trophy to its 2007 Oscar.

Despite winning Best Film, Atonement did not win Best British Film, which went to Shane Meadows' This Is England. The film is another English period piece, only set in the rough inner city of the 1980s, rather than Atonement's glamorous countryside of the 1930s, and dealing with racism, not romance. Atonement had been expected to pick up awards ranging from top prizes – James McAvoy and Keira Knightley were both nominated for the leading actor categories – to technical classes, but it came away largely empty-handed.

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Sir Anthony Hopkins Daniel Day-Lewis

Cate Blanchett was the victim of a double disappointment, losing to Cotillard for Best Actress and Tilda Swinton for Best Supporting Actress. Swinton stars as an immoral corporate lawyer in Michael Clayton opposite George Clooney, who himself lost to Day-Lewis. Javier Bardem won Best Supporting Actor for No Country for Old Men, which also won Best Director for the Coen Brothers and Best Cinematography.

Mono Ghose, who is the director of Maverick Films, said he thought Atonement was not necessarily the best film of the year: "Atonement is a worthy film but - and I hate to say it, being English - personally lacked the naked charm and visceral magnetism of the US films - There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men."

"I think Atonement – albeit beautifully crafted – failed where the latter two films succeeded, in moving cinema forward this year in terms of character-based storytelling and subversions of the mainstream."

The Academy Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award, was given to Sir Anthony Hopkins, who won a Best Acting Oscar for Silence of the Lambs in 1992 and has two BAFTAs.

With the mixed fortunes of most films last night, there are still no clear indications as to who stands the best chance of picking up that most coveted of prizes at the end of February, the Best Picture Oscar.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Fucking hell! It's Radio 4!

If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago where I was least likely to hear the phrase ‘big juicy cock’, I would have said Radio 4. After all, it’s the home of Quote, Unquote, which gently lulls its listeners into a coma, and of uptight Any Answers callers. But it turns out that Radio 4 is in fact a haven for swearing, sex and violence, 24/7.

Don’t think I’m writing to disapprove – the opposite. Who doesn’t like ‘big juicy cock’ at quarter to seven in the evening? (Thanks to Loose Ends, by the way, for that.) It’s just that I’ve been realising that Radio 4 is anything but the staid, anodyne broadcaster it’s often painted to be.

Tune in at 6.30 in the evening and there are comedy shows which have a decent complement of swears, and the Saturday Play is no stranger to the squelching sounds of sex. Its documentaries do not shy away from ‘adult’ topics, and nor should they. There was even the awkwardly-titled season called ‘The sex lives of us’, which had golden oldies recalling their first fumblings from the Cretaceous period.

There is also plenty of violence on Radio 4. Perhaps one of the best and most disturbing things I have heard on there recently was the six-part adaptation of Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, in the 3pm on Sunday Classic Serial slot. As befits a story of the horror, privation and suffering of the Russian Revolution, there were some thoroughly graphic scenes. The one that sticks most in the mind was when an officer in Siberia summons his family to a graveyard before killing them so his enemies cannot. As well as the shock, the children crying ‘Daddy, daddy!’ and the subsequent gunshots left me nearly traumatised. It was a production that completely evoked the terror of the book and was brilliantly done.

There is a powerful reason behind all of this output, which could quite easily be heard by anyone of any age either on the radio or via Listen Again and would provoke a storm on television. Radio 4 is producing adult content – for adults.

It treats its listeners like fully-sentient human beings with well-developed intellectual, emotional and aesthetic skills who can appreciate a wide variety of programmes and are not instantly offended by sex, swearing or violence. Radio 4 can never be accused of dumbing down, not in its subjects or in its form. It’s nice that at least one channel on one medium has respect for its consumers.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Razors at the ready

Before I even start to talk about the movie of Sweeney Todd, a quick word on the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road: wow. Luxury incarnate, and they treat their patrons like adults - you're allowed alcohol! In a cinema! It's a world away from the infantilising multiplex.

The movie is a very successful translation of the stage show, and in fact betters it in several important respects. Tim Burton is lucky enough to have Stephen Sondheim still about to
supervise the musical changes necessary to take it down from a 3-hour modern opera to a 2-hour motion picture. Losing some of the more filleresque songs - 'Ah Miss' is tiresomely cute, 'Parlour Songs' - serves well, and even getting rid of the famous 'Ballad of Sweeney Todd' (the Greek chorus of the play) isn't disastrous, since the music is kept as a dramatic introduction.

Perhaps the other important change is in using actors who sing instead of acting singers. When you're staring up at a giant screen, you cannot escape the actors. When I saw Bryn Terfel as Sweeney, he was fantastic and his voice was the strongest, but I never quite bought the mania
as much as Johnny Depp, who is a natural at the demented. His voice is nicely wrecked, too, slightly Cockney and anguished. Helena Bonham Carter also has the comic timing and heart/gall to play Mrs Lovett, and the 'Not While I'm Around' scene proves her skill: she has to yearn and plot simultaneously.

The scenery and CGI effects are typically fabulous, as Burton productions demand. London - first entered under Tower Bridge in the grey-black gloom - is full of grim alleys and dark corners where mischief makes. From the rooftops to the sewers, no detail has been left unmurked, enhancing the whole project and reinforcing the terror of the Bernard Hermann-influenced score. The throat-slittings are appropriately grim, with plenty of spurting, gushing gore, and the corpses sliding through the trapdoor hit the floor with a wonderful crunch.

There was one aspect of the stage show which I felt was still uncorrected in the movie - the ending still left loose ends. What happens to Johanna and Anthony (who looks more sylphlike than his inamorata)? They're not turned into pies but then they're not given resolutions either.

The film accomplishes almost everything the stage show does, albeit with less brilliant (if still entirely tolerable) singing. It does so with economy and gory panache, evoking terror through sound and sight, letting Depp and Bonham Carter loose on roles they were born to play.

Friday, February 01, 2008

I'll miss you, Miles

From the Guardian ArtsBlog.

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Miles Kington

Miles Kington, who died yesterday aged 66, was my second favourite prose humorist, and I don't think he'd mind me saying so. While never in the Woody Allen league for surreal hilarity, his daily columns in the Independent guaranteed a good laugh, without being precious about his skill.

His columns were written with a light touch, letting the jokes fall where they might rather than dragging you along to a punchline. He apparently also took this light approach to filing his copy. Talking to one of his old colleagues a while ago, I was told that Miles could easily leave the house on the way to the office without a column and by the time he got in, it was written.

Turning to Miles' page in the Independent - he was hired at its launch to give the paper a sense of humour and was quite possibly the only truly funny thing in it - you never knew whether you were in for free-form memory-recollections (boules in Bath, a café in Paris, double bass at a jazz gig) or one of his many common themes (tales of courtroom antics, nature rambles with know-it-all kids Robert and Susan or meetings of the United Deities where gods of all stripes would make fools of themselves over current affairs). One of his favourite tricks was to break the fourth wall (as it were) and have readers' letters objecting to the piece interrupt the piece, the sort of surreal touch which gave his humour an extra dimension.

Miles Kington was a rare bird, a humorist who could make you laugh without needing to mock or harass or heckle or deride. He used his fertile imagination to profoundly funny effect and I will miss him greatly.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Billington talking balls

Michael Billington is a venerable, much-respected theatre critic who has been first string at the Guardian since Euripides was wondering how to end Medea. However, he seems to have been filing in haste rather than offering something serious in his review of David Hare's The Vertical Hour:
If you want a definition of good drama, this is it: the confrontation of two irreconcilable ideas eloquently stated.
Surely a man who has seen countless plays realises that two equal and opposite forces - however elegantly put - are a debate, not a drama? If he wants this sort of sophisticated ding-dong, he should read Hansard from Churchill's era.

Yes, drama can certainly be derived from two strong views well-expressed - from Aeschylus' Oresteia to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to David Mamet's Oleanna - but if you apply this template to a sample of acknowledged masterpieces, you'll see how short it falls.

Take Lear. This is not an oppositional play but rather a play about the unravelling of a person and his journey into human nature; similarly, no-one thinks Hamlet's enemies have a decent point to make. Sweeney Todd is dramatic but has two characters in agreement, not conflict. From the other point of view, watching Sophocles' Ajax in its later stages is like having teeth pulled by a debating society as points-of-view fly back and forth.

Drama of course derives from conflict, but it needn't be a conflict with another eloquent cypher.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Women of Troy: tragedy, trauma, triumph

I used to enjoy [in theory] the baby-being-thrown-off-a-castle scene in Euripides' Women of Troy - it seemed far too over-dramatic to work and was thus hilarious. Indeed, in a poor production of the play, no doubt it would be hilarious, with Andromache's mascara-stained cheeks and a plastic baby less an arm belying the grief. In Katie Mitchell's masterful production at the National Theatre, there is nothing ridiculous - we get the full measure of the tragedy.

Set in a concrete repatriation block (or some similar euphemism to describe a glorified holding cell for the Trojan prisoners about to be sent to Greece as slaves), the ballgowned women of Troy pace about and await their fates. The grim atmosphere is occasionally interrupted by Greek functionaries bringing news of increasingly terrible punishments to be inflicted.

Cassandra (Sinead Matthews) tries a fiery self-immolation while whirling about, crying her disbelieved prophecies, while her mother, Hecuba (Kate Duchene, magisterial and superb), the defeated queen of Troy, tries to keep the peace and her dignity in the face of the indignities she has suffered and will suffer. Andromache (Anastasia Hille) is torn from her baby, who returns only to be buried in a cardboard document box.

The women - who include a chorus which delivers its odes straight to the audience like we are their jailers - are gradually carried off, taken through one of the many thick metal gates which contain the women. Upstairs, Helen - the hated cause of the war - awaits her vengeful husband in her own prison.

There is no plot as such, just a violent meditation on the costs and benefits of war. It doesn't ruin the play to tell you that the benefits are non-existent. There is no use, either, superimposing American and Iraq on the two sides, for tho' the victors are brutal and the vanquished tortured, we have sympathy for the aristocracy of the Trojans. The question is far more complex.

Duchene is frighteningly good as the tortured Hecuba, swinging wearily from calming mother to outraged queen to eristic supporter of Helen's punishment. She conveys the full majesty of Hecuba in whichever mode is required, but with grief always etched on her face. Matthews was somewhat overdone as Cassandra, but it is a demented part.

Mitchell has put together a completely imagined world, one full of theatrical brilliance and intellectual fertility. Trevor Nunn's Lear, which I saw a few days before this, looks like amateur night at the church hall in comparison. There is such thought given to all aspects, including her stage: at one point, the chorus are spectrally dancing to some jazz in the near-dark, while upstairs Helen also dances, this time silhouetted against the light. The blinding contrast works visually and intellectually.

Perhaps the greatest effect was left until last. When the curtain (here, a metal screen) has covered the stage, the sounds of Troy being destroyed by heavy ammunition continue even as the audience claps. Mitchell implies Troy is a real place - it is not over when the curtain falls. This is a warning not to turn our attention away from war zones when we have marked a line under them, for the people we leave are real and their pain is real - just as I believed in the people and the pain of the Women of Troy.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Scrabulous: aboard and abroad

From the Guardian's travel website.

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The Facebook game Scrabulous, which resembles the real-world game of Scrabble in almost every detail, is under threat from Scrabble's corporate owner Hasbro, and an unexpected group of people will be suffering: hoteliers.

As well as the hundreds of thousands of people who play Scrabulous every day on the social network and are imminently to be deprived of their lexical joy, the owners of the Rothay Manor hotel in the Lake District will not be too pleased. They are just about to host their first Scrabble holiday, and they credit Scrabulous with stoking interest in it.

Anne-Marie O'Neill, marketing co-ordinator at the hotel, says the small Google advert for the holiday, which appears when people play Scrabulous, has brought business their way, and it would be a shame for it to stop. "We're very happy for it to be on Facebook," Anne-Marie says. "Our advert got right to the heart of the matter."

scrabble2

Thanks to Facebook, defiantly undigital board games are enjoying an electronic revival, and serendipitously the country retreat is offering a Scrabble holiday. The Lake District does not have to fear that its peaceful shores will be polluted by the beeping of computers, however. The five-day retreat at Rothay Manor, hard by Lake Windermere, at the start of March, will feature the more traditional Scrabble format: a board, some tiles, and probably even the famous green bag, with competitors face to face, eyeballing each other over a well-thumbed dictionary.

It would feel almost sacrilegious to go digital in one of English nature's finest landscapes, where communing with the earth – and not your earthed appliances – is the aim. Nevertheless, many of the people who attend will be aware of Scrabble's flourishing on Facebook.

Rothay Manor, near the village of Ambleside, is certainly a grand setting for epic battles across the board. Built for a Liverpool merchant in 1825, it is the sort of house Jane Austen might have had in mind when writing about the elegant families of the pre-Victorian era. There are 19 bedrooms, all individually decorated and en suite, and it is set in a large garden which is perfect for croquet. As well as this year's first Scrabble break, it offers bridge, painting and antiques holidays.

The hotel's Scrabble break offers a retreat from the digital and the daily grind but with all the pleasures of your favourite distraction. Rack 'em up.