Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lords of the Dance

From the Guardian.


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



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.


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.


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.