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


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.