Saturday, June 27, 2009

Phuck Phedre

Oh dear. Just as we lull ourselves into thinking that maybe the French have a playwright to rival Shakespeare, up comes Phedre, the National's first Racine in a lifetime, to destroy any such notion. For this adramatic blowhard to attain any kind of stature can only indicate what a dry well the French draw their classic drama from.

And that is before we even get to Helen Mirren, chucking herself from one side of the Lyttelton's stage to the other like a deranged fishwife (back to Peter Grimes with you!), and Dominic Cooper, who is in imminent danger of being sued by planks for identity theft.

Drawing on Euripides' Hippolytus (a play aggravating in itself), Racine finds Phedre mid-obsessive passion for her stepson Hippolytus, egged on by Baldrick-like nurse Oenone (the splendidly natural Margaret Tyzack always has a new plan). Hippolytus rejects Phedre, who avenges herself by convincing Theseus, her husband and Hippolytus' father, of the boy's guilt; a curse follows and all we have to do is wait - and wait - and wait - and wait - until disaster strikes.

What we ought to realise is that disaster struck the moment the lights went down. It's no surprise that longeur is a French word. Interminable speech tumbles out after interminable speech, each side battering rhetoric until it finally gives in. People stand still and speak, or they wander about aimlessly and speak, but this is all.

There is no tension, no worrying about what will come next, which can be true even with plays we're very familiar with. This is drama where you positively cannot care what comes next because it is so static and will undoubtedly be just more speechifying without action.

There can also be little doubt that most tickets were sold because Helen Mirren was in it. Unfortunately, she either took the staginess of Racine to heart and decided to ham it up or she just forgot that naturalism is an effective way of acting. Screeching and getting angry are not her full range, so why let her limit herself? Those even passionately in love are not constantly hysterical.

On the other hand, Dominic Cooper gave the impression of having had his soul Botoxed (along with his face): he could not muster a word or an expression with any emotional weight, and when Phedre describes him as 'lovable', you wonder if she was talking about his understudy, or some person unknown to us. Perhaps she was thinking of the nice person who made her purple veil with which she is wreathed like a Silk Cut widow.

Nick Hytner deserves some praise for taking the play out of the seventeenth century drawing room and into a vaguely Greek coast, but it is beyond even Hytner's capabilities to inject life into it. While you can level the speechifying charge against Greek tragedy, it at least has the rapid-fire interchange of stichomythia; Racine just lets his cast speak in chapters.

It was a painful evening at the National, one which could quite easily put off any rare visitor to the theatre from returning. This is its greatest crime: it makes you like theatre slightly less.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Design for Life

Back in London after a flight so early the pilot was still in his pyjamas. Thanks to the good people at Audi, who are the exclusive automotive sponsor for Design Miami/Basel, I got an invitation to one of the parties of the week last night, held on a boat moored the other side of town from the fair. I also - naturally - got a rather comfortable lift to the party in an Audi.

The party began after a small dinner onboard for the team behind Design Miami/Basel, including Ambra Medda and Craig Robins, as well as VIPs and ubiquitous celebrity-designer-at-large, Pharrell Williams. Takashi Murakami was slated to appear too. Designers of the Future were in attendance too, having broken free of plaster and mirrors.

The crowd was hip hip hip, and the band more so: perhaps it's not for all Spear's readers, but London synth-pop group We Have Band put on a decent show. Here's one of their videos:

Ah well, back to London, where it rains welcome. Or rather rain welcomes.

20:00 CET
So it's not strictly work - call it perspective. I took a trip (thanks, Audi!) to Augst, a Roman settlement just outside of Basel. When you see the ruins - well-restored by the government - of baths and temples and basilicas, the same in Augst (August Raurica, since you ask) as in Bath as in Leptis Magna, you realise that there are design classics and design classics.

17:00 CET

Brad Pitt is at Design Miami/Basel with an eye on some fine pieces. Shame about the silly facial hair and peaked cap like Guy Ritchie manqué.

14:30 CET
Art Basel, in the cavernous hangar of Messe 2, is heaving like the dance floor at the exhbitionists' Christmas party. There are thousands upon thousands of wallets - sorry, collectors - across both floors of the show, while galleries from across Europe and American, and some futher afield, have everything from Picasso to pornography.

Thanks to a good friend, I got hold of a VIP pass, which means I get escalatored up to art heaven, decked out all in white, tout de suite. Trust Spear's to bring you insider access. It's also heaving up here, but everyone is sitting in much nicer chairs and Confiserie Sprungli is giving out free mini-macaroons (strawberry and rhubard is the best). There is also a stand (more like a salon) from Axa, promoting their art insurance. Hopefully by the end of the week I can bring you one of their extremely useful art-theft solutions.

To see some of my personal favourites, as documented by my trusty iPhone (no fancy SLR here), click here.

11:00 CET
Have had another look round Design Miami/Basel and emerged into the bright sunshine of the press office. (Doesn't look like it'll hold up.) It's looking a bit quieter today, but that's because Art Basel is having its official first day down the road; reports from there later.

Finally got some pics of Raw Edges' plasterboard mountain/parquet lake extravaganza:

And Pharrell's chair, which speaks for itself. (What it says is 'You must be over 18 to understand this.')

Have just had breakfast in the Hotel Adagio and will be heading over for art and design later this morning. Check back.

20:00 CET
At the Vernissage for Design Miami/Basel. It's a mix of indecently well-dressed HSBC Private Bank clients from all over the world and indecently stylish gallerists, plus Pharrell, who is eating a spiral of pink candy floss. For those not on the floss, there is fish carpaccio and Veuve Clicquot, one of the fair's other sponsors.

19:30 CET
Picks of the day from Design Miami/Basel:

Chair some dude called Voltaire sat in (Galerie Perrin, Paris)

Peter Marigold's Designer of the Future 2009 project, called Palindromes, working in mirror and plaster. Neatly combines two kitsch items (plaster mouldings and old mirrors) and turns them into something very modern and meaningful.

Drinks cabinet, foam and polyester, Atelier van Lieshout
(VIVID Gallery, Rotterdam)

18:30 CET
To Art Basel over in Messe 1, the fortieth incarnation of the fair. The front courtyard, clipped out of the main square, is heaving even though it's starting to rain. I popped inside and was confronted with Art Basel Statements, installations so cutting edge I came out bleeding. Whether I understood them is something else, tho' the chess board which had been converted into a piano (Queen to Rook five is quite harmonious, apparently) was pleasant.

16:51 CET
Just met Pharrell Williams, for any Spear's readers who know who that is.

15:30 CET
Had a short interview with Tony Joyce, global head of marketing and communications for HSBC Private Bank, and Alexandre Zeller, CEO of HSBC Private Bank (Suisse), about why they're sponsoring Design Miami/Basel.

There is usually a lot of talk at corporately-sponsored events about purely engaging with the arts and the reward being the art itself. While clealry HSBC PB does enjoy this aspect, Tony and Alexandre were refreshingly frank about the benefits to both company and clients.

Alexandre said: 'There are two main benefits. The first one is to position the Private Bank as a bank that can identify early trends and innovation and creativity. Design is something that makes us different.' (You hear that, UBS?)

'The second is to foster existing and new relationships, to make connections with our clients. You get to share emotions with them - in the Private Bank it's all about relationships, and you get to know the client a lot better.'

Tony said that it's much easier to engage with designers than with artists: 'Designers are willing to give up a lot of their time to talk to clients.' Entry to the design world is thus made a lot less imposing.

There are also plenty of intimate dinners and events for HSBC PB's clients where they can meet artists and gallerists and other clients, making further connections and benefiting the client.

On a separate subject, Alexandre said that he wasn't worried that the recent loss of banking secrecy in Switzerland would negatively affect the bank: 'It's never been the model of HSBC Private Bank to build a business on non-compliant money.' Those were the people who had to be afraid of losses.

14:30 CET
Spoke to Cyril Zammit, project manager, HSBC Private Bank (Suisse), who has helped mastermind the bank's involvement with Design Miami both in Miami and in Basel. He helped to design the HSBC Private Bank lounge, which is a haven of white leather sofas and red triangular tables. Whence the inspiration?

It's very cool in here, with clients sipping champagne and staff polishing the pristine floor every time it's scuffed. There are also floor-to-ceiling cotton screens with silhouette projections of rotating foliage. And mirror balls. Don't forget the mirror balls.

13:30 CET
Lunch with HSBC dignitaries and Craig Robins, principal of Design Miami/Basel, and Ambra Medda, director and co-founder, who look as cool as ever, despite the lack of air conditioning (apparently banned in Basel) and the pressure of running a giant fair. Craig was saying that design is a very easy way into collecting (and there is always the advantage that you can sit in what you buy).

The interesting fact Craig revealed was that Design Miami is potentially thinking of opening a branch of the fair in Abu Dhabi. So that would be Design Miami/Basel/Abu Dhabi?

A quick turn round the fair to see some of the Designers of the Future, Design Miami/Basel's prize for rising stars; this year, the designers have to use mirrors and plaster for their installation.

Raw Edges have the most startling inspiration: in the words of Shay Alkalay, one half of the duo, their design comes from 'hideous, tacky seventies wallpaper' in his flat, which has a giant picture of a Swiss mountain reflected in a lake.

Their reponses? A giant plasterboard mountain that reaches the height of the hall with its odd planes and flock pattern, and parquet flooring stained in the greens and yellows from the reflection in the wallpaper. Picture later.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Faust squared

What intrigues about Faust is not the prurient possibilities of limitless knowledge and consequenceless evil but the quick descent and slow realisation and finally, the horror.

I've been thinking about Faust a lot lately, not - I hasten to add - as a role model, although there is certainly something to be said for getting the best out of every situation. It is more that I have been noticing the prevalence of the Faust-type in different guises.

The most obvious in retrospect was crooked cop Vic Mackey of The Shield, a man with no need of an external Mephistopheles. Mackey was bad from the start, seven seasons ago, shooting dead a fellow officer and committing the equivalent of the Great Train Robbery in the nastiest part of LA, where immigrant gangs dance with drugs and guns. Mackey got worse.

Throughout the show's run, he sacrificed what the rest of us would identify as justice to his own perverse sense of right, which was often equated with personal gain. Every solution brough another problem in a chain so complex it was rarely clear who was doing what and why.

The final link - or at least the fade to black - featured Mackey, a violent, profane, autocratic (in the true sense of the word) cop chained to a desk job, a new penpusher in a corporate world. This was the solution to his sequence of problems, but it was also his damnation, as the camera lingered on him, last in his office at night, the only sound the neon light buzzing endlessly.

Another Faust is closer in time and location to Goethe's: Ibsen's surreal verse-play Peer Gynt, which anticipated Freud by having the fabulist Gynt meet his own subconscious. Staged by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Barbican (after their knockout Black Watch), the play is transferred from Norway to the Scottish wilds, but all the grotesqueries and horrors are kept.

This doesn't sound promising for Faust, but when presented with the love of a good woman (Solveig for Gretchen), he abandons her for sexual pleasure, violence at the hands of the trolls (really) and a life of arms-dealing wealth in decadent Africa. Eventually he is taken to an asylum (or has he always been mad?) and on his return home (in the NToS's version, on easyJet), he witnesses his own funeral.

The NToS is a rootless company, with no home theatre, and it is a brave attempt to present such a forbidding, difficult play around the country. What makes it successful is the emotion is draws out of Gynt's descent, first smothered under his vile plutocratic self, but brought out in the asylum. That Gynt may eventually be redeemed does not mean he has not embraced the values of Faust.

Whereas Goethe's Faust wanted knowledge, Vic Mackey and Peer Gynt both want wealth, but all three sacrifice their humanity. They prove the enduring popularity of an archetype whose vileness we are attracted to because, perhaps, we understand what drives them. There will always be room for more Fausts.