Thursday, July 30, 2009

We're here, we're queer...

and we've got something to cheer.

Exhibitions come in two parts: the art and the theory. You can have brilliant pictures and a slightly ropey thesis, like Citizens and Kings at the Royal Academy, which had Ingres and David but a poor (or poorly interpreted) idea linking all of them, or you can have a spellbinding idea which the works don't support, like the RA's Summer Exhibition. Or you can have both or neither.

Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery falls into the Citizens and Kings mould: it has some beautiful images, both aesthetically and emotionally, and you can't deny that a show devoted to gay icons will raise interesting questions about love and family and culture and politics. It's just that no-one is clear on the rules.

Before I saw the show, I assumed that the selectors (famous homosexuals from Elton John and Ian McKellen to Sandi Toksvig and Sarah Waters) would choose gay people who were iconic to them. (The question of what even constitutes an icon is thorny in itself.) I thought these would be the gay icons of gay icons. Meta-gay icons.

However, Elton John and Billie Jean King both chose people who were icons to them, Elton picking Graham Taylor for his devotion to Watford, King her family, among their six choices. These are fair picks when the rules have not been defined.

It makes the show no less beautiful but slightly less coherent. Many of the pictures are indeed beautiful: porn star Jeff Stryker (one of Lord Alli's choices) is captured on his bed, reclining in a non-sexual pose and not even at the centre of the scene (McDermott and McGough, 1990). The innocence of the picture gives a human side to the great gay porn star-businessmen.

Joe Orton (chosen by head of Stonewall Ben Summerskill) emerges out of the darkness, a fine interpretation of his work and ultimately prefiguring his death (Lewis Morley, 1965), while Bessie Smith (chosen by Jackie Kay) looks quizzically, vulnerably at the camera. Harvey Milk (Efren Ramirez, 1978, chosen by McKellen) is at the centre of an applauding crowd in a news shot (rather than a posed portrait), looking serene in the chaos.

The most literary choices come from Alan Hollinghurst, Booker winner for the Line of Beauty. He chose Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thom Gunn (a favourite poet of mine), Tchaikovsky and Edmund White, whose A Boy's Own Story is one of the most beautifully-written books I've read. Hollinghurst's choices revealed a clear line between the closet of history and modern hard-won freedoms.

Chris Smith, former Culture Secretary, had perhaps the most poignant of all pictures: a portrait of Alan Turing (Elliott and Fry, 1951), who bit into an apple filled with cyanide after the war because society refused to accept his homosexuality. That Turing had helped Britain win the war by cracking the Enigma code and invented the first computer did not save him: it just made his tragedy greater.

Which could lead to a triumphalist conclusion: "Look how liberal we are now! We would never hound someone because they were gay." We may not, but many around the world would, so while we should ultimately celebrate this exhibition (philosophical qualms aside), we should not think of it as a terminus - but rather a call to action.

Harvey Milk (c) Efren Ramirez, 1978/2008
Joe Orton (c) Lewis Morley Archive/National Portrait Gallery
Alan Turing (c) National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Designing the Future. Today

It gave me great pleasure to go to the New Designers show at the Islington Business Design Centre last weekend. The first reason was that my brother Ollie was one of these talented young designers, representing Bournemouth U with his green, clean, practical one-cup kettle/dispenser. (Essentially you fill it with water, put it onto the mug, then once it's boiled, it dispenses the water into the mug. Simple.)

The other was that I got to discover countless other young talents too in furniture, products and visual communications. These are the people who are designing our future, with many focusing on environmentally friendly design and reinterpreting modern classics. There were perhaps too many Alvar Aalto updates (yes, blond wood, we get it) but there were also bold developments.

One of my favourite pieces was by Harry Hasson, who has designed bookshelves which are self-assembly but bear no resemblance to anything from IKEA: they are sleek black shelves, and an orange ratchet circulates around the outside, holding it together with its tension.

The other piece which I thought had the longest (design) legs was a freestanding wardrobe by Olayinka Ilori. Inspired by the showcases of luxury clothes stores, the deep blue case opens towards you to reveal shallow ranks of hangers (in the doors too). Two compartments below each door glide out, and the experience makes getting dressed (I would imagine) feel more elegant.

The role of patronage (as investigated on a grander scale in this post-Basel Hedgehog) has an even more significant role at New Designers: these are people - by and large - who are at the very commencement of their careers, and any boost which can be given in the forms of money, advice and attention (three principal planks of patronage) is likely to have a far greater effect than for established artists and designers.

I am not exactly in the patronising league (yes, very funny), but I am enjoying watching these young designers and - when my racheted bookshelves are ready - supporting them too.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

MIF: Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna

With the virtuosic score, intellectual scintillation, metatheatricality, dramatic boldness and flourishing colour we have come to expect from Rufus Wainwright, his first opera, Prima Donna, premiered last night at the Palace Theatre as part of the Manchester International Festival. Being Rufus, it was also flawed – but grand, magnificent, and always human.

The scene is a Paris atelier in 1970, where acclaimed soprano Regine Saint Laurent (Janis Kelly) has retreated for the six years since her career-climaxing performance in the premiere of Alienor d’Aquitaine as the queen of England and France. She performed the role once, then fled from the stage, unable to hit her final note in the climactic love duet.

In the grip of nightmares and surrounded by a domineering majordomo, Philippe (Jonathan Summers), who is a Josef von Sternberg from Sunset Boulevard with greater self-interest and malevolence and a neon green suit, and her new maid, fresh from the provinces, Marie (Rebecca Bottone), Regine prepares to return to the stage to sing Alienor once more.

A journalist (William Joyner) comes to interview her, but ends up singing the duet with her though she cannot reach her final note still and stirring up her memories of the fateful performance from which she did not recover. He also releases in her long-dormant passions which promise to revive and threaten to undo Regine.

As you would expect – and hope – Prima Donna combines the very best that nineteenth-century Italian opera and twenty-first century theatre have to offer, with a sophisticated, harmonious score, a fantastical, lurid, inventive set and almost more irony and reflexivity than one stage can take.

Wainwright and director Daniel Kramer run with this reflexivity. As well as writing an opera about an opera singer who sings about being afraid to sing, Wainwright even gets his revenge on Puccini: when the journalist, whom Regine has fallen for, returns with his fiancé, she is Madame Butterfly. She may not sing, but the kimono says it all: this time Butterfly wins. It is a brilliant, overwhelming touch, indicative of Wainwright’s love of opera and sense of humour, but perhaps also of the problems of this opera.

The metatheatrical cleverness at points confuses. In the second act, when Regine plays the record of her singing the climactic duet from Alienor, we disappear into almost a dream-sequence where the original production plays out on stage, complete with Regine and the king (played by the journalist, of course), a common play-within-a-play motif. This creates the beautiful irony that while she sings the notes on stage she cannot sing on stage, it is only as a recording – yet it is a live ‘recording’.

After she is done, the curtain falls and Regine takes several bows, accepting flowers, while the real audience applauds. This draws us into the conceit but breaks the illusion of the opera entire and disturbs the drama. Also, Regine hitting her note in the recording should be a triumphant moment (in an ironic mode), but it does not fulfil the expectation of the note created to that point.

The set moves from darkened, bare apartment, to theatre-within-a-theatre, with the maid and majordomo taking up their seats to watch Regine and the journalist, complete with its own proscenium and red curtain. Towards the end of the second act, where Regine’s world starts collapsing, all of the sets collide: bed, record-sequence table laden with candles, apartment window, dayglo kitchen, red curtain.

A less ambiguous problem than Pirandellian tricks is the lack – for want of a better word – of a tune, a single outstanding aria for Regine. You would think that after a century of Callas and Gheorghiu and Netrebko, Wainwright would want to offer his leading lady something to get her teeth into, but the closest he comes is the beautiful, baleful lament of Marie that ‘Paris is not Picardie’, where she sings of the recklessness of metropolitan love (a recurring theme of Wainwright’s). It is a shame that I came out of the theatre whistling Vissi d’arte.

Nevertheless, Regine is given the whole final sequence, once the butler and the maid have been banished and she has decided, Dietrich-like, on solitude henceforth. She emerges onto her terrace, high above Paris (for a moment I thought Wainwright was going to have her Tosca herself), to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, and sings from the joy of the fireworks and from her new freedom. This is a triumphant scene: the staging has all fallen away apart from her windows and terrace, set against a screen which changes colours with the fireworks, and the music fizzles and sighs and pops with the fireworks, a passage of outstanding imagination and sophistication and (simply) beauty. Kelly’s voice is free, yet falters as she confronts her future, moving around her repeated phrases with a fawn’s tentativeness, eventually emerging into golden confidence.

The score as a whole is a masterpiece of sophistication, with all the lessons of the great Italians learnt. (Indeed, Wainwright took his bow dressed as Verdi, complete with beard.) This will not come as a surprise to extant fans of Wainwright, who have heard everything from chamber quartet (Leaving for Paris II) to Mass (Agnus Dei) to three orchestras at once (I Don’t Know What It Is), but that he maintains his grasp of orchestration for a full opera, overture, arias and two acts, ensuring complex melodies and individual lines across the instruments, creating a delicate score which surges with passion and retreats with regret, is a triumph.

Writing an opera in the late nineteenth-century Italian mode is today revolutionary in its conservatism, but Wainwright was not simply content to produce a pastiche: with his twenty-first century eye for irony, his wit and the beauty of his music, he has done his forebears proud and produced an opera which – with some work – will endure.

Friday, July 10, 2009

MIF: Carlos Acosta

Last night I saw Carlos Acosta at the Lyric Theatre in the Lowry Centre. Acosta is the world's most famous and brilliant dancer, a Cuban by origin who has made the world fall in love with his passion and skill. I've never seen him before, so I was curious about just how good he might be; abandon all hype ye who enter here.

If other ballet dancers hate Acosta, I could understand why after his programme of three dances (Afternoon of a Faun (Jerome Robbins/Debussy), A Suite of Dances (Robbins/Bach) and Apollo (Balanchine/Stravinsky)): once he has danced these roles, it seems like no-one else ever can. He incarnates such beauty that it seems only natural he takes them.

For example, A Suite of Dances is set to four movements from Bach's Six Suites for Solo Cello, each one with a different mood and tone of movement. From the first movement, slightly hesitant and restrained, to the fourth, where Acosta spins and cartwheels and almost ecstatically jives, he has created both beauty and personality. There is nothing forced, nothing harsh.

Apollo was the second half entire. It showed Apollo being educated by three of the Muses, each of whom took turns front stage and solo, but it was when Apollo was dancing with all three, graceful in control, or in his pas de deux with Terpsichore, where he proved eminently responsive to and in harmony with his partner, that we saw the wonder of Acosta. His precision and passion combined, each move invested with fluency and meaning. It was perfect acting without words. The final image of Apollo and the Muses arrayed as one like a bird in flight took the breath away.

There was (in the first act) a response to Apollo, a new work called Young Apollo choreographed by the Texan Adam Hougland with music by Britten. This was a pas de deux which started before the curtain rose and the music sounded and continued after it fell and became silent, implying the eternity of this dance, as did the way in which Junor de Oliveira Souza swung Anais Chalendard around him, gracefully yet erotically. This was indeed an erotic piece, the sort of dance the libidinous Apollo might have delighted in, with sharp, identical moves by both dancers evincing their passions.

The music - provided by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Andre de Ridder - was sharp and passionate, with Philip Glass' Overture for string orchestra played with urgency and crispness.

Tonight I'm seeing Rufus Wainwright's new opera, Prima Donna. Stand by for thrills, spills and (probably) pills.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The idea of Earnest

Is there anything more frightening than the idea of The Importance of Being Earnest in the Regents Park Open Air Theatre on a summer evening? This is to the upper-middle class of north-west London what a raging argument on Eastenders at Christmas is to those who watch television, a combination so predictable – formulaic, even – that you have to blink at its latest revival.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this – some combinations are hallowed by success – but it is deeply unimaginative. When presented with this lemon-lemon-lemon jackpot, you can only hope that they make lemonade.

Now, while Irina Brown’s production is not quite the radical Earnest the world is waiting for (I just long for the day when Lady Bracknell has a Cockney accent and Jack and Algie resemble Vladimir and Estragon), but it had sufficient thoughtful touches to make it a damn sight more interesting that one could reasonably expect.

For a play which is all about play-acting, you need something suitable metatheatrical, and starting off by having the cast examine the audience with monocles and opera glasses hit the right note. The giant curved mirror at the rear of the stage, constantly used for preening, neatly captured the idea of the characters examining and constructing themselves.

The homoeroticism of the play – it is, of course, an allegory for the secret double life of the Victorian homosexual – was brought out with the fight between Jack (Ryan Kiggell) and Algie (Dominic Tighe). Brown evidently did not feel the need to tame the play, but nor did she play it up quite as fully as the text itself suggests.

Had the performances been as imaginative as some of the hints of Brown’s direction, it would have been a very good evening as opposed to just quite an interesting one. Jack and Algie’s banter was utterly leaden, each line dropping to the floor with all the weight of expectation. The same can be said for Lady Bracknell (Susan Wooldridge), who in clearly trying to avoid the shadow of Edith Evans reduced ‘A handbag?’ to a mere nothing.

Jo Herbert as Gwendolen brought a wicked sexuality to the role, ramping up the innuendo and overt eroticism of the part. Instead of a virginal Gwendolen, this was a liberated, libidinous, even predatory Gwendolen, which lifted her above the rest.

Despite rain almost stopping play at one point, the evening recovered and ultimately proved that some clichés can be rescued.

Monday, July 06, 2009

One & Other & I

I have applied to be in One & Other, Anthony Gormley's fourth plinth installation, along with such luminaries as Jill Archer (yes, I know she's fictional). Suggestions welcome below for what I should do (tho' I have some ideas already). Suggestions welcome below for what I should do (tho' I have some ideas already).

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


To the John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy this morning for the press launch of the next instalment of the GSK Contemporary exhibition this Christmas (yes, quite previous, I know, but it's always good to have advance notice) in 6 Burlington Gardens.

This year the theme of the show, featuring the work of over 40 artists from around the world, is climate change, which - given the persistence of land-, sea- and sky-scapes throughout art history - seems entirely appropriate. Earth: Art of a changing world, which runs from 3rd December this year to 31st January next, will tackle all aspects of how humans affect the world they inhabit, from destruction to hope.

The key promise from Kathleen Soriano, the director of exhibitions who is assembling the show from scratch in just a year, is that it 'wouldn't preach and wouldn't admonish', which is good news, as there are only so many pictures of polar bears on melting icebergs that one can take before wanting to go hunting.

When I asked Charles Saumarez Smith, the secretary of the RA, whether this focus on the green might be seen as tendentious or even propagandistic by certain sectors of the media, he said it was about creating a debate: 'We maybe haven't done so much on the debating side. If there's a debate, if Nigel Lawson has a placard outside Burlington Gardens saying global warming is good, that's not a bad thing for the exhibition.'

The show is sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline (hence GSK, duh) and their Responsibility arm, whose head Dr Justine Frain was there too, shedding a lot of light on the different projects GSK sponsors, from homelessness to the environment to Aids and malaria.

One of the most exciting aspects of the show is a tie-up with Sketch on Conduit St, which is cementing its position in the London arts scene. Sketch will take space in 6 Burlington Gardens. There will also be a National Trust tie-up for a site-specific work.

If your appetite has been whetted, then start marking off your calendars - December is not that far away. Although, on second thoughts, there's still a little more time for a pina colada before then.

Learn more about the exhibition and buy tickets now at

Top image: Mona Hatoum, Hot Spot, 2006, Mixed media. Stainless steel and neon tube, 234 x 223 cm, David Roberts Collection, London

Bottom image: Edward Burtynsky, Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London