Monday, July 21, 2014

Heaven and Earth in East London

Last week we had a theatrical adventure and went east to Dalston to visit the Arcola Theatre for the first time.  What production could lure me to this basement theatre of exposed brick walls and stone floor?  Maybe a metaphysical rumination of man's place in time and space?  A drama about how a woman can stay with a husband who is handy with his fists?  Or just a good old fashioned Broadway show?  Well blimey if it wasn't all three!


I can't say CAROUSEL is one of my favourite musicals but the thought of this big show from the Golden Age of the Broadway musical being staged in a space that at best seats 180 people was one I couldn't pass up.  I have only seen the show once before on stage which was in 1994 when the National Theatre production moved to the Shaftesbury Theatre.  Since then I have seen both the 1956 film musical starring Gordon Macrae and Shirley Jones and Frank Borzage's stylish 1930 film LILIOM which was the original play by Ferenc Molnar that CAROUSEL is based on.

I had been informed that it was a radical re-interpretation but to be honest it was only a re-interpretation in that it was in the afore-mentioned space - there was no radical look at the material, no overhauls of the text - the only twist put on it was that the action was brought forward to the 1930s but to be honest I didn't notice apart from the opening moments where Julie is seen listening to the radio news about Mussolini!


Other than that the story was as usual: Julie Jordan goes to a visiting carnival with her friend Carrie and when Julie sees the Carousel barker Billy Bigelow it's love at first sight.  The jealous Carny proprietor Mrs Mullins sacks Billy when it looks like he returns Julie's affections and Julie too is sacked from her millworking job for staying out late with Billy.

They marry and move in with Julie's cousin Nettie.  Billy cannot find work and starts to hang around with the dodgy Jigger Craigin and a now-pregnant Julie confesses to Carrie that Billy has hit her.  Jigger persuades Billy to rob the mill-owner on his way to deposit his money and they sneak off from the local clambake to do it but the hold-up goes wrong and surrounded by the police, Billy stabs himself.  Julie arrives just before he dies and when he does she can finally tell him she loves him.


Fate however is not done with Billy.  He is ushered into a celestial waiting-room and informed by the Starkeeper that as he didn't do enough good when alive to get beyond the pearly gates but he has the chance to return to earth to help his now-teenage daughter Louise who is feeling confused and lost.  Can Billy make amends?

Richard Rodgers' wide-ranging score delights with such undeniable classics as "Do I Love You" - the culmination of the teasing first scene where lines are sung only to stop, showing the couple's hesitant groping towards revealing their feelings - "Mister Snow", "June Is Bustin' Out All Over", "When The Children Are Asleep", Billy's "Soliloquy" "What's The Use of Wond'rin'" and of course that emotional tripwire "You'll Never Walk Alone".


But there is little can be done with Oscar Hammerstein II's book from 1945 which is so of it's time and now looks creaky and simply past it's sell-by date.  It doesn't have to be: characters are drawn well, the character of Billy in particular is three-dimensional in his complexity and you can see how at the end of wartime the thought of the dead being only a heartbeat away was successful but the jaw-droppingly passive character of Julie is unworkable - especially when seen in contrast with the well-drawn supporting character of her friend Carrie.

There is also the squirming problem with the final scene when Julie's confused and lonely daughter asks her mother "Can someone really hit you so hard that you don't feel it at all, that it's almost like a kiss?".  You can deny Political Correctness all you want but those lines just stand out with huge klieg lights illuminating them, no matter how straight-faced the actress playing Louise says them.


As much as I find the show hard to warm to, there is no denying the brio that the company brought to the production.  I liked Richard Kent's slippery Jigger, Joel Montague's lumpy Mr Snow although there was really no reason for him to sing half of "When The Children Are Asleep" in his underpants and Amanda Minihan's redoubtable, full-throated Netty.  There was an odd performance by Valerie Cutko as the lusty widow Mrs Mullins - has she ever been seen in the same room as Justin Bond?  

Gemma Sutton played Julie as well as that book can allow her and she had a lovely voice but it's hard to make the character live when all you have to do is stand with brimming eyes and a noble chin.  Tim Rogers certainly had the swaggering bravado to make an impression as Billy but when he opened his mouth to sing the oddest noise came out, it was almost like he shouted the songs rather than singing them.  The lack of a belt voice was most noticeable in the "Soliloquy" which sang him rather than the other way around.


By far the most eye-catching performance was from Vicki Lee Taylor as the sparky Carrie Pipperidge.  I remember no less an authority than Barbara Cook saying of the two female leads - which she played in two 1950s revivals - that she would rather play Carrie, much more varied and with a definite arch to her character.

Lee Fredericks had certainly thought through his production so it was always busy, always moving forward, although it seemed to stall in the whimsical Starkeeper scenes.  The production was helped by Stewart Charlesworth's inventive designs and Lee Proud certainly didn't let the small playing area cramp his choreographed dances. 

I wonder if I will ever see a production that totally wins me over?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dvd/150: LA SIRENE DU MISSISSIPPI / MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (Francois Truffaut, 1969)

Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, LA SIRENE DU MISSISSIPPI is an oddity, exploring love and desire through the medium of a Hitchcockian thriller that now looks like a clunky tv-movie.


Louis (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who owns a tobacco factory on an Asian island, proposes to a girl he has been writing to via a lonely hearts column.  When Julie (Catherine Deneuve) arrives, she explains that she looks nothing like the photograph he has because she was nervous of her looks - Deneuve???? - so she sent a friend's photo instead.


They marry but Julie vanishes soon after with nearly all his money.  Louis pursues her to France where Julie admits her real name is Marion and she was forced into the subterfuge by her criminal lover who has left her penniless.


When Louis kills the detective tracking Marion, they go on the run - but can Marion really be trusted?

Shelf or charity shop?  La boutique de charitie...

All The News That's Fit To Act...

For films of yore that were based on recent events, the posters would scream RIPPED FROM TODAY'S HEADLINES, that phrase came to mind often when I watched the National Theatre's controversial new production, GREAT BRITAIN by Richard Bean.


The play and the production have been kept under wraps for some time - director Nicholas Hytner was talking about it a year ago, saying he wasn't sure when Bean would complete it.  Lo and behold, the phone-hacking trial ends and the play is delivered. The urge to address every single issue raised by the phone-hacking scandal has been followed by Bean and at times it felt like he had a huge flow-chart on his wall which he duly ticked-off as every note was touched on.  I wish that Bean, rather than being so chapter-and-verse, had put more imagination into the piece.

Before the play started something had already irked me... no bloody programme!  The absurd reason was that because it was put on at such speed no time was available to print one up but when it transfers to the Haymarket in September, they will be on sale there - and they also will try to get some for the NT bookshop when it re-opens.  Gee thanks.  I have seen visiting productions at the NT that have played shorter periods of time and they had programmes printed so why not this one?  They knew who the cast and crew were going to be, they had the rehearsal photographs and all NT programmes are a third-full of paid ads that are the same for whatever production is on that month.  I tell you, the place is going to the bad now they have builders in.


But the play's the thing...  Paige Britain (no, it's not the subtlest of plays) is an ambitious news editor on the red-top rag The Free Press who will stoop to any level to get a scoop which fits the remit for the newspaper: Tits, Bingo and The Death Penalty For Paedos.  No matter how unreliable the story it gets printed because the news room's mission statement is "we go out and destroy other people's lives on your behalf".

At the play's start, the news room's jubilation at unveiling a possible kiddy-fiddling priest is mitigated by his suicide.  But never mind, there is always another story... a topless model can be a figurehead for whatever crass campaign the paper is running, there's always a sportsman involved in a kiss-and-tell, a politician to be set up - and the breaking news of two little girls who vanish one afternoon gives them a peach of a story that they can exploit mercilessly.


Paige's tactics get an unexpected boost when the sports columnist reveals how he gets his scoops: by listening to the subject's mobile phone voicemails which is easily done as so few people change the factory-setting pin numbers for their account - and The Free Press has all the factory codes...

A story is printed of a star cricketer having an affair which is based on a phone message but unbeknownst to the hacks, the cricketer has gone to a solicitor about a possible invasion of privacy - how else could they have got the quotes?  This thread of the plotline weaves through the following action as Paige gets bolder with her dealings with the police and politics.  She starts sleeping with the Assistant Police Commissioner to get inside news on how the kidnapping case is progressing and also to promote him in the newspaper over his bumbling and PR disaster-area of a boss.


A quietly ambitious Tory leader is targeted by the Newspaper's Irish proprietor and is told that the newspaper will back him in the upcoming election for his guarantee that the proprietor's bid for a national TV channel will be waived through, needless to say the politician also becomes Paige's bed-partner.

Paige doesn't always get what she wants - the Proprietor ignores her when the paper's editor moves to become the new Prime Minister's PR man (ringing bells?) and promotes instead a horse-loving, wife of a soap-star from his NY office to the editorship so she can figurehead a campaign against child-abusers (sound familiar?) although she has no involvement in the actual office.


But the persistent solicitor cannot be ignored and soon Paige's empire of deceit begins to come increasingly under pressure from both internal and external pressures.  How will our quick-thinking anti-heroine get out of this?  Ah how indeed.

For all that is wrong with the play there is also a lot right with it too, namely in the savagely funny performances and every so often Bean drops the satire to reveal his anger at the use of people's lives for cheap copy and the heirachy of corruption that taints those in power - "20 people who talk to 20 people who talk to 20 people".  However I thought it interesting that Bean played down the fact that without other journalists digging, the full extent of recent shenanigans would never have been made public. 


Hytner directs the play with a whiplash energy, the action's ability to crack along helped immeasureably by Tim Hatley's design of sliding screens which give the play an almost filmic pace.  Neil Austin's lighting is also a key component in the production's success as well as the video clips by 59 Productions which punctuate the action with crashing headlines commenting on the plot in particular the Dail Mail ones which always related it to illegal immigrants!

Oddly enough the play only seemed tentative in it's ending which was obviously tacked-on by Bean after the court case ended.
 

Billie Piper was excellent as Paige, a woman with pure newsprint running in her veins but for all her work, the character remained a cypher.  A quick insight was given that she always felt left out "of the big party" which is a bit negligble and the fact that the men are only truly conquered by her having sex with them is too obvious.

She is surrounded by an excellent cast including Robert Glenister as the inventively foul-mouthed editor Winston Tikkel who makes a disasterous move into politics and Oliver Chris as the Assistant Police Commissioner who discovers a conscience too late.


Aaron Neil steals every scene he is in as the buffoonish Police Commissioner ("More black men than white men have been shot by the police on my watch - but I will rectify that") while there was good work by Kiruna Stamel as the crusading solicitor as well as from Harriet Thorpe, Andrew Woodall, Ross Boatman, William Chubb and Nick Sampson.

I must admit my mind occasionally wandered back to 1985 and David Hare & Howard Brenton's equally savage PRAVDA at the Olivier Theatre.  It stays in the mind primarily for Anthony Hopkins now-legendary performance as the South African newspaper owner Lambert La Roux determined to blow apart the crumbling British press establishment as well as destroying the campaigning journalist seeking to expose him.  What a different world that seems now in view of GREAT BRITAIN's exposure of current practices.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On Revival Day...

Once again I find myself in a Revival week... two shows I have seen before, but which did I enjoy more this time out?


The Menier Chocolate Factory has revived FORBIDDEN BROADWAY again, the theatre where it was last revived in 2009.  I missed that but made sure I saw this one as the intimacy of the Menier would suit this show well and it did, suggesting the cabaret atmosphere that was the original birthplace of the satirical show 32 years ago.

The brainchild of Gerard Alessandrini, FORBIDDEN BROADWAY takes a not too-savage swipe at current theatre shows as well as personalities past and present.  I have seen the show a few times before: in New York in the late 1980s, at it's first London incarnation in 1989 when it flopped at the Fortune and a later 1999 revival at the Jermyn Street Theatre which featured the great Christine Pedi from the NY version who as Liza Minnelli picked on me!  That's what you get for sitting in the front row.


The current show was enjoyable but at the end I was left oddly unsatisfied.  It might have been because I am over-familiar with a good portion of the material thanks to past visits or listening to the off-Broadway cast recordings.  The MISS SAIGON number is twenty years old while the afore-mentioned Liza number, Chita Rivera-Rita Moreno spat duet, the Sondheim "Into The Woods" song, the main section of LES MISERABLES and "Fugue For Scalpers" are all aged 23!  Yes, to newcomers, these will be new but by the look of most of the audience I suspect most ot them knew the songs.

Also - and not for the first time - some of the audience were *profoundly* irritating as they BELLOWED with laughter at the smallest, weakest pun as if to say "I GET this joke, you don't but I do because I know what they are referring to."  God save me from show-queens.  For the show to actually have a bit of real bite it would be nice if Alessandrini wrote a song about his audience.


When you have been writing parodies for 32 years you can pull readymade numbers out of the trunk to cover any revival that might be playing so a recent PAJAMA GAME Broadway production can be dusted down for our current one.  Is that another reason that I was less excited?  That there is obviously so little difference between London and Broadway?  Surely there should have been a number ripping up STEPHEN WARD to say nothing of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

As with any revue, you can comfort yourself that if you are landed with a duff number then there will be another along in a minute, but some definitely outstayed their welcome - a LuPone/Patinkin number seemed to last forever, a MAMMA MIA skit was negligible, an Angela Lansbury number seemed rather lame, the ONCE pisstake outstayed it's welcome - and is it really necessary to have two Idina Menzel numbers?


What I DID enjoy however were the whirlwind performances of the four cast members: Anna-Jane Casey - who I saw at my first-ever Menier visit (nine years ago!) in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE - was great fun as the shrieking Menzel "defying subtlety" as well as a bored Éponine in LES MIS and even as Frankie Valli putting the boot into JERSEY BOYS; Sophie-Louise Dann gave me the biggest laugh of the night with an on-the-money Elaine Paige as well as a gurning Mme Thénardier in LES MIS - well aware that the role isn't funny while playing to half-empty houses.

Damian Humbley was huge fun as LES MIS' long-suffering Jean Valjean bemoaning "It's Too High", a demonic Miss Trunchbull and as a swift-tongued Rafiki in THE LION KING while Ben Lewis scored as Willy Wonka welcoming us to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY's "Show Of No Imagination" and as the perpetually bored Guy in ONCE.  They also worked well together as MISS SAIGON's over-amplified soldiers and as the stars of THE BOOK OF MORON.


The last number raised an interesting conundrum - how do you satirise what in itself is a satire on the Broadway musical?  The show also addressed this in a SPAMALOT skit where they said that show had stolen from them.  Where does a satirical show go when the shows themselves are becoming self-reverential?  A special mention must go to the inexhaustible Joel Fram on piano.

Onto the Guildhall School of Drama and Music where the final year students have been appearing in a production of the sadly little-seen musical GRAND HOTEL.


It's been 6 years since I last saw a Guildhall production which is a shame as it's always interesting to see if you can spot which student may go on to success.  The last production I saw was CITY OF ANGELS and, of the four that I picked out, only Gwilym Lee appears to have gone on to major success, winning the Ian Charleston award for his performance as Edgar in KING LEAR at the Donmar as well as appearing as a regular in MIDSUMMER MURDERS.  Oddly enough CITY OF ANGELS beat GRAND HOTEL to the 1990 Tony Award to Best Musical!

GRAND HOTEL had a very stuttering genesis.  Vicki Baum wrote her original novel in 1928 then adapted it into a play in 1930 which, in translation, played on Broadway until 1931.  The year after saw the release of the classic MGM film which won the Best Film Academy Award that year.


Amazingly that was it's only nomination, it's stellar cast were all overlooked: Greta Garbo as Grushinskaya the fading ballerina, John Barrymore as the down-on-his-luck Baron, Lionel Barrymore as Kringelein the dying bookkeeper, Wallace Beery as Kringelein's former employer Preysing and Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen the ambitious typist.

In 1958, writer Luther Wright and song-writing team George Forrest & Robert Wright followed up their KISMET hit by choosing to musicalize GRAND MUSICAL, retitled AT THE GRAND. Berlin 1928 became present-day Rome, the ballerina became an opera singer (so KISMET star Joan Deiner could be cast) and Paul Muni was cast as Kringelein.  Characters were ditched so Muni's role could be expanded and it opened in 1958 on the West Coast. Muni however felt that the director Albert Marre (who was also Deiner's husband) was favouring her over him and refused to re-sign for Broadway and the show closed.


30 years later, the original writers tried again by offering it to the successful director/choreographer of NINE and MY ONE AND ONLY Tommy Tune.  His concept was to make the show more streamlined, more thematic and to play without an interval. The original team refused to accept his changes so Tune fired them and brought in NINE composer Maury Yeston to rewrite their songs and add several of his own.  The book was rewritten by Peter Stone who refused to take a writing credit.

Tune's sleek production ran on Broadway for nearly 2 1/2 years and won Tony Awards for Tune's direction & choreography, the set & costume design and Michael Jeter's scene-stealing Kringelein.  Still smarting from Tune sacking them, Forrest & Wright blocked the cast album for over two years but this ended in tragedy when David Carroll, who had originated the role of the Baron, died from a pulmonary embolism in the recording studio.  His replacement Brent Barrett sang on the album instead but Carroll was represented by a live track from his cabaret show.


Barrett played the Baron when I saw it in 1992 at the Dominion Theatre when Tune's production opened with Lilianne Montevecchi reprising her role as Grushinskaya, Lynette Perry was Flaemmchen and Barry James played Kringelein but the show closed ignominiously after only four months!  The show was not produced again professionally in London until 2004 when Michael Grandage directed a thrillingly memorable production with Julien Ovenden as the Baron, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Grushinskaya, Helen Baker as Flaemmchen and Daniel Evans as Kringelein.  Grandage's production won the Olivier Award that year for Best Musical Revival.

In the interim however I had seen the show again in 2000 when the Guildhall School of Music and Drama had staged a production for it's last year students' Summer show.  From what I can recall I enjoyed being reacquainted with the show but none of the performances stay in the mind.  That production was directed by Martin Connor - mainstay of the Guildhall productions - and he again directs this current version.


I thought this was an excellent production, adhering to Tune's tight, spare concept and thought, by and large, that the students excelled in delineating their individual roles well.  Sadly Simon Haines as the cynical semi-narrator was as wobbly singing as he was on his injured leg from the War and I was surprised how several of them seemed a bit breathless at the end of their numbers... stamina, darlings, pace yourselves.

Ceri-lyn Cissone was a creditable Grushinskaya suggesting the character's desperation at her fading career well and Jay Saighal, although a trifle shaky, partnered her well as the Baron, doomed by his inate decency.  Ben Hall was an agreeably sinister Preysing, he actually suggested that - similar to other characters in the piece - he is driven to extreme lengths just to survive.  Rebecca Collingwood was a delightful Flaemmchen, really socking over her big solo "I Want To Go To Hollywood".  As you have seen above, the role of Kringelein is the one that usually draws the most praise and Joey Phillips played him as a giddy, hypersensitive soul, maybe lacking depth of feeling but certainly playing up the pathos.


A special mention too for Emily Laing's vocally strong Raffaela, Grushinskaya's quietly devoted companion and Jordan Renzo handled Eric, the put-upon concierge's big moment at the finale with a quiet authority.

Bill Deamer has choreographed the numbers with great panache and invention, I particularly liked the ominous silent Charleston the chorus did when Flaemmchen was trapped by the lustful Preysing as well as a terrifically dramatic Bolero for the two featured dancers Leah Rolfe and Adelmo Mandia.  Indeed the whole company were excellent not only in the dance numbers but also in the stylised movement throughout.  Morgan Large's set and costume design also contributed to the show's success as did Richard Howell's lighting design.  It's just a shame the spot operators always seemed a few beats behind.


The production kept up the sense of creeping menace that is always reminding you that the comings and goings of the rich hotel guests is happening against a growing discontented proletariat that in a few years time will catapult Germany into Hitler's waiting hands.

The evocative score with it's balance of big solo numbers and show-stopping set-pieces is always a pleasure to hear and Steven Edis' excellent musical direction was another reason i enjoyed this revival so much.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Vision... Henri Matisse, Stanley Spencer

In the past few weeks I have been lucky enough to experience close-up that particular joy of seeing the works of two men who were visionary artists, two men who Sir Kenneth Clarke surely was thinking about when, in discussing his personal beliefs, he said "Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible."


After an initial liking of his work, last year found me fully appreciating Stanley Spencer's idiosyncratic and uplifting art largely due to his inclusion in the wonderful exhibition CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE which set him within the context of his Slade art school contemporaries.

Earlier this year we saw the equally amazing exhibition at Somerset House of the site-specific WWI canvasses he painted for the Sandham Memorial Chapel so a week ago we decided to journey north-west to the commuter town of Cookham in Berkshire to visit the Stanley Spencer Museum, a few doors along the high street from the house where he was born.

  

The museum is in a converted Wesleyan hall where Spencer attended meetings in his youth and there is even a drawing in the museum from around 1937 called "Ecstasy in a Wesleyan Chapel" of a congregation getting the spirit.  It's a very odd experience to look at it in the very space that he was inspired by.

It's a bright airy hall with nothing to distract you from the paintings on display.  The museum seems to have different exhibitions twice a year and when we visited they were showing PARADISE REGAINED: Stanley Spencer In The Aftermath Of WWI, which ties in nicely with the centenary of WWI this year.

 
The War came two years after Spencer left the Slade and initially he resisted the call to sign up as he was establishing his career but the sight of his generation returning to the town from the front made him decide to join the Medical Corps. and after training in Bristol, he served in Macedonia.  The happiness of returning at the end of the War was tempered by the death of his brother Sydney two months before the armistice.

His experiences in wartime and the return to his birthplace are reflected in his work, none more so than in his 1922 painting "Unveiling Cookham's War Memorial" which we had seen in the CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE show.  His busy canvas, teaming with life and good humour, shows the memorial seconds after the unveiling with the rows of onlookers crowding around.  It is interesting that the ones least interested are the young men who lounge on the green, ignoring the hub-bub, no doubt glad to be rid of the War as they were the ones who had to risk their lives.  Schoolboys misbehave with the schoolgirls dressed in white that stand before them while one girl moves the flag aside to find which name? - Father? Brother? Both?

 

After leaving the Museum we walked back up through the town and there was the Memorial, a bit more built up from that day in 1919 that Spencer immortalised three years later.  Indeed the wooded hills seen in his painting are now hidden by a very nice pub where we had our lunch!  Easily found among the memorial names is Stanley's brother Sidney, seen in the picture above, standing with Stanley beside their seated brother, Percy.  Stanley's clean-shaven and slightly wary gaze is also echoed in his excellent self-portrait in the museum from 1914.


Along with his allegorical paintings which are usually set around and about Cookham, the Museum also boasts a huge unfinished work called "Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta" (1952-59) with Christ seated in a punt addressing the crowds on the bank of the Thames.  Spencer struggled to complete the work - a search for a sponser for the painting proved fruitless - and it is fascinating to see what he completed and what he left for another day which sadly never arrived.  Another delight were his paintings of trees and shrubs growing around houses in the area.


This small, delightful Museum also deserves high praise for it's well-illustrated and detailed exhibition catalogue as well as an extensive postcard selection - for once a Museum that knows what the public really wants!

I am looking forward to another visit when there is a new theme explored in this extraordinary but ordinary artist's life and work.

The biggest thrill of all however was our visit to the life-affirming HENRI MATISSE: THE CUT-OUTS at Tate Modern.


In 1941, after establishing himself as one of the most groundbreaking 20th Century artists, Henri Matisse was felled by the third of three momentous events.  In 1939, as well as the outbreak of the 2nd World War, Matisse had a bitter separation from his wife of over 40 years and now he had become incapacitated by an intestinal operation which even his doctors thought would extend his life by only three years.

Confined to his bed or a wheelchair, Matisse's urge to create burned as strong as ever and he utilised a technique that he had previously only used while preparing earlier paintings: he had used rough cut-out shapes to pin on his canvas and move around until happy with the composition of colours.  Why not just use the cut-outs now?


In 1947, he completed JAZZ a large book which included his cut-outs alongside his writings on them.  In the exhibition you can contrast the printed versions with the original designs and I knew exactly how Matisse felt when he saw the finished work, yes the designs stand out from the page due to their stark modernity but the sheer vibrancy of the colours are lost in the printing process.



It's hard to believe that Tate Modern has come up with another show to match their PAUL KLEE earlier this year but this too is a glorious exhibition.  Luckily we went to one of the Saturday late-night openings and while busy it was not crowded so it was easy to walk around and enjoy the cut-outs at leisure.

There were so many works to treasure: OCEANA, the underwater cut-out murals that Matisse covered his living room walls with as well as works from his studio which leap out and dazzle due to the colour combinations - sadly we do not experience them as Matisse and his helpers did as he pinned them loosely to the wall so they would undulate in the breeze.


There is a room dedicated to his work designing the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.  He did it as a gesture of thanks to Monique Bourgeois, a young nurse who had helped Matisse recover from his 1941 operation and who had become a Dominican nun in 1946.  They maintained a friendship and when she asked him to design a window for her chapel, he instead took over the design of the whole interior, even down to the priest's vestments.

There is also a lovely work called The Bees that dazzles the eye with it's vibrant colour and modernist design.  Again, as with the Paul Klee exhibition, I was reminded of Seurat's thoughts of the harmony that can happen when the two right colours are placed together and THE BEES is a true harmony of colour and movement.


Then there are the works using just one colour such as the Blue Nudes which need to be seen "in the paper" where instead of just flat colour, you can see where Matisse added different pieces of paper built up to give the figures a real texture.  Also it is telling to recall that while he was creating these images of flowing, intricate, plastic movement he himself was increasingly frail and confined to his bed or chair.

The exhibition then has increasingly larger works - vast wall-size designs which again dazzle with the simplicity of the vision - until we reach their apotheosis, the massive work from 1953 THE SNAIL.



All his years of fauvism, post-modernism, his explorations into colour and into abstractionism have led him to this wonderful distillation of his vision.  It's fascinating to contemplate and also to observe up close, most of the large blocks of coloured paper have smooth edges while some are torn - you can almost see him tearing through the paper with his large scissors - and to see the tiny pinholes in the paper where his assistants have moved them to *just* the right place.

I was involved in a convoluted debate in an art class a few years ago over this painting, one guy simply refusing to give himself over to it and repeating "But why is it called The Snail"?  Because the man in the wheelchair says it is... that's good enough for me.


The year after completing THE SNAIL, Matisse suffered a heart attack, dying three days later aged 84.

Matisse said "By creating these coloured paper cut-outs, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come.  I don't think that I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs.  But I know that it will only be much later that people will realise to what extent the work I am doing today is in step with the future."

The cut-outs are not only ageless but they pulse with the energy and life of their creator.  A life-long atheist, he said he only believed in God when he worked.  Oddly enough, I only believe in God when I see his work and those of any artist of true vision.