Thursday, June 30, 2016

THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

After the very under-whelming TAMING OF THE SHREW on the main stage I must admit I was wary of going into this production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as it was a production directed by the new artistic director Emma Rice and while it was better than I expected it also betrayed all the irksome 'poor theatre' trops that signpost Director Theatre these days.

Daniel Jamieson's THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK tells the story of painter Marc Chagall and his first wife Bella who was an obvious muse for his other-worldly, surreal paintings that also drew their inspiration from their hometown of Vitebsk in Belarus.  We follow how Chagall met the vibrant and educated Bella and how she gave up her own interests in theatre and writing to bolster his painting.

WWI occurs as they marry and have a child (Marc's absence for several days after the birth proving a challenge to Bella) and unhappy with the Soviet appropriation of the arts they start a peripatetic life that takes them from Germany to France and finally the US as again a World War rages around them and news filters through that the Nazis have finished what the Soviets started, the eradication of their home village of Vitebsk.  The pay ends with Bella's sudden death in 1944 and a re-married Chagall haunted by her memory.

The action takes place on an unwieldy set of various wooden poles and canvasses which doesn't help the small acting space or the sightlines in the Wanamaker auditorium.  For a production that tried to invoke the floating otherness of Chagall's paintings I found it remained particularly earhbound.

Again my problem with the schtick of Emma Rice and co. is that for all their much vaunted imaginations it all gets awfully tired after a while - when Chagall tossed snowflakes in the air for the fourth time to denote bad weather I groaned.  It's all surface.. the passion feels very inch-thin.

This is particularly troubling when you are dealing with Marc and Bella Chagall, you never feel the desperation they must have felt at being displaced from their home again and again, in Rice's production we just get two whey-faced, sad, knock-kneed waifs who give the impression of having escaped from a Tim Burton film not a war-torn country where their Jewishness has sealed their fate.

However - despite all the overdone cuteness - there is a delightful performance lurking within it from Audrey Brisson as Bella, she far outshines the droopy sad-sack performance of Marc Antolin as Chagall.  She holds the attention throughout and suggests a three-dimensional, living person amidst the dress-up flavour of the show.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Exit Through The Giftshop - Postcards at an exhibition....

More postcards from exhibitions and galleries...


This came from the recent marvellous National Portrait Gallery exhibition of portraits by John Singer Sargent.  In this atmospheric study, a woman has perched herself onto a stone ballustrade to paint her canvas, dressed for the outdoors in her veiled hat and white coat and dress with her brushes arrayed beside her.  Her companion relaxes beside her and Sargent has captured him either humourously regarding her painting or closing his eyes for a nap.  Behind them the fountain of the painting's title splashes away, matching the white of their clothes and contrasting with the lush green trees beyond.  A painting I could stare at for hours...

2) THE REBELLIOUS SLAVE (1513-15) - Michelangelo

From the Louvre in Paris, this is one of the two in Michelangelo's series of slave staues that is not unfinished and seeming to break free from the block of marble that surrounds it.  Here a bound slave - with the all-important swath of material over his groin - strains and twists to escape his fate.  The similarity facially to his David statue is very noticeable.


A double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino with their city spread out behind them which is one of the many treasures in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Reality dictated their positioning as the Duke has lost an eye and was scarred on the right side of his face from a tournament which had also broke his nose.  The Duchess' jewels and brocaded dress accentuate her grave beauty.   Oddly the Duke and Duchess are also painted on the reverse on these double portraits in a different pose.

4) PORTRAIT OF GIACOMO DORIA (1533-5) - Titian

This imposing portrait by Titian confers on his sitter all the trops of power - the swaggering volumous black garment, the direct gaze of the merchant who was also a diplomat and the marble column he stands in front of.  This can be seen in Oxford's Ashmoleon Museum.

5) OH, JEFF... I LOVE YOU, TOO... BUT... (1964) - Roy Lichtenstein

One of Lichtenstein's classic Pop Art portraits in all it's garish Benday-dotted Magna colour, a picture that while celebrating the banalness of commercial art also holds it's own mystique.  Oddly enough, this exhibition felt unsatisfactory.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW at the Globe Theatre - that sinking feeling...

Shakespeare's reputation has survived 500 years and despite the worst intentions of this production I hope he survives beyond that, but the poor Brummie takes a bit of a kicking with this profoundly irritating version of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.

The Concept.  That thing that overshadows so many productions these days - it seems to take precedence over everything: clarity, casting, logic, all gets thrown out, just as long as everything is crammed and hacked to fit in the jelly mould of The Concept.  And the one for this production is a jaw-dropper...

The director Caroline Byrne's Concept is to set her TAMING OF THE SHREW in 1916 Dublin to celebrate this year's Easter Rising Centenary.  Constant Reader, I'll just leave that there so you can take it in.

I am sure some will argue it has a merit but I find it toe-curlingly "right on", a banal Dave Spart-style idea that offers no insights at all to the plot.  Byrne of course has the obligatory gender-shift in casting which leads to performances of no particular interest. 

Any casting that pushes an agenda - gender or race - reminds me of that spate of musicals that decided it was a wonderful idea to have the cast also play the musical instruments.  So who did you cast?  The best performer for the role or the one who wasn't particularly good but was a genius at the bassoon?

Again I wouldn't mind if Byrne gave us performances that lived in the memory for the right reasons but here they live in my mind's eye for their clanging amateurism.  The chief villain was a Petruchio whose idea of projection was simply to bellow his lines out at the top of his lungs.  It's comedy was laboured - there seemed to be a fixation with scratching crabs - and time and again I wondered why we were being presented with a Theatre In Education production.

I will grudgingly admit that there were possibilities of interest in Aiofe Duffin's Katherine and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman's Bianca.  Duffin in particular should be praised for stepping into the role at the last minute and she at times gave the impression of being a living person but was defeated by the overbearing Edward MacLiam as Petrouchio.  Genevieve Hulme-Beaman also gave signs of life by showing that Bianca wasn't the simpering innocent her suitors took her for but she too had to make her impression with the look-at-me, look-at-me clowning of her co-stars.

Well that's about it... I don't want to waste any more time on this bad production that so distrusted Shakespeare's text that it drops the last lines of the play to substitute a re-written version of the Irish song "The Parting Glass".  Time and again I wondered - if you want to do a play about the Dublin Easter Rising then write your own, don't bother trying to cram a Shakespeare play into that damned Concept jelly mould.

This is the first production I have seen in Emma Rice's Wonder season which launches her tenure as the Globe's Artistic Director.  Yes it made me wonder... but probably not in the way I was supposed to.  Meanwhile I look forward to future productions this year that could be inspired by this stupid Concept - THE HOMECOMING set on the Somme to mark that Centenary?  BEDROOM FARCE set during China's Cultural Revolution which started 50 years ago?

C'mon directors... don't let stupidity stand in your way...

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dvd/150: FORTUNES OF WAR (James Cellan Jones, 1987, tv)

An "intimate epic", FORTUNES OF WAR was a BBC series adapted by Alan Plater from Olivia Manning's novels and marked the first time Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson worked together.

Newly-weds Harriet and college lecturer Guy Pringle arrive in Romania in 1939 but they and the British community find life increasingly dangerous as the Nazis approach.  Among their coterie is Prince Yakimov, a spineless drifter existing from handout to handout.

Rational Harriet realizes that Guy's idealism means he will always puts others' needs before hers but when they flee first to Greece then Egypt, the marriage is stretched to breaking point.

Emma won a BAFTA for this and her pragmatic Harriet is a foretaste of her Oscar-winning Margaret in HOWARDS END.  Branagh is hampered by looking 12 years old but Ronald Pickup is excellent, among a stellar supporting cast, as Yaki, an eccentric fatally adrift in war time.

Shelf or charity shop?  A keeper for the luminous Emma (and the locations)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

THE DEEP BLUE SEA at the Lyttelton Theatre - Helen McCrory's turn to dive in...

Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh, Penelope Keith, Penelope Wilton, Harriet Walter, Greta Scaachi, Rachel Weisz... quite a line-up eh?  Now Helen McCrory can be added to that list as she is the latest actress to play the desperate Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan's masterpiece THE DEEP BLUE SEA which is now revived by Carrie Cracknell at the Lyttelton.

What makes this play Rattigan's masterpiece?  I think because this play more than any other seemed to spring directly from a moment in his life.  Rattigan, a closeted homosexual, had been in a relationship with a young actor Kenneth Morgan in the 1940s who decided to end the relationship, frustrated by his life in the shadows of Rattigan's world.  After a subsequent relationship failed, a distraught Morgan gassed himself.

Three years later and after much revising, THE DEEP BLUE SEA opened in the West End with Peggy Ashcroft as Hester, Kenneth More as her lover Freddie Page and Roland Culver as her estranged husband Sir William Collyer.  Watching the play again, it is remarkable how Rattigan - despite his relationship with Morgan - manages to balance out empathy among these characters and not make it all stacked up in Hester's corner.

West London, 1950s: Hester Collyer is found by her neighbours and landlady lying in front of her living-room gas fire, saved by the fact that the gas meter ran out of money.  Another neighbour who has vague medical experience deals with her ingestion of sleeping pills but what drove her to this, at the time, criminal act of Attempted Suicide?  Over the course of the day we discover that Hester has been driven to despair by the knowledge that her lover Freddie is falling out of love with her.

Hester left a safe, middle-class life as the wife of High Court judge Sir William Collyer soon after meeting the dashing, young WWII test pilot Freddie Page.  Freddie gave Hester the sexual fulfillment she never had with Sir William but, with work becoming increasingly hard due to his drinking, Freddie is tiring of Hester's emotional needs and when he decides to stay at a golfing event rather than return to celebrate her birthday Hester decides to choose "The Deep Blue Sea".

When Freddie returns Hester tries to cover up her actions but when he discovers her suicide note he responds angrily that he can no longer live like this and leaves.  An increasingly desperate Hester discovers he has been given a job offer in South America and attempts to manoeuvre him to return so she can win him back.

Instead she is visited twice by Sir William who, against all odds, offers her the possibility of returning to their married life together but Hester has grown emotionally away from him and ultimately it's Miller, the secretive neighbour with a medical past who provides Hester with a suggestion of renewal.

Carrie Cracknell's stays clear of any revisionist tricks - although the production has a superfluous 'auralscape' which groans and rumbles away as if Hester's West London boarding house will collapse at any minute, it's such a redundant addition.  Other than that production stumble, Cracknell does well in suggesting the quiet desperation in the lives of all the tenants in Mrs Elton's boarding house, not just Hester and Miller but also in the Welchs, a young married couple who are already showing hairline fractures in their life together.

Tom Scutt's boarding-house set has translucent walls which allow you to see the neighbour's comings and goings and shut-in lives which certainly suggests the secrets that Hester is faced with keeping - her unmarried life with Freddie and the hushed-up suicide attempt.  It's problem is that Hester and Freddie's flat is hardly the dingy one that Rattigan envisioned Hester trapped in alone.

At times I felt the production was a bit under-powered in it's male casting.  In the important role of Freddie Tom Burke could certainly do the "surly teenager" behaviour of Hester's lover but I didn't believe for a minute that this man would inspire grand passion in anyone, no matter how good he was in bed.

I also felt Nick Fletcher was too lightweight for the shadowy Mr Miler.  It is slowly revealed that Miller has served time in prison which has resulted in him losing the right to practise medicine and his brusque exterior hides someone who feels just as ostracized as Hester and it is he who plants the vital thought of how she can get through her pain.  It's a great part but here Fletcher seemed to just shine it on.

Much better was Peter Sullivan as Hester's estranged husband Sir William, played younger here than usual.  Collyer is not a bad man, he just cannot give Hester what she now has experienced with Freddie and despite his suggesting that the door is still open for her at the family home, he knows that his safe and mundane life will go on without her and Sullivan captured this perfectly.

There is nice support too from Marion Bailey as the genial landlady Mrs Elton and Yolanda Kettle as the newly-married neighbour Ann, a potential Hester-like wife who pines for her frequently absent husband.

But of course any production of THE DEEP BLUE SEA needs an actress at the top of her game and Helen McCrory gives a performance of nerve-shredding anxiety.  Over the course of the play's single day setting we see Hester defeated, cowed, cunning, loving, distraught but finally... herself.  On paper she can seem a silly, over-emotional woman so you need an actress who is willing to go all the way off the scale to make her situation real and McCrory does just that.  Even though I know the play she still had me wondering how she could come back from the edge of disaster.

It's a talk with Mr Miller who starts the rebirth of Hester followed by a resigned last meeting with Freddie and Helen McCrory was sensational in this last beautifully-written section of the play, as the parting lovers skirt over the undertow of pain in their parting with niceties and attempts to be 'decent' about things.  In the silent last moments of the play, McCrory was magnetic... who else could make cooking a scrambled egg so absorbing? Again, magnificent McCrory makes a role all her own.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Another visit to the Opera House, Covent Garden?  Well don't blame me... they are the ones who keep putting shows on! *points*

The latest triple bill puts three one-act ballets together by three of the Royal Ballet's most popular choreographers - Wayne McGregor's new production OBSIDIAN TEAR, Kenneth MacMillan's haunting THE INVITATION and Christopher Wheeldon's hypnotic WITHIN THE GOLDEN HOUR.  All together they made for an involving evening of dance styles and storytelling.

It was Wayne McGregor's WOOLF WORKS that started the current love-in with the Royal Ballet so we were interested in seeing his latest creation OBSIDIAN TOUR.  It was certainly a haunting experience if a little too austere to launch the evening totally successfully.

Set on a darkened bare stage apart from a broad orange strip along the apron of the stage, nine male dancers in different designer trousers or shirt-dresses perform MacGregor's exacting choreography: tender and physically lyrical to violent and confrontational.  Slowly the dancers circle the one dancer wearing red and he is eventually thrown into the glowing red pit at the back of the stage.  Two dancers - Edward Watson and Matthew Ball - are left onstage before one of them too vanishes into the pit on the very last note of Esa-Pekka Salonen's eerie score.

The nine dancers were all remarkable in their concentrated energy and power with Watson, Ball and Calvin Richardson outstanding as the three main dancers.  It was great to have Salonen there to conduct the score and the moody, bare set was designed by Wayne McGregor too.

At 30 minutes it certainly didn't outstay it's welcome and I would like another opportunity to see it again but must say I found it's stark remoteness hard to concentrate on at the start of the evening.

We were on more traditional ground with the next piece, Kenneth MacMillan's controversial THE INVITATION which debuted in 1960, restaged here by Gary Harris. THE INVITATION was MacMillan's first Royal Ballet production to a commissioned score and he was urged to do it by the company's founder Ninette De Valois.  He chose the Hungarian-born composer Mátyás Seiber to collaborate with but Seiber was tragically killed in a car crash just before the premiere.

A young, impressionable girl leaves boarding school and returns to her mother's austere home.  There she meets her cousin and they both express their tender love for each other.  However their lives change when they are invited to a house party given by a married couple who know the girl's mother.  From their first meeting the husband is drawn to the girl's innocence.

The husband is bored with his clinging wife and after the night's entertainment lead to the guests indulging in sexual dalliances, the wife seduces the confused but willing cousin.  The girl, left alone with the brooding husband, playfully teases him but, misreading the situation, the husband attacks and brutally rapes her.  The cousin reappears but the girl withdraws fearfully from him, her illusions shattered forever. 

Ninette De Valois was upset that MacMillan had choreographed the rape onstage and suggested he put it offstage but he was adamant that this brutality was essential to the action and needed be seen by the audience and she eventually backed him in his decision. 

THE INVITATION still packs a hefty emotional punch largely due to MacMillan starting the piece almost dreamlike thanks to the late Nicholas Georgiadis gauzy set design allied with little moments of characterful humour.  But his choreography is brutally ugly and the last section of the ballet feels shattered and muted after it.

Yasmine Naghdi was perfect as the girl, starting so bright and full of life and ending up a shadow of a shattered being.  David Donnelly as the gauche cousin, Olivia Cowley as the neglected wife and particularly Thomas Whitehead as the husband were all excellent too.

The final ballet was Christopher Wheeldon's shimmering, abstract WITHIN THE GOLDEN HOUR which we first saw earlier this year in another triple bill.  Again I found Wheeldon's choreography remarably fluid and hypnotic with any number of bends, slides and pivots across the stage.  The climax where all 14 dancers are bobbing and weaving seamlessly together like a well-oiled machine was a giddy delight.

There are quite a few visits to Covent Garden coming up due to Owen going a bit mad for the upcoming season by the Bolshoi but towards the end of the year we have a triple bill of Wayne McGregor works including a brand new ballet.  Exciting times ahead!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

THE PHILANDERER at the Orange Tree - lovers' Shavian war of words

Last year marked my first visit to Richmond's intimate Orange Tree Theatre and that was to see a rare production of George Bernard Shaw's social comedy WIDOWERS' HOUSES, directed by the Orange Tree's artistic director Paul Miller.  I enjoyed it much more than I expected so was very curious to see if lightning would strike twice with Miller tackling another early Shaw comedy THE PHILANDERER.  Ouch!  It did.

The poster's photograph looks like the kind of hipster bloke you would see in Hoxton Square and the production is played in modern dress which actually works, Shaw's battle between women and a slippery man is always current!

Written in 1893, Shaw's stance on women having an active say in their lives and loves was so free-thinking that it didn't get a proper theatrical production until 1907 at the always courageous (Royal) Court theatre.  It had however already been published in 1898 in the collection "Plays Unpleasant" with WIDOWERS' HOUSES and MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION and there was a private performance staged in 1905.  Shaw dropped the last act of his play when it was suggested to him that discussing divorce onstage was beyond the pale but Miller has reinstated it to give us Shaw's real intention.

Our philanderer of the title is Leonard Charteris, a man incapable of fidelity who confesses to his new lover, an elegant widow called Grace, that he never did break off his previous affair with the fiery Julia.  When Julia arrives unannounced all Hell breaks loose as she demands that Leonard stays with her but while she pleads with him, Charteris chides her that her actions are counterpoint to her much-trumpeted idea of being a 'new woman'.  Just to complicate matters further Grace and Julia's fathers both appear and are totally confused by the morals of the day.

The arguments spill over to the fashionable Ibsen Club where you are only allowed membership if you are a non-manly man or non-womanly woman in keeping with the great writer's thoughts but needless to say this is all just a pose for most of them.  Also there is Dr Paramore who confesses to Julia's father that he is not in fact dying because the good doctor misdiagnosed him.  If only he could experiment on a bigger range of animals, then he could have made a proper diagnosis!  One thing he is sure of is that he adores the tempestuous Julia and she actually accepts the doctor's marriage proposal to spite Leonard - not realizing that he arranged it all.

Shaw's last act takes place four years later and - surprise surprise - both Julia and Paramore are both thoroughly bored with each other and Paramore has started a relationship with - what a surprise - the widow Grace.  To divorce or not divorce?  How does Julia feel about Grace being a rival again?  And more importantly, can Leonard stay teflon-coated when women are concerned?

Paul Miller's production crackled with Shaw's wit and was a joy to experience, I think I enjoy early Shaw the best, before he became a bit of a pompous old windbag.  It was interesting that THE PHILANDERER comes relatively soon after seeing his MAN AND SUPERMAN where another man tries to escape from the marauding chasing woman but THE PHILANDERER makes it's point with a great deal more economy.

Miller's cast of eight were all impressive at keeping Shaw's emotional souffle whipped up.  Rupert Young could have been a bit more dangerous as the philanderer Leonard but was nicely laid-back and wisely stayed out of the way of the deliciously explosive Julia of Dorothea Myer-Bennett who was so effective as Nerissa in MERCHANT OF VENICE at the Globe Theatre last year.  Here she caught the quicksilver quality of Julia, desperately trying to be a cynical, modern woman but betrayed by her emotions.

I liked the wry coolness of Helen Bradbury's Grace, the wheedling neediness of Christopher Staines' Dr. Paramore and the double act of exasperated fathers from Mark Tandy's Cuthbertson and Michael Lumsden's Colonel Craven, both clinging on to a vanishing world.  There was also a saucy, eye-catching performance from Paksie Vernon as Julia's cynical younger sister Sylvia.

THE PHILANDERER is on until the 26th June and is well worth a visit to the wilds of Richmond.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Dvd/150: A FAREWELL TO ARMS (Frank Borzage, 1932)

Sometimes you just have to surrender to a film especially when it's directed by the great Frank Borzage.  Although his films are sweepingly operatic in tone, Borzage always focussed on the people trapped by their emotions and circumstances.

Based on Ernest Hemingway's novel, Gary Cooper is excellent as Frederic, the carefree American ambulance driver who meets and falls in love with Helen Hayes' English nurse Catherine in WWI Italy.  Hayes is fine as Catherine but her playing style has dated compared to Cooper's more contemporary persona.

The lovers are separated by war and the jealous meddling of Frederic's friend Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou) and while Frederic battles his way through war-torn Italy, Hayes discovers she is pregnant and flees to neutral Switzerland.

Both are broken by their lives apart but fate allows them a reunion as the bells announce the Armistice and Borzage unleashes his fabulously cinematic, emotionally devastating ending.

Shelf or charity shop? Hemingway might have disliked it but what did he know?  I will happily blub through this again...

Exit Through The Giftshop - Postcards at an exhibition....

Now I have sorted out my scanner (bloody Windows 10!) here are some more postcards from exhibitions and galleries...

1) SOFA and CHAIRS (1898 - 1904) - Antoni Gaudi with Aleix Clapés

This came from the Gaudí museum at his home in Parc Guell, and features one of his furniture designs for the Ibarz-Marco family.  Now I love a couch and this one screamed "sit on me"!  Great art nouveau fin de siécle furniture and loving the big and boldly distinctive floral design.

2) HIPPOPOTAMUS (1981 - 1885 bc) - unknown

I spent ages walking around the Egyptian rooms in the NY Metropolitan Museum trying to find this chap as he featured heavily in the gift shop in many different shapes and sizes but eventually found him in a glass case along with other finds from the tomb of Senbi.  He is tiny so can be easily overlooked - I think he's gorgeous and would have him away if I could.  He dates from Ancient Egypt's 12th Dynasty.

3) MEDUSA (1595-8) - Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio

This is a detail of Caravaggio's magnificent depiction of Medusa's decapitated head frozen forever on Perseus' shield.  If you ever want to find it in the Uffizi in Florence just head for the exit and it is one of the last paintings you will see - just look for the permanent huddle of viewers around it.  A visceral, fascinating image to contemplate.

4) The WINGED VICTORY OF SAMOTHRACE (circa 190 bc) - unknown

How can something so solid and imposing also be so suggestive of movement and grace?  The white marble figure of Nike is awesome in all it's shattered majesty and a must-see when visiting the Louvre in Paris.

5) The BREWHOUSE, COOKHAM (1957) - Stanley Spencer

Bought at the charming Stanley Spencer Gallery in his hometown of Cookham in Berkshire, this is a wonderfully detailed painting of the late 15th Century listed building in the village.  You can fair hear the hum of bees and the clatter of plates coming through the open doorway as you marvel at Spencer's intricate handling of the foliage that softens the bricks and mortar of the house