Natural Selection exhibition at the Former Newington Library review *****

image

Andy Holden and Peter Holden: Natural Selection

Artangel at the Former Newington Library, 24th November 2017

This might just be the best exhibition I have seen this year. The Former Newington Library was new to me I confess, and reeks of institutional instruction, which matched the tone of this “installation” to a tee. Apparently it used to contained the natural history collection of a father and son, Richard and Henry Cumming. Well done to Artangel for sniffing out the space and to video artist/cartoonist/animator Andy Holden, (who i See has his own band, the Grubby Mitts), and his ornithologist Dad, Peter, for creating this marvel.

It all apparently started when Andy, who could have stepped straight out of a 1970s Open University TV programme, saw a blackbird building a nest in Dad’s garden. Cravatted Peter Holden, who could in turn have stepped straight off Blue Peter, (in fact he was did), is an avian guru and, when Andy returned home after art school, their shared passion was rekindled. This then, even before we get to the bird and other stuff, is a poignant study of a father and son relationship. (It even begins with Andy in the pram wrestling with a book on birds).

After a series of joint lectures Andy started to gather material for the first part of the exhibition on bird’s nests. Upstairs there are some marvellous examples of nests contained in a vitrine in an “old style” museum format, another collection of feathers, a smattering of bark, a giant recreation of a bowerbird’s bower and some other bits and pieces. Not all is what is seems: this turned wooden objects are created from sonograms of bird song and some of the nests were created by Andy and mixed in with the real thing. Art and nature start to intertwine.

A quick perusal and then you sit down for the video with father and son taking it in turns to explain and illuminate, whilst a central screen shows footage from their own field trips, as well as various documentaries and the like. They look like old style nature documentaries but as father and son range through types of nests, nest sites and nest materials, some fascinating themes emerge. Peter Holden focusses on the “scientific” explanations of nesting behaviour, Andy gets you thinking about the bird as creator, even “artist”. The “practical” and the “beautiful” are explored.

How do those birds who build these elaborate structures “know” what to do? Do they have a picture in their “minds” of what they want the nest to look like? Why does the bowerbird go to so much effort in creating his bower, and the extraordinary display of themed objects he gathers? How does this relate to the Holdens’ own collections? Can it really just be a process of “sexual selection”? How do partners, families and communities collaborate (various bird species of course but also here father and son)?

Downstairs we first encounter a rook character in a cartoon strip that Andy created which has his father Peter as a “Mr Holden” charged with keeping the rook in line. The father/son relationship mined further. 

We also have another “collection”, How the Artist was Lead to a Study of Nature, which recreates the hoard of 7,130 eggs police discovered at a “collector’s house in 2006. These eggs are laid out on the floor in cardboard and plastic boxes, as they were on discovery, which also emphasises their fragility and increases the level of temptation for us the audience as these are undeniably beautiful objects. As a kid I was fascinated by birds, and the opportunities the world of ornithology gave to a boy who craved the pleasure of classification. Observing, ordering, listing, collecting. This never extended to eggs, that was already forbidden, but I could see the attraction. This, fortunately, never developed into a full blown, twitching habit, I have seen the impact this can have first hand, but I understand the obsession.

Next door is a video installation, The Opposite of Time, narrated this time by Andy Holden alone, in the form of an animated crow who first appeared in Peter’s RSPB magazine contributions. The crow passes through real habitats, notably when charting the battle between egg “collectors’ and the RSPB and volunteers over the first ospreys to return to Scotland in the 1960s. However the crow, who ages, also flies across multiple paintings, representing the best of the British landscape artistic tradition (Constable, Turner, Nash, Ravilious, Hockney). There is a further screen showing photos and some film which documents the history of egg collecting in the UK, from aristocratic pursuit by “gentlemen of science”, through to the 1954 Act which criminalised it and finally on to the “working-class” undercover activity of more recent decades.

This becomes an insightful analysis of the psychology of collecting, and how the public and scientific consensus on the morality of the “hobby” has changed through time. What makes the desire to possess so powerful that “collectors’ are prepared to destroy the very thing they purport to love? How can we enjoy such aesthetically exquisite objects, knowing their history? What gives humans the right to collect from nature? Why were toffs feted for their “scientific advances”, whilst the dispossessed collectors of today are banged up?

There are multiple parallels through the exhibition with “human” artists. The materials used by sculptors (Andy Goldsworthy), the landscape artists (Richard Long’s mud), the forms we encounter (Barbara Hepworth eggs), the collections and classifications of conceptualists (Susan Hiller), the ready mades and found objects tradition (from Duchamp on), the Pollock like lines on many of the eggs, the watercolour like pastels. Play your own game with this.

So there you have it. A natural history programme. An introduction to aesthetics. A history of landscape art. A lecture on class. Science and art. Father and son. Nature and nurture. Passion and obsession. Nerdiness. Eccentricity. Nostalgia. Some very pretty things. All in a couple of ramshackle rooms in SE17. The exhibition was extended but I think is now over. I do hope it gets another outing. I really, really need to see it again. 

 

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White exhibition at the National Gallery review ****

telemmglpict000143874513_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqbxmmpledrwark03csdncgt09r0lytmfjbj_zur1l3m0

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White

National Gallery, 22nd November 2017

For as long as there has been Western art there has been black and white painting. Used in preparation for works in colour, to heighten the impact of light on a subject, to “imitate” other art forms such as sculpture and photography, or simply for its own aesthetic power, it seems like many of the big names in the canon have given monochrome painting, or something close to it, a whirl.

That’s pretty much all I learnt from this exhibition. No matter. There are more than enough wonderful paintings on display to paper over the fact that the thin premise is stretched beyond breaking point. And I don’t care about the “omissions” that the criterati always start bouncing up and down about whenever these thematic overviews are constructed. Of course I would be bloody ecstatic if Guernica was included, or a bunch of Goya’s “black paintings” had filled a room here, (mind you they have way more colour in them than you might think), but I think I get why they are not there. I also get why there are no drawings, the clue is in the exhibition title. Though they have smuggled in van Eyck’s sketch of St Barbara – fair dos though its van Eyck. Oh, and a piece of stained glass. And a manuscript. Hmm this pedantry thing is contagious.  Let’s just work with what we have instead of having a pop at the curators for stuff that plainly they had no chance of borrowing.

So what stood out for me. Well the Hans Memling altarpiece, the Donne Triptych from 1478, is a stunner. Shown partially closed so that we can see through to the intense colours of the Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, with the saints Christopher and Anthony painted in grisaille on the outside panels looking like stone statues. Memling’s figures always look a bit “softer” to me than say van Eyck from a few decades prior, and the compositions more straightforward. I was also taken with the charming Nativity from another Netherlandish master, Petrus Christus (from around 1450) which was ostensibly included to show off the way grisaille was originally used in the margins of devotional paintings, here to create a frame from an architectural arch with some Old Testament action portrayed

in the same room I was also drawn to a couple of drapery studies from two of the finest Renaissance draughtsmen, Ghirlandaio (this from about 1472) and Albrecht Durer, a spooky women seen from behind from 1521. I know these are just bits of cloth but I can get very excited about cloth in Renaissance pictures and the monochrome heightens the contrast between light and shade.

In the next room most people seemed drawn to Ingres’s Odalisque in Grisaille, a monochrome version of his colour painting of the same nude lady subject. Her skin does have a strange waxy quality here but I am always a little uncomfortable in the presence of nudes (pictorially I mean, in real life I would be mortified). There are plenty of other stunners on show in this room led by the Jan van Eyck St Barbara from 1437, executed in silverpoint and touched up with ink and some oil in the background. Apparently the first deliberate monochrome work in Western art, it is not clear if this was what he intended, but it is amazing to see the detail of its creation close up.

Opposite this is a Maternity from the end of the C19 by Eugene Carriere, a Symbolist, which is striking for its ghostly representation of a serene, but somehow pained, mother and daughter, which echoes a classic Madonna and child. Next door to this is Picasso’s Infanta Margarita Maria from 1957, the little weeble princess from Las Meninas, here rendered in partially cubist fashion. Apparently he rendered all the characters from Velazquez’s meta masterpiece in all manner of ways, but this shows why PP is the man when it comes to monochrome and captures the essence of the brattish Infanta. I don’t know if she was a brat but she always looks pretty Veruca Salt, high maintenance to me.

As if that wasn’t enough there is also one of those scratchy, black and white oils from Giacometti, here of wife Annette from 1957, where he seems to obsessively paw at the paint to capture the spirit of the sitter. Colour never really played a part in Giacometti’s work so no surprise he is here.

The next room has a whole bunch of paintings intended to mimic sculpture including a Titian and a Tiepolo for those inclined to that sort of thing (I am not). The Mantegna is worth a good peek, with all its different stone colours, and dramatic movement, but it is quite busy. No surprise then that I was drawn to the Jan van Eyck Annunciation diptych from 1433-35. These amazing grisaille figures, unlike the Memling, were inside the diptych panels and were meant to emulate the small devotional panels made in prior periods from ivory. You could touch them. I mean don’t touch them. That will get you into a lot of trouble but they are perfect. The bottom of the plinths sit on the wooden frames, the niches recede into inky blackness, the drapes are incredible, the fingers so elegant yet the lady grasps her bible quite firmly, they both seem to have the best curling tongs ever made for hair, the shadow cast by the angels wings is properly fuzzy and the gravity defying stone dove makes me snigger every time. I say every time. I mean the one time I stood in front of this for an inordinately long time in the Thyssen-Bornemisza where it is housed along with some other Northern Renaissance gems. The Prado done the road has more than its fair share of Netherlandish wonders, best of all van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, worth getting on a plane to Madrid all by itself, but the T-B, gets close if you like this sort of thing. And the T-B is great if you want a whizz through Western art, with its half an Ark approach (one of everything).

Next door to this van Eyck is the equally extraordinary Head of A Woman (1520) from that egotist Durer again. It is a drawing, but what a drawing. Hair parted in the middle, eyes closed but not in devotion, head tilted back, round face, sort of chin dimple, light on the forehead, this is a very particular pose and a very particular model. Shiny, like metal. No sign at all of his preparation. He real was a clever fellow.

In the next room the curators have, unsurprisingly, snuck in a Rembrandt from the NG vaults, Ecce Homo, which is the height of drama. The oil from 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf takes a famous painting by Chardin, La Pourvoiese, which was turned into a best selling print, and then creates the illusion of broken glass on top. It has to be seen to be believed, is a fine addition to the long line of deconstructed art works and the curators are pleased as punch with the inclusion, but the joke wears off pretty quickly. Nothing else to detain me in that room, you may feel differently, that is your prerogative, so on to the next room, where the influence of the camera is writ large.

I got on very well with Norwegian Peder Balke’s landscapes and seascapes. They are the height of romanticism and a teeny weeny bit melodramatic but they stir the soul, no doubt about that. Who doesn’t like wind and waves, and his tiny little Tempest from 1862, looks like it was painted “plein air”, in fact with plenty of air. I imagine the salt in the old fella’s beard and the wind knocking over his easel.

The Image as Burden (1993) from Marlene Dumas, who is new to me, is very striking as is Vija Celmins Night Sky no 3 (1991) inspired by Jasper Johns. Yet the eye is drawn in this room to Chuck Close’s gigantic portrait of American sculptor Joel Shapiro. Close was no mean photographer and his early oils used cropped portraits as the source for hyper realist, monochrome likenesses that show every wrinkle and blemish on the skin and every detail of the sitter’s features. This one however dates from 1993. By now Close was paralysed and had to attach the brush to his arm. He therefore uses a myriad of ovals within squares in different tones to build up the portrait. From afar it is like a pixellated but still very graphic and exact likeness. Close up it dissolves into near abstraction

We are then treated to the master of the “photo as painting” in Gerhard Richter. with his Helga Matura with her Fiance, which amazingly was painted in 1966. Here Richter takes his trademark photo, this time from Quick magazine, as the source. Ms Matura was a prostitute who was brutally murdered, and was the subject of salacious press attention. Richter’s blurring technique and the grey palette, “the ideal colour for indifference”, is intended to create an emotional distance from the subjects and the event. It works. I still curse the fact that  missed the Richter retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2011.

On to the final, (well not quite final), room. Monochromatism, in its purest black and white form, has an obvious attraction for artists drawn to abstraction so there was much to choose from here. Pride of place, predictably, goes to a Malevich Black Square (1929) which, i didn’t know until now, was originally hung high up in a corner to echo Russian icon paintings. Swivelling round you take in a Black and White Bar I from Elsworth Kelly rendered in entirely flat paint, an Op Art classic Horizontal Vibration (1961) from, guess who, Bridget Riley, one of those ropey “closed door” grey tortoiseshell numbers from Jasper Johns, one of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square, 1965, a slightly dull Frank Stella, Tomlinson School Park I, 1959, one of Cy Twombly squiggly diptych from 1970, which, annoyingly, I was somewhat taken with, and a beautiful sheet of painted grey glass from our friend Gerhard Richter called Grey Mirror (1992, where does he think these titles up from).

Like I say this room is about as minimally abstracted as it gets. Mind you the final room has nothing in it. Except you bathed in yellow sodium light, so that you gradually turn grey as all the colour drains away. This is the court jester Olafur Eliasson playing tricks with you in his Room for One Colour from 1997. He was the chap he put that great big misty sun in the Tate and I saw another installation based on rippling water in Belgium somewhere that blew me away. The man is a marvel, (well the man, his studio and all his collaborators), who twists the basic elements, air, water, light, temperature, fire (well maybe not fire, yet), and then messes about with them using a hefty dose of technology to upset with the perception buttons in our heads. Sometimes daft, usually playful, and always, from the sound of them, beautiful, his large scale installations probably take ages to create and cost a bomb, but create delight. We need more delight.

So a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition even if its purpose is a bit tenuous. Perhaps best of all was the fact that the exhibition was not crowded so you can breathe and, most importantly, look. Some of the NG “Old Master” blockbusters in the bowels of the Sainsbury wing are so preposterously stuffed with punters at all times of the day and evening that, frankly, there is little point going. Not so here. You get to see a who’s who of Western art giants, with their technique exposed.

The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****

suppliant-women

The Suppliant Women

Young Vic, 21st November 2017

Before I get started let us just remind ourselves what a marvellous place the Young Vic is. I don’t just mean the quality and quantity of its productions, though heaven knows under the artistic stewardship of David Lan, this has risen to great heights. Not everything works but it is never for lack of trying. Kwame Kwei-Armah has big shoes to fill, though by all accounts he is well capable of doing so, even if the SO and I weren’t entirely persuaded by his latest directorial outing, The Lady From The Sea at the Donmar.

No it is the “feel” of the place that is the thing and the joy of the experience. It is always busy, it seems to thrive on inclusivity and diversity, though what would I know as a middle-aged, white, straight, rich, liberal, hand-wringing bloke, and everyone involved with the theatre is always so polite, welcoming and jolly. I am a right pain in the arse with my seating demands, but the front of house never fails to calmly sort things out, as they did for this performance. So thank you very much Young Vic.

Now I had been looking forward to this production of the from the Actors Touring Company based on the reviews from the run at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. (I see the Lyceum has a new version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and David Greig’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors coming up next year – lucky folk). Your man Aeschylus wrote this 2500 years ago, (it was first performed in 463 BCE), but the issues it examines are just as relevant today. How should we treat refugees, the suppliants of the title? What rights do people have to return to their ancestral homelands? Where do we belong? How should refugees be treated in their new home and how should they in turn behave? Why do we have such a deep fear of the other? How can women be forced into marriage? How do women escape sexual violence? How powerful can women’s voices be when they come together?

It is all in there. David Greig, as in all modern adaptions, has to take a direct line translation, here by Ian Ruffell, and make it clear to today’s audience. The wonder is that it apparently remains pretty true to the original. I got the text. It is a beautiful read. The rhythms jump off the page. The chorus here is, unusually for a Greek play, the protagonist and has a lot to say, literally and metaphorically. Director Ramin Gray, together with composer John Browne and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies, takes this structure and conjure up an astonishing feat, and feast, of movement and verse. Percussionist Ben Burton and Callum Armstrong, who has conjured up a real, live double Aulos (the contemporary Greek pipe), are outstanding.

Really. If you want to see the best “musical” in London then come here. Except that it is now over (oops sorry) and it isn’t the best musical in London, not whilst Follies is still on. Oh and I haven’t seen any other current musicals which I guess makes me a somewhat unreliable witness. BTW I note that if you are a) available and b) a party of one, or two at most, and c) enterprising there are normally returns on most days if you still haven’t seen Follies

The whole spectacle of this Supplicant Women is made even more remarkable by the fierce performances of the non-professional chorus of young women playing the supplicants drawn from the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. It is not just their verse, their singing and their dance and movement which impresses, but their complete commitment to the story which impresses. All after just a couple of months of rehearsal. Staggering. At the end you could see the pride in the performance of these women felt by the local lads ,who had a smaller involvement as the chorus of Egyptians come back to claim their would be brides, and the more mature amateurs who made up the Athenian citizens who tentatively welcome the supplicants.

Oscar Batterham as King Pelasgos, who agonises before persuading his people to accept the Women and Omar Ebrahim, who switches from Danaos, the “father” of the Women to the brutal Egyptian Herald, in the blink of an eye, as well as acting as our MC, are both excellent. However Gemma May, as the Chorus leader, stood out for me, not just for the clarity with which she delivered the lines specifically carved out for her, but the way she, well er, led the Chorus.

Fidelity to the Greek original includes a libation from an academic, whose name to my shame I have forgotten, which explained, as was the custom, who funded the performances, and a dedication to Bacchus, which involved a mediocre (I hope) bottle of red being poured on to the suitably practical breeze block flooring of Lizzie’s Clachan’s elegant set.

We have Aeschylus to thank for the concept of tragedy, and for the introduction of more than one character alongside the chorus. Only seven of his plays remain including the three that make up the extraordinary Oresteia, which should be seen by everyone at least once. The other two plays which make up the Danaids trilogy alongside The Suppliants are lost. In the Persians he actually had the temerity to warn his fellow citizens about gloating too much over their victories. In fact he fought against the Persians and his military exploits brought him more fame than his playwriting, despite the fact he ruled supreme in the Dionysia through the 470s and 460s BCE. One final lesson we can learn from Aeschylus: don’t stand directly under an eagle in case it drops a tortoise on your head. Unlikely I grant you but this apparently is how he met his end.

So there you have it. All the big questions, one way and another, were covered off by Aeschylus and his mates, Sophocles and Euripides, whilst the best we Brits could manage at the time were a lot of beakers, pointlessly shifting huge lumps of stone to catch the sun one day a year and pining for a decent hairdresser. To be fair, in all these Greek dramas, you do have to get your head around the intervention of the gods. Specifically in the Suppliant Women the somewhat erratic Zeus. For he it was who caused the women to end up being born in Egypt after he got the hots for a cow lady, Io, from whom the Suppliants were descended. And it is to Zeus they turn to help them when they cross the Med. If it was me I might be a little wary of appealing to the very bloke who indirectly got me into this predicament. Mind you that’s the problem with these top gods, especially the monotheistic ones. Simultaneously good cop, bad cop, vengeful then loving, all to keep us on our toes.

I am guessing that this version of the Suppliant Women will engage further communities after having visited Bern in Switzerland. Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester< Hong Kong, as well as London.  If so please seek it out. It is about as perfect a testament to the power of theatre, then (Ancient Greece) as now., and a paean to the collective power of women. It is also the first time the word “democracy” ever appeared in writing, albeit in the form of an arch pun from the Chorus. Precious stuff.

The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

the2bfirm2breview2bhampstead2btheatre2bflyer

The Firm

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 22nd November 2017

How does the Tourist choose whether to see a play?

Writer first, since he/she is the wellspring from which all else flows. In the end all there is is text, actors and audience. And observers and observed have nothing to share without the text. Poor text, poor play. Nothing anyone else can do about that.

Venue second. A function of convenience and familiarity, but also, not unreasonably, if you have enjoyed one production at a theatre, you may well enjoy another. This will probably reflect the vision of the artistic team and the rather grubbier fact of the demographic the executive team wants to prise cash from. On the downside, there are venues where comfort is so compromised that price does not represent value and must be avoided.

Then there is the subject. Not always easy to divine for new plays from the blurbs, teasers and trailers but something needs to pique my interest. As it happens most new drama has its finger firmly on the pulse or contrives relevance from places or times far removed from my cosy little world.

Director next. Same principle as the writer, if you have enjoyed their way of doing things once you may well do again, though this is not guaranteed.

Reviews of course, but the Tourist’s addiction and simple economics (why paid 70 quid in the West End when I can get a top seat for half the price or less at the original production at the Royal Court or Almeida), means that reviews only help for transferred in productions.

Cast, relevant but not a deal breaker, though expectations rise when favourite names are announced.

Ideally a number of these factors come together. Sometimes though the Tourist takes a punt. As he did with The Firm. Downstairs at the Hampstead normally serves me well, but this is by no means guaranteed. I was interested in the subject, a gang reunited, but concerned it might lurch into cliche. I knew nothing about the work of playwright Roy Williams, director Denis Lawson or designer Alex Marker. I had not seen any of the cast on stage as far as I could remember (based on their bios), with the exception of Clarence Smith. I would like to pretend I had a feeling but I didn’t. And to cap it all I pushed my just-in-time arrival strategy to the limit. So a quick Jimmy, an inward groan at the 1hr 40mins run time and the only seat left tucked in a far corner (mind you the HT Downstairs benches are comfy).

As it turns out this is an excellent play and probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. Alex Marker’s set transformed the reconfigured Downstairs space into a “sophisticated” urban bar, complete with pristine Wurlitzer juke box and array of aspirational spirits brands. We first encounter the nattily dressed Gus (Clinton Blake) who owns the bar (and as we discover quite a tidy portfolio of assets elsewhere) bantering with Leslie (Jay Simpson), the archetypal (and white) Sarf Londoner who has recently left prison. Gus and Leslie are waiting for Shaun to arrive. A party in his honour is planned followed by a night out on the town and then a trip to the Palace (Selhurst Park not down the Mall, for regrettably they are Eagles) the next day. Shaun never comes. The rest of the “The Firm” do pitch up though, first stout Trent (Delroy Atkinson) followed by a nervous and limping Selwyn (Clarence Smith). But Selwyn brings a young stranger with him, Fraser (Simon Coombs) who, for various reasons, unsettles the gang. He comes with a proposal.

I’ll stop there. This all sounds way more mysterious than it actually is. This is an absolutely riveting insight into the nature of manhood, the camaraderie of criminality, the value of loyalties, the meaning of success and the trials of friendship. These forty/fifty somethings were happiest in the past, right the way back to when they first embarked on their “life of crime”, by The Wall near their school. The pace at which Roy Williams releases the many revelations that show who the characters are and what they have become, is perfect. We learn enough, but not too much, to keep the dramatic intensity on the boil. We see the damage the past has done and we witness the final break-up of the gang. We see the love and the jealousy the mates have. There is a Pinteresque threat of violence and malice as you might expect throughout, most notably from Gus, who was the leader of the gang, and who is the only one to have avoided a stretch inside. He probes and manipulates the others, until they begin, in their various ways to fight back.

It is also very funny. The dialogue is utterly believable, the banter is spot on. The interplay between the cast is superb. Clinton Blake’s Gus is preening bully, but it is clear from the off that he is troubled. Jay Simpson excels as Leslie, the mediator and the joker, who is trying to start again. (If anyone is ever looking for a Joe Strummer in a play about the Clash here’s you man). Delroy Atkinson as Trent, at first submissive, gradually asserts himself and, in a very powerful scene, shows himself as the only one of the gang capable of pacifying the psychologically damaged and desperate Selwyn of Clarence Smith. Simon Coombs as “younger” Fraser is insolent and cocky, but, in a neat inversion, shows some maturity that escapes the others. His final scene with a defeated Gus is gripping.

The play offers no moral perspective on gang membership. It does make abundantly clear though that for men of current, this and proceeding generations, in the absence of other opportunities, this way of life, and the crime that comes with it, is the clearest path to securing the validation and respect of others. It also shows how fragile this respect can turn out to me and how poor men are in admitting, articulating and coping with their frailties and failings.

I may be guilty of reading too much into the play but that is what I saw. I highly recommend it. Roy Wilkins actually references Goodfellas and West Side Story in the dialogue to remind us of other masterful portrayals of this subject. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t Goodfellas, but in its own way it is similarly involving. I understand that Mr Williams has mined issues of race, sport, poverty, random violence and teen parenthood in previous works, as well as the father/son relationship in Soul, his last play about the death of Marvyn Gaye. I really hope I get an opportunity to see some of them. He really, really has the measure of his stories and characters.

 

 

 

Stockhausen’s Stimmung at the Barbican ****

3672

Singcircle

Barbican Hall, 20th November 2017

  • Jacqueline Barron – soprano
  • Zoe Freedman – soprano
  • Heather Cairncross – mezzo-soprano
  • Guy Elliott – tenor
  • Angus Smith – tenor
  • Gregory Rose – bass/director
  • Robert Henke – laser artist
  • Kathinka Pasveer – sound projection
  • Stephen Montague – assistant sound projection
  • Reinhard Klose – sound engineer

Karlheinz Stockhausen

  • Stimmung
  • Cosmic Pulses

Right you had to be there OK. Stockhausen is the great big looming presence that hangs over the whole of modern classical music. A whole new way of thinking about music. A whole new sound world. Music as mathematics. Rigorously intellectual. A control freak whose vision extended well beyond this earth into our wider universe. A mystic. A teacher. An inspiration. Certainly bonkers.

That’s the myth anyway. I have never been brave enough to take the plunge on a recording or concert previously, figuring it was going to be well beyond me, and probably painful. Yet there comes a time in every man’s life, (well probably not yours I suspect), when he has to step up to the plate and take on the musical challenge. I would be willing to bet though that I was not the only one in the packed Barbican Hall who was new to this and approaching it with some trepidation. Seriously they can’t all have been Stockhausen devotees.

I was totally unprepared then for what followed. For this is actually a pleasant piece of music which, for me, turned out to be comparable with listening to the best of Renaissance vocal music. It takes a bit of getting used to the “pure harmonics” sound and the way that the six voices are used, and the text, with all its sexist, priapic boasting, and barking out of various gods’ names, is nonsense. But the sounds and patterns of the voices are fascinating and, at times, just beautiful. Like a motet, honestly.

Mr Stockhausen takes the high pitches that shadow every natural note, or fundamental as he termed it, and asks his singers, by shifting the position of tongue and lips, to draw out these high pitches and expose the “harmonics”. Starting with a low B flat he then takes five ascending notes and creates a new vocabulary of harmonics. From this he conjured up Stimmung. There are 51 different parts or “models”, with each male voice leading 9 of the parts and each female 8. The “lead” for each part waits for the rest of the ensemble to merge their previous material into their “lead”, to achieve “identity” in terms of tempo, rhythm and dynamic, and then, with a flick of the hand, passes on the “lead” to whoever comes next. This means the performance can vary depending on how long the “identities” take to emerge and in what order the “models” are taken. In 29 sections the “magic” god words ring out and there are some other recognisable words popping up elsewhere (“barber shop” being the funniest). All clear. Well the surprising thing is that the structure is clear, crystal clear.

I know it sounds daft. But it isn’t. It is captivating. Not much to look at mind you. Six people sat round an IKEA bubble lamp with microphones, (mind you it does look a bit retro 70s cool), gurning and sometimes waving. But it sounds divine. Literally.

Singcircle were founded in 1976 by Gregory Rose, who is still there. They have performed Stimmung over 50 times. It is clearly a tricky thing to pull off. This was the last ever performance so certainly poignant. Kathinka Pasveer, the sound projectionist, was one of Stockhausen’s leading acolytes and interpreters so no-one better to mix the whole. I think I heard a couple of electronic grunts along the way but who cares. You closed your eyes and just let the transcendent sounds swirl over, around and through you. Jeez I am travelling back in time to my long-hair days in the mid 70s.

Stimmung though was enough for me. I passed on the second piece, Cosmic Pulses, which came after the interval. No point pushing my luck I reckoned. I had checked it out ahead of the gig and could see that this was likely to be a step too far. One of Stockhausen’s last purely electronic works, from 2007, it is a knotty mathematical puzzle built on 24 structured loops, in a pitch range of seven octaves, played through 8 speakers. It looks intimidating on paper, there is an extract of the “score” in the programme to prove the point. In reality it is terrifying. Even with a fancy laser show I could tell this wasn’t going to do it for me.

So just Stimmung then. One revelation was more than enough on the night. This gets performed by other vocal groups, who presumably know what they are doing. When it does do not hesitate if you have any interest at all in music, of whatever form. I am off to search out a decent recording.

 

 

 

Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican review **

3442

Basquiat: Boom For Real

Barbican Art Gallery

I just don’t get it. Why are punters and critics raving about this broad retrospective of the artistic myth that was/is Jean-Michel Basquiat? I completely understand how significant an artistic/cultural phenomenon he was before his early death in 1988 (aged 27, same age as Masaccio, and various rock’n’roll heroes), and he definitely comes across as an interesting bloke, living in interesting times, mixing with interesting people in an interesting city. But “one of the most significant painters of the 20th century” as the intro to the exhibition claims. Come on. Picasso, Juan Gris, Malevich, Chagall, David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele, George Grosz, Oscar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Gwen John, Lucien Freud Agnes Martin, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Rothko, Clyfford Still, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Hamilton, Alex Katz, Peter Doig, Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter. That’s just some of the painters I think are better, Even Hockney, for all his faults, is a way better artist in my book than Basquiat. 

Maybe his reputation simply reflects the price of his art. If a Japanese collector wants to pay $110m for one of Basquiat’s works who am I to argue. The same fella paid $57m for another one last year. I guess he must like them. Mind you some numpty just paid $450m for a Leonardo that probably isn’t. I hope whoever it is hands out the readies to charities on a regular basis and pays his or her, or maybe its, taxes.

For me this does point up a whole bunch of necessary, (and probably unpleasant), fictions on which our world is hooked. The fiction of money. The buyer presses a key to conjure up some electronic corn, the seller parks it somewhere in a different server, They both believe it is real. The notion of value. The value of a piece of art is a function of who paid for it in the first place, and for what purpose, whether it survived, so how scarce it is, and how it is now viewed by experts (whose opinions change, a lot). We, the viewing public, also now get a look in, if we like what we see. Let us call this the aesthetic value. This may not be synonymous with its use value. Its exchange value, given its unique character, is likely to be its price, and this can be anything that a buyer wants it to be. A unique object, a tiny coterie of buyers, a rigged market. Clearly price is no indication of value. We also have the fiction of legal ownership sitting behind this Leonardo transaction. The seller’s fortune was built on potash. Once a state asset, now his. Right time, right place, right attitude. And finally we have the prosiac fiction that Salvator Mundi may not actually have been painted by the hand of the great Renaissance polymath. Does it matter? No idea.

Anyway Boom for Real kicks off with some early works from the New York/New Wave exhibition in 1981. There are some naive townscapes which stand out and some of the trademark self portrait skulls. We then see J-MB’s gnomic graffiti work as SAMO© and tour through late 1970’s and 1980s New York, meeting some of his chums and collaborators along the way. Music (he was in a band), video, performance, clubs, postcards, photos, flyers, poetry, helmets, other stuff. Not much visible in the way of drugs, best keep that under wraps (no pun intended), though his habit exudes out of the later works. There is no doubt that J-MB got about a bit and that the New York scene of this period was pretty exciting. No wave, new wave, Mudd Club, Club 57. Most of the music that came out of this era is shite, trust me, but it did give us the mighty Talking Heads, and, latterly, Swans, and the first stirrings of hip hop. Of course this was all middle class, white art students feeding off the prior generations of New York cool, but, given the quality of the legacy, this was heady stuff. (We Brits had to make do with proper working class, DIY, Punk and its antecedents – I for one was happy with that deal).

J-MB stood out because of his beauty, his personality, his relentless self-promotion, his nihilism, his “self taught”, status and obviously his colour. No wonder he was embraced and feted by the artistic establishment, (there is a canvas by Keith Haring, J-MB’s most obvious “influence”), including a room devoted to the relationship with the granddaddy of them all, Andy Warhol. As well as some double portraits, the curators are proud to show off a lease for the flat AW rented to J-MB. There is a lot of stuff like this upstairs, whisper it, maybe a bit too much.

Downstairs we finally get to see more substantial work and this, I am afraid, is where I have a beef. Lists of stuff J-MB read, references to canonic Renaissance artists and Jazz greats, anatomical life sketches, self portraits, poetry of a sort, black heroes, cars, planes, repeated signs and symbols. I can appreciate the fidgety energy and the restless enquiry which blares out from these works and their semiotic value. I can see that J-MB had a lot to say about the situation of a black man in a white world. I can definitely see why people were attracted to him. What I can’t see is any interesting drawing or painting marks. There is a lot to read here, and the man undoubtedly had a lot to say, but nothing much to really see. The hyperbolic nonsense from the curators which follows you round the exhibition didn’t help.

I know I am in a minority here and, given that this is the first major exhibition of his work to appear in the UK, (and there is next to nothing in collections), I can see why the punters are rolling in. I just don’t think he was a particularly interesting painter. Person yes, painter no. There was more for me in the few pieces of work from David Hammons in the recent Tate Modern Soul of a Nation exhibition than there is across all of this exhibition. (Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****). And he, Hammons, is a fella who can properly take the conceptual piss. Witness USD 200K some-one paid for his work On Loan.

 

 

 

 

 

Coriolanus at the Barbican Theatre review *****

coriolanus-production-photos_-2017_2017_photo-by-helen-maybanks-700x455

Coriolanus

Barbican Theatre, 16th and 17th November 2017

This angry looking chap is Sope Dirisu and he is playing Caius Martius ,who you might know better as Coriolanus, in the RSC’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last proper “tragedy”. This will be followed from Stratford to London by the other plays in the Rome season, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and the gorefest Titus Andronicus, as part of the “Rome” season. You can read all the proper reviews from the Stratford run, but, if this is anything to go by, I reckon I am in for a treat with the rest, as this was better, in my view, than those reviews let on.

Now it helps that I happen to like this play. A lot. Maybe not as much as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet, but, whisper it, more than Lear. It is sparse, he (Coriolanus) is a flawed character, and the writing is, by Shakespeare’s sublime standards, a little lacking in poetry and lyricism. This is exacerbated by a “prose driven” production – suits me but maybe not the  purists. Like Macbeth and, indeed Titus A, it tells of a hero, (or maybe anti-hero, that is why it is so clever), whose destiny is bound up with that of his country, in this case 5th century BCE Rome, the early days of the republic. Coriolanus is, like these other “warriors”, a complex and unique personality, whose vanity and inability to compromise leads to his downfall. He harbours powerful homo-erotic desires for his mortal enemy, Tullus Aufidius, and he has the mother of all mother complexes, as it were.

There is some humour, and some satire, though I get that it is a bit buried. The body count, by the standards of Shakespeare tragedy, is minimal, just one at the end. There is War though, unusually very early on, which allows fight scenes that this cast revelled in. Fight  director Terry King deserves a great deal of credit. The plot is straightforwardish, (WS once again pinched his story from Plutarch), and revolves entirely around the Big C himself. It is his connections with his family, his own people and the Volscian people of the enemy state Corioles, that defines the play and what makes it interesting for our, (and probably plenty of other), times. For the play brutally examines the exercise of political power, the relationship between classes, the limits of democracy and representation, the dangers of populism, the nature of patriotism, the business of compromise, the call of duty in both military and civil society, in addition to all the deep, Freudian, psychological stuff. Ancient Rome is fundamentally different to our world today but the issues it grapples with are uncannily similar.

Which is why, in its way, its the best “Brexit” play I have seen this year. People’s visceral reactions to what is “right” and what is “fair” and the way in which they are, or think they are, being treated by their leaders, is what lies at the heart of this play. The continuing tensions between the haves and the have-nots, the “leaders” and the “led”. As ever though, there is no black and white with big Will, as you oscillate between hating and maybe admiring Coriolanus’s actions and intentions, and you see the ways in which those around him react, Mum, wife, nemesis, tribunes, friends, soldier colleagues and substitute Father, all try to influence and manipulate him.

Now a twist of fate “permitted” me to watch the first half twice, up to Big C’s banishment. A technical issue on the first performance I saw meant a return the next day to see the rest. I confess I was so pumped up by the first half and by the cliff-hanger when Coriolanus tells Rome to go f*ck itself that I was bound to return. And the tightwad in me wasn’t going to miss a free hour and a half of this. Turns out the repeat viewing was an insight into how the interplay of text, action, acting and audience can create a very different experience. Same play, same production but different lines and words leapt out; I focussed on different characters at different times and thought about different aspects of plot and message as it evolved.

Sope Dirisu turned out to be a suitably virile military man and the camaraderie and mutual admiration between him, Charles Aitken’s ardent consul Cominius, and Ben Hall’s pragmatic general Titus Lartius, rang true. As did his hesitation with Hannah Morrish’s wispy wife Virgilia. The turning point scenes with mother Volumnia also stood out. Whether extolling the virtues of her son’s military achievements in full on patrician mode, or achingly pleading with him to curb his revenge even though she knows what this will lead to, Haydn Gwynne was magnificent in the role. Duty trumping family. The best performance of the evening. Mr Dirisu also shines in the scenes with Tullus Aufidius, but once again this as much reflects the skill of James Corrigan’s performance as the bested Volsci. It is tricky to convey the admiration, nay passion, that he feels for Coriolanus whilst still letting us know that he intends to play him to his country’s advantage when Big C turns treacherous.

It does take a bit of time for our Coriolanus to ramp up from haughty disdain to bilious disgust of the people, and the two tribunes, Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus, who orchestrate them. This though created a welcome ambivalence in our political sympathies. Should we side with the put-upon plebeians, hungry and overlooked by the out of touch Senate and the aristocratic Consuls, or with fearless Coriolanus, who may saved Rome from the enemy, but who sneers at the people and refuses even a pretence of the humility expected to secure their approval for his election as Consul?

Having two women play the tribunes, given Coriolanus’s conflicted relationship with the opposite sex, added an interesting dimension, and the contrast between Martina Laird’s more measured Junius and Jackie Morrison’s more provocative Sicinius was also well observed. Paul Jesson’s patient, though frustrated, Menenius, father, mentor and apologist for Coriolanus, was another fine performance.

Now as it happens Paul Jesson has a bit of form with Coriolanus having played Junius Brutus in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film version. This is an outstanding production, with a magnetic performance by Mr Fiennes, who also directed, a stunning cast and the uneasy backdrop of Serbia. Angus Jackson, with this modern dress production, has, perforce, created a somewhat different tone, but, I think, similarly makes the case for what I think, is a riveting play. It seems to me that there is a case for moderating Coriolanus’s “pride” and subsequent “fall” and for questioning the political “rights and wrongs” and, if that is true, Mr Jackson’s definitely direction succeeded here. A bully oozing utter contempt may lead to more powerful lead performances but can be overbearing. I liked the contrast of Mira Calix’s string and voice led score and Robert Innes Hopkins design (excepting the troublesome plinth) was coherent (it carries through the whole season).

Coriolanus a tricky, difficult, awkward play. Nonsense, as many recent productions have shown. Mind you I’ve never understood the difference between Shakespearean tragedies and comedies, so you can safely ignore me.