Soutine’s Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery review ****


Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys

Courtauld Gallery, 31st October 2017

I am afraid that the joys of Soutine’s paintings have passed me by in the past. I could see the vibrant colours and intense animation but all that skew-whiffedness left me a bit bewildered. On my last visit to the Musee de L’Orangerie (sorry for sounding like a pretentious twat) I could see there there was something from the extensive Soutine collection in the Jean Walter-Paul Guillaume Collection, but I got captured by the Cezannes. Easily done.

Anyway turns out I should have looked harder. Which is normally the solution to any art appreciation headache. This collection of Soutine’s portraits of various subjects from the French hospitality industry of the 1920’s turns out to be a brilliant introduction to Soutine’s faculties. These people are, with some notable exceptions, bursting with attitude. Painted head on, legs splayed, arms out, eyes staring right back at you, they seem to be willing you for a fight. It is almost as if they would be doing you a favour by “serving” you. Or, in private, they regard you as beneath their contempt. I appreciate that this sounds suspiciously like the stereotype of the disdainful French waiter but it is, nonetheless, plainly there in the canvases, especially in the, ahem, portraits of the waiters, the bell-hops, the valets and even the young page boys. Anyone oik like me who has ever felt intimidated in a fancy dan restaurant or hotel will recognise the look. There are five paintings hung together of the same subject in different guises, playing different roles and with very different moods. Same bloke with a high forehead, red hair, broken nose, but let’s just say he exhibits various degrees of approachability. A bit like you or me on any given work day.

The chefs give off a different vibe. Here you can see, and almost smell, their craft. Even the pastry chefs seem to have an air of meat about them. There is a post WWI Butcher Boy drowned in red but all the Chef’s whites have a reddish hue or flecks. This is where the influence of Soutine on Francis Bacon is most acute. Bacon normally screams carcasse at every opportunity but it seems old Soutine had a similar fascination for the flesh, what with his homages to Chardin’s still lifes and with the rotting joint he stuck up in his flat to the evident annoyance of his neighbours.

The chambermaids are altogether different. Arms down, hands cupped, meek expressions. I can’t really find anything about Soutine’s sexuality but it looks like his eye was drawn to submissive women and saucy boys based on these portraits. These women have more similarity with the elongated simplicity of his mate and fellow Jewish emigre in Paris Modigliani, and as the catalogue points up, even the ethereal women that the genius Gwen John contrived.

Across the whole exhibition, (just 20 paintings in two rooms so no need to work up a sweat, and the Courtauld, as any fool knows, is the most life-affirming space in Central London), the debt to masters such as Rembrandt and Courbet, and colour master Fouquet from an earlier time, is clear. Soutine painted precisely what he saw. This took time but the resulting effect is that he didn’t hang about when he finally saw what he wanted. Hang dog eyes, misshapen ears, pouty lips, chins, foreheads, pointy limbs, whatever leapt out at him, leaps out at us. And all that sticky, oily colour. Vibrant but not in the cartoonish way of some of the German expressionists, but earthy, fleshy, silky. Just like say your man Rembrandt.

Soutine was an outcast in some ways as a Russian emigre, whose Jewishness meant he had to abandon Paris in both wars. Fortunately he made a few quid in his later life but in the end, on the run, he died because he couldn’t get to a hospital quickly enough to treat his stomach ulcer. A small funeral, this was a “degenerate” artist after all, but Picasso pitched up. That tells you something.

His distinctive position as a bridge between the realism of past Masters, and the abstraction of the generation which followed him, took a bit of time to take root despite the acclaim in his lifetime. I would be surprised if his work was everyone’s cup of tea, but if you open your eyes, like I did, I think you might be very pleasantly surprised. Of course no one looks like this but most of us ordinary people look like this.


St George and the Dragon at the National Theatre review ***


Saint George and the Dragon

National Theatre, 31st October 2017

This must have looked a great idea on paper. A state of the nation play, with much to say about ill at ease contemporary Britain, told as allegory, in a format and staging that nods to a fairy tale. Writer Rory Mullarkey took as his inspiration The Dragon, the most well known play from Soviet writer Evgeny Schwartz which was an allegorical satire on Stalinism, with the knight Lancelot in the lead. Clearly Mr Schwartz was a brave man. There is also a whiff of Chaucer and Medieval morality play in Mr Mullarkey’s construction.

Designer Rae Smith has created an imaginative set, like a child’s pop-up book, which roams across the three periods that Mr Mullarkey’s story encompasses, the Medieval, the Early Industrial and our own Post Modern present. Lyndsey Turner, who is expert at these big ideas plays, gives the production plenty of room to breathe, with a light and often amusing tone that matches the “modern fairy tale” mood, and the rest of the creative team conjure up some magical aural and visual effects.

John Heffernan’s George is very affecting, alternately brave, stupid, confused and naive, Julian Bleach’s Dragon is as pantomime camp as you like, Richard Goulding’s henchman who is redeemed has real presence and Amaka Okafor strikes the right balance as feisty champion Elsa. The rest of the 22 strong cast also fit like a glove and we have a groovy 6 strong band.

But there is a but. It just all seemed a bit vague. The idea that we have needed and relied on a hero in the past to rescue us English when things go t*ts up was efficiently conveyed as were some elements of what might constitute our national identity, the things that bind and divide us. A nation remember is just some lines on a map (admittedly some sea is involved here) and a largely fictional shared history and SGATD was neatly rooted in this premise. The dichotomy between the enemy without and the enemy within was also engagingly scrutinised.

It is just that, when all was said and done on stage, we didn’t seem to have moved any further from this point of departure. Enjoyable yes, creative yes but not really very satisfying for me, which, at a time when anyone and everyone theatrical is trying to jemmy in a state of the nation perspective, was a little disappointing. There is more than enough on show to warrant a visit and there are plenty of tickets for the rest of the run, but the play, like the current England it depicts, comes up a bit short.




Mother Courage and Her Children at the Southwark Playhouse review ***


Mother Courage and Her Children

Southwark Playhouse, 7th November 2017

Hmmm. I am torn. This was a mixed bag and no mistake.

The good stuff first. Well it is Brecht so there will always be big issues to chew on, although here the anti-war appeal that lies at the heart of the play felt curiously understated. The production does have a ramshackle design from Barney George which I was quite taken by and which seemed to capture the ravages of a long drawn out war on a society. The transverse staging and the constraining of the larger Southwark Playhouse space had some advantages, particularly when it came to observing the best of the cast. Mind you this did put paid to the Brechtian distancing effect. Hannah Chissick’s direction had some nice touches though this seemed to lack an overall coherent vision. I like the folksy song arrangements by Duke Special which are drawn from the 2009 NT production. Tony Kushner’s translation from 2006 is strong on characterisation but seems somehow to play down the “epic” nature of the action, though the production was partly responsible.

Best of all was the swaggering performance of Josie Lawrence as Mother Courage. Whilst there was a part of me that would have liked a more hard-bitten Courage to ram home the war as commercial opportunity message, her more sympathetic spirit paid dividends in the scenes with her “children”, the Chaplain and the Cook. David Shelley and Ben Fox in these latter two roles also turned in strong performances, as did Laura Checkley’s brassy Yvette and, especially Phoebe Vigor’s Kattrin. I was less convinced though by the rest of the cast whose tone seemed uncertain, notably the sons, Swiss Cheese played by Julian Moore-Cook and Eilif played by Jake Philips Head. Don’t get me wrong, the boxes were largely ticked, it just seemed to me that motivation and understanding was sometimes lacking.

This lack of conviction was ultimately why the production was only a qualified success for me. There were some powerful scenes notably when Courage disowns the corpse of Swiss Cheese, when Courage turns down the Cook’s offer to escape to Utrecht and especially at the end when Kattrin is beating the drum to warn the townspeople, but many of the other scenes have less definition, and those that do work rely too much on the sympathy generated by the performers, which risks melodrama, and which Brecht specifically wanted to eschew. This should be far more threatening and dislocating to convey the true horror and to reveal the economic and religious imperatives that underpin war, whether in the Early Modern Age or now, in the throes of Late Capitalism.

An avowedly non-specific staging also risks, as it does here, the distancing effect offered through Brecht’s setting in the Thirty Years War of the early C17 between Catholic and Protestant. We are supposed to be immersed in Brecht’s epic story but also to think long and hard about what he is telling us, and I am not sure we were fully afforded that opportunity. We are allowed to understand why Courage does what she does, because she has to to survive, but we are not supposed to like her.

The transverse staging was complicated by some early scenes which took place partially in a mezzanine which was, literally, a pain in the neck for half the audience. Music, sound and lighting worked with the staging but the lack of space constrained the pattern of movement, (to avoid problematic sightlines),  which had the perverse effect of slowing the momentum at times.

My conclusion. A brave attempt which is worth seeing for Josie Lawrence’s fine, if ultimately flawed, performance and for some of the ingenuity of the creatives in trying to make this work in this space. And because it is Mother Courage and Brecht. But there have been, and there will be, more coherent and biting productions which do more to reveal the layers of Brecht’s art, passion and instruction.