Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall review *****

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Britten Sinfonia

Wigmore Hall, 24th January 2018

  • Heinrich Biber – Mystery Sonata No 1 “The Annunciation”
  • Philip Glass – Orbit
  • Leo Chadburn – Five Loops for the Bathyscaphe
  • Arvo Part – Spiegel am Spiegel
  • WA Mozart – Piano Trio No 3 K502

There is something of the spirit of punk about the Britten Sinfonia. They don’t have a principal conductor or director and play with pretty much who they like. They also play pretty much what they like with a refreshingly cavalier attitude to programming. I love them, whether it be a Bach St John Passion, electrifying accounts of the Beethoven symphonies under Thomas Ades, minimalist classics, Stravinsky, Ravel or contemporary British composers, all of which I have heard them perform in the last year or so.

So I was looking forward to this. Leo Chadburn’s new work Five Loops for Bathyscaphe, is scored for piano trio and electronics and runs for 10 minutes or so. So Jacqueline Shave (that’s her above), one of the violin leaders of the BS, Caroline Dearnley, the principal cello, and Huw Watkins, principal piano, had another 50 minutes or so to fill. What to choose? Mozart? Why not. After all his B flat minor trio is pretty much the first piano trio as we know the form, with all three instruments contributing rather than just a piano sonata with a bit of string diddling attached which previously defined the Classical form. And Arvo Part’s Speigel am Speigel? Yep, it’s a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser for violin and piano. But chucking in Philip Glass’s short piece, Orbit, for solo cello. And the first of Biber’s Mystery sonatas? Well as it turned out it all slotted together perfectly.

Now I have been unlucky in my endeavours to hear a performance of Biber’s Mystery, (or Rosary), sonatas for violin and continuo live. There are 15 of these chaps, divided into 3 cycles, Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious, plus a closing Passacaglia for solo violin. Each one takes as its subject one of the Catholic “rosary”episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. They were likely written in 1676 but were unknown until 1905 ,and they are one of the earliest and best known examples of “scordatura”, where the violin is tuned in a way that is not standard. This permits all sorts of funky effects. Don’t test me on this but it is pretty straightforward even for a dumbass like me to hear the differences. One of the Vivaldi Op 9 Le Cetra concertos does this, Stravinsky does it at the start of the Firebird and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a prime example. Mind you Ligeti chucks so many effects into his concerto I am hard pressed to know where it is.

Biber tests the skill of the violinist to the max so it is a unlikely anyone was up to the job in the C17. What is on the page doesn’t correspond to what hits the ear. Don’t worry it doesn’t get too weird but it does create sounds, chords and harmonies with real drama. Now unfortunately we only got the first instalment here, which is the one which doesn’t arse about with the tuning, but it was still a blinder to open the concert with and Ms Shave delivered. It opens with a virtuoso figuration, being the Angel appearing before  our Mary, and them moves into a gentler sort of theme and variations.

The Glass “sonata” was new to me. The programme notes suggest Glass is referencing Bach’s mighty cello suites. He is. But then again anyone that writes a piece for solo cello is working in the shadow of the master. Even so lots of fancy figuration and double stopping does conjure up Bach’s counterpoint and Glass’s ordered repetitions are redolent of JSB’s own structures. Ms Dearnley is at home here as she is in the Baroque.

Now I have listened to, and seen performed, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, more times than I care to remember. It is one of my favourite pieces of music period. Which probably shows how easily pleased I am. This was one of his first “tintinnabuli” works, along with Fur Alina, from 1978, and it is “minimal” even by his standards. Simple arpeggios in piano and rising, then falling, scales from violin. If you are ever too worked up about anything just pop this on. Hey presto, blood pressure plummets. Now Ms Shave and Mr Watkins seemed to take this at a marginally faster tempo than I am used to, (it is all relative as not much happens), and took a minute of two to get in the groove, but once there it was as good a performance as you will hear.

I tried with the Mozart. Honestly. If I switch off and let it drift around and through me then it is pleasant enough but I still don’t really get it. Just too nice. Obviously there are bits of Mozart, and times when I listen to it, like watching a great Figaro, where it lifts me up and takes me away, but this wasn’t one of them.

Which brings me to the Leo Chadburn premiere, co-commissioned by the BS and Wigmore. I knew nothing about Mr Chadburn but I gather he is one of these new brand of musician/composer who doesn’t give a fig for established boundaries. He writes and performs across genres, releasing three synthpop albums a few years ago as alter ego Simon Bookish, and remixing for the likes of Grizzly Bear. He can certainly sing a bit I gather. This piece takes the classic piano trio instrumentation and hooks in pre-recorded voices from himself and Gemma Sanders, and some sparse electronica. It graphically describes the journey on 23rd January 1963 of oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh to the bottom of the ocean. Eleven kms down to be exact in the Mariana trench, in that little ball Bathyscaphe Trieste thing. The idea of the piece is to create a sense of motionlessness in the music, deep and watery I guess, and allow the voices and words to tell the story. It succeeds admirably. There is nothing to scare anyone off in this simple but very effective sound-world. Think eerie harmonics from the strings and muffled chords from both ends of the range for the piano, as well as some theatrical plucking from inside the piano. The whole thing grips from first to last. It deserves a much wider audience. I am sure Mr Chadburn knows how to make that happen.

This whole concert was a joy. Music for everyone. Even if they know absolutely f*ck all about any of it. Still I suppose if they all prefer listening to a little ginger chap who has the temerity to suggest he is the next Van Morrison, then who am I to argue. Just seems a shame. Still that’s your pesky, high/low culture divide in late neo-liberal, capitalist society for you.

Colin Currie Group at Kings Place review ****

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Colin Currie Group

Kings Place, 20th January 2018

Steve Reich

  • Music for Pieces of Wood
  • New York Counterpoint
  • Mallet Quartet
  • Drumming Part 1
  • Vermont Counterpoint
  • Quartet (2013)

So off to Kings Place for another immersion into the sound world of Steve Reich guided by his finest living advocates (probably), the Colin Currie Group. Having seen the CC Group perform Reich a couple of times in the past couple of years, (at the RFH), I consider myself something of a groupie. I was honoured this time to be accompanied by not one, but two, potential converts to the live, minimalist music cause in the shape of MSBD and MSBDB. And, to emphasise, you really do need to hear this live for the full effect.

I won’t bore you with another hagiography extolling the virtues of Mr Reich. Take a look here if you want that (Steve Reich’s Drumming and Tehillim at the Royal Festival Hall review *****). Suffice to say I urge anyone to give his music a whirl and see what you think. I won’t hold it against you if all that repetition sends you to sleep. Me, I am fascinated by it. Out of apparent rhythmic simplicity emerges music of shimmering and unsettling intensity.

On the subject of repetition in music I promised myself I would not use this blog to eulogise the now departed Mark E Smith. Let’s just say RIP. Hands down the most important creative force in my lifetime.

Anyway this gig kicked off with Music for Pieces of Wood written in 1973. Which is exactly that. Though these are not any old offcuts having been specially selected for their pitches, A, B, C, sharp D sharp and another D sharp an octave higher, and timbre. It is built entirely on patterns of beats and rests over three lengths 6/4, 4/4 then 3/4. That’s it. As so often with Mr Reich the apparent simplicity though belies its careful planning and the subtlety of outcome. There is no place to hide for the players here.

New York Counterpoint from 1985 sees a clarinettist, here Timothy Lines, pre-record ten different parts, including for bass clarinet, which is prominent in the last movement, against which he plays a final, eleventh line, live. Vermont Counterpoint from 1982, here performed by flautist Rowland Sutherland, employs a similar, though to my ear more complex, technique for flute, alto flute and piccolo, across 10 pre-recorded parts and one solo line using each instrument. In both cases, despite the discipline employed in terms of relationships of rhythm, tempo and meter, the effect is of often “melodic” and ambiguous counterpoint, with more than a whiff of Stravinsky’s neo-classical chamber works. Maybe at times in both pieces the solo line could have been brought forward a little “in the mix” but I was persuaded.

Mallet Quartet is a more recent piece from 2009 scored for two vibraphones and two five octave marimbas extending down to cello C apparently. Once again three movements, fast/slow/fast, with some fancy changes of mallets. The marimbas create the rhythmic backdrop linked by a canon structure in the fast movements, with the vibraphones providing the melodies, again largely in canon. In the slow movement it all gets pared back however, and the effect from the vibraphones is of a far more atonal world which I am not sure would be to everyone’s taste and is a fair way from “typical” Reich.

Back on track though with the iconic Drumming, or at least the first of the four movements. This is divided into four clear parts and is for four pairs of tuned bongos. (This makes me think once again of MES with his quip that The Fall was him and your granny on bongoes. Now if your granny could only play bongoes like this ……). Anyway this is quintessential Reich, building from one beat to twelve beats, alternated with rests, and then with the rests replaced with beats until the cycle is completed, and then reversed. This pattern is repeated in the other three movements with the different instruments, and it was a shame not to hear this (see review above), especially the spellbinding third movement with glockenspiels (and whistling !) and the thrilling final movement, where the whole lot gets chucked in. There is so much in the sound created that is it is impossible to believe the structure is so simple. This is Reich at his most hypnotic, made more so in this performance by the strobic effect of the movement of the sticks in the “fastest” passages. MSBD loved it so much he nodded off apparently – trust me that is a compliment. When Reich, (and other minimalist music), succeeds your mind and body can “drain away” leaving just the rhythm. Far out. Sorry for this hippy gibberish but it’s true.

Which brings me to Quartet from 2013. This piece, scored for two pianos and two percussion, which is the building block for many of Reich;s earlier works, shows what he is now up to. This is melodically much more complex than the previous works on show, with multiple key changes, breaks and pauses, frequent gentle dissonance, and shifts into new ideas. In fact more like most contemporary classical music. Fast/slow/fast once again, but the slow movement contains harmonic variety which you won’t find elsewhere in Reich’s compositions, though once or twice it veers towards doodling. Don’t worry, there is still rhythm at the core but this takes the players up a further notch in terms of level of concentration. Which is why is was written for, and dedicated to, this ensemble. I was much taken with it and will need to add it to the list of recordings of Reich’s music I need to lay my hands on. (I see there is one about to be released, And CCG are releasing their own recording of Drumming which will surely be a treat).

Loved it and so did the audience. Kings Place acoustic is terrific, warm and offering up waves of sound, so I doubt I will hear a better treatment of these works.

Next up CCG will play Reich;s Tehillim, based on psalms and reflecting his Jewish heritage, and which uses voices and wide instrumentation to drive melodic invention. Still Reich but this is more minimalism meets Baroque. Annoyingly the BBCSO also takes on Berio’s Sinfonia in this concert but I will be pandering to my new found fascination with Ligeti at the South Bank. Seems like the Barbican and the South Bank are going head to head in competition for the geeks.

 

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

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Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

I know it is not easy to make out but take a good peer at the image above. This is an installation created in 1985 by Russian conceptual artist, Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment. he created it in his studio and it was his first full room, “total” installation. It tells the story of a man living in a communal apartment in Russia who hatches a plan to escape from his oppressive, mundane reality. A suspended catapult chair, a hole in the roof, remnants of the construction, propaganda posters, carefully orchestrated lighting. There are workings from the imagined escape and the testimonies of neighbours. It is both very funny and very sad. Tragi-comic, absurdist biting satire. One man pursuing the Soviet dream of conquering space. Or escaping his miserable reality. Which is the well from which so much art of the C19 and C20, (and into the C21), has drawn from in Russia.

I found the installations of the Kabakovs, (Ilya was joined by wife Emilia in his 60s), absolutely compelling. I left nothing like enough time to fully absorb them, which is really bloody annoying. I blame the complementary Red Star Over Russia exhibition also on at Tate Modern, which was much more interesting than I had bargained for (Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****), as well as my own woeful lack of planning. And now this exhibition is about to end, (once again this numbnut waited until near the end of the run to see it), and I won’t have time to return. You’d think I would learn.

Anyway what I have learnt about is a pair of brilliantly inventive artists to add to the list, and yet more perspectives on the relationship between art and society in Russia, and indeed beyond. Ilya Kabakov was an unofficial artist which meant his work was not exhibited, was made largely in secret, and often required him to create pseudonyms. He made money from being a children’s book illustrator. Only close friends saw his early work.

A lot of installation art suffers from what I term the “I can’t be bothered” trope. The concept or idea is all, the making subsidiary. A few “found” objects, a bit of cardboard, some wire and some gaffer tape, and, hey presto, an installation, accompanied by some pretentious guff that make no sense even after three or for readings. I am fully aware how Daily Mail, philistine twat this makes me sound. Trust me that isn’t true. The more conceptual and contemporary art installations I see the more I think I understand and the more I am drawn in. But I still want to see that some thought and effort has been put in. The Kabakovs could never be accused of slapdashery. The ideas are clearly expressed, the detail is rich, the craft breathtaking. They tell intricate stories that pull you up, make you smirk and make you think.

The exhibition kicks off with Ilya’s early conceptual works, across an array of artistic styles and, given his status, utilising whatever materials he could lay his hands on. The ideas are sharp from the off and, using fictional characters, parody Soviet achievement. I was particularly struck by Holiday, where banal images have been revisited by their purported artist, and covered with flowers which are in reality sweet wrappers.  Room 2 shows the way in which Illya Kabakov mocked the cliches of Socialist Realism, most effectively in Tested! which purports to be a work by a forgotten artist from the 1930s showing a “celebration” of a woman having her Party membership card returned. It took me a bit of time to realise the blindingly obvious that this, obviously, would never have happened.

Following on from the early installations, including Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen with its flying  pans, are works that play with perspective and scale and incorporate tiny, cardboard cut out figures, which, to me, again suggest the struggle of individuals to find meaning and recognition in a social world. The next room has a rather less satisfactory installation where we are invited to look at “nocturnal” paintings through monoculars trained on apertures. The little white figures pop up again. For Ilya this work contrasts the contrast between the experienced and learnt knowledge which is the subject of epistemology, and the mystical revelations which cannot be explained. Hmmm.

The large installation which doubles up as the title of the exhibition, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, from 2001, imagines a train leaving a platform, carrying art and artists selected to be part of the future, and leaving behind discarded canvases that represent the work of the forgotten, unpalatable or banned. So a meditation on the history of art, but again, with a distinctive swipe at the Soviet Union. This investigation continues in Room 7 which contains a collection of paintings showing seems from Russian and Soviet history conjoined or layered over each other, or with areas whited out. Interesting but not as memorable as the installations. The model which pretends that apartments have been created out of public toilets was especially cutting however.

Next door is a fascinating installation, Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), from 1990, which documents the everyday struggle of his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, to survive and to raise Ilya. A dimly lit, grubby, winding corridor is lined with photographs taken by his uncle alongside disturbing memoirs from his clearly remarkable mother. Revolution, famine, repression, hate, homelessness, all are revealed. At its centre is a recording of Ilya singing songs from his childhood. Whilst this clearly explores the questions raised elsewhere in the work of the Kabanovs the impact is greater because it is so personal and devastating. I didn’t have enough time to read much of the testimony which was a great shame.

Room 9 takes us back to the intimate and hidden, with Ten Characters, a series of narrative drawings, displayed in a room reminiscent of classroom, which documents the lives of solitary, lonely artists in a totalitarian state. It was first exhibited in 1988 after the Kabakovs had themselves emigrated to New York where they now work. Finally there are a series of works which explore the idea of flight or escape with angels as the recurring motif. Angels, obviously, are about as commonplace as it comes in the history of art but here represent a life free from the grind of bureaucracy and routine. As with everything on display here the narratives are enthralling, the ideas provocative and the commentary acerbic.

These works take the personal and specific, artists working in secret under the Soviet regime, and turn them into something universal. And that despite missing, as I am sure I did, the majority of the meaning displayed her.

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****

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Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

I have always coveted a collection. I mean a proper collection. I have a fair few CDs, (I have bought maybe 6 or 7 download only albums in my life – not having a physical copy brings me out in a cold sweat), a bit of vinyl, rather too many books, (the SO and I no longer know where to put them), programmes and exhibition catalogues and some 1960s pottery. But none of this counts. What I really want is a full-on, take over your life, obsessive, world’s leading authority, type of collection.

Mind you I have no idea where the people that do end up doing this find the time, money or space. But I am very glad this people exist. An entirely digital, thingless world where punters consume  everything on screen unsettles me. Aa it happens one such collector was graphic designer David King, and his chosen subject were prints, posters, journals and photos which document the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the first half of the C20. Unfortunately Mr King did not live to see this remarkable exhibition largely drawn from his collection, but we should thank him for his legacy/.

Now 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution and one of the first posts on this blog recorded my visit to the excellent Royal Academy survey of Soviet Art at the beginning of the year (Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****). Since then I have been immersed in Chekhov, (a couple more Cherry Orchards, and the early plays), more Shostakovich than is good for my nerves, sundry reading and exhibitions, the Death of Stalin film and, most recently, a play from current Russian dramatist Mikhail Durnenkov. So the way in which art has explored the relationship between people and State in Russia pre and post Revolution and beyond has been a particular source of interest this last year.

What is most striking about this exhibition, at first glance, is the ubiquity of many of the images. In the early years of the USSR many avant-garde, modernist artists saw art and architecture as tools for social change. This vision was propelled by the Constructivists/Productivists, (though there are signs that Suprematism, Futurism and Neo-Primitivism also had a hand in shaping poster art). Room 2 draws together work by artist couples El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kippers, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina, who embodied these ideals. Forms are simplified, colours are bold and abstraction applied to human endeavour.

Red and black predominate, sharp angles, exhortations to embrace the future and beware the enemy in sans serif type, heroic poses. Even as Stalin’s regime became suspicious, or worse, of modernist art, and the visual language drifted towards the cliches of Soviet Realism, the messages remained unchanged.

Even if you don’t actually know any of these images you will think you do. But even as you marvel at the terrific wall of posters in the first room proper, and before you get to the rooms of smaller images and objects, notably rare photographs, it becomes clear that something else is going on here. For the overriding impression beyond the familiar vocabulary, is of the manipulation and avoidance of truth. Reconstructions of significant events, caricatures of Party enemies, early “photoshopping”. This is most acute in the fascinating photographs where the faces of individuals executed and murdered by the regime are cut or crossed out, or cropped in official publications, notably Trotsky. The vitrine display of photographs of victims of Stalin’s Great Purge is very moving. The execution of military leader Mikhail Tukhachevsky and suicides of renowned poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and Stalin’s own wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva are explored in detail.

Yet even in the early years, after the Revolution, the scale of the effort by the Bolsheviks to win hearts and minds across this vast. largely illiterate, population is laid bare. Many of the messages are multilingual to reflect the diversity of the Soviet Union. Agitprop trains took the message of proletariat emancipation across the land. Monuments were erected. In the 1930’s the imagery of Socialist Realism was exported, as the room devoted to the utopian murals of  Aleksandr Deinaka which were exhibited in Paris in 1937, graphically illustrates.

So we have some absolutely fascinating and striking material, very directly and compactly curated without gimmickry, which maps out the way in which hope turned to despair over the space of a few decades. It gets you thinking long and hard about the way in which art and visual media are used to create and record history, both in the Soviet Union, and dare I say, today.

 

My top ten films of 2017

 

Most of the films I see at the cinema are good, often very good, and mostly excellent. That is thanks to the insight of critics and the adopting of a moderately elitist approach in choosing my viewing. As you can see from the below though it isn’t all miserabilist Central European art cinema. Note the list reflects when I saw the film not when it was released. Right off we go.

1. Graduation

Director Cristian Mingiu’s study of endemic, everyday corruption in his native Romania, and the lengths to which a parent will go to secure the future of their child, is an intricate, intelligent masterpiece, with echoes of Haneke. Adrian Titieni plays a surgeon with secrets, and fraught relationships with daughter, wife and mistress. Following an attack on his daughter, (played by Maria Dragus), the day before her British university entrance exam, our surgeon is forced to call in favours to help her get through, but only with her complicity. This tragic set-up permits a queasy, gripping journey through personal and social morality. Astounding stuff.

2. Elle

Another uplifting tale. Not really. This time from the hand of Paul Verhoeven. A rape revenge black comedy with the magnificent Isabelle Huppert in the lead. It is intended to provoke. It succeeds. Ms Huppert is a divorcee who is the unlikely head of a video-game company. She is attacked and raped in her flat but, because of her past, does not go to the police and seeks to track down the assailant herself. Through it all Ms Huppert’s character remains brisk, brusque and unlikeable. Hard to imagine anyone else being capable of, or wanting, to take on the role. The tone is as unsettling and inflammatory as it sounds, and I don’t know how to resolve the ugly contradictions here, but it is one of the single best performances I have ever seen on screen. You’ve been warned.

3. Blade Runner 2049

I know there are many who found this a ponderous, portentous, pretentious bore, and it was a box office “disappointment”, but I loved it. It looks stunning, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, sounds amazing thanks to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, the cast, by and large, is at the top of their game, and the story has much to say about the human, no make that, post-human condition and the nature of consciousness. It is way better than the original. The plot, “orphan” sets out on a journey to discover his true identity, is as old as drama itself, so it works, and director Dennis Villeneuve knows it works.. It you just want 100 minutes of CGI crash, bang, wallop with more plot-holes than a warehouse full of Emmenthal, then you have plenty of choice elsewhere. If you want to see what sci-fi cinema is truly capable of, look no further.

4. The Levelling

Now I am guessing that this won’t appear on too many other best of 2017 lists. It should. Hope Dickson Leach had to scrabble around to get the funding for this, her feature length debut. I pray that, given her extraordinary talent, this won’t happen again. Clover, an immensely thoughtful performance from Elle Kendrick, is a vet student who returns home to crusty Dad, veteran David Troughton, after the mysterious death of her brother. Secrets seep out, and the stunted relationship between father and daughter is probed. The film also offers a rare insight into farming life and economics. It is beautifully put together, though this is no Arcadia, more folk horror. Yet still, as with Graduation, ruthlessly naturalistic. Seek it out.

5. Detroit

A vital and fearless polemic from director Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, which pulls no punches in its telling of real life events at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit race riots of  1967. Hand held cinematography from Barry Ackroyd follows the confrontation between racist cope, led by one Philip Krauss, (an extraordinary performance by Will Poulter), seven black men and two white women, that ended with three murders at the hand of the police. The film is bookended with the events that led up to the “incident”, and the court cases and repercussions which followed. It is powerful, gut-wrenching stuff which will make you very angry and leave you wondering how much has really changed in America since those dark days.

6. Mother!

Bonkers stuff from director Darren Aronofsky which somehow works. Home invasion horror meets eco-catastrophe parable with Javier Bardem, as a writer with severe block, and wife, Jennifer Lawrence, doing up his childhood home after a fire, whilst trying for a baby. A knock at the door. Ed Harris turns up followed by his wife Michelle Pfeiffer, then their grown up sons and soon what seems like the whole world ahead of the apocalypse. Unsettling, bewitching, laugh out loud funny, brilliantly shot. I can’t wait to see it again.

7. The Florida Project

Another visual feast. Director Sean Baker has set his tale of America’s dispossessed, literally on the other side of the tracks, just next door to Walt Disney World. Halley, an astonishing debut from Bria Vinaite, does what she needs to to support herself and daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince). Motel manager Bobby (William Dafoe) does what he can to watch over them. It doesn’t end well. Yet most of our attention is focussed on the brilliant blue skies and pastel pink architecture of their motel block neighbourhood, seen from the point of view of sassy 6 year old Moonee and her friends. This may not look like a damming indictment of the gap between rich and poor in America but that is exactly what it is. Along with Graduation and The Levelling it is the film her that sticks longest in the memory.

8. Manchester by the Sea

Another film that doesn’t shout at you but is no less effective for that. Kenneth Lonergan has written and directed a film about one man’s grief and his opportunity for partial salvation. Just as well that that man, Lee, is played by Casey Affleck whose performance is jaw-droppingly good. To make it really work though, it needed Lucas Hedges, who plays his nephew Patrick, whose guardian Lee becomes after the death of his brother, to act up to his level. The past filters through the present, there are moments of lightness and pathos, but no simple resolutions. Make sure to see it.

9. The Death of Stalin

Satire is the most difficult genre to pull off it film. Especially when you are writing about a country and a time which has been endlessly satirised by its own people. Armando Iannucci is a master of the art but this was still his most ambitious project to date. It is blackly and bleakly hilarious.

10. Toni Erdmann

One more father-daughter relationship to set alongside Graduation and The Levelling. A few more laughs here though not always of the most expected kind. As always the best comedy flows from tragedy. Sandra Huller plays Ines, a high flyer posted to Bucharest. Dad Winfreid, played with relish by Peter Simonischek, follows her. She humours him and sends him on his way. But, with nothing to go home for, he stays and assumes an alter ego as a life coach, Toni Erdmann, with bad wig and buck teeth. Through a series of cringe-worthy, but strangely uplifting scenes, we see Dad and daughter emotionally reconciled. Apparently writer/director Maren Ade whittled this down to a still leisurely 160 minutes. Suggest the DVD extras will require their own disc. Loved it.

The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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The War Has Not Yet Started

Southwark Playhouse, 18th January 2018

I don’t really read that much anymore. Which means I take a rather circuitous route to the acquisition of knowledge and satisfaction of curiosity. The page has been replaced by the stage, the museum and gallery, visits, music and my dear friend, Wiki. Books can then fill in the gaps. (Though I must call out the wonderful OUP Very Short Introductions. If I need a way in to something brainy here is where I start. Bite and pocket sized, though a bit variable in tone.)

This means some “stuff” has become more prominent that other “stuff” in my head. Bear in mind the capacity of my head RAM has opened up exponentially now that is is largely free of my work-life specialist subject. I knew a lot about very little. Now I am trying to find out a little about a lot. Which suits me as I am a consummate bullshitter who relies on knowing a tiny bit more than any conversational partner, and a sonorous delivery that bores them into agreeing with me.

One of the things that has crept up on me in the journey has been the modern(ish) history and state of Russia. A bit of Chekhov, too much Shostakovich, a handful of art exhibitions and a couple of conversations, and, to paraphrase Winnie Churchill, the enigma is revealed. Well not revealed but I go from nothing to something. It is a tiny something, but, at the risk of going all epistemological on your ass, it is more than I know about the state of Hounslow, my next door neighbours or our cat.

The point is that the relationship between State, as in the instruments of power, and the individual, has been a fertile one for the Russian/Soviet Artist. In the rapid lurch from backward, pre-revolutionary, feudal autocracy, through Revolution to oligarchical Capitalism, it looks like it has paid to keep things close to your chest.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to TWHNYS. Mikhail Durnenkov is an actor on stage and TV, as well as a playwright, living in Moscow. The Drunks, written with brother Vyacheslav, aired at the RSC a few years ago, in a translation by the marvellous Nina Raine. I didn’t see it but, from the sound of it, it is a satirical comedy, tracing a long line back through to Gogol, that took the unfortunate adventures of an Everyman, a soldier, as a metaphor for modern Russia and its history.

TWHNYS is a more discursive, experimental affair brought to the Southwark Playhouse in a translation by Noah Birksted-Breen, by way of the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Unconnected characters play out 12 seemingly unconnected vignettes, some banal, some more striking, over 80 minutes or so. Apparently they can be played in any order with any number of actors. Here we have three. Sarah Hadland, (Stevie in Miranda, she of the allure!), Mark Quartly, last seem by me as the gymnastic “real” Aerial alongside his real-time holographic doppelganger in the RSC Tempest, and, most strikingly, Hannah Britland. Many of the scenes are set within the family unit or deal with the impact of violence and propaganda. There is black comedy, confusion, menace, little in the way of entry or exit from the scenes and much obfuscation. The scenarios are all recognisable but throughout is an air of mistrust and uncertainty that sort of compels.

It is really tricky to make this sort of writing work and I am not sure how much is lost in translation, not of the language, but from Moscow to London. Whilst much of the contemporary zeitgeist which Mr Durnenkov is trying to capture is universal, it might make just a bit more sense there rather than here. Cultural specificity is a slippery waif and I always try my best to ditch the dangerous fiction of borders when thinking about this sort of entertainment, but I was still struck by how much the mood of the play fitted with what I think I have learnt about the Russian mindset.

Still anxiety is anxiety wherever you live and the cast and director Gordon Anderson, (who has experience of this sort of mood from his League of Gentlemen days), seem to be enjoying it. Andy Purves’s lighting design is noteworthy.

Go see for yourself. I am still making my mind up.

 

Antony and Cleopatra at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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Antony and Cleopatra

Barbican Theatre, 18th January 2018

The last instalment, for me, of the Rome season at the Barbican, and so late in the run that it has been and gone. Sorry. Anyway I have to say this was my least favourite of the four productions, though there was still much food for thought.

I think the reason for this is simple. I prefer the other three plays. Titus Andronicus for its over the top, knowing black comedy, Coriolanus for its astonishing insight into pride, the democratic ideal, the mother-son relationship and homo-eroticism and Julius Caesar for, well, everything you will ever need to know about the use and abuse of political power.

Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****

Coriolanus at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Julius Caesar at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The language in these three is flintier, more muscular, more direct. The drama is played out across a broader backdrop even if this is still measured across individual psychology and the relationships between friends, enemies and family. In A&C the language is way more florid, despite the similar source material as JC (Plutarch via Thomas North), and the focus is firmly on the mature lovers. High Baroque not Early Renaissance if you will.

There is a curious ironic, detached quality to our observation of A&C. I am not saying I identify with unhinged sadist and novelty pie maker Titus A, by way of example, but I can sort of see where he is coming from. Elsewhere in Shakespeare the thrill of recognition is never exhausted, no matter how many viewings, but with A&C I can’t escape the performance, the spectacle. That may well be the whole point. There are times where the pompous grandiosity of these two entitled mid-lifers sets me spluttering, internally and, embarrassingly, externally. Certainly Will S has the right words and right scenes to skewer them. But all the poetry  and “look at me” gets a smidge wearying. I know that complaining that Shakespeare sometimes has too many words is like saying Mozart has too many notes but the platitude applies.

Of course it could just be that I haven’t come across the right A&C yet. I see the NT is set to stage a production with Simon Godwin at the helm, (who sucked all the meat off the bones of Twelfth Night and Man and Superman at the NT), with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. If those two get fired up sparks can fly. Let’s hope so.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins here chooses to go with a look straight out of Cecil B DeMille. Josette Simon as Cleo has more frock changes than I have underpants, including, at one point, sporting her birthday suit. Costume supervisor Sian Harris, and all the unsung heroes who cut and stitch, must have thought Christmas came early, just in greaves alone (google it). There is a big black cat. natch, and I hear Southall high street is now short of kohl. There are even some steamy Roman baths and an impromptu harbourside bar on display. I bet they only ruled out the incense sticks at the first rehearsal. Mind you I get it is tricky to take A&C out of its historical context.

Ms Simon captures Cleo’s unpredictability, grace and caprice but maybe not the extremes of cruelty and vulnerability. Some of her vocal delivery, to use football commentator parlance, “takes the wrong option”. She does have stage presence though, even when brooding on the sidelines. Workaholic Antony Byrne, who knows his way about the Shakespearean stage, has a cursive way of delivering lines and character and a grizzled, martial look about him. Yet, at times, he felt a bit mechanical and MA’s intense fear of shame was not fully realised.

I was never entirely persuaded of the couple’s passion or plotting.  There was none of the seemingly spontaneous physicality that Hans Kesting and Chris Nietvelt brought to the parts in the TA Roman Tragedies. That really stank of sex, with Marieke Heebink’s Charmian the …. well I better stop there as I am getting hot and bothered. Alexandria never looked so decadent, and the cropping of action and lines, as well as the translation process, seemed to help me overcome my objections to the play.

I am not sure if Ben Allen’s Octavius here was intended to be quite so limp, and the contrast with David Burnett’s roister-doister Pompey, quite so sharp. Andrew Woodall swapped Caesar for Enobarbus, taking world-weary to a previously untested level. When it comes to ironic commentary on what is going on around him, Enorbarbus has some of the best lines in the play and these were delivered with relish by Mr Woodall, though he does have an uncanny resemblance to my brother-in-law. I am much taken with James Corrigan here playing Agrippa as upright conciliator. Amber James as Charmain and Kristin Atherton as Iras provide sterling support as ego-masseurs-in-waiting to Queen Cleo.

Director Iqbal Khan offers a straightforward account of the play, in line with the staging, and somewhat of a contrast to his previous Shakespeare, where he has mixed it up a bit. That means that each line is pretty clear but the overall rhythm a little baggier than Angus Jackson’s Julius Caesar. There comes a point in many a Shakespeare history play, when the to-ing and fro-ing between locations, and the long line of messengers bearing news, can distract. A&C, nominally a tragedy, can fall into the trap. If your head is filled with contemplation of motive or poetry you won’t see the joins. Here, once or twice, I did.

So there you have it. It seems I was far more taken with Angus Jackson’s Coriolanus and Julius Caesar in this season than consensus, reckon Blanche McIntyre fully got to grips with the uncertain tone of Titus Andronicus and agreed with most that this Antony and Cleopatra was more stately than seductive.