The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre review ****

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The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter Theatre, 21st March 2018

Look into his eyes. look right into his eyes. Old Harold Pinter didn’t seem that menacing did he? But, as you well know, he created a whole genre of “comedy” presenting the violent and sinister which lurks below the everyday and which still resonates with playwrights today, And some.

The Birthday Party from 1957, which nearly sank without trace, when it came to the Lyric Hammersmith after initially going down well in Cambridge, was Pinter’s second play and first serious outing. (I wonder what I would have made of it had I been one of the handful, literally, of people who saw it in the week before Harold Hobson gave it a rave review in the Sunday Times, which rescued the play and launched Harold Pinter’s writing career.)

The setting and ambience, the parlour of a down-at-heel 1950s South coast seaside boarding house, and the story, revolving around a birthday party for the one and only guest, superficially couldn’t be any more banal, almost a parody of the Victorian drawing room plays still playing at the time and familiar to HP from his decade of rep acting stints. Indeed, for the first few minutes, as husband and wife owners, Meg and Petey Bowles, begin the day with a gentle comic interchange, you might be forgiven for thinking that is exactly what it is going to be. Later, the interrogation scenes, at least if you muted the actors, could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie whodunnit.

Things soon start to turn a bit weird when Stanley Webber, unemployed piano player, hauls himself downstairs and demands breakfast. Lulu, much younger, and one of Pinter’s more sexist female creations, pops in from next door. When the two strangers, Goldberg and McCann, turn up we finally enter seriously Pinteresque territory. What do they know and why are they come here? What do they want with Stanley? Are they really here to do him in? Little trips in time and place, reveals, reversals, people saying one thing and meaning another, and even then you doubt what they really think, banal language that seems to imply something more, malleable “facts”, threats, menaces, power games, bullying, sexual tension, sharp comedy, it’s all there. I will never get over the wonder of how Pinter could conjure up these places in his head. The language is the same as in the everyday world, all the attitudes, influences, attributes, behaviours are recognisable, but it is all a few degrees off centre. It is like Pinter swallowed a whole stack of cutting edge research on social psychology and spat it back out in dramatic form.

When it is acted and directed well it is riveting. As here. Ian Rickson, once again, shows he is a Pinter expert, as well as a McPherson, Butterworth, Ibsen, in fact anything you like, expert. He rendered a marvellous account of Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****) and, to cap it all, he even brings the magnificent music of Polly Jean Harvey to life. The Quay brothers design is a triumph of period detail even down to the bottles of Scotch, and one Irish, which fuel the tensions at the party. A marked contrast to Jamie Lloyd’s on-trend Homecoming from 2016, a hit mind you, from this hit or miss director. I see some proper reviewers have denigrated the “period piece” look of the production. I disagree. This makes the “action” all the more unnerving if you ask me.

Zoe Wannamaker is a memorable Meg, mothering Toby Jones’s puerile Stanley, despite his petulant rebuffs. Yet when he is threatened, by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s fraught McCann and Stephen Mangan’s intimidating Goldberg, he bites back. It is sometimes easy to forget just how good Toby Jones can be when the role fits him. This fits him. I have to say though that Stephen Mangan, who here seems to physically dominate the room, teeth gleaming, offers the best of the performances. The way he barks out, with utter certainty, the cliched “memories” from his childhood is perfect Pinter for me. The way words seem to say one thing but mean something completely different. There is an equivocation about Mangan’s Goldberg as if he is trying to convince himself, as much as those around him, of his real status. Peter Wright, (a revelatory Polonius in Robert Icke’s Hamlet), and Pearl Mackie have less to work with but you wouldn’t notice.

Can Stanley even play the piano? Is it actually a boarding house? Has McCann ever killed anyone? Who’s actually been to Maidenhead? Why can’t Meg sort out a decent breakfast? Was Goldberg actually an orphan? Is this really Stanley’s birthday? What are Goldberg and McCann’s real first names? Was Meg really so p*ssed she couldn’t remember Stanley seemingly attacking her at the party? Why doesn’t Stanley do a runner? Why does Petey pretend Stanley is still there? Are Meg and Petey really childless?

You see the problem is, you start questioning one thing, then another, then the whole thing unravels. And HP looking down on us, chuckling. After all he swore he once stayed in a place exactly like this, with one lonely lodger who lived there because he had “nowhere else to go”, which is about the saddest/funniest thing I reckon anyone could say.

All this before you get to the heavy symbolism which lies in the apparent Judaism and Catholicism of Goldberg and McCann, and their apparent authority over Stanley, though where this is derived from is never revealed. This is why HP saw this as one of his more explicitly “political” (small p) plays. Why gives some-one the right to exert power over another and why is the latter willing to accept? Basic social contract stuff punctuated by the smell of fried bread and whisky and the cries of seagulls. As Petey says at the end “Stan, don’t let them tell you want to do”. Remember HP refused to do National Service as a conscientious objector. Suspicious of all power. And he was an atheist despite his Jewish heritage.

The programme notes from Mark Taylor-Batty have a quote from Pinter which I had not heard before, probably because I am still a bit of an HP virgin. “A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all of these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.” There you have it. Just as well HP was brutally articulate in explaining inarticulacy.

So why only 4 stars? Not because of the play, cast, direction or design. All top drawer. Simply that, thanks to my penny-pinching nature, we were a little too far back to really appreciate the production in a theatre which is a little too cosy at the back of the stalls. There are some plays where that wouldn’t matter. This isn’t one of them.

 

 

 

SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart at Cadogan Hall review ****

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SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, Sir Roger Norrington, Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

Cadogan Hall, 16th March 2018

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Op 43
  • Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37
  • Symphony No 3 in E flat major “Eroica”, Op 55

I guess the fashion for all Beethoven programmes began with LvB himself. Perhaps one of you clever musicologist types can tell me if this continued through the C19 and C20. In any event it is commonplace now. Makes sense really. Why would you want to dilute the maestro’s perfect work with the burblings of lesser mortals.

That master of Beethoven performance, Sir Roger Norrington, knows that and programmed accordingly as he brought the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart to the Cadogan Hall as part of the Zurich International Orchestra Series, Sir Roger was made Conductor Emeritus of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, which merged with the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg in 2016, having led them from 1998 until 2011. This means that a fair few of this orchestra know him and his methods very well and it shows. And this is a fine orchestra make no mistake.

For those that don’t know Sir Roger made his name at the Kent Opera, and then his own London Classical Players, at the vanguard of historically informed performance. Minimal vibrato, strings not allowed to overwhelm the woodwind and strict adherence to the composer’s metronome marks, characterise his exquisite performances of Beethoven. That happens to be the way I like my Beethoven too. Not that syrupy, wobbly stodge filtered through the Romanticism of the second half of the C19 and the bombastic conducting of the first half of the C20. That means picking up the pace and pumping up the rhythm. His long association with the Stuttgart orchestra, and peers in Salzburg and Zurich, means that this is a modern orchestra fully in tune with his approach, able to deliver accurate “pure tone”. Mind you the fact that he still guest conducts at the ripe old age of 84 (this was his birthday – many happy returns) with some of the world’s most famous orchestras shows just how far the “right” way of playing has seeped into the mainstream for Beethoven and other Classical composers.

Now I am not going to lie. I can take or leave the Prometheus Overture. Beethoven churned out a fair few, 11 to be exact, Overtures for money, to accompany theatrical performances, with 4 linked to his only opera Fidelio and its first incarnation Leonore. Some get more of an airing than others, (anyone ever heard the Zur Namensfeier Overture?), and the general consensus is that a fair few are decidely ropey. The Creatures of Prometheus is Beethoven’s only ballet composed in 1801. I am not big on the ballet so I don’t know if this gets a regular airing but the Overture holds its own in the concert hall in part because it contains material that was later recycled into, yep, the Eroica Symphony and the Eroica Variations for piano. Delivered here with a bit of oomph which makes me a little less dismissive of this piece.

Our soloist for the PC3 was Swiss Francesco Piemontesi, protege of Alfred Brendel, who I confess was a new name for me. He has worked with this orchestra and Sir Roger before though and it showed. His piano was turned in, just like in 1800, with Sir Roger and his stool, (no score, no baton obvs), behind this which made for a different experience. In the Eroica we had the brass and wind players standing, outside the antiphonal strings and the double basses growling away at the back with the timp. Just another sign of Sir Roger rethinking the familiar. Anyway Mr Piemontesi was compelling especially in the faster, outer two movements. The pace at which the conductor takes this movements, and this layout, served him well and lent an interesting “slippery” quality to the concerto which was exciting. The Largo was maybe a bit too long on the power and short on the poetry but not annoyingly so. Encored with a bit of Brahms which furthered showcased his easygoing style.

The PC 3 was a great leap forward for Beethoven, (though maybe not quite as much as the Eroica), composed at the same time as that interesting but still “nice” Symphony No 2 and when he was still twiddling about with (admittedly still perfect) chamber pieces. Here is all that massive musical imagination bursting out, though still with some structural debt to Haydn and Mozart and specifically the latter’s C minor concerto No 24. The contrast with the weirdy E major in the slow movement is what makes you sit up and take notice.

The Eroica was similarly taken at a fair lick, even in the second movement funeral march. Crispy punchy strings acted as the perfect foil for woodwind detail and the horns especially in the scherzo and the trio. Is this Beethoven’s greatest work? Not sure, I still prefer Symphony No 7, but it doesn’t matter how many times you hear it still punches you in head, heart and gut. It is long yes, but the orchestral forces, as this orchestral layout reminds us, are no greater than normal for the time, just an extra horn. Yet from the off, in the first movement, LvB conjures up all manner of dissonances, surprises, syncopations and stresses to create drama and energy. Pop in a new tune halfway through like never before. Let the horn jump in too early. A timpani that cracks like wood on wood. Yet, in all this expectant momentum, even a non-musical person like the Tourist never loses the line, and when the resolutions come, its blessed relief. Even if it is just the woodwind really as we still have three more movements to come. I just can’t see how this mighty first movement makes sense played too slowly and without repeat.

A funeral march which basically defines all orchestral funeral marches, all grave and ominous, and then the switch to C major from minor for that jaunty episode telling us whoever died didn’t do so in vain. Always have to stop myself jumping up and saluting. Then after the second wave of death and glory the squeaky violins. Fade out. Under starters orders and we are off with the horsey scherzo with that lollop into 4/4. Another one of those brilliantly perfect ideas that no-one before would ever contemplate. Straight into the intro of the final movement with its opening tease, through about 6 symphonies inside one movement, until, bosh, the best ending to any LvB symphony.

This is a piece of cake for Sir Roger. Thomas Ades’s Eroica last year in the Barbican, as part of the cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, followed a similar template in terms of pace, power and animation but you definitely felt you had been in the ring for the full twelve rounds after that. Here Sir Roger was still able to unfurrow the brows of music and performers as it were, to leave me skipping off with a smile not a scowl. (Had to leave early to catch a train so missed the Mozart encore – doh).

As it happens the SO has seen Sir Rodger conduct on a couple of occasions, maybe 50% of her entire classical musical education. Still no reaction. If he can’t persuade her no-one can.

A diary clash prevents me from hearing Sir Rodger’s next outing with the OAE at the newly restored Queen Elizabeth Hall on 11th April. All Mozart. Mind you it’s sold out. No surprise there.

 

 

Hamlet at the Hackney Empire review ****

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Hamlet

Hackney Empire, 19th March 2018

Working on the premise that it surely is impossible to see Hamlet too often in a lifetime, and keen to make sure the RSC continues to bring as many productions as possible to London, I signed up some time ago for this gig. This despite having already seen the cinema broadcast from Stratford in 2016. A bit excessive I hear you cry. Nope, not when you have an actor as gifted as Paapa Essiedu. His Edmund in the RSC King Lear in 2016 was the best thing about the production, which was pretty good despite some misgivings about the play and Antony Sher’s Lear. Hopefully you had a chance to see him on the tour of this production before it came to the venerable Empire. If you are anywhere near the Kennedy Centre, Washington (DC not Tyne and Wear) in early May I commend you to get along for the last leg of this tour.

There is more to this production, directed by Simon Godwin, than Mr Essiedu however. Mr Godwin has demonstrated that he has a way of breathing new life into classic texts, combining innovation and fealty. (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****). Denmark has been re-imagined as a West African state which yields some interesting insights and a design concept for Elsinore a long way from the usual Northern European Stygian gloom. The programme notes, (I don’t know why people don’t buy programmes, at the very least at the major subsidised theatres, there is so much to learn from them), refer to Hamlet coming “home” after his years studying in Wurttemberg and how he is torn between cultures. There is some mileage in this idea which the production gently explores. There are parallels with Tshembe Matoseh, the main protagonist in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece Les Blancs. No doubt you clever people can think of other theatrical “culture-clash” conceits. Of course transporting the look and the backdrop of the play to West Africa, whilst still retaining a text and characters anchored in Shakespeare’s vague Denmark, throws up a few contradictions but I think that was largely the point. Your man Hamlet after all isn’t short of cognitive dissonance.

So our sweet Prince is already on edge and suspicious of how Claudius came to power. When he sees Dad’s ghost on the ramparts all togged out in tribal chief paraphernalia, in contrast to the modern dress of the present Court, he quickly resolves to action. There is a sense throughout that this Hamlet, whilst not knowing how and when, and running through the gamut of hesitant self examination, is powered by the powerful urge to right a wrong. His feigned madness, his toying with Polonius, the verbal sparring with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the taunting of Claudius and Gertrude, the carousing with the players, are all in the service of avenging the old fella. The production breaks at the Claudius prayer scene with Hamlet circling in the shadows, gun in hand. I wasn’t sure but I reckon this was only ever going to be a reprieve for Claudius. (Of course I was sure, we all know what happens, but my point is this was a Hamlet who was just gearing up to the main event not a bottler with an uncertain grip on his own reality). “To be or not to be” is a pep talk to self here, not a page from Kierkegaard.

Paapa Essiedu fits this conflicted, mischievous Hamlet like a glove. There is not one single word, let along line, that doesn’t sound entirely right. He doesn’t hang around or over-elaborate, but there is still enough space around the words to take them in. Not the conversational musing of Andrew Scott at the Almeida or the irked ironic philosophising of Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Just a spontaneous intelligence which makes you wonder why other actors seem to agonise over the right tone to take for this admittedly complicated young fella. His movement and expression is flawless. He can project a single glance to the back of the balcony. He seems to find the shifts from comedy to tragedy, well, just easy. Look out for the laugh he conjures up when pulling Polonius’s body from behind the arras. And I know it shouldn’t matter but it really helps that he is the right age and he is beautiful. PE himself seeming to be a combination of child, student, lover, playboy, artist, he knows enough to question what it is all about, but not enough to buckle under the weight of his own existentialist uncertainties. And, despite all the moping about and hissy fits, you can see why people are really drawn to him and crave his approval.

Compare this to Clarence Smith’s Claudius which is far more old-skool declamatory, though this works pretty well in this context. A far cry from the last time I saw this fine actor as the broken Selwyn in Roy Williams’s brilliant latest play The Firm (The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****). I wasn’t entirely convinced initially by the versatile Lorna Brown’s seemingly withdrawn and inert Gertrude, but this made more sense as the production unfolded and the final death scene was very poignant. He’s still her little boy you see.

In the scenes between Polonius (Joseph Mydell), Laertes (Buom Tihngang) and Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) there was a real sense of a loving family, something I had not really felt before. Matching Papa Essiedu’s dazzling performance was a tall order for the rest of the cast but Mmi Ndiweni, (taking on the role from Natalie Simpson in the first Stratford incarnation), came pretty close. The mad scene was both very moving and very scary. Mind you I am a sucker for a distraught Ophelia. And, thanks to both actors, Hamlet’s dismissal of Ophelia, here played out whilst writhing around in bed, actually made sense. Romayne Andrews and Eleanor Wyld as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern struck all the right notes, dislocated in this very different Denmark, and Ewart James Walters turned in some scene stealers doubling as a booming Old Hamlet and a Gravedigger who, judging by his accent, had taken a long way round to get to this particular Denmark.

The production really comes to vibrant life when the colours, sounds and dance of West Africa are brought to the stage thanks to Paul Anderson (lighting), Sola Akingbola (composer), Christopher Shutt (sound) and Mbulelo Ndabeni. The players are no afterthought here. Locating Hamlet’s antic disposition in the artistic milieu of Jean-Michel Basquiat works far better on stage than on paper. You are left wondering if Simon Godwin and the team might have found a few more visual or textual signifiers to flesh out Claudius’s rise to, (diplomatic duplicity alongside an arranged murder?), and fall from, power, and the effect of conflict with the “Norwegian” neighbours, though I get this might have made for an uneasy narrative. It may have helped ease the shift into the bloody carnage of Act V though.

Anyway not quite a perfect Hamlet (play) if such a thing where ever possible. But certainly a near perfect Hamlet (bloke) thanks to Paapa Essiedu. I think I have been guilty of saying too often that I can’t wait to see what xxxx does next on stage in this blog. In this case it is really true and I suspect most of those who have seen this production would agree. On this evidence anything is possible from this rare talent. There are some actors who convince but stay firmly rooted to the stage behind the invisible wall. There are some though that seem to magically come off and out to play to you alone. PE is one of these.

 

 

 

 

Lord of the Flies at Greenwich Theatre review ****

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Lord of the Flies

Greenwich Theatre, 17th March 2018

The second instalment in the Lazarus Theatre Company residency at the Greenwich Theatre and another cracker after their superb Edward II (Edward II at Greenwich Theatre review ****) On the basis of these two the final production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be mandatory viewing I reckon.

It is hard to imagine a more fluent adaption of William Golding’s seminal 1954 novel than that penned here by Nigel Williams, originally staged at the RSC and which was superbly revived at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Now Lazarus Artistic Director Ricky Dukes and his team have a little less budget, and atmosphere, to play with than Timothy Sheader at Regents Park, (with full size BA fuselage wreckage), but, as with Edward II, they make the most of what they have. The cast enter from the rear of the theatre, and sprint up and downstairs for dramatic effect at points thereafter, one side of the stalls, piled up with chairs, serves as the schoolboy’s makeshift shelter, chairs are put through their paces, we get fire, a stuck pig’s head, lashings of blood, and a couple of gasp-inducing coups de theatre. The plastic sheeting which did such sterling work in Edward II gets a workout. What brings it all together though is another superb lighting display from Ben Jacobs.

Mr Dukes opts to cast Ralph, Sam, Maurice, Rodger and little Percival as women but without changing the pronouns. Golding famously remarked that his story could not have happened with girls involved, sex would have predominated. I venture no opinion. The casting does bring an extra dimension as well as some fine performances notably from Amber Wadey as the vain Ralph and Georgina Barley as the cruel manipulator Roger. I was also impressed by the underlying vulnerability Nick Cope found in macho Jack and Benjamin Victor’s messianic Simon.

There are one or two moments where Mr Dukes’s Brechtian reading does come across as a little too “theatre-school” but this is more than compensated by the energy and intelligence he applies. This isn’t a subtle story and the odds are you will be well versed in why it was written and what it was trying to say. In a world where civil society feels as if it is increasingly under the cosh and the “threat of evil” is everywhere, (it isn’t and it doesn’t compared to history, but that is no reason not to be complacent), then Golding’s tale is well worth telling even if we all know how it goes.

And that is the biggest compliment I can pay to Mr Dukes and the young cast at Lazarus. I knew what was coming yet was pretty much enthralled from start to finish. As you will observe from this blog I see a lot of theatre, probably too much. But I don’t see much consistently more exciting than that I saw here. You really do need to seek this company out.

 

All Too Human at Tate Britain review *****

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All Too Human: Bacon. Freud and a Century of Painting Life

Tate Britain, 15th March 2018

I love paint. I love painting. I love paintings of people. I love Britain (though I appreciate that is a loaded statement). I love London. I love paintings of London. So, surprise, surprise, I loved this exhibition.

Don’t listen to the whingeing critics ….

As usual a whole bunch of critics are moaning about what was missed out, and in some cases, what was put in. Ignore them. If your only definitional constraints are a country, (of production, not, wisely, artist’s origin), a time period and “painting from life” then you are, ahem, taking a pretty broad brush approach. What the curators, led by Elena Crippa, have done is assembled a marvellous collection of powerful paintings by top drawer artists, many of which you won’t get to see in public collections, and then carefully spelled out the links between them.

There are links of style, substance, location, outlook and subject and there is enough for the numpty like me to learn without a load of contextual guff being rammed down your throat and getting in the way of the pictures. So by all means think about who you might have added, (and maybe taken away), but not to the exclusion of the bounteous display which has been carefully set out in front of you.

The School of London

Now the backbone of the exhibition is the so-called School of London, the term that RB Kitaj coined retrospectively, to identify a group of painters who were a) defiantly figurative, b) worked and/or taught in London and c) were bloody good. At least that’s my take. So that covers RB himself, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews and one or two others who don’t get as much of a look in here. This starting point gives more than enough to get going on but the curators have additionally highlighted the contributions of two significant teacher/mentors to this group of painters in the late 1940s and early 1950s; firstly William Coldstream at the Slade School and secondly David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic.

All that was then needed was a stab at exploring some precedent influences, which is what we see in the first room, some contemporary figurative painters, and voila, the exhibition is complete. All makes sense to me so I am not really sure why some critics are blubbing.

Spencer, Bomberg, Sickert, Soutine

So to the first room which showcases Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, Walter Richard Sickert and Chain Soutine. Let me just say that again. Spencer, Bomberg, Sickert and Soutine. You could have just stopped there and I would have been happy. All offering up subjects which the School of London generation would explore and all painters of immense confidence when it came to capturing life whether in portrait or landscape.

I reckon David Bomberg is the best British painter of the C20. If it hadn’t been for a certain Joseph Mallord William Turner that would make him the greatest British painter ever. If you don’t believe me, and you are anywhere near Newcastle, you can go see for yourself at the Laing Gallery which is now showing the 60 year anniversary retrospective that kicked off at Pallant House (Bomberg at Pallant House Gallery review *****). Here we get to see a dandyish self-portrait with echoes of van Gogh and a pair of landscapes, one of Toledo and one of Ronda, which act as the expressionist bridge into the abstract Cornish landscapes of his latter years. This is a very long way from the modernism and vorticism of his early years and the inter-war scenes of London Jewish life. It is also a step on from the more restrained Palestinian landscapes. This is Bomberg grappling towards his idea of spirit in the mass. It is easy to see the traces of Sickert, who taught him early on, and even easier to see his influence in turn on Kossoff, Auerbach and Dorothy Mead who attended his classes at Borough Polytechnic.

The two Spencer portraits date from 1933 and 1935 and are both of Patricia Preece. Now if you want the definition of a f*cked up relationship you need look no further than Stan and Pat. As is plainly portrayed in these two pictures. The paintings are here because this is the well from which Lucian Freud drank deeply. If you are going to take a cold, hard, honest and realistic look at the person you know well sat in front of you, and you have no fear of what the outcome might say about the relationship between you and the sitter, then these paintings, and those in the Freud room later on, are what you might end up with. Assuming you can draw. Really draw. Our Stanley did end up churning out a fair bit of landscape junk for money towards the end, and he was a bona-fide fruitcake, but how he ever became viewed as an artistic embarrassment is a mystery. Just shows how far the rejection of figurativism went. Anyway his reputation is restored now. I had a very fine day out in Wakefield at the Hepworth seeing the last major Spencer retrospective in 2016, Of Angels and Dirt, and if you ever need a Sir Stanley fix then head out to Cookham. Or the Tate which is loaded with Spencers. Or the Fitzwilliam ditto. BTW if any budding theatre directors are reading this please could you revive Pam Gems’s play Stanley. I would love to see it.

Now Sickert is the grandaddy of British figurative art in the C20, Another oddball, who cared deeply about how the paint was applied to the canvas, he didn’t really paint too much from life, preferring drawings and latterly photos. His imprint is all over the later artists in the exhibition. The everyday subjects, the detached gaze, the oddish angles, the materiality of the paint, (for a man who professed to hate thick paint he wasn’t shy of slapping it on). Here we get two of his disconcerting surveilled nudes and a music hall number.

Now including Chaim Soutine in this room might be seen as a bit of a stretch. He is usually viewed as the fulcrum between the European masters of the past, Rembrandt, Chardin and the like, and Expressionism toppling into Abstraction. But he did get involved in some London shows, and the detached eye, the desire to capture what was in front of him and the everyday subjects are all present and correct in the later rooms. Let’s face it, if you want a direct painting link to Francis Bacon,  Chaim is your man, along with Picasso, Velazquez, Goya and Titian. If you want a bit of meaty, carcasse action though, look no further than Soutine’s butchery studies, here represented by the Butcher Stall from 1919 as well as a landscape and a portrait from the period when Soutine was holed up in Ceret. And if there was ever an artist who liked to mess up his subject’s facial features then it was Soutine. So no wonder Bacon liked his work.

Francis Bacon I

So job done we can move on to room 2 and a room full of Bacons. And, curiously a Giacometti sculpture, a Woman of Venice from 1956. I can see why Giacometti is here though. His way of capturing the essence of his subjects chimed with these British artists. Working and reworking to capture his subjective interpretation of the objective reality in front of him. The horror that was unleashed by WWII. Art critic David Sylvester linked Bacon and Giacometti, and the way they captured the individual’s messy experience of the world, with the existentialist philosophies that were intellectually prominent in post war years. Bacon backed this up in his captivating interviews. Not sure you would get all that from just the one Giacometti though, and maybe a couple of Giacometti’s own ghostly portrait paintings might have better made the link with Bacon. Still musn’t grumble.

Especially when you have seven early(ish) Bacons to get to grips with, the earliest being Figure in a Landscape from 1945, the year after the revolutionary Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, (just along the corridor in the permanent Tate collection). I defy anyway not to have an immediate and extreme reaction to the work of Bacon. Raw, frightening, thrilling, they stop you dead in your tracks. I find it very difficult to tear myself away from them. There is a Study after Velaquez with screaming mouth and “trapped” in a “cage” of red blinds. The foreground seems to me to be rushing towards us, the cross-legged pose the normality behind which lies this terrible angst. You might have seen Dog before. It always brings to my mind Dill the Dog from the children’s TV series The Herbs (for those old enough to remember). Daft huh? The demented cur, running round and round in circles, against the background of, absurdly, the Monte Carlo sea front. Study of a Baboon, from the MoMA collection, is an absolutely extraordinary painting. Here Bacon shows another primate, screaming, which they do, and somehow equates this to our own existence. What is going on in this fella’s head? The Study or Portrait II is another Tate regular and is based on the life mask of William Blake, which Bacon had photographed and even cast. The pink, mauve and white marks build up to create an amalgam of flesh and wax, It might just be the best picture in the exhibition.

FN Souza

I know nothing about Francis Newton Souza who came to London from his native Goa in 1949. I gather his work has become increasingly regarded in recent years but I can’t say I was bowled over though his ideas are interesting. I can see the energy in the graphic brush strokes and the coruscating critique of religion and commerce in his subject matter, as well as the eroticism, but I had no definite aesthetic reaction. The curators make a case for linking his portraits back to the early Renaissance and to the fears and anxieties of the post war era, (though these works are a little later in vintage), and thus to Bacon, but it isn’t that convincing. I was actually more interested in the pair of smaller, Expressionistic, almost Chagall-like, landscapes. Anyway see what you think.

The influence of William Coldstream

The next room highlights the work and philosophy of William Coldstream, who taught Euan Uglow and Michael Andrews at the Slade School in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and influenced, and gave a job to, the young Lucian Freud. Coldstream was all about recording the reality of the subject through exact measurement, intense scrutiny and spending lots of time with the model. Now I am not sure that this technical obsessiveness was married with existential insight in the nudes and still-life on show here from Coldstream himself, but it leaps off the canvas with the Uglow paintings, the Still lIfe with a Delft Vase (hello Chardin) and, especially, his portrait of Georgia Georgallas from 1973. Apparently he had her hair cut, chose the exact colour of the tights she wore, chose the fabric for the sofa she reclines on and dressed her in a football shirt, (don’t know which club mind you). You can see the measurement marks on the canvas, the passage of time in creating the picture is palpable. It is still pretty disturbing though.

Lucian Freud I

As are the Lucien Freud figures in this room, Girl With a Kitten from 1947 and Girl with A White Dog from 1951, both depicting his first wide Kitty Garman. Freud would stare intently at his subject for hours, a form of “visual aggression” which created the tension visible in the paintings. He even scared the cat. These delicate, chalky,, hyper-real portraits always take me back to the Northern Renaissance and, specifically, Memling’s portraits, but with a few centuries of “progress” chucked into the mix. Freud abandoned the delicate sable brush strokes in the later, fleshier works, (in Room 7), but this also meant forfeiting the uneerie “otherness’ of these early works. Now I gather LF was a bit of a misogynist control freak and he famously came from a family unhealthily preoccupied with matters sexual . It shows.

Bomberg and the Borough Polytechnic

The next room, which tracks the influence of David Bomberg during his time teaching at the Borough Polytechnic, (the antithesis of the art establishment represented by the Slade), explores a very different way of looking at the world. Bomberg was critical of traditional observational methods in painting, the “hand and eye disease”, preferring to highlight the visual experience of objects and their mass, so as to get to the structure underpinning the observed; “the spirit of the mass” as he termed it. Drawing from life was fundamental to his process. The influence on students Auerbach and Kossoff is unmistakeable. Neither were members of the Borough Group which was formed in Bomberg’s wake but both were inspired, like Dorothy Mead, by his methods as they went on to more formal training. Bomberg had painted London cityscapes, notably St Paul’s Cathedral, during the war, (we see one here) but his prime interest in his later years, alongside portraiture, was elemental landscape. The near abstract renderings of Cornwall painted in his last years, whilst not represented here, seem to me to bear the most similarity to the dense, detailed London cityscapes that Auerbach and Kossoff went on to paint, although they both use a lot more paint (!).

Auerbach and Kossoff’s London

The cityscapes from both which appear in the following room, with a couple of portraits, are easier to read that their earlier works in the prior room, as is evident from the image of Kossoff;s near monochrome Christ Church, Spitalfields above. Yet, in some ways, the thrill of all that thick impasto on the canvas, Kossoff Early Morning Willesden or Auerbach’s Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, is hard to beat. This is where the over-painting which characterises many of the paintings on show across the exhibition reaches its apogee. Whilst the geographic range of, particularly Auerbach, may be narrow, the expressive sweep is endless. Forgive the aside but there is a song by Madness off the much under-rated The Liberty of Norton Folgate album, We Are London, which popped into my head. Same emotional territory. Camden boys as well.

Lucien Freud II

Back to the body with a bang in Room 7 with wall-to-wall “classic” Freuds. There is a lot of painted flesh on show, rendered in the style LF first adopted in the early 1960’s and which he carried through to his death in 2011. He had picked up a hog-brush and moved back from the sitter by now, painting standing up, leading to a higher viewpoint and more elongated foregrounding. These portraits are set predominately in the familiarity of his studio. There are more full figures and more full nudes. There is real weight to the bodies, and more psychological depth, and less intimidation than in his earlier works. The call back to Sickert’s nudes struck me. The room is a bit overwhelming at first so I opted to focus on a handful of paintings: the Baby on a Green Sofa from 1961, (his daughter Bella), the portrait of Frank Auerbach from 1976 and the portraits of Leigh Bowery from 1991 an Sue Tilley from 1996. (The latter two are asleep: no great surprise given how slowly LF painted). These paintings emphasise how LF used lead white paint to build the contours of the flesh and create that astounding impression of sculpted volume on the canvas. Of course it only works with pale, white people, as it did for Stanley Spencer, but it is, even if you know these paintings, jarring to see unflattering depictions of naked bodies in the context of an art canon that does the exact opposite and a culture that only permits airbrushed “perfection”. Like them or not, this is what paint can do.

Francis Bacon II

Room 8 shows how Francis Bacon used the photographs of buddy John Deakin, notably those with unnatural poses and double-exposed, as the starting point for a number of his paintings. And the paintings here need to be savoured as you won’t see some of them every day of the week, in particular the Study for Portrait of Lucien Freud, with its sickly mint green sofa, incandescent light bulb and stuff coming out of LF’s head, and the Triptych completed in 1977, showing three images of FB’s lover George Dyer who committed suicide in 1971, on a beach referencing Degas and Picasso, the very definition of alienation. The former hasn’t been seen in public since 1965, the latter sits in a private collection since it last sale in 2008.

By the 1970s FB had given up on painting from life and the motifs, popes, besuited captains of industry, screams, cages and screens, had been replaced by the grotesque, but inordinately powerful, portraits of his mates, at least those that could keep up with him. These violently distorted chunks of people may look like they bear no resemblance to their subjects but see Deakin’s photos and you get exactly what FB was driving at. The way in which FB showed the life of his subject bursting out beyond the confines of the body reaches a peak in the Three Figures and Portrait from 1975. A death-mask like portrait is pinned to the back wall, a memory seeming to watch over the the two dynamic human figures and a bird like creature, with snarling human mouth, on a cube twisting and writhing in the foreground. The head on the left hand figure is George Dyer once again, his spine pushing out of his back. Scary stuff.

Michael Andrews and RB Kitaj

The next room, luckily, offers a bit of respite from FB’s assault on the senses. Michael Andrews and RB Kitaj aped Bacon by drawing on photographs as sources for their portraits, as well as their own imaginations. Andrews shared the existentialist outlook of some of his peers but was more interested in the interaction between people, friends, families, groups, than with the individual. Here we see one of MA’s oils depicting the Colony Room, Soho haunt of Bacon, Freud, Deakin and assorted bohemian hangers-on, and the Deer Park which impossibly brings together a intellectuals and celebs. But the most wonderful painting here is the much later Melanie and Me Swimming showing him tenderly teaching his 6 year old daughter to swim in a rock-pool. By this time MA had switched to quick drying acrylic paint sprayed on to the canvas. This gives a smooth, unbroken fluidity to the paint, and, as here, creates some captivating effects, the splashing, the refraction of the water, the contrast between skin colour in face and body. If you like this picture, and I am sure you will, then you need to search out more of Michael’s Andrew’s works in acrylic, especially the landscapes, the “hot air balloon series” and the fish paintings. You are in for a treat. The extensive retrospective at the Gagosian a couple of years ago was one of the finest I have seen (Michael Andrews and Richard Serra at the Gagosian Galleries London review *****). Unfortunately the Tate collection only holds one depiction of Uluru (Ayers Rock) which rarely gets an outing.

RB Kitaj, born in America but working in London from the early 1960s after studying at Oxford,  also examines relationships but his was a more critical eye with a discernible message. His subjects were friends, especially artistic, as in The Wedding here, and family, especially the history of his family as part of the Jewish diaspora. Now he may have been the architect of the exhibition, The Human Clay in 1976, which proposed The School of London, but, for me, he is the least interesting painter.

Paula Rego

That cannot be said of Paula Rego whose works using live models dominate Room 10. Now you might legitimately ask yourself what Portugal’s greatest living, scrub that, greatest ever, artist is doing in this company. Well she studied under William Coldstream at the Slade School, alongside Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and her future husband Victor Willing, in the mid 1950s. With that link established we are permitted to see some of her finest, and most intriguing paintings, from the 1990s. There is no better story teller, specifically women’s stories, in paint. These are no simple stories though, presenting multiple viewpoints and multiple insights. Take a look at The Family from 1988. At first glance it might appear a disturbing scenario . Take a closer look. This is a family undressing the helpless invalided father, a very personal exploration of Paula Rego’s own life, and that of their daughters, caring for Vic Willing.

Contemporary women figurative artists

On the day I went this room and the following room, the last room in the exhibition, got a bit piled up with punters so I wasn’t able to devote enough time to really looking at these works. No matter. I’ll be back and will cunningly start at the end. I got a bit beaten up by all that male existential angst in the preceding rooms. Whilst the artists in this final room, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are concerned with the human form, they do not, (with the exception of Celia Paul), necessarily paint directly from life and the identities they explore are a long way from the ferocity of, say, Francis Bacon. Celia Paul may have been a contemporary, (and lover), of Lucian Freud but her portraits of women, in supportive groups or individually, seem more concerned with internal vitality than external authority. Jenny Saville’s striking and frank close-up self portrait Reverse harks back to the meaty flesh of Soutine, as well as Freud. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye paints black characters from her imagination, with enigmatic titles, who seem caught up in their thoughts.

Off you trot

So a marvellous exhibition bringing together some of the best figurative artists who have worked in this country over the last few decades. Forget about agonising over what might have been included, or what should have been excluded. There is more than enough here to savour and the connections the curators have made are both valid and interesting. Above all the exhibition shows that painting in Britain never went away and that there is nothing quite as thrilling as looking at ourselves in paint.

All Too Human runs until 27th August 2018 so there is absolutely no reason at all not to see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

and ===Bacon rarities – Lucien Freud study – Peter Lacy = beach trip

A (flawed) guide to London theatres

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When I was a young teenager I took to making up some very odd games. I wasn’t lonely, with a handful of very good friends as I remember, and my very earliest encounters with the ladies were amongst my most successful, since my true nature, an awkward mix of the needy and the misanthropic, had yet to be revealed. I was something of a swot, what you might call bookish and then, as now, was sometimes a little confused by what others did or said in social situations. But definitely not on any sort of spectrum I reckon, beyond that of the awkward 16 year old lad with lank, long hair, (despite the advent of punk), robust flares, bumfluff and the ability to make a pint of lager last a whole evening.

But enacting an entire Subbuteo World Cup, sixteen teams, (these were the days when FIFA could just about control its financial appetites – if you want to see what the future, actually present, of human “governance” looks like, like no further than the masters of the beautiful game), then quarters, semis and a final. All stats carefully recorded in a special notebook. All done on my own. That’s right. I played with myself, (no titters at the back please). Which meant that, whilst pretending to myself that this was an entirely objective exercise exercise, I got to see England play Holland in the final. England because that’s the fiction that is most deep-rooted in my psychology. But Holland won. Retribution for the injustice meted outed in the “real” World Cup final in 1974, (and, though I did not know it, but somehow feared it, again in 1978), and an early indication of my rabid pro-Europeanism.

Sounds a bit weird right. Except that PlayStations hadn’t been invented. So I like to think of myself as an early adopter, not a sad adolescent.

Anyway responsibility, albeit of a most shrunken kind, has meant I have had to let go of such childish things but I still like a good list, dictated by me, which purports to be based on “facts” but is in fact nothing of the kind. Though, as you know, (tautology alert), there are no such things as facts, only theories yet to be unproven, and “information” is mediated, and mutilated, by both provider and consumer. Do not believe anything, least of all if it comes out of your own head. Proud to be a sceptic.

So you can safely ignore what follows.

Since theatre is my current passion, I thought I would tot up the ratings that I had given the entertainments I had enjoyed over the past three years, derive some averages, adjust for frequencies and thereby show what London theatres reliably put on the best work. Thereby confirming my own biases, with my own biased ratings, mashed through a filter of spurious statistical analysis. Just the kind of woeful shite that organisations, opinion formers and your governors do everyday apparently on your behalf.

So here’s my top ten (well eleven actually). Turns out that it is a proven fact (!) that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is the best of the bunch, the Royal Court is a thing of wonder, especially when you reflect on the fact that the work is almost entirely new, and the National Theatre under Rufus Norris is not, repeat not, undergoing any sort of existential crisis, despite what some would say. The trouble with all those right-wing cultural commentators is that they are only happy when they have something to moan about; they can only argue the negative. I hope the Theatre Royal Haymarket continues its more enlightened programming under the new owners. The Young Vic remains the most exciting major theatre, even if that means a few misfires, and the one where I learn the most. The Barbican benefits from the RSC and the International companies that come through the door. The Donmar rarely drops a bollock but here you really have to be quick at the gate to get a seat. The Arcola and The Orange Tree get my vote for best of the fringe, and the Gate for those with more adventurous tastes. The Old Vic doesn’t always belt it out of the park but is pretty reliable.

In fact overall I doubt there is anything here that would surprise the seasoned theatre-goer. thus adding a nice line in utter pointlessness to the sins of commission I have already committed in compiling, and worst still, writing up this list.

There are a couple of lessons though for the more casual consumer of drama. Firstly, do not think for one moment that watching a film or series on a tiny screen can in any way match the thrill of live theatre, and secondly, if you want to avoid being the sap who comments that “I would liked to have seen that but it was all sold out before the reviews appeared … ” or end up paying three times the price for a painfully uncomfortable seat in some West End mausoleum, then sign yourself up to the Almeida, Royal Court and National lists and take the plunge as soon as you seen something half-interesting.

  1. Almeida Theatre 4.33
  2. Royal Court Theatre 3.87
  3. National Theatre 3.81
  4. Theatre Royal Haymarket 3.80
  5. Young Vic 3.79
  6. Barbican Theatre 3.78
  7. Donmar Warehouse 3.75
  8. Arcola Theatre 3.71
  9. Orange Tree Theatre 3.67
  10. Old Vic 3.60
  11. The Gate Theatre 3.60

Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Summer and Smoke

Almeida Theatre, 14th March 2018

I don’t always find it easy to get into the “Tennessee Williams zone”. My head takes a little bit of time to adjust to all that dreamy lyricism and I find it easier to stomach if there is something to cling on to, a social structure lurking in the background, the interaction of a few characters such that the usual TW human foibles are spread around a bit, a production that is not overly “directorial”.

The Almeida production of Summer and Smoke didn’t offer too much of what I look for, so I can’t say I was quite as bowled over as some of the proper critics who reckon this production was enough to set S&S, written in 1948, alongside the classic TW’s such as A Streetcar Named Desire which premiered the year before. It is very, very good though and should be seen, if you are sharp enough to snaffle some of the Rush tickets that Almeida offers up for sold-out stuff like this, or if it finds its way into the West End as it might. It is also yet another reminder, if this were needed, for all you casual theatre-goers out there. that it is always worth taking a punt on Almeida productions for fear you end up shelving out twice as much when they transfer, as so many have done under Rupert Goold’s tenure. Romola Garai has already been announced in the lead role of Ella Hickson’s new play The Writer, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will line up another outstanding female actor to take on the challenge in Sophie Treadwell’s Expressionist classic Machinal. Invest in both I say.

In S&S Patsy Ferran has, deservedly, attracted all the plaudits for her performance as the uneasy and multiloquent Alma Winemuller, alongside the equally impressive Matthew Needham as tall, dark, handsome, and troubled, boy-next-door John Buchanan. I wasn’t entirely persuaded by My Mum’s A Twat, Ms Ferran’s last outing, but there is no denying her comic credentials. This though is her first major opportunity to showcase her “serious” acting credentials and she grabs it wth both hands. Mesmerising. Yet, if you ask me, the real star to emerge here is director Rebecca Frecknall.

Ms Frecknall has directed this very play before at the Southwark Playhouse which went down well I gather, and has already rung up a string of awards recognising her precocious talent. She clearly has a deep understanding of the text and the battle between body and soul, which lies at the heart of the play. The way she has marshalled the contributions of designer Tom Scutt, the sparse set and simple costumes backed by a ring of 9 upright pianos, the lighting of Lee Curran, the sound of Carolyn Downing and, especially, composer Angus MacRae, is what turns this into a great production, despite my minor misgivings about the play itself.

Across two acts and thirteen scenes the play explores the ultimately unrequited relationship between the nervous, conventional pastor’s daughter Alma and the maverick John Jr, who comes home to become, like his father, the town’s doctor. It is set in the first decade or so of the C20 in the backwoods of Mississippi. A study of doomed desire, we see Alma shift from sexual repression to, eventually, abandonment, as John simultaneously grows out of his wild, drunken, early years into something approaching conformity, though his hasty marriage to Rosa, daughter of a Mexican immigrant who runs a casino, isn’t going to end well. There are a few other plot twists and turns, one decidedly dramatic if predictable, but the vast majority of the “action” centres on the will they, won’t they couple.

Of course out of this TW fashions something with limitless emotional depth and the apparent linear arc of the story dissolves into something more timeless and circular. Rebecca Frecknall seizes on this and, rightly. doesn’t let go. She has a keen eye for the best of contemporary theatre direction but offers her own, clear voice. Ms Ferran and Almeida regular Mr Needham are sympathetic to this interpretation, and importantly, to each other, and are aided by some heavyweight supporting performances from the likes of Forbes Masson (who plays both fathers – clever eh) and Nancy Crane and another remarkable turn from Anjana Vasan (who was so very good in the Young Vic’s Life of Galileo – Life of Galileo at the Young Vic review ****), as all the other young women in the story (clever again eh).

There were, I admit, a few moments where the intoxicating combination of TW’s poetry, the warm lighting and the minimalist piano score, felt a little too adagio, but, like I said in the open, this is probably more a reflection of my limited attention span that the artfulness of play and production. If you have ever fallen in love with the wrong, or indeed, the right person, and ultimately bollocksed it up, then you are going to recognise Alma and John, even if their world should seem a long way from ours. And, of course, whatever melodramatic nonsense was playing through the theatre of your mind during your great affair/s, it was going to look anaemic in comparison to the intensity of TW’s vision.

If this is what Patsy Ferran can root out of a character like Alma then heavens knows what we have to look forward to in years to come. Nora, Hedda, Martha, Queen Margaret, Lady Macbeth or a host of, I am sure, stunning parts to be written by the crop of outstanding female playwrights this country is fortunate to have right now. I really cannot wait to see what Rebecca Frecknall turns her hand and eye to next. Presumably she will have another crack at the Almeida. On this showing that nice Mr Icke has some competition.