Love and Information at Sheffield Theatres review *****

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Love and Information

Sheffield Crucible Theatre Studio, 7th July 2018

So here was my cunning plan. LD wanted/needed to have a sniff around the University. I spied this revival on the very evening. A chance to have a good look at this fine city. And, though not the original intention, time to watch the England game, (thanks Novotel), whilst LD and the SO had the shops to themselves before they set off back to London.

Love and Information is by Caryl Churchill, the greatest living writer in the English language. She would be the greatest ever if it wasn’t for some long dead geezer from Stratford (upon-Avon not Ontario).

Love and Information was first performed at the Royal Court, (where CC’s plays are normally first presented), in 2012, but despite its relative youth, it has already seen numerous revivals around the world. No surprise there. Like everything she writes it is a work of staggering genius, in terms of dramatic impact, formal invention and intellectual insight. OK so sometimes I have no idea why she chose to show specific scenes and exchanges or what they might “mean”, but that’s all part of the “fun”. It just makes your brain fizz – “my head’s too full of stuff” as one of the characters says early on – indeed. It is exhilarating, if very occasionally frustrating, stuff.

There are seven sections in total whose order is specified by CC. Within these sections however the 57 individual scenes/episodes can be performed in any order. Moreover a random selection of some of these episodes at the end of the text can be inserted wherever the director chooses. There are over 100 characters in all but CC offers no detail as to age/gender/race. And as is typical for CC there are no stage directions or instructions leaving it to director, cast and creatives to decide how they are going to stage the scenes/episodes. So the way in which the relationship between text, performer and audience is constructed and mediated is about as loose as it is possible to get whilst still avoiding the trap of pretentious twaddle.

There are two clear themes: er, Love and Information. Each episode has some moreorless explicit connection with, and/or insight into, these themes, though there is plenty more to chew on besides that, (memory, ageing and ecological crisis pop up for example which also inform most of CC’s recent work) . The effect is of a kaleidoscope of interactions and relationships alongside an essay on the proliferation of “knowledge, both pointless and valuable. We are bombarded with information? How does that affect the way we interact? The structure of the play reflects the very questions it seeks to confront. A philosophical variety show if you will.

Despite the absence of context, identities, names, narrative or indeed any “normal” dramatic anchors CC still manages, often in the space of just a few lines or a couple of minutes to sketch character, to serve up humour, longing, sadness, regret, anger, jealousy, joy, in fact the whole gamut of human emotions. Like so much of CC’s work it is an exercise in distilling drama down to its very essence in order to create lasting impressions and arresting ideas. And all because CC knows how to use words.

The original production used 16 actors. Here Sheffield Theatres associate director Caroline Steinbeis cut this down to just 6. Which means she and her colleagues did a lot of thinking about how to put the scenes together. It also means that some of the scenes were very effectively stitched together, most notably the “children’s TV show” near the end, to create a longer arc of meaning. Max Jones’s set, a bare stage backed by six coloured light boxes, also permitted rapid cutting between the episodes. Costumes, movement (Jenny Ogilvie), lighting (Johanna Town) and sound (the Ringmam brothers yet again) were also carefully considered to create far more concrete settings where abstraction might have been more tempting (and easier). I see that some critics found this more precise and considered technical achievement, (compared to the premiere apparently), somewhat distracting. I loved it, though having not seen a previous production, I knew no better.

I would imagine the cast had a ball putting this together. It is hard to imagine a more challenging, though ultimately satisfying, acting job. So thank you very much Debbie Chazen, Marian McLoughlin, Mercy Ojelade, Ciaran Owens, Ian Redford and Sule Rimi.

And thank you Sheffield Theatres. And Sheffield. But most of all thank you Caryl Churchill.

 

One for Sorrow at the Royal Court Theatre ****

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One For Sorrow

Royal Court Theatre, 5th July 2018

Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this blog. It takes me so long to get round to seeing and commenting on anything that any post here is worse than useless to the unlucky reader who inadvertently stumbles across it. And all it ever does is recycle far more learned opinions from more talented commentators and bloggers. I can’t be doing with social media so no-one gets to hear about it anyway. I could pretend I like it that way but that would be untrue: my ego needs as much stroking as the next man or woman. I’m just a bit intimidated by this new world of immediate communication.

Sometimes, as here with One for Sorrow, I even momentarily forget what is is that I have seen. Which, in essence, is why I keep going. For there is no better way to learn than writing stuff down and learning through consuming culture is where I am at. So here we go again.

The premise for One for Sorrow was intriguing if not entirely novel – young, privileged, “middle-class”, idealist type invites “victim” of attack in London into the family home despite the misgivings of her liberal family – and playwright Cordelia Lynn was, by all accounts, someone worth listening too. The Royal Court certainly believes in her talent. And I can confirm that, broadly, they are right (no surprise there), and that the play delivers on its promise, even if it does get a little stuck in a cul-de-sac plot-wise towards the end.

Irfan Shamji, who stole the show in Joe White’s excellent debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****), plays the stranger John. The scene is set with his breathless voiceover as we sit in total darkness. He has a gentle, yet intense, presence that convinces you that he might just be the perpetrator, rather than the victim, of the atrocities that have descended on the capital. Pearl Chanda captures elder daughter Imogen’s air of stubborn righteousness, but also her desire to test her own, and her family’s, commitment to the politics of tolerance. When John turns up after responding to Imogen’s social media invitation to help he is understandably agitated and disheveled but his defensiveness, rucksack and refusal to remove his coat, sow the first seeds of doubt in the family. The sublime Sarah Woodward and the unshowy Neil Dudgeon are perfectly cast as Guardianista parents Emma and Bill, and Kitty Archer, as the breezily self-absorbed, excitable younger daughter Chloe, on her stage debut, also turns in a fine performance to complete the quintet. Ms Lynn has a way of pinpointing not just what this family would say if such an existential threat were posed to them but exactly how they would say it. Shades of Pinter, whose estate commissioned this play.

As the scale of the terror outside becomes apparent, up to and including gunshots on the surrounding streets, and a direct personal connection is unveiled, the tensions within the family, catalysed by John, ratchet up, and the gulf between what they say and how they act, widens. John’s sympathies, and his engineering knowledge, create greater uncertainty and, to Imogen’s disgust, the rest of the family turns on him. The problem is that, in order to maintain the suspense, “is he or isn’t he”, the plot does go round in circles somewhat and the arguments become a little over-extended. However with writing, acting and directing, from the ever reliable James MacDonald, of this quality it is pretty easy to forgive the meandering momentum in the second half.

The culture of fear (and fascination) of terrorist violence, the hypocrisy of the “liberal elite” (that’s me), the impetuosity of youth, the hollowness of hashtag activism, all are eloquently exposed. The title comes from a story Imogen tells about a trapped magpie in the house, bird symbolism being de riguer in London theatre recently. I was reminded of Winter Solstice, the superb play by Roland Schimmelpfenning, which, taking different subject matter also skewered the crisis of liberalism in Western society.

It was a warm day outside, (state the bleedin’ obvious why don’t you Tourist), so I can’t be sure if a dial turn on the air-con, or deliberation, accounted for the streaks of moisture that emerged on the walls of Laura Hopkin’s efficient set but it certainly helped add to the unsettling tenor of the play, alongside Max Pappenheim’s dynamic sound design.

Ms Lynn has the dramatic knack, no doubt about that. I suspect there is much more to come from her pen. She also writes opera librettos apparently and is a mean pianist. She’s only 29.

The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****

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The Turn of the Screw

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, ENO, 29th June 2018

Benjamin Britten. The Turn of the Screw. Members of the ENO Orchestra conducted by up and coming talent Toby Purser. Timothy Sheader directing. A Soutra Gilmour set. At the Open Air Theatre. On a beautiful late June evening. In the company of the SO, (who loves her Henry James and surprised herself by enjoying Deborah Warner’s staging of Death in Venice in 2013 at the ENO), BUD and KCK. Of course I was going to love this.

One of the aims here was to extend young BUD’s operatic education beyond Mozart. As he remarked here, not a lot of tunes.. Not sure I agree but there is no doubt in my mind that Britten’s music became darker through time, cleverer, from an already very high base, more progressive and less conservative, whilst never embracing the fearsome avant-garde, and richer, even as textures got sparser. The tonality is tempered with lots of (lovely)  dissonance.

I think TTOTS occupies a key place in the development of all of Britten’s art. It was composed in 1954, just after Gloriana, and three years after Billy Budd. In the same year Britten composed his Canticle No III, Still Falls the Rain for tenor piano and, Britten’s favourite, horn. This is recognisably BB, like a trip-hop version of the Serenade Op 31, but this, and the Winter Words song cycle from 1953, seem more melancholic than the warmer equivalents before the war. Britten himself said that his music was forever changed by the WWII, as was true for pretty much all Western art, notably by a visit to Belsen, but I don’t think this really becomes apparent until the mid 1950’s.

Anyway TTOTS is definitely an example of the “less is more” BB where surface effect is toned down a little, (though not jettisoned entirely, there are plenty of ravishing musical ideas here), in the service of greater structural and emotional depth. And structurally this is a score of genius as a tightly wound serial “screw” theme and set of 15 variations built on a different semitone, opens each scene, ratcheting up the tension. So, you see BUD, there is a “tune”, you just hear it in a different way.

Which I think is why it is such an effective piece of musical theatre, an opinion with which BUD heartily conferred. TTOTS is apparently BB’s most performed opera. And probably the most performed opera in English. And, after your man Puccini, probably the most performed opera from the C20. Certainly the most performed of those operas written since the war. In part this reflects its chamber structure. With just 13 instrumentalists and a cast of 7, this is no big budget affair. As was intended. However I also think it reflects near perfect synthesis of story, libretto and music. All three offer a sufficient challenge to an audience but in no way is this intimidating. It always takes a bit of time to get swept up into a Britten opera, but swept up you will be, even if it isn’t the massive, warming, rush of Mozart.

In retrospect it was pretty much a nailed on certainty that BB and Myfanwy Piper would alight on Henry James’s novella. BB, and his various librettists, always started with an artistic inspiration. Usually the story revolved around an “outsider” estranged from the society around him. There’s usually some sort of spiritual dimension. And, nailed on, there will be some sort of uneasy “corruption of the innocent” theme. TTOTS has all of the requisite elements in spades. Better than this though is the ambiguity embedded in the story. What really happened at Bly? What was, or is, the nature of the relationship between Miles and Flora, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? Who, and what, can we see? Who, and what, do the characters really see? After all only the Governess apparently sees the ghosts in HJ’s original. Is this all in the Governess’s mind then? How are we being manipulated? Strange to think then that the story came to HJ via none other than the future Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895.

Myfanwy Piper’s text reads like a poetic, musical impression of Henry James’s book but it picks its highpoint carefully. On to this BB’s score is perfectly stitched. In the book, told through the first person narrative of the Governess, it is up to you to imagine what happens. In my estimation, and those way smarter than me, its psychological depth and disturbing themes, take it beyond your bog standard gothic ghost story. In the innumerable film and TV versions, the ghosts can be made to seem like the extensions of everyday reality that HJ intended (I think), thanks to the trickery of the camera, but you all get one view, one take on the story. In a version for stage as here, (or notably The Innocents or the 2013 Almeida take), Quint and the Governess are undeniably corporeal, (any design team which could escape that mortal fact would get my money, no question), especially if they are going to sing, and the children are going to sing to them, and scenes unfold where the Governess is not present. So the mystery and ambivalence has to come from the music. And I cannot imagine anyone better than Britten at facilitating this.

But BB and MP take things a lot further. Take Miles’s famous Malo song that is repeated by the Governess at the end. Haunting for sure with viola, horn and harp. Malo in Latin could either mean “bad”, “to prefer” or an apple, symbol of innocence. “I would rather be… in an apple tree … than a naughty boy … in adversity”. The Latin words recited in the lesson prior to this contain all sorts of sexual references. Miles wanting “his own kind” and reflecting on his “queer life”. Mrs Gross’s line about Quint being “free with everyone” allowed to linger in the Regent’s Park air. Blimey. This is how the opera adds a new dimension contrasting the order and convention that the Governess clings to with the liberty that Quint offers whilst not seeking to mask the implication of abuse.

So, as you can see, I am a fan of this opera. What about the production then. Sandra Gilmour has imagined the remote country house of Bly as a large, dilapidated conservatory fronted by overgrown grass and a jetty leading to the “lake” and into the audience. It was amazing. Timothy Sheader, after a decade at Regents Park, now knows exactly how to use the unique space to best effect. TTOFTS was pushed out to an 8pm start to ensure sunset and early twilight matched the change in dramatic mood in the story and provided a perfect backdrop for lighting designer Jon Clark to show off his skills. Quint and Jessel make entrances from within the audience. Even the parakeets flew over on cue, “the birds fly home to these great trees”, at our performance. The debacle of last years Tale of Two Cities is entirely forgiven. The pacing was sublime and the musicianship top notch, especially, the viola of Rebecca Chambers, the clarinet of Barnaby Robson, the horn of John Thurgood and the harp of Alison Martin. Putting the orchestra inside the conservatory, behind a panel of ancient glass, thus lending them a ghostly quality, was a genius touch.

On this evening ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llyr Thomas played Peter Quint with William Morgan taking the Prologue. Mr Thomas’s tenor voice is clear and direct, through the melismas especially, and fitted the space. I was a little less sure about his wig and beard combo. Anita Watson was a suitably unhinged Governess, for me she was convinced this was really happening, and Elin Pritchard a very disturbing, steampunky Miss Jessel. Janis Kelly, who has in her time played Flora. Miss Jessel and the Governess, now played a protective Mrs Gross. Daniel Alexander Sidhorn’s precociousness made for an arresting Miles though I have to say Elen Wilmer’s Flora was, for me, the more impressive voice. As an actor though Master Sidhorn is the real deal. Simultaneously vulnerable and malign.

Indeed Elen matched the elder Elin in look and movement creating a “bond” between Flora and Miss Jessel as disturbing in its way as that between Miles and Quint, an unexpected bonus. Mind you when Miles dons his purple shirt to match Quint’s and when he takes over from Quint on the piano, (young Sidhorn is either a mighty fine  pianist or an even better “piano mimer”), the audience was bolt upright in their collective seats. And, on top of all of this, Mr Sheader really messed with our heads with a provocatively erotic scene as the Governess, “lost in my labyrinth”, asleep, is joined silently by Quint and Miss Jessel, or more specifically her hair, with Flora’s symbolic dolly and with Miles’s symbolic jack-in-the-box. Oh and did I say Miss Jessel is pregnant here.

One final thing. It’s outside. Which means a little technology is required to keep the volume stable as it were for both ensemble and singers. Which meant every word, with a couple of exceptions when Anita Watson’s soprano heads off to the higher registers, was crystal clear. Didn’t stop me consulting the libretto on occasion but what it did mean is that, for maybe the first time ever, I could savour every word of the libretto, to set alongside this stunning score and this tremendous production. This is what theatre, and opera, should all be about.

 

 

Monogamy at the Park Theatre review ***

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Monogamy

Park Theatre 200, 28th June 2018

This was a curious confection. Playwright Torben Betts (there his is above) has, by all accounts, made a very creditable stab exploring the comic social realism so expertly, and prolifically, mined by his one time mentor Alan Ayckbourn. Here is another to follow the likes of Invincible and Muswell Hill (also set in a kitchen). I hadn’t seen any of his work before, other than his adaption of Chekhov’s Seagull at the Open Air Theatre, which displayed his sympathy for the Russian master.

With Janie Dee in the title role, so superb in the NT’s Follies, as Caroline, a celebrity TV chef whose “perfect” life starts to unravel, this sounded interesting. Which, in some ways, it was. The problem is that it couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to be or say. Nothing wrong with flipping between comedy and tragedy, this is after all, what the mighty Chekhov and all his subsequent acolytes have strived to perfect. The British middle class family, and specifically the British middle class marriage, is a perfect dramatic target and is guaranteed to put knowing bums on theatrical seats. (Remember the phrase “middle class” in this, and most other, contexts doesn’t actually mean those in the middle. It means those at the top who assuage their guilt, and give themselves room to complain about their entitled lot, by pretending they are in the middle. I should know. I am one of them).

In Monogamy though the comedy, whilst often very witty was just too broad, veering into farce. The satire was just too obvious, the targets too cliched. The tragedy too contrived. I am pretty sure this technicolour effect was what Mr Betts set out to achieve, assisted by Alistair Whatley’s direction,  but it left me a little muddled despite some satisfying individual elements.

The play opens with the effortlessly capable Caroline rehearsing in the kitchen of her house which, temporarily is doubling up as her TV show kitchen. After the show her new PA, the coked-up Amanda, very amusingly played by Genevieve Gaunt with sub-Russell Brand verbal strangles, breezes in and announces the tabloids have got pics of Caroline pouring herself out of a bar after a big night out. It is wine o’clock though and Caroline, glass in hand, starts preparing for a party to celebrate son Leo’s Cambridge graduation. Leo (Jack Archer) is brooding, indulgently left-wing, gay and looking for his parents approval/spoiling for a fight as he comes out. We discover that builder Graeme (Jack Sandle), polishing up the house for sale, is having an affair with Caroline. As if this wasn’t enough the second act sees the return of the utterly over the top husband Mike return from his round of golf, (played with blustering, red-faced, apoplectic aplomb by Patrick Ryecart), and the arrival of Sally, (an under-utilised Charlie Brooks), bent on revenge for her husband’s infidelity. And the action ratchets up from there to a blackly comic conclusion, a knife standing in for the Chekhovian gun.

So you can see. Sit-comish staples, farcical energy, a hotch-potch of targets. Mike is a banker. And a philanderer. Obviously. Caroline is a Christian. Improbably., and her faith offers no protection from the demolition of family and fame. Sally is depressed, conveyed with real pathos by Charlie Brooks, but drowned by the rest of the shenanigans. Salt of the earth type Graeme turns out to have not so hidden depths of compassion. Amanda thinks they are all w*nkers, a fair enough assessment in the circumstances though she is the very embodiment of annoying. Though it may not be her fault as, McGuffin alert, her Mum has just died. Leo and Daddy make up, sort of.

It is genuinely hard not to like much of the detail and the performances, and I for one would be happy to acquire the kitchen conjured up in James Perkins’s set, but all together it overwhelms to the point of underwhelming if you see what I mean. I am pretty sure Torben Betts will hit the theatrical jackpot (and he can write other, more serious fare). This just doesn’t quite cohere. Having said that I gather it is set to tour in 2019, after a mini-tour prior to the run at the Park, and I would certainly look out for it if it comes near you.

 

Machinal at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Machinal

Almeida Theatre, 27th June 2018

I always like to do as much reading as I can before seeing a play. Reviews, synopses, articles, cross referencing creatives to previous work. You get the idea. The SO however will have none of that, preferring to go in cold and then see what she makes of it. And so it was with Machinal at the Almeida. Which made it a great deal more fun for me when I asked her after we came out to guess when it was written. She guessed the 1980s and was taken aback when I told her that Sophie Treadwell wrote this, her most famous and provocative play, in 1928.

For the most striking thing about the play is its modernity. It has an Expressionist structure, with nine scenes (“episodes”) and 29 characters telling the story of A Young Woman, (named Helen Jones we learn at the end), from her dull office job as a stenographer who lives with her Mother, through to her trial and execution after she murders her Husband, George H. Jones. It is inspired by the notorious real-life case of Ruth Snyder, but Sophie Treadwell significantly changes the facts of that case to portray the Young Woman as, in part, a victim of the mores of the patriarchal society she lived in. This is what has made the play relevant to later generations as this woman’s story could have been told yesterday. The rhythm of the dialogue, the choice of scenes, the motivations of the character,s all display a formal invention that was apparently not so apparent in most of Ms Treadwell’s other, more prosaic, plays (there are 39 in total). Her prime concern though in these plays, and in her short stories and journalism (which also took in sport, theatre and WWI), is the place of women in contemporary society, specifically in the domestic and economic spheres, the role of journalism and questions of race, all of which are addressed here.

Interest in her work waned after her death but has increased over the last three decades or so with major revivals of Machinal. It is easy to see why for this is a startling play. Not just in the story, which is gripping enough, and in the message, a powerful indictment, but in the way in which Ms Treadwell structured the play. I have to think there must be valuable creative opportunity in the rest of her dramatic oeuvre based on this.

No surprise to see this play paired in this Almeida spring/summer season with Ella Hickson’s brilliant The Writer (The Writer at the Almeida Theatre review *****). They both subvert dramatic form in order to express controlled fury at the way women’s desires and creativity are crushed by the expectations of men. And both remember to deliver their ideas in a thrillingly entertaining way.

Director Natalie Abrahami locates this production at the opening in a recognisably late 1920’s America but thereafter adds timeless twists to reinforce how little has changed. Miriam Buether’s set is framed, (in a way similar to The Twilight Zone on this stage), so that each scene is viewed through a window as it were, which, in turn, is reflected by a mirror angled above the stage. This creates a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere and allows for some dramatic contrasts between each scene, (and some extraordinarily quick work by the stage management team at the Almeida led here by Kate McDowell who could give a Formula 1 pit stop crew a run for their money). The opening scene, rows of typewriters and desks, is a tour de force as the Young Woman’s colleagues gossip and bicker as she is hauled up before the boss who eventually becomes her Husband.

The rapid fire dialogue is matched by the superb sound design of the Ringham brothers and lighting of young Jack Knowles, (together these might just be my favourite sound and lighting team especially when it comes to more uninhibited shows). All this sound and rhythm is written into Sophie Treadwell’s text which is astoundingly modernist. Subsequent scenes, at home with Mother, as the Young Woman talks herself into the doomed marriage, in the hotel room on the honeymoon night, especially queasy, in the bar where the Young Woman, helping out a colleague on a double “date’ begins her ill-fated affair with a Man, through to the courtroom scenes and the execution, are also brilliantly realised. There is so much that the Almeida gets right which makes it the best theatre in London right now, but the quality and imagination of the design is always just amazing.

Emily Berrington is spot on as the Young Woman. She is simultaneously the author of her own fate, (the real life Ruth Snyder was the instigator of her husband’s murder egging on her lover), with agency, but also sometimes apparently meek, helpless, naive, accepting, submissive even. She is disgusted by her work and husband but, when offered a way out of the trap, she seizes it, albeit with tragic consequences. The murder is not shown. It is simply the consequence of her escape from the inexorable social and economic forces that weigh down on her. She falls in love, real passion, but, here too, she is eventually disappointed and disillusioned.

Denise Black as her caustic Mother, husband long gone, is from a generation with absolutely no opportunity and sees an “economic” marriage as her daughter’s only path. Jonathan Livingstone as the smothering Husband sees her as a trophy and baby-maker with no interest in her thoughts, ideas or well-being. The Doctor, (Andrew Lewis), in the hospital where she gives birth to the daughter she doesn’t want is a patronising tosser. Her lover (Dwane Walcott) offers excitement, a path to an imagined new life, but you know his interest in her is transient, and he soon takes her for granted too.

Machinal means mechanical or automatic in French and this is what Sophie Treadwell seeks to reveal, the trapped automaton. The art of the 1910s and 1920s was preoccupied with the rapid social and economic change brought on by the rise of the machine. Yet this crushing imperative is contrasted by a series of emotional monologues delivered by the Young Woman which describe her resistance and which only theatre can proffer. I was struck by the resemblance to Alice Birch’s outstanding Anatomy of a Suicide shown at the Royal Court Downstairs directed by Katie Mitchell. Another breathtakingly original, formally experimental, superbly staged dissection of female entrapment with a tragic, repeated, outcome. That too didn’t need swathes of expositional dialogue to get the story across, just rapid, vivid exchanges. Yet that was written in 2015 not 1928.

So another hit for the Almeida. Next up is Dance Nation which is probably not for me but I can’t wait to see what Rupert Goold and the team have up their sleeve for the autumn/winter season.

 

America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

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America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper

Ashmolean Museum, 26th June 2018

Those clever people at the Ashmolean in Oxford have come up with another fine exhibition to rank alongside last year’s survey of Modernism in France Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****). There are plenty of paintings, and photographs, on show here that you would be hard pressed to see without hopping over to the US, as there is b*gger all from this period in public collections here, and the theme, the “cool” in American art in the first half of the C20 is both aesthetically and intellectually interesting. An excellent counterweight to the recent surveys of Abstract Expressionism and American art in the 1930s which came to the Royal Academy as well as the Tate Modern exhibition of Black American art from the 1960s onwards.

There isn’t a great deal of pure abstraction here in contrast to what was going on, in large part, in Europe at the time. Most of the artists on show keep at least one foot, and often more, in the figurative camp. Indeed escaping the influence of those swanky French seems to be part of what many of these artists set out to achieve. There are some early experiments in abstraction in the first room but they are not really up to much. Landscapes and cityscapes predominate. This is not art rich in portraiture: indeed one of the defining features of the survey is the absence of the human figure. The artists here are generally fixated on the rise of modern, urban America: capital accumulation, the factories, the infrastructure, the cities, the technology. Lines are hard, sharp and exact, the natural light is sharp. Twilight and artificial light get a good look in. In the best of the work on there is a weird sense of alienation and stillness. A very detached eye. The rapid social and economic transformation seems to have unsettled some of these artist folk. The rural does get an outing, but this is agriculture as industry, and not the wide, open spaces of American myth. There are a fair few barns.

The paint colours are “cool”, washed out, not vibrant in the way that European art was preoccupied with at that time. Forms are precisely rendered. There is a fair bit of “flatness” on show. The influence of the exact, “abstract” and architectural photography of the likes of Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and, a new name for me, Imogen Cunningham is exemplified. There are a lot of buildings.

The core of the exhibition is the “precisionist’ art of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler but the curators have also succeeded in drawing a line back to the more naive, and near abstraction, of Arthur Dove, Helen Torr and early Georgia O’Keefe (Black Abstraction from 1927 is the stand out), which catch the eye in the first room, as well as forward to the uneasy genius of Edward Hopper. The exhibition ends with three blockbusters from said Mr Hopper, which, for me, are the best things here by far, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride up to this specific thrill.

So what were the biggest surprises beyond those artists I had some familiarity with? The three eerie townscapes from George Ault, New York Night No 2, View From Brooklyn and Hoboken Factory. It seems Ault trained in London, good man, saw three of his four siblings commit suicide, fell out wth his precisionist chums and was an alcoholic. Perhaps this explains his penchant for the twilight world.

His work is certainly a lot darker that Demuth. He is the one who liked text in his paintings of cities, indeed his must famous work is the iconic I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold which title about sums up the subject. Sheeler, who was an amazing draughtsman and nearly as good a photographer as he was painter, is probably the epitome of the “cool” aesthetic that the curators have tried, and succeeded, in showcasing. I was most taken with Demuth’s Welcome to Our City which I assume depicts his native Lancaster, Pennyslvania to whence he returned from New York due to ill health, and away from the circle of artists around Alfred Steiglitz. Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn (shown above) is almost hyper-real in its detail, barely distinguishable from his photographs of the same subjects on first glance, but as you look more closely a triumph of oil on canvas.

The two paintings from a precisionist follower, Canadian Ralston Crawford, Buffalo Grain Elevators, and Smith Silo Exton, take the inspiration of Sheeler’s rural buildings but lend it a more abstracted geometric construction. Great stuff.

There are also a pair of oil paintings from Joseph Stella, Telegraph Poles with Buildings and Metropolitan Port which show his association with the precisionists but also his early exposure to the Italian futurists. The handling of the paint here is a lot freer, there is almost a “smoky” quality, which I was much taken with.

Outside of these paintings I was also drawn to the carefully chosen lithographs on display. Louis Lozowick presents dynamic perspectives in drawings of Minneapolis and New York, there is a superior looking barn from the extravagantly named Benton Murdoch Spruance as well as a couple of fine examples from Sheeler again. Now I am not sure Grant Wood could reasonably be seen as central to the concerns of many of the other artists on show here. A regionalist, focussed on the rural, master of the “American Scene”, I don’t think he was big into for city or industrial subjects. He certainly has the air of detachment that others exhibit here though, albeit with a much heftier dose of irony and/or nostalgia, you are never quite sure. Anyway there are three of his tremendous lithographs in the exhibition, one of haystacks covered in snow, another of MidWest fields, and one of a barn and American Gothic style house. There are Durer-like in their detail and execution.

There is also Martin Lewis’s iconic drawing Which Way? with a car seemingly lost in a snowstorm. Lewis was born in Australia and came to the US to work as a commercial illustrator, a profession that  many of the greats of US art in the C20 took up to keep the wolf from the door, and which underpins the American take on modernism when compared to their rather more esoteric European peers. He found great success in drypoints, a technique he mastered on a visit to Japan, but his fame quickly faded. I think I have seen this image before but I can’t for the life of me remember where. I guessed it might have been used in connection with David Hare’s adaptation of George Simenon’s The Red Barn at the National Theatre directed by Robert Icke (a qualified success), but that image was actually another drypoint image of a barn in the snow by an artist I can’t identify. It seems that the  barn, in whatever weather, is the greatest staple of American art since the founding of the nation. There must be tons of academic papers on this.

Anyway Lewis’s drawing is not a barn but it is a perfectly wrought rendition of artificial light, here the car headlights against the snow, against the dark night. And it is probably a metaphor for the country itself, given this created in 1932, just as the US was emerging from the very worst of the Great Depression.

Now it turns out Lewis was a mate of Ed Hopper. who also has four etchings on show here, all of which show that his mastery of line. shadow and viewpoint wasn’t confined to painting. They would be worth the entry fee alone but, as I said above, there are also three oils to savour, which I think are on show in the UK for the first time. It is hard to believe that his big breakthrough didn’t come until the early 1930’s, and especially after the retrospective at MOMA in 1933, when he was already 50. Prior to that he too had to support himself as an illustrator.

I can’t believe that there is anyone who couldn’t get something valuable out of seeing Hopper’s paintings. The stillness, the light, the murkyish palettes, the shadows, the melancholy, the introversion, the uneasy suggestion. The SO, who doesn’t care for much art, adores his work reproductions of which are plastered on the walls around me as I sit writing this. Mind you, dare I say it, puritanical realism is her bag. Anyway suffice to say we love Hopper.

From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), shows the top floors of a handful of late C19 buildings seen from the eponymous bridge, with a woman perched on the ledge of one open window in the afternoon sun. Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), is a view of a train departing, and the buildings opposite, framed by the platform. Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) is a wider perspective of the railtrack and a cityscape.  All are wonderful.

So soak up what is on offer in this fine exhibition, see if you accept the curator’s argument, I do, and then take as long as you like with this Hoppers. It is worth it.

Many of the works on show are drawn from the Terra Collection for American Art and the Met. So thanks chaps. Just goes to show that there are some things that have come over from the States in recent weeks that aren’t, to borrow the language of astute political commentator Danny Dyer, twattish.

 

Genesis Inc at the Hampstead Theatre review **

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Genesis Inc.

Hampstead Theatre Upstairs, 25th June 2018

Sometimes less is more. A lesson that writer Jemma Kennedy and director Laurie Sansom here chose to, if not ignore, certainly bypass. Made even more frustrating because, at the kernel of this play, and in its execution, are some very good ideas. I applaud the ambition of the creative team at the Hampstead Theatre under Edward Hall, and the variety of the offerings, but it does mean that, just occasionally, there is a misfire amongst the hits and the deserved West End transfers. Some of my favourite productions over the last couple of years, (Gloria, Prism, The Firm, Dry Powder, The Phlebotomist and Describe the Night), have shown at the HT, both Upstairs and Downstairs, and often I have enjoyed them more than the critics. Sadly Genesis Inc. was not one of them.

Jemma Kennedy, who is also a screenwriter, has based her first major commission for the stage, (I believe), on her own experience of IVF treatment. She has also chosen to write a comedy. So far, so good. There is a vital personal and political story to be told about the commercialisation of reproduction and fertility in an ageing capitalist society and the dilemmas this creates. She has well-structured arguments to present, and, with distressed couple Jeff (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and Serena (Rita Arya), and prospective single parent banker Bridget (Laura Howard), sympathetic, and sufficiently complex, characters to present those arguments. Harry Enfield plays Dr Marshall, the medical entrepreneur behind the fertility clinic that the three of them turn to. There are some pointed exchanges, sharp observation and some very funny lines,

But Ms Kennedy cannot then resist the temptation to add complication through additional characters and formal invention. And this is where the play goes awry. Bridget has a gay, impecunious, teacher friend/housemate/ex, Miles, played by Arthur Darvill who does a musical turn and falls for the priest, Father Scales (Arthur Wilson), at the school he rocks up in. He needs money to get on the property ladder so decides to sell his sperm for a few quid. Serena’s Mum, and dead Great-GrandMum, (played by Shobu Kapoor), poke their noses in. There is a sub-plot involving a social worker and salt of the earth victim of domestic violence played by the wonderful Claire Perkins, who also plays the childless alpha-female boss at the investment bank she works in. They, of course, get to IPO Dr Marshall’s clinic. Karl Marx and Susan Sontag are wheeled in. There is even a biblical scene involving Old Testament Abraham, wife Sarah, (90 years old when she conceived if you believe the big book), concubine Hagar and son Ishmael, and even, as you can probably guess by now, God himself. And maybe more startling, Serena’s ovary and vagina get to say a few words

All this is thrown in to allow Jemma Kennedy to make important points about the way in which women and their fertility has been treated through history and how the patriarchy and capitalism have degraded reproduction. This scattergun approach, taking aim at so many different targets, leads to some odd tonal shifts though, especially in the fantasy scenes, and especially at the end, and results in a distractingly complex set from Jess Curtis and some awkward on stage prop-shifting and costume-changing, (there are 42 named roles!).

It was a more than a little frustrating because there was so much in the basic premise, the satire of the moral framework which supports this unsavoury industry, which seems to trade on hope through unsubstantiated claims. Ms Kennedy is a smart enough writer I think to have made some of her points, and still got the laughs, within the context of the narrower personal stories. Harry Enfield is still an awkward stage presence, as he was in Once In A Lifetime at the Young Vic, but here his charm, alongside comic SA accent, masking a more ruthless commercial streak, seemed to work. Kirsty Besterman, as his officious assistant and sales jockey, had some choice lines. The stress that the IVF treatment put on the relationship between Jeff and Serena was well observed as was Bridget’s struggle to balance her desire for a child, by freezing her eggs, with career and demand for a relationship. Arthur Darvill has an unsteady naivety which matched his character and gamely rose to the challenges he was posed.

I can certainly see why the idea of stripping out the sub-plots and fantasy sequences would not have been an option for Ms Kennedy or director Laurie Sansom. The ambition to emulate the dense intellectual and theatrical experience of say an Angels in America, (cited by Edward Hall in the programme), is laudable but it didn’t really come off. And, by over-egging the pudding, I was left dissatisfied with the whole. Intrigued yes, entertained at times, made to think for sure, but just that bit uncomfortable that everyone involved was straining too hard to pull this off.