Julian Cope at the Barbican Hall review ****

Julian Cope

Barbican Hall, 8th February 2020

February 21st 1982 if I am to believe t’Internet. Which, given that the source, Setlist.fm, is not associated with the hate and porn that comprises the vast majority of the web, seems reasonable in this case. The sorely missed Hammersmith Palais. The Teardrop Explodes. (Supported by The Ravishing Beauties of which I have no recollection whatsoever). One of the last indoor gigs on their major tour before they set off to Oz and the US. Not the last time I saw them however as, unbelievably, they supported Queen for a few stadium gigs that summer. That’s right Queen, along with Heart and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. So there was I, with MGF1, at Milton Keynes Bowl, probably the only diehard Teardrops fan in a sea of rocker types. Who, by that time, despite my own dubious musical history pre punk, I loathed. MGF1 wouldn’t let me leave before the headliners came on though, for which I am eternally grateful. For Queen, and Freddy, were predictably amazing.

Anyway as if that weren’t enough in the way of incongruous line ups I know that it was the 21st at the Palais and not the following second night because I was back there on the 23rd. To see Aztec Camera. Supporting Killing Joke. With UK Decay as warm up. Yes. You read that right. Aztec Camera. Not sure if Roddy Frame and the boys made it past 5 songs before being gobbed off. Glad I knew my way round the Joke’s first, brilliant, couple of albums since, revealing myself to be a devotee of jangly Scottish pop, however perfect, was clearly a BAD IDEA that night. As the punk mate of a mate I went with reminded me. especially when he introduced me to a mate of one of his mates. He was a sight. Think Wez from Mad Max II. Y’know. “You can run but you can’t hide”. Didn’t catch the fella’s name but he cut an impressive dash when the Joke arrived as he fashioned a ten foot diameter personal dance floor through the simple stratagem of unhooking his giant studded belt and wildly swinging it for a few minutes. Glad I was up on the balcony.

Happy days.

Anyway this was the setlist I gather that night. How good is that. And Cope-y was simply a mesmeric presence. Wild barnet, frenetic dancing. Notably when he stripped to the waste and doused himself in beer. Or maybe juice. I can’t remember. But it was thrilling whatever. Mind you he famously went on to more dramatic and disturbing stage interventions. That’s all part of his charm.

Anyway read this and savour the memories. Personal favourites away from the big singles; Seven Views of Jerusalem, Ha Ha I’m Drowning, Bouncing Babies and Sleeping Gas and I am a sucker for the “ballads”, Falling Down Around Me, And the Fighting Takes Over and Tiny Children. Barely remember Log Cabin and and no recollection of Clematis (was never a completist and to pick up the ephemera outside of the two genius albums, Kilimanjaro and Wilder, and the fraught reunion, Everybody Wants to Shag …, is a costly business now).

  1. Like Leila Khaled Said
  2. Seven Views of Jerusalem
  3. Ha Ha I’m Drowning
  4. Falling Down Around Me
  5. Log Cabin
  6. … And the Fighting Takes Over
  7. Passionate Friend
  8. Bouncing Babies
  9. Suffocate
  10. Tiny Children
  11. You Disappear From View
  12. Clematis
  13. Treason (It’s Just a Story)
  14. Colours Fly Away
  15. Reward
  16. The Culture Bunker
  17. Just to See Me
  18. Screaming Secrets
  19. Sleeping Gas

38 years later. St Julian is now 62. Though not like any other 62 year old you may know. He’s been through a lot. What with the music, (punk, post-punk, pop, psychedelia, funk, rock, folk, lo-fi, Krautrock, space-rock, metal, ambient noise, drone and everything in between) , drink, drugs, arguments, production, blogging, social commentary, protesting, activism, counter-culturalism, fantastical fiction, autobiography, musicology and cutting edge antiquarian research. The look is unchanged from the flattering, if dated, picture above. Military cap, shades ,(for medical not sartorial reasons), black sleeveless hoodie, long tresses, the beard matted and flecked with grey, the shorts a bit freer and the boots a bit comfier. Cool in a hippy/eco-warrior/biker/crazy farmer kind of way.

And the set covers most of the career highlights. Teardrops highlights (Passionate Friend, Treason and a brilliant drone version of The Great Dominions which is near the top of all Teardrop, a duet with roadie Chris), the doomed to fail attempt at pop star years, (Greatness and Perfection, showing perhaps why Mercury Records didn’t try too hard) and the brilliant Sunspots, the beginning of real Julian, with encore Out of My Mind on Dope and Speed from Skellington, as well as Pristeen from the pristine Peggy Suicide, Soul Desert from its near equal Jehovahkill, Autogeddon Blues from Autogeddon, I’m Your Daddy from 20 Mothers, Cromwell in Ireland from Psychedelic Revolution, They Were on Hard Drugs from return-to-form Revolutionary Suicide and Your Facebook, My Laptop and Immortal from the latest album Self Civil War. Oh and crowd pleasing piss-take Cunts Can Fuck Off, which takes direct aim at the great man’s detractors, US mostly, complete with ba-ba-ba chorus.

  1. Soul Desert
  2. Your Facebook My Laptop
  3. Autogeddon Blues
  4. The Greatness & Perfection of Love
  5. They Were on Hard Drugs
  6. The Great Dominions
  7. Cunts Can Fuck Off
  8. Passionate Friend
  9. Cromwell in Ireland
  10. I’m Your Daddy
  11. Immortal
  12. Sunspots
  13. Treason
  14. Pristeen
  15. Out of My Mind on Dope and Speed

Now I confess not all of these were familiar. After Autogeddon, with the exception of Revolutionary Suicide, I kind of lost track of his output and there are vast unexplored tracts and tracks, which will likely remain that way. (Odin for example is 70 mins of JC humming). He has made 34 solo albums apparently, most of which since the bust up with Island in the early 1990s, released on his Head Heritage label/website/radio station/review site/manifesto/discussion forum site.

Now I doubt there are many people who can say they have lived a life remotely like JC’s, and a lot of what he bangs on about doesn’t touch my mainstream world, but you have to admire him even if you may not quite understand him. His gigs reflect his concerns. Him, his guitars, wah-wah pedal, roadie Chris and a load of chat, which is at turns funny, scathing and self-deprecating. As are the arrangements of the songs. Of course it would be great to hear them in all their full rhythmic, melodic and harmonic beauty, given JC’s prodigious musical gifts, but they are his and he can do WTF he likes with them.

An impassioned, eccentric, iconoclastic head for our, or any other, times.

Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Faustus: That Damned Woman

Lyric Hammersmith, 5th February 2020

I bet Chris Bush was good at English at school and maybe beyond. In the precis question. For she has an unerring eye/ear/pen for taking complicated/contentious/convoluted issues and dramas and rendering them explicable, topical and entertaining. Kicking off with TONY! The Blair Musical from 2007, through a series of productions based and performed in her native Sheffield to her take on Pericles for the NT’s Public Arts project. I haven’t seen The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, the play that is, though would like to. The play that is …. Even a narcissistic cretin, who takes money for voicing offence, and who has choked and failed in her “career” on multiple occasions, deserves our sympathy, though not our attention.

Music and inclusiveness have formed central planks of CB’s work with Standing at the Sky’s Edge, co-written with Richard Hawley, set to grace the NT when normal service is reviewed. With Faustus TDW however she has chosen to contemporarise, (as she did with the mystery plays), and gender switch, the overly ambitious man about town and time, made famous by Marlowe and Goethe. With mixed results. It’s looks brilliant, there are some sound ideas beyond the gender inversion, and, for those of us new(ish) to the story, it is easy to follow, but some of the dialogue doesn’t quite match the ambition and it features a bold central performance from Jodie McNee which doesn’t help us to get beyond the cipher.

Johanna Faustus works hard alongside apothecary Dad (Barnaby Power) in plague-ridden 1660s London after Mum is executed for witchcraft. God isn’t going to dispense justice so our Johanna bites Lucifer’s (also Barnaby Power) hand off when he offers the deal. 144 years, 6x more than the male Faust, no requirement to be taken consecutively. Yet she, unlike her hubristic mythic counterpart, sets out on an altruistic path, first in her ‘hood and then, after a quick-fire Enlightenment education, a melodramatic Victorian London, through time, Cloud Atlas style, to a far future as CEO of a pharma company set on delivering eternal life to the masses. She meets various women (and some men) along the way, Elizabeth Garrett, Marie and Pierre Curie, variously played by Katherine Carlton, Alicia Charles, Tim Samuels and Emmanuella Cole, and is accompanied by her camp Mephistopheles (Danny Lee-Wynter), decked out in a natty white suit, Cuban heels and rouge, and ever quip-ready.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set design may well be the star of the show, an expansive cavern, expressively lit by Richard Howell, like the inside of a whale, though it does come to dominate. There are a few enjoyable effects, notably in the recreation of the Seven Deadly Sins, assisted by Giles Thomas’s sound and Ian William Galloway’s video. Headlong director Caroline Byrne keeps things moving along, though this comes at the expense of the questions, of faith, of female agency and oppression, of mortality, technology, free-will, redemption, which themselves are rather jumbled up. Ambition and imagination has been a feature of the UK stage over the last few years, but Faustus TDW does, like some of its predecessors, push the envelope a little too far and risks looking a bit daft.

Mind you Marlowe’s anti-hero does drone on a bit, is an annoying clever dick and uses his expensively secured special powers to mostly make practical jokes and perform crowd-pleasing tricks. Which, to be fair, is probably what this bloke would do as well. On that basis we have to applaud the two CB’s for setting out an alternative. It just might have been better to restrict the inversion to the historical starting point. Still I enjoyed it and kind of liked its can-do punky attitude. A fine foil to the rather more technologically adroit achievement of Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s adaptation of Orlando which Schaubuhne Berlin kindly streamed the other day. Perhaps I should have a look see at what the mainstream female time traveller in Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is up to these days.

The Welkin at the National Theatre review ****

The Welkin

National Theatre Lyttleton, 4th February 2020

Rural Suffolk. 1759. A court case. There was only ever going to be one companion for the Tourist’s visit to see The Welkin. Step forward MS. A Tractor Boy by upbringing, if not birth, and an expert on all things legal and rural in the Medieval and Early Modern. Dad once again wells with pride as he writes these words.

Now admittedly this was a bit late for his practice and a little early for mine but the subject, a jury of 12 matrons mulling over the case of one Sally Poppy who may or may not be pregnant, the writer, Lucy Kirkwood no less, (NSFW, Chimerica, The Children, Mosquitoes on stage, and with Adult Material coming soon to Channel 4 and certain to rile the blue-rinses), director, James MacDonald, and a bravura all female, (well just about), cast, still had us very excited pre-game.

Natasha Cottriall (Whodunnit Unrehearsed), Jenny Galloway (The Starry Messenger), Haydn Gwynne (Coriolanus, Hedda Tesman), Zainab Hasan (Tamburlaine), Aysha Kala (An Adventure), Wendy Kweh (Top Girls, Describe the Night), Cecilia Noble (Faith, Hope and Charity, Downstate, Nine Night, The Amen Corner), Maxine Peake (Avalanche, Hamlet), Dawn Sievewright, June Watson (Uncle Vanya, John, Road, Escaped Alone, Good People), Hara Yannas (Amsterdam, Dealing With Clair, The Treatment, Oresteia), Brigid Zegeni (I’m Not Running, Twelfth Night) and Ria Zmitrowicz (The Doctor, Three Sisters, Gundog, X). What a line up. And the credits are just those I can testify too. At the risk of unwarranted favouritism, Cecilia Noble and Maxine Peake would be in my top 10 stage actresses if I had such a thing, and reading June Watson’s credits suggest she is literally incapable of backing a theatrical nag.

With this much acting talent on show there were instances when I thought that Lucy Kirkwood and the NT might be guilty of delighting us too much. Even with 2.5 hours running time, and an attempt at equitable distribution, some of the actors didn’t quite get the airtime to flesh out character. And Bunny Christie’s set, a grand Georgian municipal hall, with impressive, working, (in the sense of the Devil’s ingress in the first act’s concluding coup de theatre), fireplace, and Lee Curran’s bright lighting, created a clinical, painterly doll’s house effect which marooned many of the cast. I can see why the creatives wanted to restrict the furniture to a minimum, and, with the help of Imogen Knight’s movement, blocking was exemplary, but with a dozen or man bodies always on stage it did distract from the detail.

Mind you, prior to the main event, there were some stunning tableaux, as the women stepped out of a line to introduce themselves and, courtesy of a compartmentalised light-box, they performed their literal women’s work to the repetitive rhythm of Carolyn Downing’s sound design. (A nod to Kate Bush came later with a acapella Running Up That Hill; This Woman’s Work might also have hit the spot. After all you can never get enough of the greatest single musician of our age).

As did the funny accents. It was Suffolk and many of our matrons were of the middling, or lower, sort, even Haydn Gwynne’s apparent toff, but some were better at projecting beyond the activity than others.

Still minor quibbles. What mattered was the story, and the feminist message, and here I can report Ms Kirkwood and those charged with bringing this scale entertainment to life, played a blinder. Now there is no getting away from it. The Welkin is not a million miles away from Twelve Angry Men. Except that it involves a jury of women judging another woman in a time and place when such female agency was rare. And this, I was reliably informed by MS, was no flight of authorial fancy. “Matrons” were tasked with checking the veracity of claims to pregnancy from medieval times through to the early C19, and you smart people will no doubt recall the “offer” to Elizabeth Proctor to avoid the noose whilst she was pregnant. The Twelve Angry Men parallel continues into the device of having one woman, Maxine Peake’s Elizabeth Luke, as the Henry Fonda sympathetic voice of reason/conscience, entreating her peers, who, initially at least, have very different, and largely disdainful, views on Sally Poppy’s guilt and fidelity.

However the reasons for Elizabeth’s Luke’s persuasions, in a twist that is just about concealed for long enough, turn the play into something more than a commentary on justice and fairness. The perspectives of the matrons, the methods by which they assess Sally, their arguments and conversations, and especially the way in which, eventually, a man, Doctor Willis (Laurence Ubong Williams who also plays Sally’s grudgeful husband and the Justice), and his callous technology, is called upon to decide, all point up women’s experience and biology in a patriarchal world, then, and, by implication, now. And to cap it all there is nothing remotely sympathetic about Sally Poppy herself, guilty of infanticide according to her cuckolded husband, though she is still a victim of male power, (and, in a shocking conclusion, of class, even in death). Which allows Ria Zmitrowicz to go full-on stroppy in her portrayal which she is, based on recent turns at the Almeida, very, very good at.

There is plenty of humour, (much of it at the expense of Philip McGinley’s steward Mr Coombes), and poignancy in the dialogue and in the woman’s stories, and pacing in the disclosure to keep us on our toes, even if the set-up itself is, as I said earlier, somewhat static with words superseding action. Ms Kirkwood’s scholarship is never self-serving, and exposition, whilst not entirely mixed in to plot, doesn’t irk. This was a time when Enlightenment was supposed to banish superstition, specifically here witchcraft, the year of Halley’s comet, all of which LK explores in the women’s exchanges.

The wider message is how the justice system serves women differently. Until 1920, outside of this special case, women could not sit of juries or be judges. Women weren’t considered “capable” of administering justice. Crimes against women were ignored. Even now supposed promiscuity and culpability still colours the judgements of men, and other women, in rape cases. Women commit very little crime, but are often judged more harshly when they do.

An important play then with more to chew on even if it didn’t quite deliver the tense narrative it promised. Lucy Kirkwood and her collaborators were probably more concerned with the context around these women’s stories rather than the story itself and with delivering a production of exemplary quality, and event if you will, rather than pinning us back in our seats. For the cerebral MS and his Dad keen to fake knowledge, this was just the ticket but I can see why some reviewers found it just a little intellectually over-stuffed. It couldn’t match the economy or bite of Caryl Churchill but Lucy Kirkwood is edging closer to the godhead, in ambition if not quite execution.

Swive at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse review ****

Swive

Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 3rd February 2020

I am very partial to the work of Ella Hickson. Precious Little Talent, Boys, Oil, The Writer, ANNA, all have met their, expansive, ambition. Splendid theatre with something powerful to say. With Swive she has collaborated with director Natalie Abrahami, (who marshalled cast and technology so effectively in ANNA), and has alighted on the life of Elizabeth I, not a novel subject for dramatic treatment, in theatre, film or small screen, but still a vital subject for the dissection of women and power. (The SO, BD and LD scored an early collective lockdown viewing success with Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut Mary, Queen of Scots, for example).

The play is small scale, mixing the political with the domestic, and casts two actors, Nina Cassells as the young Princess Elizabeth, (as well as an unnamed Court washerwoman and Lady Katherine Grey) and Abigail Cruttenden as Queen Elizabeth, (as well as her step-mother Catherine Parr, and her predecessor Mary Tudor). In a series of short scenes, enlivened by Ben Stokes’s sly, chip-boarded, candlelit set and teasing costumes, we see how the young and mature Elizabeth negotiate the patronising and miscalculation of significant male influences, Michael Gould as long time adviser and Protestant defender William Cecil, and Colin Tierney as pervy “step” father Thomas Seymour and hubbie-in-waiting Robert Dudley, and how this extraordinary woman was able, ultimately to rise above patriarchal repression and dominate Court and Country.

This is no dry history though. Key events are obliquely referenced but EH’s and NA’s dialogue is more concerned with the how and why of Elizabeth’s tortuous negotiations, rather than the what, before and during her reign. Overcoming her “illegitimacy”, avoiding the fall-out from the association with the scheming Seymour, countering the threats posed by half- brother Teddy VI, and “bloody” half-sister Catholic, Mary Tudor, stringing Dudley along and pimping him out to Scots Mary, claiming the right to be head of the Church as well as the State, despite Cecil and the other geezer’s misgivings, (yet not, if she had married, head of her family), the obsession with her, and others, uberty (yep new word for me). All are cleverly crammed in but the vernacular words the two Elizabeths use to highlight their dilemmas could come from any woman now, asked to justify herself when justification is unjust and unwarranted.

This equivalence of then and now occasionally fails, the perpetual question of the succession for example as Lady Katherine Grey blows her chances, but the message so vital and the delivery so lucid that it doesn’t matter. Abigail Cruttenden is as deliciously peremptory as you might imagine and Nina Cassells masks the young Elizabeth’s decisiveness with a precocious air of vulnerability. Both are adept at turning the arguments of the men back on themselves.

There are some laugh-out loud zingers, the artifice of the SW Playhouse is acknowledged right at the beginning, and even the candle snuffing and relighting seems rhetorical. All this, the 90 minute run time, a paracetamol and and a wisely chosen perch, meant the Tourist’s back remained in fine-(ish) fettle until the trot back to London Bridge. Not quite enough to persuade him that visits to the SWP, and the Globe, should not remain few and far between given the hair-shirt comfort levels, but more than enough to ensure that Ella Hickson’s remains very near the top of his list of favourite contemporary playwrights.

Leopoldstadt at Wyndhams Theatre review ****

Leopoldstadt

Wyndham’s Theatre, 29th January 2020

A new play from the venerable 82 year old Sir Tom Stoppard. Not our greatest living playwright. That is Caryl Churchill, but he does know his way around a text. So booked early, for early in the run and before knowing too much about it.

You will likely know by now that Sir Tom has chosen to delve into his family’s own history and his Jewish heritage for this play, which I can see would be a fitting swansong, if swansong it is. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but escaped to Britain with his family ahead of the Nazi occupation, and was educated in India and then Yorkshire. Whilst he had become aware in the 1990s of the full extent of his roots, (which his mother had chosen to shield him from), as well as the fact that many of his relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps, and he had indicated that he would likely write a play based on this history, he had been ambivalent about making it too personal.

I don’t know how much of the plot, and specifically the key events which punctuate it, are drawn from TS’s own family history, nor indeed how closely the characters resemble his own forebears, (though the character of Leo is surely autobiographical), but there is no doubting his emotional investment in this grand saga. Particularly at the end, in an epilogue which is as moving as anything you might ever see on stage.

We kick off in Vienna in 1899 at a gathering of the Merz and Jakobovicz families at Christmas (and later passover). Bullish businessman Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, on his usual top form) is married to gentile Gretl (Faye Castelow), having, pragmatically, converted to her Catholicism. They have one son Jacob. Hermann’s sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman) is married to obsessive mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz (Ed Stoppard, yes, he is) who has two sisters, Wilma (Clara Francis), married to Ernst (Aaron Neil), and Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, continuing the Tourist’s fortunate habit of seeing everything she does on stage), who is married to Kurt (Alexander Newland, who we meet later on). With their various kids, cook Poldi (Sadie Shimmin), parlour maid Hilde (Felicity Davidson), nursemaid Jana (Natalie Law) and all presided over by Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber). Thank goodness for the family tree in the programme which the Tourist furtively turned to early doors.

With this many characters, and to set the contextual and didactic balls rolling, and because this is what Sir Tom does best, there is a lot of serious chat going on, as we learn how these well-to-do, educated and largely assimilated Jewish families see themselves, their faith, culture and economy, at a time of great change in Europe’s still premier metropolis. And, inevitably in the first act, bucketloads of exposition. The Merz family doesn’t live in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district but its status as the centre of Jewish life in the city looms large. The anti-semitism is subtle as well as overt, but its deep historical roots are unmistakeable. Hermann tries and fails to join the jockey club, Ludwig’s hopes of a professorship are far-fetched, and ugly truths are revealed, along with the superb Luke Thallon’s cruel Aryan officer, Fritz.

The play really gets going then after the interval, as we move first to 1924, another family gathering for a circumcision, meeting the cosmopolitan children of the four couples, and then, momentously 1938, and the grandchildren. This is the cue for high drama, for example, the forced repossession of the Merz family home, and eviction, Kristallnacht (vividly realised through Adam Cork’s brilliant sound design), the memory of Pauli (Ilan Galkoff) lost in the WWWi trenches. Then, finally to 1955, when Leo (Luke Thallon), the English emigre son of Nellie (Eleanor Wyld), daughter of Eva and Ludwig, and Nathan (Sebastian Armesto, also doubling), son of Sally (Ayve Leventis), daughter of Wilma and Ernst, are brought together by Nathan’s sister, Rosa (Jenna Augen). This, or something like it, is, I’d like to think, how Sir T first encountered his own history, and planted the seed for Leopoldstadt.

The dialogue is direct, even during the debates on, variously, identity, assimilation, prejudice, Zionism, the recurring history is familiar and there is none of the intellectual trickery that powers Sir T’s back catalogue though there is a bit of heavy lifting from a recurring cat’s cradle metaphor. The family’s beliefs in science, justice and rationality are crushed by the rise of Nazism, but it is the personal loss more than the collective that, eventually strikes home, with Hermann’s descent the most affecting. It is a slow burn mind you, and Patrick Marber’s direction is perhaps a little too respectful. Richard Hudson’s painterly design. together with Neil Austin’s lighting and Brigitte Riefenstuhl’s costumes ooze period detail, but further hinder any opportunity for many of the 26 strong cast (not including the kids) to make a distinct mark.

Still if this is to be Sir T’s last play then why shouldn’t he tell his story his way, given his immense contribution to British and World theatre across his career. At our early viewing (the SO was a more than willing accomplice) the audience was engrossed throughout, if nor utterly captivated, and I suspect many will have been grateful to have had their emotions, perhaps even more than their intellects, engaged. The story of this horror has been told in many ways before, and should continue to be told, but Sir T has found a way to tell it that, whilst not theatrically radical, is profoundly moving, as well as stuffed with learning.

I have no doubt it will be back when we reach the other side, and it is not hard to see it being repurposed for the small screen.

Rembrandt’s Light at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (and others) review *****

Rembrandt’s Light

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 17th January 2020

The Tourist has been a bit remiss in keeping up the records on art exhibitions over the last few months so in addition to the above he will offer a few thoughts on other visits.

Rembrandt‘s Light first. The DPG exhibition space is bijou. Just four rooms. Which means you have to time your visit to get a good look. Left this late in the run but not too late but was still worried it might be busy. No need to worry. Late in the day worked.

It’s Rembrandt. With a twist as the rooms imagine the kind of light that the old, (and young with plenty of early/mid work on show,) boy was trying to capture. Like some sort of modern designer/cinematographer. Hence the drafting in of one Peter Suschitzy, a cinematographer on shite like Star Wars to light the show. Daft idea no? Still doesn’t matter. It’s Rembrandt. And by cobbling together loans from the great Rembrandt collections, including the likes of the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum, these 35 often still breathtaking paintings, and a fair few drawings and prints, show just what RHvR could create from one light source and often simple subjects.

So if you ignore all the stupid effects and dispense with an audio guide, (why do I need to listen to someone chirruping on when I should be looking and seeing, information can come later, or before), you’ll be reet. No need to filter these marvels through contemporary reception. If a punter wants to turn art into a flat, lifeless, colourless thumbprint on a phone let ’em I say. Though why they feel the need is a mystery to me. But if you want the hair-raising thrill of imaging just how RHvR fight multiple ways to shine a light on darkness, metaphorically as well as figuratively, then stand and stare.

The portraits at the end, (though I was floored by the Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet from a private collection – lucky bastard), some of which will be very familiar to Londoners, and the earlier works (and School of) are a little less diverting. However the core of the exhibition, either side of the fake candlelight octagon, (and excluding the mess the concept made of Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb from the Queen’s collection), play a blinder, largely with more intimate works than the blockbusters left at home in Amsterdam. The Flight into Egypt (see above), The Denial of St Peter, The Presentation in the Temple, the studio room etchings and drawings, many just student exercises, Philomen and Baucis, The Entombment, present drama where the biblical sources barely matter. Who’s that there lurking in the darkness? What’s going on in their minds? What happens next?

But mostly you wonder how this complicated man could churn out this sublime stuff for money and why pretty much no-one frankly has been able to match him since.

What else then? In reverse order.

The Bridget Riley retrospective (****) at the over-lit Hayward gallery was proof that less is more when it comes to the impact of the work of the eye-boggling Op Art pioneer. I much preferred the early, monochrome dotty and “folding” checkerboard works, recently revisited with the latest, (she is still had at work aged 88), limited colour palette but was also quite partial to the candy stripes and parallelograms. The Goldsmiths student drawings and life studies, and the later, private, portraits, were new to me but the plans and sketches felt like padding. I might have preferred a little more information on the how and why of her work; the response to nature and her lifelong fascination with how we perceive and see, though the debt to Georges Seurat was acknowledged. And maybe a little bit of science: after all experimental neuroscience and psychology now offer explanations for her magic which weren’t really there in the 1960s when she found her practice. Having said that the way she messes with eyes and brain, rightly, continues to delight pretty much any and every punter who encounters her work. Perhaps explaining her popularity; this was her third retrospective in this very space.

Lucien Freud‘s Self-Portraits (****) at the Royal Academy highlighted both the honesty and the cruelty the great painter brought to his depictions of the human form. The early work reveals the egoist presenting a front to the world – plainly this was a geezer who loved himself. The game-changing addition of Cremnitz white to his palette to create the full fat flesh in which he revealed. The room of often disturbing portraits of friends and family where he lurks in the background, often in reflection. Through to the final, famous, aged nude self portrait where finally he turns his unflinching eye truly back on himself. Seems to me he channeled a fair bit of Grandad Sigmund’s nonsensical methods and conclusions into his work. There is confrontation in every painting: artist and subject, subject and observer and, thereby, artist and observer, this latter being the relationship that most intrigues. It seems he wants to exert control over us but ultimately he cannot, in the same way that however hard he looks, (his sittings were notoriously punishing), he cannot truly capture what he sees.

I like to think that Anselm Kiefer would be the life and soul of the party, a witty raconteur, putting everyone at ease. If you are familiar with his work you might see this as optimistic. AK is the artistic conscience of Germany, now 74, but still constantly returning to its past and particularly the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust. The monumental scale of his works, the materials, straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac, the objects, names, signatures, myths and symbols, the themes of decay and destruction, the absence of humanity, all point to his provocation and engagement with his birth country’s history. And, in this latest exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey, Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot (****), apparently the devastation that we have wrought on the earth itself. The blasted landscapes are thick with paints, emulsions, acrylics, oils and, of course, shellac, then overlaid with wire, twigs and branches, as well as metal runes, axes and, another AK constant, burnt books. The vitrines which make up superstrings are full to bursting with coiled tubes overlaid with equations in AK’s trademark script. As scary, as sinister and as insistent as all his previous work.

Kathe Kollwitz was an artist who confronted war, as well as poverty and the role of women, not as abstract history but as immediate reality. The small, but perfectly formed, Portrait of an Artist (*****) exhibition at the British Museum (after a UK tour), showcased 48 of her most important prints, woodcuts and lithographs, drawn primarily from the BM archives and elsewhere. Self portraits, premonitions of war, maternal grief, working class protest, all subjects stir powerful emotion but also mastery of line and form.

Elsewhere, Bomberg and the Old Masters at the National Gallery had minimal new to me works on show by IMHO the best British artist of the C20, Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece at the NG was a joke, I have no idea why anyone would like William Blake‘s (Tate Britain) childish illustrations and Nam June Paik‘s (Tate Modern) admittedly prescient artistic investigation into technology from the 1960s onwards left me nonplussed. The Clash collection of memorabilia at the London Museum was, like so many of these music surveys, just pointless nostalgia.

We (BD and I) didn’t really devote enough time to Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life (****) at Tate Modern, it was pretty busy, but message and invention overwhelm, even if it all feels just a bit too Instagram slick. I dragged the family around Kew Gardens one evening in September last year to see Dale Chihully‘s (****) beautiful organic glass sculpture. I was mightily impressed, SO, BD and LD less so. Bloody annoying traipse around the west end of the park when all the action was concentrated around the Palm House.

Which just leaves the massive Antony Gormley (*****) retrospective at the Royal Academy. I know, I know. There is nothing subtle about AG’s work or “brand” but it is undeniably effective, even if its meanings are often frustratingly unspecific. Coming at the end of an already dark November day, to peer at the utterly flat, and silent, expanse of briney water which filled one room, called Host, was worth the entrance fee alone. It triggers something in collective memory and experience though fuck knows what he is trying to say with it. Same with Iron Baby nestling in the courtyard. Thrusted iron shell men modelled on AG himself, famous from multiple public art installations globally, coming at you from all angles, defying gravity. AG’s body reduced to arrangements of cubes. The imprint in toast. A bunch of rubbish drawings and body imprints. A complex coil of aluminium tube, 8km in total filling one room and a mega-skein of horizontal and vertical steel poles, enclosing, of course, a figure in an empty cube, in another. A metal tunnel that the Tourist was never going to enter in a month of Sundays. Sculpture as engineering to signal an eternal, and inoffensive, spirituality. AG as Everyman. Easy enough to pick holes in but just, er, WOW.

Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.

Our Lady of Kibeho at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review *****

Our Lady of Kibeho

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 31st October 2019

Old Billers, now set to enjoy retirement as he steps down from his job as chief critic at the Guardian, knows a thing or two about theatre. So, when he identified, with his colleagues, OLOK as one of the best original plays of the C21, it reinforced the need to see it. There are plenty of other crackers on the list. I would concur with the likes of The York Realist, Escaped Alone, King Charles III, The Ferryman, Enron, The Watsons, Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Caroline, or Change, One Man Two Guvnors and the Lieutenant of Inishmore, some of Billers’ other choices, but would be tempted to add Oil, Hangmen, John, Sweat, Love and Information and A Number to the list.

Anyway I missed OLOK at the Royal and Derngate so was very pleased to see it pop up in Stratford and, correctly as it turned out, ventured that this would be something which would pique the SO’s interest. For OLOK is an extraordinary story based on “real” events. Kibeho is a small village in SW Rwanda, home to a Catholic convent secondary school where, in the early 1980s, apparitions of the Virgin Mary appeared to three of the students, Alphonsine Mumureke, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango. The Virgin specifically warned in August 1982 of a Rwanda descending into hated and violence, seen as a premonition of the war and 1994 Genocide, though tensions between Hutu and Tutsi were already escalating. The school itself was destroyed in 1995 with the girls involved, (there were other claimed visionaries), themselves fleeing or dying at the hands of the Hutu militia.

In 1988 the local bishop, Augustin Misago, who was subsequently accused and acquitted of involvement in the Genocide, approved devotion at the site and the Catholic Church eventually sanctified the visionaries. Kihebo is now a place of pilgrimage. Katori Hall’s play, which was first produced in New York in 2014, pretty much cleaves to the story, with this much dramatic material to work with why wouldn’t you, and works not just because it examines the horror of what happened in Rwanda in those dark years, but also the nature of faith and the workings of the Catholic Church. And it does this not with clunky exposition, exaggerated dialogue or blundering censure, but with compassion and through concentrating on these very human characters.

Against the backdrop of Jonathan Fensom’s straightforward but effective set, a room in the hermetic convent, paint faded on the mud and plaster walls, we meet the three girls at the centre of the visitation, played by Taz Munya, Liyah Summers and Pepter Lunkuse, as well as their classmates, actors Aretha Ayeh, Michaela Blackburn, Perola Congo and Rima Nsubuga. The girls display the usual cliquey rivalries exacerbated by Hutu/Tutsi division. All of these young actors convinced, helped by voice and dialect coach Hazel Holder, though Taz Munya as Alphonsine, the naive newcomer and “first” of the visionaries, and Pepter Lunkase, as Marie-Claire, the bullying leader of the Hutu girls who initially mocks Alphonsine, before herself succumbing to the full on Marian experience. Movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell, as well as magic and aerial consultants, John Bulleid and Vicki Amedume when it comes to the end of act I coup de theatre, deserves immense credit for making the ecstatic visitations very real, even a little bit disturbing, though of course I wouldn’t actually know what it is to be called upon by VM.

The tolerant Father Tuyisheme, (a fine performance from Ery Nzaramba), a Tutsi whose wife has already been murdered, initially is the only one who believes the girls who fawn over him, but gradually the evidence of their own eyes persuades the domineering and envious Hutu Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), the lofty bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer) and, when he is sent from the Vatican to asses the evidence, the sceptical Father Flavia (Michael Mears). Though their reasons for back-pedalling are not always pure and holy as the hierarchy sees the potential financial benefits of having a pilgrimage site in the middle of Africa, and even the increasingly uncomfortable good Father Tuyisheme plays along with the Church’s testing conditions. The credibility of what the visionaries claimed to see only became clear in retrospect of course, recognised “officially” in 2001, and the rebuilt church in Kibeho now is a magnet for tens of thousands visitors from across the Catholic world. (Anathalie Mukamazimpaka now lives on the site: Marie Claire Mukangang was murdered there).

Now, if, like the Tourist, you think all this visitation and Virgin Mary cult stuff is all nonsense, don’t worry, it won’t stop you enjoying the play. I haven’t seen Katori Hall’s previous feted play, The Mountaintop, set the day before Martin Luther King’s assassination, but she entrusted its direction at the Theatre 503 where it first appeared in the UK, to James Dacre, now the AD at the Royal and Derngate, and she has done the same here. I can see why. There are, of course, obvious parallels with classic plays such as The Crucible and Saint John (and, if you will forgive the re-location, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined), but this is very much an original. The value of faith against such a harrowing backdrop is questioned, as are the motives for the acceptance of the miraculous, but always in a modest and equivocal way, which Mr Dacre is attuned to, as is Charles Balfour’s lighting, Claire Windsor’s sound and Orlando’s Gough’s composition.

A thought-provoking subject and production, full of fine detail, that never loses sight of plot or character. And by occupying a time, before, and a place, apart, from the war to come Ms Hall succeeds in amplifying her message. It is no surprise then that MB rated it so highly and that we concurred. Whilst I can’t pretend that Tina the Musical, for which Katori Hall wrote the book, is on my list of must sees, I confessed to being intrigued by the premise of the TV show she has created, P-Valley, (though, as usual, I will rely on LD and BD to explain how and where to access it), and will keep a weather eye out for any new or revived theatre work from her.

The Permanent Way at The Vaults review *****

The Permanent Way

The Vaults, 13th October 2019

I have to hand it Debbie Hicks and Alexander Lass, producer and director of The Permanent Way. Whilst David Hare’s 2003 verbatim dissection of the Tory rail privatisation in the 1990s, and the four fatal disasters which followed, is an undeniably powerful piece of theatre, which was praised at the time, it takes guts to revive it. Especially in a two month run. With a cast of nine. Admittedly the economics at the Vaults are attractive for theatre makers and performers, that is why the Festival goes from strength to strength, and the USP of a site specific production about the railways, under Waterloo with trains rumbling every few minutes, is self evident. And a few coats, uniforms, lamps and four benches is all that was needed set and costume wise (Ruth Hall). Even so I was surprised when this was announced, though very pleased as it had been on my watch list for years.

I was even more surprised that the Vaults was packed with twenty somethings on the Sunday afternoon when I attended. I guess this is ancient history from their perspective but then again, as our politics and civic discourse becomes more polarised, and with rail nationalisation firmly on Labour’s policy agenda, I guess the relevance of the play needs no explanation.

Now when I was their age, fresh out of uni, and keen to do something worthwhile, I sought work in the public sector. Civil service exams completed it was off for interviews at various departments (at least I think that was the chronology). Ever the statto, Department of Transport was top of the list. Some kind mandarin chaps quizzed me on the thorny issue of rail privatisation, already firmly on Thatcher’s agenda. To paraphrase I said it was a shite idea. How to split infrastructure from operations and how to make competition work across a fixed capital public good? The chaps didn’t really demur. Didn’t get an offer mind but it was pretty clear that if this jejune, if opinionated, grad could see this was bonkers idea, then so could everyone tasked to make it happen. From one entity to 113.

And so it came to pass. David Hare offers us a High Powered Treasury Thinker (Lucas Howe), a Senior Civil Servant (Jonathan Coote) and an Investment Banker (Anna Acton) to walk us through the how and why of privatisation, all retrospectively seeking exculpation. Wendy (Sakuntanla Ramanee), in a neat touch, just makes the tea. A turn of the political wheel and we meet John Prescott (Paul Dodds) and a Senior Rail Executive (Tej Obano) who ooze complacency. A Very Experienced Rail Engineer (Jonathan Tafler) warns of the dangers presented by the split of responsibilities and the lax safety regime, driven by commercial imperatives, before the four “accidents” are forensically examined. Southall (19th September 1997, 7 dead, 150 injured), Ladbroke Grove (5th October 1999, 31 dead, 523 injured), Hatfield (17th October 2000, 4 dead, 70+ injured) and Potters Bar (10th May 2002, 7 dead, 76 injured). For those that doubt the connections, after all the actions taken in the years after these tragedies, there have been minimal fatalities on Britain’s railways, outside of incidents on level crossings.

The cast, including Jacqui Dubois and Gabrielle Lloyd as well as the above, take on the roles of the bereaved, union leaders, campaigners and pivotally, a British Transport Policeman (Jonathan Coote), the MD of the eventually nationalised Railtrack (Lucas Hare), yes it turned out you couldn’t leave the infrastructure in private sector hands, and a Bereaved Widow, the author Nina Bawden, whose husband died at Potters Bar (Gabrielle Lloyd). The diversion into the schisms between the various groups of the bereaved feels prescient.

The play was inspired by Guardian journalist Ian Jack’s book, the Crash That Stopped Britain, and was based on interviews carried out by the cast of those involved selected by Max Stafford-Clark and transport journalist Christian Wolmar, (who I see is not standing this time as the Labour candidate in Richmond Park where, one expects, the hypocrite and quarter billionaire Zac Goldsmith, will lose out to the Lib Dems). This process is classic Joint Stock Theatre, which was founded by Hare and Stafford-Clark and out of which the original creator of The Permanent Way, Out of Joint …. well, emerged.

What is extraordinary is that David Hare added very little in terms of connecting tissue to the interviews. All he did was extract and order. Given the subject matter it is unsurprising just how vital and moving so much of the testimony is. What is surprising however is just how well it works as drama. There is a bit of policy wonking at the start but nothing intimidating and by the time we got to the aftermath of the crashes I was properly immersed. Of course it helps that this interests, and angers, me, but I think the rest of the audience were similarly engrossed.

For that we must thank director Alexander Lees, the movement, in a very tight transverse space, of Sian Williams, the lighting of Rick Fisher and the sound of Roly Witherow. And a very committed cast. The setting helped but this would have been just as effective in a standard theatre. A string of 3* reviews seemed a little stingy in my view. Political theatre at its best. And every single word is true.

Of course you could always just nip “upstairs” to see the complex in action, or, more often than not, inaction. And this at the London terminal for South Western Railways, better looked after than most because all us posh types use it. An under-invested infrastructure, owned and operated by the state at arms length through Network Rail, (most of the track, stations and signalling), regulated by the Office of Rail Regulation, with passenger train operators under short term franchises awarded by the Department of Transport, or through open access, and freight operators through open competition, paying to use that infrastructure. Rolling stock in the hands of leasing companies, sub-contractors a plenty for maintenance. Most franchises receive subsidies, with contracts and legalese rampant, conditions on service, punctualities and control of fares never ending. And of course there is the irony that one way or another most of the operating companies involve a European state owned rail company (Keolis, Deutsche Bahn, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, MTR Hong Kong and soon Trenitalia). Ooh and then there’s LNER, accidentally nationalised. I am pretty sure this was never the intention of the Thatcherite nutters. We pay more (fares and subsidies) and get less. Go figure.

Amsterdam at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Amsterdam

Orange Tree Theatre, 5th October 2019

The UK premiere of Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s “strikingly original, audacious thriller”. Hmm. Striking yes. Original. I guess so. Audacious thriller. Not so sure. It is a fascinating story with a powerful message but its formal construction serves to distract and obfuscate rather than illuminate.

An Israeli violinist, living in Amsterdam, and about to give birth, receives an unpaid gas bill dating from 1945. From this premise the cast of four, deliberately diverse, tell the story of how this came to happen ranging across time, place and character. They start off bickering about where to start, interrupt, and comment on, each other, fracture and distort their narratives and regularly interrupt to ring a bell to amplify or translate. It takes time to adjust to the structure and the script is packed with details, repetitions, overtones and undertones, which can make events hard to follow.

Maya Arad Yasur (through Eran Edry’s translation) makes sure we understand the complexity and self-fabrication of narrative through her conceit and highlights the corrosive effect of hostility to the “other” but the expansion into contemporary conflict has the perverse effect of blunting the central historical fact. Over 75% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands was murdered by the Nazis and once the war was over, those returning home were forced to pay the utility bills of their wartime occupiers. The unnamed violinist’s own investigation, and disturbing discovery, and her personal journey as immigrant and mother to be, strike me as more than enough to make the point. Especially when the “scenes”, the arrival of the €1700 bill, the blithe response of the bureaucrat, the paranoiac unease in the supermarket, the birth anxiety, the “discussions” with her agent and the hairdresser, emerge through the conceptual fog. Dramatisation would have equally served as provocation and testament. We might then have been better able to see more clearly what she could see in a “foreign” place haunted by history.

I am all for experimentation and can’t fault the performances of Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas but, at the end of the day, this was harder work than I wanted it to be. Director Matthew Xia, as the new head honcho of the Actors Touring Company, who co-produced this with the OT and Theatre Royal Plymouth, is obviously a true believer in the power of the work though his previous engagements, Blood Knot here, Wish List at the Royal Court and the revival of Blue/Orange at the Young Vic, show his is equally at home in more naturalistic forms. Here though he opts to exaggerate the already contrived structure with lurches in tone and pace, simple staging (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen) with dissonant props and constant motion (Jennifer Jackson).

The production will run in Plymouth in February next year before moving on to Salisbury, Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bath. On balance? You should see it.