A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic review *****

A Very Expensive Poison

Old Vic Theatre, 9th September 2019

Lucy Prebble wrote The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome all of which were rightly lauded. She is currently one of the writers on Succession the best thing on the telly in this, or any other, year. And Guardian journalist Luke Harding writes vital books about the modern state, two of which have already been made into films. So this adaptation of his book A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West was always going to be A BIG THING. And so it proved. The Old Vic is always a good place to spy luvvie types on their nights off and the evening we (the SO and the Blonde Bombshells) went was no exception. I won’t say who the Tourist fawned over this time. Just that it was almost as great a pleasure as the play itself.

Now this being Lucy Prebble we were never going to get a straightforward narrative. Even so the sheer invention on/in show was breathtaking. First though a quick reminder of the story. Alexander Litvinenko was an officer of the Russian FSB secret police who specialised in investigating the links between the state and organised crime. In 1998 he and other officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of oligarch, and thorn in Putin’s side, Boris Berezovsky. He was acquitted but re-arrested, and when the charges were again dismissed, he fled to London with his family, where he was granted asylum, wrote articles and books accusing the FSB and others of terrorist acts and worked with British intelligence. In November 2006 he suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised. It transpired that he had been poisoned by a lethal radioactive dose of polonium-210. The subsequent British investigation pinned the blame on Andrey Lugovoy a former member of Russia’s Federal Protection Service but he could not be extradited. Litvinenko’s widow Marina, together with biologist Alexander Goldfarb, tirelessly sought justice for her husband and a coroner’s inquiry was set up in 2011. This was eventually, after much foot dragging by the Home Office, (yep one T May was in charge), followed up with a public enquiry which in 2016 conclusively ruled that his murder was sponsored by the FSB and likely conducted with the direct approval of FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Putin himself.

Not difficult to understand why Luke Harding would want to document this extraordinary story or why Lucy Prebble could see its dramatic potential. The action centres on the indefatigable Marina (MyAnna Buring) and, in a series of slickly staged flash-backs, forwards and sideways, jumping across genres, tackles the who, how and why of the crime. I would be a liar if I can remember all the striking scenes but let’s try a few. The song and dance routine in a quasi brothel led by Peter Polycarpou’s Berezovsky. Amanda Hadingue as Professor Dombey giving a rapid fire 101 lecture on the history of radiation complete with puppets, Tom Brooke’s oddball Alexander Litvinenko serving up deadpan humour from the hospital bed which regularly appears on stage in a thrice, the two incompetent stooges played by Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer sent to carry out the assassination, the super meta-theatricality of Reece Shearsmith’s petulant, but still sinister, Putin commenting unreliably from the Old Vic boxes, the tell-tale trail of radiation handprints, the powerful direct address to the audience from Marina, and, finally, Alexander.

Of course the whole idea is to mess around with the truth in order to show how the modern state messes about with the truth. This near vaudevillian approach to political satire is not especially new (for LP herself), indeed I could imagine Joan Littlewood lapping this text up in the heyday of the Theatre Workshop, but the juxtaposition with such a serious subject is what makes this so interesting and, in some ways, challenging. OK so I can see why some might tire of all the theatrical fun and games but the abrupt shifts in tone, with humour constantly undercutting the serious narrative, worked for us, and, judging by the reaction, the audience including my new celebrity friend.

Bringing all this together will have tested the directorial powers of John Crowley, who has spent most of the last decade on a movie set. However this is the man who brought Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman to the NT stage so this wasn’t going to phase him. Mind you success was in no small measure due to the versatile box set of Tom Scutt, the choreography of Aletta Collins and remarkably nifty stage management from Anthony Field, Jenefer Tait and Ruby Webb.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to make a powerful political point in the theatre then humour is your best bet. But it is also the most difficult way to do so. Maybe this isn’t absolutely perfect but given how much Lucy Prebble has gifted us here, as in her previous plays, it is as close as dammit and for that we should be grateful.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.

Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House review ****

Billy Budd

Royal Opera House, 7th May 2019

The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.

Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.

The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.

Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.

(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).

Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.

The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.

First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).

As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.

As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.

Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.

On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.