The Secret River at the National Theatre review ****

The Secret River

National Theatre Olivier, 29th August 2019

This must have been tough. Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River is an epic production, in terms of the story it tells and the way it tells it, involving numerous creatives and a large cast, over 40 people in total. All came over to headline the Edinburgh Festival and then move on to the NT. And then the heart of the production, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a leading First Nations activist and performer, who played Dhirrumbin, the narrator of the story, passed away suddenly in Edinburgh. Her family and the creative team agreed to go ahead, Pauline Whyman stepped in and we were fortunate enough to see, (and hear and smell), this marvellous slice of theatre. So thank you all.

Now when I say epic this doesn’t mean the play loses the human dimension. The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s award winning novel, (part of a trilogy), is a fiction intended to explore Australia’s colonial past but at its heart are two families struggling to survive. Ms Grenville was prompted to write the book, following the May 2000 Reconciliation Walk, to understand the history of her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the Hawkesbury River. It tells the story of William Thornhill whose death sentence for petty theft is commuted to transportation to New South Wales for life in 1806. He arrives with wife Sal and children and is eventually able to buy his freedom to start afresh. The family’s encounters with the Aboriginal people of Australia, and their relationship with other settlers, good and bad, is explored, culminating in violence. Thornhill’s determination to own and tame “his” 100 acres of land is contrasted with the Aboriginal family’s bewilderment at the very idea and with Sal’s desire to return “home”. Thornhill may be a good man in some ways but cannot stop himself from dehumanising his indigenous neighbours, though by the end his guilt is manifest.

Not having read the book I can’t be sure how tightly Andrew Bovell’s adaptation cleaves to the original story, but director Neil Armfield, associate Stephen Page and dramaturg Matthew Whittet take full advantage of the dramatic opportunity it affords. A simple brown ochre suspended cloth creates a cliff face thanks to set designer Stephen Curtis, Tess Schofield offers simple but authentic costumes and Mark Howett’s lighting is superb. The sound design of Steve Francis and especially the score of composer Iain Grandage, brilliantly realised by Isaac Hayward through piano (keys and strings), cello and electronics, is one of the best I have ever experienced. The full extent of the Olivier stage, and theatrical technique, is used to conjure up this bend of the Hawkesbury River in 1813/14.

The play was first performed in 2013 in Sydney to rave reviews. Which is unsurprising giving just how well the story is told and the power of the message. But you don’t need to be Australian to appreciate that message. The ugly truth of colonisation and the damage done to the culture and society of First Nations people (in Australia and by implication elsewhere) is laid bare but through metaphor not didactically, and the motivations of the characters are made real in actions as much as words. The indigenous Dharug family begins by voicing their apprehension at what the settlers might bring, whilst Thornhill justifies his claim to the land by saying they are effectively nomads who choose not secure land or crops. Curiosity gives way to conflict. Any hope of shared understanding soon flounders on the greed, and/or desperation, of the settlers.

The performances are excellent led by Georgia Adamson as the ruminative Sal, Nathanial Dean as her less thoughtful husband, Elma Kris doubling up as Buryia and Dulla Din, the wife of Blackwood (Colin Moody), Dubs Yunupingu, similarly as Gilyaggan and Muruli, Major “Moogy” Sumner AM as the patriarch Yalamundi, Joshua Brennan as the conniving Dan Oldfield, Jeremy Sims as the vicious Smasher Sullivan and Bruce Spence as the erudite Loveday. (For those of a certain vintage you will remember Bruce as the pilot in Mad Max 2 and 3).

And, of course, Pauline Whyman. Her narration needs to shape and reflect the rhythm of the story, which can’t have been easy after, literally, a few hours of rehearsal. Dhirrumbin is the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury, suggesting, as much of her script does, that she was their long before any human ever arrived. And that she knows how this tragedy will end. It is she that provides the way into not just this place but also the emotional hinterland of the two peoples and, specifically provides the Dharug with a voice for us to understand. Unlike the book the play doesn’t just see these people solely through the eyes of the white settlers. Initially however Andrew Bovell and his team had no language for them to speak. Until actor Richard Green joined the original cast. As a Dharug man he was able to show that their language was very much alive and went on translate and show the cast how to speak and sing it. The Anglicised names of the Dharug in the book could now be reclaimed in their own language and we could begin to understand how they might perceive a history which they had not written.

A theatre saddo, loafer and tightwad like the Tourist can be relied on to fill in the surveys that theatres send out post performance. Do you go to the theatre to be entertained, inspired or educated they say. In the case of The Secret River I can definitively say all three. Equally. And the SO who came along is set to read the book. No higher praise is possible.

Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain review ****

Van Gogh and Britain

Tate Modern, 30th July 2019

Took me way ages to find the time to see this. And even longer to comment on it. Really what is the point.

Especially as even late afternoon on a weekday it was a bun fight with bugger all chance to stand, look and see. So not sure what to say. It’s van Gogh so of course there are paintings which, even when they shout out their familiarity, still stop you dead in their tracks. And wall upon wall of exquisite drawings. But no real opportunity to revel given the crowds.

VvG spent three years in London from 1873 to 1876, with trips back to the continent. I always get a thrill from the idea that he pitched up in Isleworth where he worked as a Sunday school teacher and then preacher. Look at the blue plaque opposite Isleworth Rec from atop the 267. Of course his time in Brixton (bit hipper I guess) is better known, working in central London. But this was in his early 20’s, in the art gallery Goupil, before he started painting. But he did draw. And maybe he did soak up the influence of these early years. Not in the same way as he did with Impressionists in Paris or from the Japanese prints he adored. At least that’s the theory here.

Cue a string of pearls in the form of self portraits, the NG’s Sunflowers, Starry Night over the Rhone (from the D’Orsay), Shoes, Hospital at St Remy, and other maybe lesser known works not drawn from the VG Museum in Amsterdam, like the extraordinary, and chilling, Prisoners Exercising (Moscow Pushkin) from 1890 and depicting Newgate Prison. There are a few half hearted attempts to show the London influences such as a Whistler Nocturne, but most of the interest for the Tourist came from the drawings. Never been to the Kroller-Muller collection in Otterlo, from which many of these drawings were, er, drawn, as well as a few paintings, but it is now a priority (if I can trick the SO into driving me there somehow).

The influence of French engraver/printmaker Gustav Dore is also plain to see in the copious copies VvG made of his illustrations which reveal the darker side of Victorian London. And the peasant landscapes that VvG painted in his early years owe a debt to the prints that he will have seen in English magazines from the 1870s. Apparently VvG read Dickens avidly, (and, exhibiting more taste, George Eliot), and his chair paintings might just have been inspired by a memory of an English print memorial after Charlie’s death entitled An Empty Chair.

At the end of the exhibition there are even a bunch of flower and portrait paintings, some actually quite pleasing, from the likes of Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Ben Nicholson and even Jacob Epstein, some just awful. There is even a Bacon triptych tribute to VvG, and a Bomberg self portrait. But it is the VvG flora, trees, wheat, flowers, blossoms, and people, which leap out here, almost literally, putting everything else into the shade. You can see the paint, every brushstroke, and you can feel the light, however coloured, but you can also know the subject, animal, vegetable or mineral, which is what makes VvG’s paintings so appealing to, well, everyone. Judging by this exhibition and by the Tourist’s most recent expeditions to Amsterdam.

Which is what made this exhibition just about worthwhile. For although this grumpy, old f*cker can get wound up by all these people milling around, only concerned with the image that they capture on their phones and not what is actually in front of them, it is still an immense rush to watch the joy transfer from canvas to viewer.

Dead at 37. What a waste.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre review *****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bridge Theatre, 6th June 2019

Go join the Shakespeare party down at the Bridge. Nick Hytner pretty much always nails the Bard and he has done it again here. Ignore the lukewarm reviews from the critics who seem to have got a little bit antsy with Hytner’s central inversion of Titania/Hippolyta and Theseus/Oberon. Yes this creates a couple of creaky moments, but what it gains in its celebration of non-binary, gender fluid sexuality, more than compensates. And it helps make this the funniest Dream I have ever seen. Add to this the sense, if not maybe the actuality, of immersion which comes from the promenaders in the pit, (though this may not be the best place to take everything in), and the multiple wow moments that flow from set, staging, costumes and cast, and, for me, this became unmissable. My only regret is being tucked away in a corner on my tod because I couldn’t persuade any of the usual suspects that this would be a Shakespeare production free from their usual misgivings. Should have tried hared.

Did I also say that the cast delivers the full text with perfect transparency? Because they do. OK so maybe a little of the poetry gets sidelined amidst all the activity, and there are some fairly unsubtle, though often very amusing, additional lines. But if you want a Dream to show exactly what is going on along the way then this is for you. The unpleasant nature of the genesis of the story is also not shirked. Theseus was the king in Greek myth who founded the Athenian democracy, having defeated the Amazons led by Hippolyta, whom he subjugated.. The play opens with a “celebration” of this event, here with the women dressed in religious habits and Hippolyta in the form of the imposing guise of Gwendoline Christie, (you know who in you know what), imprisoned in a glass cage. Oliver Chris, who I confess I am now even more a little bit inn love with, cuts a rigid Theseus. All the guff about the little baby and Egeus’s (Kevin McMonagle) demands of his daughter starts to make sense. Hippolyta looks at Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and the brutal truth of the patriarchal norm is established.

Not for long though. AMND after all is all about the dreams. What happens when we are plunged into another, freer “reality.” And how that other “reality” affects our real reality, if you see what I mean. And it is joy, celebration, sexy time and swapping which defines this particular “reality”. So to invert the two dual characters makes perfect sense and lets fly the interventions which fuel all sorts of other passions, from the Athenian lovers, from the fairies and best of all from Bottom (Hammed Animashaun) and the now liberated Oberon. You would be hard pressed tp find a better double act on any stage than these two. Anywhere. Anytime. I am constantly amazed just how good a comedy writer big Will was and how, in sympathetic hands, even gags I have heard multiple times can still make me smile. Though here it is much what we see as what we hear that makes it so funny.

Anyway once all the shenanigans in the forest is over and we return to the city, and the weddings, and the mechanicals, the change in Theseus rings true. His world changed for good over one blinding night out. Like I say I cannot praise Oliver Chris enough. In my book one of the best comic actors on the British stage. As is Hammed Animashaun. A Bottom who might have stepped off any London street today.

Mt Hytner has not neglected the rest of the play to perfect his central conceit. The mechanicals here are mixed gender led by Felicity Montagu’s sincere Quince. She is another comic acting genius. We all have our top ten funniest Partridge moments. An honest appraisal will see Lynn feature in many of them. (BTW if you don’t have a Partridge top ten I have to wonder why you are here as clearly you have no sense of humour). Ami Metcalf as Snout, Jamie-Rose Monk (I need to see her one woman show) as Snug, Francis Lovehall as Starveling and Jermaine Freeman as Flute are equally amusing. In both the rehearsal scene and Pyramus and Thisbe, every comic detail has been thought through to leave the real audience in stitches.

Yet, at the same time the lovers, Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones), Hermia, Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) and Lysander (Kit Young) with their asides and silences as they watch the “performance” reveal that not all has changed gender-relationship wise in Athens. It isn’t entirely clear whether the two cheeky chaps, who even had a snog in the forest, are going to rise to their better selves with their new wives as they lay into the generous, if hapless, mechanicals. Nor do they see the tragedy, which they avoided, in the inadvertent comedy presented by the proles. Clever Mr Hytner and clever Mr Shakespeare.

Whilst in the forest the couples roam, romp , argue and sleep as you would expect. But here the set transforms into a magical world. As in the production of Julius Caesar last year, the stage hands and the marshals doing an incredible job of marshalling platforms and people into position. From which the beds, on which the various lovers frolic, and even a bath for Bottom and Theseus to soap up, create context and structure. Add to this the rise and fall of said beds, (a fair few of the cast spend an inordinate of time suspended, kipping), and the acrobatics of the fairies, Peaseblossom (Chipo Kureya), Cobweb (Jay Webb), Moth (Charlotte Atkinson), Mustardseed (Lennin Nelson-McClure, the leader of the troupe) and Bedbug (Rachel Tolzman), and even those with minimal attention spans would surely be satisfied. The teen next to me was a little restless in the first half and needed a minor dressing down from Mum. Come the second half though and she was as gleefully engaged as everyone around me was.

The fairies were a little wobbly on the lines but their movement and music, (Mr Rascal’s Bonkers a particular highlight), more than made up for this. I praise Nick Hytner so highly because he is the captain of the ship, and I know what he can do with Shakespeare, but frankly all his ideas would have come to naught without Bunny Christie’s set, Christine Cunningham’s costumes, Grant Olding’s composition, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound. And very especially Arlene Phillip’s movement. Though this went beyond movement into complex, three dimensional choreography. Just wonderful. And Suzanne Peretz also deserves a massive call-out for her wigs, effects, hair and make-up. I am not sure I would be going put looking like one of the fairies at my age but I would have killed for a make-over from her before hitting a club in the glory days of New Romanticism in 1981. The Tourist and partners’ homemade efforts at the time being exactly that, homemade.

Of course our fairies celebrated gender diversity but David Moorst’s Puck goes one step further, a pangender Pan with flat vowels, perfect comic timing and a nice line in exasperation with his now, female, mistress. And you try delivering Shakespeare whilst executing perfect aerial silks. In fact try either one and see if you get anyway close to Mr Moorst’s virtuosity. This is an actor who has not stood out for me before. He did this time.

Now I can see that if you want pure verse, gossamer wings and a donkey head this might not be the Dream for you. But then I am not sure that Dream is relevant, or mines the multiple layers of Shakespeare’s imagination, in any circumstances. I do not believe that even big Will realised the complexity of interpretation that the Dream affords, all that anxiety and repression of urges, though he probably had a pretty good idea, so it is up to each generation to examine its meanings, as well, of course, to entertain. Mr Hytner, as he always does, takes a view, and works it through to almost perfect effect, but he also never forgets to entertain us. These shadows mend all those who would search for offence in who we want to be.

Holst’s The Planets: BBCSO at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus (women’s voices), Professor Brian Cox, Ben Gernon

Barbican Hall, 29th September 2018

I wasn’t quite sure of what the format would be for this performance of Holst’s The Planets. Maybe a quick intro from our most famous and telegenic physicist, then a work-out for the BBCSO under Guest Conductor Ben Gernon, with a few unspecified other repertoire to be tacked on. What I hadn’t bargained for was a full-on lecture preceding each of the seven movements with state-of-the-art slide-show accompaniment showcasing some of the most famous images of our solar system.

It was therefore a very pleasant surprise. The Hall was packed to the rafters and, this being The Planets with a famous bloke off the telly, there was a far more diverse audience than you normally see at the Barbican or the South Bank. And my, my, did I learn a lot. Although I confess I can’t remember it all. The point is that Prof Cox, with his dulcet Manc tones, his child-like enthusiasm and his preposterous hair-cut is just the man to show us how the latest scientific understanding of our solar system, drawn from all that hard- and soft- ware sent out over the last four decades to examine it, both connects to, and contradicts, the more mystical and conjectural view prevalent in the early C20 when Holst wrote his masterpiece.

Holst, with his attachment to English folk-song and Eastern mysticism, was a curious fellow in some ways. Swedish extraction, frail constitution, mates with Vaughan-Williams, teacher at St Pauls Girls School, as fancy as it gets even then, nice gaff looking over the Thames in Barnes, committed socialist. An interest in theosophy, a right rag-tag of funny ideas as far as I can tell, but which had quite a hold over the Western creative community in the inter-war period.

His music is pretty curious as well. Uncertain tonalities, modal expressions, the kind of counterpoint more typical of medieval forms, irregular and often belting rhythms, ear-catching dissonance. It all tumbled out in The Planets, which itself it as big a subject as you can imagine for programmatic music. No surprise that it was such a success when finally completed in 1917, bolstering his career and reputation, and no surprise it is so popular today. Its best ideas might now appear to be a field full of hackneyed war-horses but, if you step back from the familiar, it still has the power to wow especially, I think, in the slower passages. At the time it was as “modern” as Debussy or Stravinsky, and, like them, its influence on “everyday” classical music now, is inescapable. No Planets, no fantasy film scores.

Holts’s starting point was the elemental character of each of the seven planets which is what lies behind astrology, (connected to this theosophy caper apparently). All b*llocks obviously, even at the time, but Holst believed it. And believing in the power of the planets to influence us did give a starting point for Holst to set out what he saw as important facets of the human condition: War (Mars), Peace (Venus), Messenger (Mercury), Jollity (Jupiter), Old Age (Saturn), Magician (Uranus),┬áMystic (Neptune), Scoff all you like but this nonsense also meant that, on this night, the exact centenary, Prof Cox could then riff on how far we have come in our understanding of what makes up our solar system, and that more existential question, what other life might be, or have been, out there.

The BBCSO, (with the female voices of the choir for the final wordless chorus in Neptune) was on top form and threw itself into the hyped-up interpretation under Ben Gerson. With the movements broken up by Prof Cox’s oration it was important to establish momentum in each of the movements tout suite as it were. After all the whole piece clocks in at just under an hour with only Saturn and Venus getting anywhere near the 10 minute mark. Easy enough to quickly stake your claim on the thunderous toccata of Mars, (here claimed as a wider critique of industrial capitalism and not just the horror of mechanised warfare), the carnival scherzo of Jupiter, the bitonal dance of Mercury or the sardonic fantasy of Uranus. I have to say though that the BBCSO was actually most convincing in the nagging processional of Saturn and the endless hush of Neptune which take more time to overawe.

All up a splendid idea. Of course individually the images, the music and the lecture might have had more lasting impact, but put them all together and a deeper impression was created. It would be nice if we humans could keep our sh*t together long enough to find out if we are not alone.

Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vic review *****

siula_grande

Touching the Void

Bristol Old Vic, 22nd September 2018

The Tourist had a terrific visit to Bristol recently. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s marvellous Henry V (Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****), the Georgian House, another fine cathedral ticked off, an accidental preview of the refurbished space at the Old Vic and then this, a reminder of just how powerful theatre can be when filtered through the imaginations of first, its creators, and then second, us the audience.

Mind you mountaineer Joe Simpson’s extraordinary, mythic, true-life story of survival after being left for dead on Suila Grande in the Peruvian Andes by his climbing parter Simon Yates could hardly be more dramatic. You may well know it from Mr Simpson’s own mesmerising account in his 1988 book, Touching the Void, or from the feted docudrama from 2003 directed by Kevin MacDonald, with Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron and Ollie Ryall. I also recall a separate TV documentary but I may be getting confused. If you don’t know the story I am not about reveal details here: that would be vexatious. Whilst the Old Vic run is over the production will tour to the joint producing houses of the Royal and Derngate Northampton and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, and then on to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness. I would be stunned if it doesn’t get further run-outs thereafter.

For this is brilliant theatre. I can see why some might of thought it a bit nuts to stage it, not only because of the prior, superb treatments, but also because of its subject. How to bring the mountain to the Old Vic deep proscenium? This is after all the oldest continually operating theatre in the English speaking world built in 1764. The Theatre Royal auditorium interior is a thing of beauty in paint and wood, matched only by the Theatre des Bouffes de Nord in Paris IMHO. The new public space based on my quick peek is only going to add to its architectural wonder.

So what have Tom Morris, the AD of BOV and director here, and designer Ti Green, opted to show us here? Well a few tables, chairs and a sign to symbolise a pub in Scotland and a bar in Switzerland. And an immense rotating metal frame, a skein filled with opaque white paper which gradually gets perforated. All of which turn into mountain ranges. Not literally. Don’t be silly. But add in climbing gear, tents, a video backdrop, superb lighting and composition/sound courtesy of Chris Davey and Jon Nicholls and, I swear, we are transported. It is one of the best realisations I have ever seen in a theatre.

However, even with craft of this imagination, that would still not be enough. Which is where the writer David Greig, the AD of the Royal Lyceum, adds his genius. Mr Greig’s original work for Traverse, NT Scotland and Paines Plough is testament to his skill but his adaptions may just be even better. I can vouch for The Suppliant Women which came to the Young Vic last year (The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****), Creditors, Tintin in Tibet, and trustees who rate his contributions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is not just the ability to think through how the story can be converted into this thrilling visual spectacle, to show us where and how this happened, but also how to recast the main characters to offer us a insight into why this happened. This is after all a first person narrative where the main character is largely alone.

David Greig’s masterstroke is to incorporate Joe Simpson’s older sister, Sarah, into the narrative. (Sarah is a constant, goading presence in Joe Simpson’s autobiography The Game of Ghosts. Poignantly she died a couple of years ago.). At the outset she is angry at what seems to be Joe’s pointless sacrifice, we rewind to see her meeting Simon with Joe and being bitten herself by the climbing bug. And it is Sarah who is cajoling Joe, the spirit in his fractured mind, during the darkest hours of his escape. Monologue is turned into internal, and then here, external dialogue Add to this the contrast offered by the wry commentary from Richard, the hippyish Geordie who is recruited early on to man the base camp during the “alpine style” assault on Suila Grande.

Patrick McNamee, maybe because of, rather than in spite of, a couple of musical interludes and some remarkably insensitive dialogue, I guess this was Richard, is on top form and Fiona Hampton as the fierce, bolshie, brother-loving, Sarah is outstanding. Edward Hayter has to be more subtle to capture the more taciturn Simon, especially when he is forced to make his momentous decision and the anguish which follows. This role is a huge ask physically, though it pales a little beside that of Josh Williams as Joe. I don’t recall having seen an actor have to commit so much energy to a performance. Hanging off ropes, hopping across rocks, flying down an icy slope. Frostbitten, dehydrated, hypothermic, He really looked like he was knackered and in agony, partly I reckon because he probably was! On top of this he also has to convey the mental agonies that Joe faced in his ordeal as well as offering us, like Edward Hayter’s Simon, some idea of what drives these seemingly unremarkable blokes to take on such challenges. These fellas it seems have a rather different, more direct and maybe more rational, take on risk than the likes of you or I it seems.

So we have humour, suspense, tension, horror, exposition, explanation, psychological insight, metaphor, tricks of perspective and memory, energy, physicality, music (Boney M can be a motivator), Blimey it even feels really cold and dark at times. And if you have ever wondered what a movement director gets paid for, Sasha Milavic Davies (as in the Suppliant Women mentioned above) shows you, and then some.

This is theatre at its inventive best. It gets to the heart of the “what would I have done” question. I do hope many more people get to see it. If you are one of the lucky people close by to the theatres mentioned above do not hesitate and drag as many of your friends along as you can. I guarantee they will not be disappointed. It is hard to think of anything more gripping than a story of someone who “comes back from the dead”. To provoke our imagination into being there with him by using his imagination to create some-one being there with him is just exceptional.

Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery review *****

RouenCathedral_Monet_1894

Monet and Architecture

National Gallery, 14th June 2018

I am not the biggest fan of Monet’s later, post-Giverny work. Loved the actual garden, the white suits, the pipe, the spectacular beard, the repetition and the joy. But the colours make me queasy and the smudginess is disorientating. I know that is what his eye could see but it still unsettles me. And then there is that general “pretty-pretty” thing about Impressionism, and the way it is has been confiscated by the cultural imagination, that puts my back up.

The earlier stuff though does the business and pop a building in, or some other expression of the built environment, and I am a buyer. It offered up another set of shapes, beyond the natural, for our Claude to explore, and provided anchors for the eye. And later on, in Rouen, or London, or Venice, new textures. And when you see room upon room of paintings of such beauty it is, cliche-alert, breath-taking. This exhibition is an aesthetic delight. No need to think about context, concept, history, method, material, technique, message, or anything else for that matter. Let there be light as some other important old fella with a big white beard might have said.

That’s it. Just go. And be happy. I’ve nothing else to say.