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 *****

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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 *****

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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.