William Kentridge retrospective at the Eye Film Museum Amsterdam review *****

William Kentridge – Ten Drawings for Projections, O Sentimental Machine

Eye Film Museum, 20th June 2019

The Tourist can’t really be doing with blockbuster art exhibitions in London any more. Too lazy to take the early morning members’ option and too impatient to put up with the crowds of selfie takers who clutter up the galleries and have no interest in seeing the art. Better to focus on permanent collections here, and in Europe, away from the hordes.

So it was a joy to spend a few hours in the company of William Kentridge in the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. A wonderful building with some diverting displays and a ever-changing roster of films old and new from around the world across its four state of the art screens. And a beautiful view of the IJ from the caff. It pains me to say but it probably has the edge on the BFI. And then there are the exhibition spaces currently devoted to this, a display of WK’s breakthrough animation works created between 1989 and 2011 which he donated to the Museum in 2015. The 10 short films are set alongside a selection of the silhouette and map tapestries which WK has designed (some of which I think I have seen before in the Smoke, Ashes, Fable exhibition in Bruges) which similarly address the history of his native South Africa and the film installation from 2015 O Sentimental Machine which is centred on archive footage of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

For those familiar with WK’s work, which frankly should be all of you, there is nothing too surprising here in terms of his Expressionistic method and technique. The animations are comprised of the charcoal sketches which WK draws, redraws, erases and reshapes, which he then films with gaps of between a quarter of a second to a couple of seconds, to create moving, in all senses, images. The act of drawing and erasing leaves traces of the past to remain in the present in metaphor for the evolution of South African society, the cycle of remembering and forgetting. The animations allude to but do not always address key events in South Africa’s modern history both pre and post Apartheid, such as the Sharpeville massacre, the release of Mandela, the passing of abolition and the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.

The films set these events against the life stories of two fictional characters, the dreamy philosophiser, Felix Teitlebaum, who is most obviously the alter ego of WK himself and Soho Eckstein, an amoral industrialist who, through time, begins to see the human suffering his business empire has wrought and seeks redemption. Felix’s history is more focussed on his interior and love lives and on his questions about the world around him. Given their physical similarities though it seems clear that Eckstein represents a darker side of WK’s own nature and, over the course of the series, the identities of the two characters begin to merge.. At least that was what I saw. As WK says, in this series he is interested in “a political art, that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings”.

Each film is accompanied by music either composed by WK’s regular collaborators or an appropriate classical piece. Even without the reflections on the evils and crimes inflicted by the apartheid regime on the South African people it is easy to become transfixed by the stories of Felix and Eckstein. Put the allusion and metaphor on top and the fascination of their construction, so simple yet so powerful, and it is impossible not to sit through every one. Which makes for a very satisfying couple of hours.

  • Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989)
  • Monument (1990)
  • Mine (1991)
  • Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)
  • Felix in Exile (1994)
  • History of the Main Complaint (1996)
  • Weighing and Wanting (1997)
  • Stereoscope (1999)
  • Tide Table (2003)
  • Other Face (2011)

O Sentimental Machine is a little less immediate in its impact. it is made up of five screen projections, and various objects, to recreate the office of Leon Trotsky. The archive film of a Trotsky speech on the future of Communism, which is, give or take, overwritten with cut up subtitles, is drawn from the Eye’s own archives. WK and his collaborators provide additional footage involving various machines and routines with plenty of the trademark megaphones. WK parodies Trotsky whose secretary Evgenia Shelepina has to deal with his ever expanding writing. Apparently Trotsky was in exile in Turkey when he wrote the speech. He also said that “humans are sentimental but programmable machines” which became unreliable if they fell in love, thus providing the inspiration for the installation. Many layers then though the prime message I guess is the idea that technological progress and grand ideas may not necessarily be unalloyed goods and doesn’t necessarily help

WK was born in Johannesburg in 1955 the son of two prominent, ethnically Jewish, anti-apartheid lawyers. He went on to study Politics and then Fine Art, followed by mime and theatre at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Which perhaps explains why his art is so committed, how it manages to successfully spans various media and why he has also been successful as a theatre and opera director.

The exhibition runs through to September. Of course you could go and hang out in a brown cafe of the red light district with all the other tourists ravaging Amsterdam. Or you could come here. You decide.

The Rubenstein Kiss at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

The Rubinstein Kiss

Southwark Playhouse, 9th April 2019

I liked this. A lot. Certainly more than I might have expected given the string of lukewarm reviews. I liked the way the important story was told, the structure, a later generation revisits and is shaped by its shared history, the three believable relationships that lie at the heart of the play, the way director Joe Harmston and designer Sean Cavanagh, (and a punchy contribution on sound from Matthew Bugg), made very effective use of the SP’s larger space, in transverse, to convey changes in time and place and, especially, I liked the committed performances from the cast of seven.

James Phillips’s play is based on the life and, still contested, crimes of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were convicted and executed in 1953, at the height of the Cold War, after spying for the Soviet Union, allegedly having passed secrets about nuclear weapon design secured by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. The play disregards the trial itself, focussing instead on the early lives of the Rosenberg’s and Greenglass’s, the interrogation of Julius Rosenberg and, in a constructive framing device, the attempts in later decades to clear their names after the executions.

Katie Eldred (a splendid stage debut performance) plays history teacher Anna Levi who meets lawyer Matthew Rubenstein (a similarly persuasive, if occasionally overly clamorous, Dario Coates) at an exhibition in 1970s NYC where he is staring at an iconic picture. It turns out that this is his parents kissing, (there is a similar image of the actual Rosenbergs, though the above is the most reproduced). I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that Anna and Matthew have a connection beyond the sexual relationship that follows, namely that he is the son of the Rubensteins and that she is the daughter of David Girshfeld (Sean Rigby) and Rachel Liebermann (Eva-Jane Willis). We go back in time to the small apartment where the earnest Jakob Rubenstein (Henry Proffit) and his spirited wife Esther (Ruby Rentall), who gave up a promising singing career, first set up home and bring up Matthew. Having left the army, where he worked in the nuclear bomb testing facilities in Nevada, (at a time when only the US had this technology), David is invited by Jakob to join his electricals business, allowing David and Rachel to also have a child, Anna. We see how Jakob and Esther’s upbringing, a child of the Great Depression, education and Jewish heritage inform their Communist idealism and sympathy for Soviet Russia (as did so many of their class and background did at the time). We also discover how Jakob was fired from his job as an engineer at a New Jersey facility which carried out research on missile systems for the army because of his CP membership.

In a series of flash-forwards, sometimes acted out in parallel, we also see how Jakob refused to renounce those ideals and confess to his crimes of espionage even when facing trial and under interrogation from FBI agent Stephen Cranmer, a man of considerably more complexity than you might expect, required an appropriately nuanced performance from Stephen Billington. And we see how and why David turns against Jakob and Esther, confesses his own involvement and implicates Jakob as the head of a Soviet spy ring. We also return to Anna and Matthew whose relationship is transformed by the revelation of their shared parental history and by Matthew’s involvement in the campaign to clear his parent’s names.

All this seems to follow much of the actual Rosenberg case, though we don’r really get to understand what exactly the Rubensteins, and David, did, nor, convincingly, why. Nor the events that have unfolded in the last couple of decades which point to the guilt of the Rosenbergs and have changed the way in which the cause celebre is viewed, now focussed on whether the punishment was appropriate to the crime. This is more about the relationships at the heart of the events, embellished and re-imagined, and all the better for it. There may well be another play located in the arrest, indictment, (the way the Greenglass’s changed their evidence is much simplified in TRK), trial, conviction and execution but it might not work effectively as drama and would be pretty thorny to grasp. There have certainly been other dramatic treatments of the people behind the facts on stage as well as film, though I can’t vouch for any of them. As an aside Roy Cohn, who later went on to play a leading role in the McCarthy trials and act for the Trump family, was involved in the Rosenberg prosecution case. And, as all good students of theatre will know, his particular brand of amoral, wanker-ism was spectacularly aired in Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America.

So James Phillips has packed a lot into his award winning play which by and large works. This is its first revival following its premiere in 2006 and it is easy to see why Joe Harmston and the Devil You Know company alighted on it. I am happy to forgive Mr Harmston for his hyperbolic comments about its relevance to the “end of days apocalypse of division” we now face. Threats to the enlightened consensus are permanent and democracy always fallible. And, from what I read, there is much to debate around the “rights and wrongs” of the Rosenberg case. But, as drama, this really worked for me. When I fill in one of those stock surveys the major theatres send out to us regular attendees I always tick the “I want to be educated” and “I want to be entertained” boxes. Job done here. On both counts.