Van Gogh and Japan exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum review ****

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Van Gogh and Japan

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, 18th May 2018

There is an episode of the recent excellent BBC series Civilisations, on the history of art, where the presenter Simon Schama explores Japanese woodblock prints from the C!8 and C19 and shows their impact on the Western art canon. We often assume that the revolution in figurative art that came with Impression, Neo-Impressionism and Post Impressionism was born from the societies in which it flourished especially France, (VvG came to Paris in 1886), with some link back to greats  from the past, Turner, Delacroix and Courbet. Subjects changed, colour and and the depiction of light intensified, artist got out a bit more. You don’t normally hear about how the flood of art from Japan influenced the way these chaps, (mostly chaps as always), saw their world.

This exhibition seeks to show the link between Van Gogh specifically, (it being the Van Gogh museum), and Japanese art but it does rather ram home the connection. Van Gogh collected Japanese prints like they were going out of fashion, which they so weren’t Japonisme being all the rage, so you get to see plenty of his 600 strong own collection, augmented with other jewels from the likes of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, contrasted with van Gogh’s own landscapes and other work. There’s even some fascinating direct copies by VvG of Japanese subjects, a bridge and, you guessed it, some blossom on a plum tree. And the exquisite van Gogh shown above is topped by its near neighbour in the exhibition, a bull finch hanging upside down on cherry tree branches by Hokusai. It is breathtakingly beautiful. You can get it as an I-Phone case. Not quite the same.

Oil paint might substitute for woodcut print ink but the same notion of perspective and dynamic, panoramic landscape leaps out. The thoughtful look in portraiture. The attempts to capture the detail of nature. Bold colours, uncluttered composition, clear lines, cropping. Your response might not be quite the same, reflecting the cultural history imposed upon you, but the ideas and impulses that underpin Impressionism, and the reasons why we can’t get enough of it, are uncannily similar. Van Gogh may not be as pretty-pretty as the generation that proceeded him but we punters can still intuitively grasp what he was about even when he had a bad day, which was most days poor fella.

The famous Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear which we lucky Londoners can normally see in the Courtauld Gallery has a Torakiyo print of Mount Fuji on the wall. Van Gogh wasn’t alone. There is a Manet portrait of Zola with a sumo picture lurking in the background and Whistler brought the craze to London and copied it in his nocturnes.

Yet the differences are also striking. Oil paint adds texture. The woodcuts are flat. Van Gogh’s world is filled with unease, the Japanese masters exude calm (or am I just lazily stereotyping). Style contrasts with substance. Japanese art is steeped in the collective, in reverence for history and nature. Van Gogh peers at the individual and confronts head on the past and the world around him. Van Gogh is utterly devoid of irony or humour. He was, as we know, a serious fellow. The Japanese work was made to sell, (especially to us gullible gaijin), without his brother VvG would have been f*cked economically and artistically. That is why he is tortured genius personified. That, and the mental illness, a source of prurient audience fascination even as his descendants stewarded his work.

So the exhibition succeeds in showing the historical link between the two artistic cultures and the part Japan played in changing the direction of Western art. The questions art poses are universal even if the answers can vary through time and place. That is why VvG was taken with the idea of bringing his fellow artists together in some sort of Zennish brotherhood collective. The Occident and the Orient has been patronising each other for many hundreds of years. It also shows both the socio-economic and historical differences between the two worlds.

What it doesn’t do is show the actual art of either Van Gogh or the Japanese masters to best effect. Van Gogh, perhaps more than any other canonic Western artist, jumps off the canvas and wrestles the viewer to the ground. Old boot, chair, field, self, man, woman, flowers, vase. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you cannot not stare. Of course you can whizz through like so many punters were doing in the main collection as it filled up. (I got in the queue on the opening – they have slot times now – and bounded up – well took the lift actually – to the top floor which I had moreorless to myself for twenty minutes or so). Even the cultural tickers and phone clickers though get pulled up by something from van Gogh.

In contrast the Japanese prints need a bit of proper looking. That takes time. When some hulking VvG landscape is lurking nearby they get pummelled. No matter. There are just so many astounding things to see in this exhibition that it doesn’t really matter if you accept or reject the message of cultural globalisation. Just enjoy.

Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****

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Oedipus

Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018

The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.

What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.

I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.

Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.

How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).

Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.

Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.

So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.

The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.

But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.

What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).

The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.

So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.

Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.

 

Network at the National Theatre review *****

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Network

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th March 2018

Right then. Finally got to see Network. Booked early but this was the first date that BUD, KCK and the Blonde Bombshells could collectively make. A bit nervous because the last time we wheeled the Bombshells out to an Ivo van Hove entertainment it was Obsession at the Barbican which gets more disappointing as time elapses (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***).

You can divide Mr van Hove’s work along three dimensions I reckon depending whether he adopts the “austere, psychologically insightful” or “busy, technological overload” aesthetic, whether or not he works with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble or other actors, and whether the play is drawn from a classic text or is adapted from a film. Most of the time he hits the jackpot but there is always a risk of disappointment, Obsession, the very dull Antigone a few years ago and the so-so After the Rehearsal/Persona Bergman adaption, being cases in point.

Obviously Network is brilliant. You know that from the reviews when it opened and all the social media buzz. Not just my opinion but the opinion of my guests who were well impressed. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 media satire, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a marvellous film. I watched it again ahead of this just to check. Fast-moving, acidic, contemptuous, intelligent, disturbingly prescient, strident, it isn’t subtle but it is hugely effective. I particularly love the performances of Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett and Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs.

Now if I am honest Lee Hall did not strike me as an obvious choice to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s precious script. Then again Mr Hall, the brains behind Billy Elliot, War Horse and Victoria and Abdul on screen, The Pitmen Painters, Shakespeare in Love and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour on stage, and an adept Brecht translator, is nothing if not versatile. Wisely he and Mr van Hove have elected to faithfully translate most of the vital dialogue from the film, with some minor shuffling between characters. The temptation to tamper with, for example, CCA Chairman Jensen’s excoriating speech about the power of capital, is resisted, as are Howard Beale’s own show sermons. It is unfortunate that the negotiation scenes involving the Ecumenical Liberation Army and the Communist Party of America are abandoned, they tickle me, but something had to give. The relationship between the obsessive TV programming executive Diana Christensen, whose only reference point is her own ambition, and news chief Max Schumacher, is fully preserved as is his wife’s, Louise Schumacher, pain at his betrayal. And all the corporate manoeuvring.

So plot, sub-plots and text vigorously reconstructed, what next? This is where the magic of Mr van Hove and his designer sidekick, Jan Versweyveld, really kicks in. The template they employ is well tested from the longstanding Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare adaptations, Roman Tragedies, and it more recent cousin, Kings of War. Extensive use of live, on-stage video and video fragments, mixed in real time, a stunning achievement from designer Tal Yarden and team. A thundering soundscape from Eric Sleichim with an on-stage quartet BLINDMAN. Costumes from An D’Huys which are exact re-creations of the mid 1970s setting. There is a “UBS” TV production suite on stage. There is, famously, a restaurant on one side. and costume and make-up desks lurk at the back of the stage. All the guts, the manipulation, of the production are on show and, because key scenes are set in a TV studio, this surely couldn’t be more effective. There is even a slightly time delayed video sequence where Max and Diana stroll along the South Bank with umbrella. (Mind you this couldn’t top the bemusement of some lost tourists caught on camera stumbling across the performance of Bart Siegers, I think, as Enobarbus, in Roman Tragedies, outside the Barbican).

In addition to the thrilling technical wizardry, Mr van Hove, breaks the wall, and ropes the audience in repeatedly as the story unfolds, in the warm-up at the top of the Howard Beale show, when Beale clambers into the audience and, obviously, when the assassin emerges at the end. The messages about the lengths broadcasters will go to to secure ratings, the ugly emptiness of much popular entertainment, the voracious appetite of the capitalist structure which sits behind this, the immorality and venality of those hardened by the system, the co-option of those who purport to stand against it, the alienation that they, and we, experience, ring out load. No updating of the plot required from an analogue to a digital world: the frantic, exhausting hyper-reality of the production does this for us. Remember the film was produced before the rise of neo-liberalism. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981. If he was angry then, he’d be bloody livid now.

OK so there are one or two moments when being bashed over the head by this story and this production is a little tiring. But that I suppose is exactly the point, and you can chew more slowly on the content after the fact, as we have been doing.

As if this wasn’t enough we have an astonishing performance from Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Casting him looks to have been the most inspired of a string of inspired decisions around this production. Now as I understand it, Mr Cranston spent many years as a moderately successful jobbing actor before his turn in Malcolm in the Middle (never seen it), and then, famously, Breaking Bad. I generally can’t be doing with these TV series, preferring to see my pleasures in more concentrated form, as should be clear from this blog. However BB was an exception though it did test my patience at times across the 60 odd episodes. Still it is rare to see such a complete portrayal in any dramatic medium.

For me BC betters Peter Finch’s screen Howard by appearing to retain a better grasp on the forces around him. That is not to say that BC doesn’t show Beale’s mental collapse, just that, once his albeit damaged mind is made up to preach his disgust, he summons up a strength that Mr Finch’s more prophetic Beale lacks. The shift in Beale’s rhetoric post the meeting with Jensen is actually more satisfying on stage. Mr Cranston is riveting in the video close-ups as Beale moves from resignation, to desperation, through wild anger, and on to zealotry and an almost gnomic mysticism.

Michelle Dockery’s Diana is not quite as emptily amoral as Faye Dunaway’s on-screen version, but the relationship with Douglas Henshall’s Max just about works. The collapse of his shallow idealism is matched by his pathetic attempts to secure her empty affection. She never cares, he knows this from the start, he stops caring, in the end neither one of them cares. Beverly Longhurst, as Louise Schumacher, standing in for Caroline Faber gets to deliver the only really compassionate lines in the production when she boots him out. You should be very afraid of Richard Cordery’s Arthur Jensen, that’s what the men consumed by power at the top are like. I was also much persuaded by Tunji Kasim’s Frank Hackett, but frankly barely anyone puts a foot wrong here. Just as well, it would have been chaos if they had.

At its heart I think Network is a plea for our shared humanity not to be broken by an economic complex which seems to be beyond our understanding and influence, and not to be bullied and sedated by technology. What better place to do that than in the elemental forum for shared experience which is the theatre.

Beware the Infotainment Scam people. Mind you I might just have been scammed by Mr van Hove and his collaborators. It felt good though.

The Twilight Zone at the Almeida Theatre review ***

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The Twilight Zone

Almeida Theatre, 13th January 2018

Based on my entirely objective reviews, (of which more to follow when I get round to it), I see that the Almeida has, over the last three years or so, consistently offered the best theatrical experience in London. No great surprise really given the writers, casts and especially directorial talent, (notably AD Rupert Goold and Associate Director Robert Icke), at its disposal, but, still, it has been a remarkable run. There have been hiccups along the way though and one of these was, for me, if not for many others, Mr Burns. Too drawn out once you have got past the central conceit, and too pleased with itself.

Having said that the riff on contemporary culture, in that case one episode of the Simpsons (Cape Feare), was a splendid nugget of an idea and I could see where writer Anne Washburn was headed. So it didn’t seem like too much of a risk to sign up for the Twilight Zone, her reshaping of 8 of the original episodes from the ground-breaking, eponymous 1960s CBS TV show. For the benefit of you young’uns think vintage Black Mirror. Now I am pretty sure I have seen a few of the episodes, they must have been on terrestrial telly decades ago when we had no choice over what we watched, but I can’t really remember any of them. So its appeal lay more in its reputation. Same for the SO who was keen to come along, the Almeida being one of her favourite haunts as well.

Now a domestic crisis meant the SO had to leave at the interval, which was not a cause for deep regret. Why? Well this production didn’t quite come together in our view. The cutting up of the stories is, by and large, an admirable idea, highlighting their fractured, and paranoiac, nature, and keeping the audience on their toes, but it also led to an overdose of scene shifting. The way the cast was incorporated into these shifts, rigged up in dark boiler suits and googles, like disturbed chemical industry technicians, was inventive, and the set and costumes from Paul Steinberg and Nicky Gillibrand was immensely creative. The monochrome tones, the use of spinning cut-outs to simulate the memorable graphics of the TV series, the framing of the set as if in a retro TV screen, incorporating a back and white TV set dangling above the stage, the starry background. All this conjured up the look and feel of the series. The lighting design from Mimi Jordan Sherin, together with the sound and music from Sarah Angliss, Christopher Shutt and Stephen Bentley-Klein, and the illusions of Richard Wiseman and Will Houstoun, all elevated the visual and aural impression.

Now none of this should come as a surprise given the provence and history of director Richard Jones who revels in the playful, or, dare I say, cartoonish. The problem is the uncertain tone this creates. The production is an homage to the original series but the concept and design leaves it veering towards parody. Not saying this is wrong: there are plenty of funny moments here, most notably the running gap with cigarettes, and a theatrical adaption of a “cult 1960’s sc-fi series” for a contemporary audience was hardly ever going to get away with any other approach. But it does rather drown out the messages of alienation, delusion and psychosis that permeate the original. The Twilight Zone was all about projecting inner fears onto apparent external realities. Nightmares, other possible lives, cracks in time and space, paradoxes, you get the picture. With an unhealthy fear of the other.

Once the conceit in each story is revealed however, there is little room to develop and there is nothing in the characters. As drama then this lacks dimension. Which is unfortunate for an entertainment that seeks to explore human reaction to other dimensions. Now I don’t think this is the fault of the cast, all ten of them hurl themselves into the many roles they are asked to play. Nor, as I say, is it the fault of the creative team. And I would not criticise Anne Washburn’s text. No I think the problem is that the stories themselves do not stand up to theatrical adaption because there is not enough there in the first place. What works for half an hour on the box falls short on the stage however clever the manipulation.

So, overall, a flattish evening. Well worth seeing, and hearing, and in places there are some real thrills, but not a truly engaging piece of theatre. Maybe we set our expectation bar to high. Blame the Almeida. Too good at what they do.