The Japanese House exhibition at the Barbican review ***

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The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945

Barbican Art Gallery, 27th March 2017

Bit of a mixed bag/curate’s egg here. There are some undeniably interesting insights in this exhibition but I was less enamoured of the set piece external and internal installations accommodated within the fabric of the Barbican’s gallery space (which is not a great favourite of mine – it lacks natural light and always feels a bit half-hearted compared to the Hall and Theatre). These installations just felt a bit gimmicky.

What the exhibition does convey is the extraordinary imagination that generations of post WWII architects have brought to Japanese domestic architecture when faced with limitations of space, capital or materials. There are some beautiful solutions, largely delicate and transitory, whether as built projects or simply paper ideas. Resolving the relationship between the interior and exterior is a particular skill on show with many of the houses deliberately putting the interior on show whilst others resolutely turn their backs on the outside world. And many of them are just so dinky.

There is an interesting video tracing the development of rapid build, affordable housing by way of example through the period under review and some excerpts from the domestic films by the post war Japanese masters including Yasujiro Ozu reminding me of another rich seam of cinema that I need to explore. Watching Tokyo Story again recently left me and the SO speechless – a must do for anyone and everyone.

So if you are an architectural buff or a denizen of Japanese culture worth popping along. For the more casual observer there s probably only just enough on show to justify the trip, and it promises maybe a little more than it actually delivers.

 

Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre review ****

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Ugly Lies the Bone

National Theatre, 28th March 2017

Tricky one this. It was by no means perfect, a little too thinly drawn for me, but there was so much to applaud that I think it worthy of a strong positive review.

The playwright, Lindsay Ferrentino is entirely new to me, but the string of awards, the intriguing content and the imprimatur of the NT, was enough to sucker me in. The play focuses on Jess, played by a massive favourite of mine Kate Fleetwood (her performance in Medea at the Almeida, directed I recall by hubby Rupert Goold, and written by a Kate Atkinson in full-on spleen venting mode, was a cracker), who returns ravaged physically and mentally from tours in Afghanistan to her native Space Coast Florida. She undergoes a pioneering virtual reality therapy, which gives set designer Es Devlin and her video, lighting and sound colleagues carte blanche to pump up the pyrotechnics, and boy do they seize the opportunity, whilst rebuilding relationships with sister (Olivia Darnley), an old flame (Ralf Little), sister’s maybe dodgy boyfriend (Kris Marshall) and eventually mother.

The text is direct but funny, Ms Fleetwood draws out Jess’s p*ssed-offedness with the world brilliantly, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction (how is that Tricycle refurb going?) is clear as a bell. The reliance of Jess’s hometown on the NASA space programme is also well articulated to mirror Jess’s personal demons. So all good. I just wanted a little bit more. The technical pyrotechnics were a bit guilty of overshadowing the personal dramas, and the urge to maintain a lightish touch and neatish resolutions, left me liking the characters more than caring for them. Smaller stage, more lines, less fancy-dan stuff might have served it better.

Anyway definitely worth seeing though (on for a few more weeks and plenty of tickets) and I hope to see more of Ms Ferrentino’s work.

Balm in Gilead at the Guildhall School review ***

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Balm in Gilead

Silk Street Theatre, 27th March 2017

Less a review, more a plug for the terrific music, drama and opera on offer to you, the London public, from the massively talented students (and teachers) at the Guildhall School on the Barbican site. There’s all manner of free stuff and for no more than £10-20 there are plays and operas of the highest quality.

Balm in Gilead was the last play I saw there. Written in the mid 1960s by Lanford Wilson who I didn’t know before this, the play is set in a contemporary New York cafe frequented by assorted prostitutes, addicts and petty criminals. Think Taxi Driver without the Travis nutjob. There are many stories on show but the key narrative is the relationship between Joe, a drug dealer who is in too deep, and Darlene a recent, and naive, arrival in the City.

There are all manner of formal devices employed here. A large cast of largely unsympathetic characters, though sympathetically played, a lot of overlapping dialogue, simultaneous scenes, a fugal song at the beginning and end to highlight the vicious circle in which the characters are trapped, cutaways where characters amplify the plot. The set design was masterful allowing these formal devices to take wing and the cast uniformly strong in putting the case for what I suspect can be a tricky play to convince an audience.

So what else has caught my eye at the School. Well the student’s contribution to the recent Philip Glass days in the Milton Court Concert Hall (which has one of the best acoustics in London I think) was outstanding. Myself and MS thoroughly enjoyed the Tale of Januarie, a new opera by Julian Philips and Stephen Plaice. On the face of it an opera, written in Middle English, based on a bit of Chaucer, with a dense and powerful score, is not an easy sell, but it was pretty much packed out and the kids absolutely nailed it. In the Milton Court Theatre I have also enjoyed a Crucible which exceeded most of the “professional” productions i have seen (this is one of my favourite plays) and a Top Girls (another favourite) which was similarly outstanding. I also had good reports of the recent Great Expectations from TB and partner.

So if you are interested in the future of culture and a cheapskate like me, don’t hesitate to get along to the School’s performances. In the new season I am drawn to The Wager, a contemporary Chinese opera co-produced with the Shanghai Opera, and the Gershwin musical Crazy for You.

Graduation – film review *****

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Graduation, 12th April 2017

I haven’t seen too many films at the cinema this year and have so far resisted the temptation to offer up an opinion on any of them, in large part because they had been and gone before I kicked off this blog. (For what it’s worth I was drawn into Silence but ultimately not satisfied, really enjoyed Manchester by the Sea and Casey Affleck’s performance, was very annoyed by Jackie, just loved Toni Erdmann, admired Moonlight, was gripped by Elle but this was largely because Isabelle Huppert was Isabelle Huppert and think the passage of time might see Get Out start to grate on me).

However, Graduation is by some margin the best of them, indeed I would venture one of the most intelligent films I have seen in the past couple of years (which marked a serious return to cinema going). I am no expert on things cinematic so had no knowledge of the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, nor of his renowned compatriots who make up the cast.

You can read the proper reviews to get the drift but it cleverly manages to be thoroughly absorbing and gently stomach turning as it lays bear the moral dilemmas its protagonists face and the shabby compromises that feel are required to resolve them. A proper tragedy then. Adrian Titieni is compelling as a surgeon who wants his daughter to secure a scholarship to go to Cambridge university to study psychology. His relationship with his apparently depressed wife however is falling apart and he is in a relationship with an ex-patient. The assault of his daughter acts as the catalyst for a string of backscratching negotiations and deceits in order ostensibly to ensure the her future is not imperilled.

This allows Mungiu to explore the father’s ethical and moral limits and his unclear past, the disillusionment of a generation which returned to Romania post the fall of communism, the pressures to do the right thing in a society plagued by low-level, endemic corruption and the clash between parental love and a young adult’s right to self determination. The film is shot in a naturalistic way though with some interesting perspectives and the music of Handel is a persistent counterpoint. The characters are rapidly sketched but then deepen through the film and are utterly believable. The low key progression of events to an enigmatic conclusion,whilst all the while threatening a more dramatic twist, resembles the films of Michael Haneke, which is a massive compliment in my book.

Anyway, please try to see it if you have any interest at all in proper cinema. In fact if I had a favour to call in from you or a way of bribing you then that is exactly what I would ask you to do.

 

 

 

 

Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern review ****

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Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017

Tate Modern, 9th March 2017

Oh my giddy aunt. What to make of this. I am slowly clambering my way up the shaky but intriguing edifice that is contemporary art. I have a rough map in my head but still have a long way to go and need to put a lot more hours in. So that means soaking up anything that the smart people at the Tate can throw at me. After all if it never makes its way into a trophy national gallery show then it’s not art is it. But if everything was like this then the journey would be pure pleasure and no pain.

I knew nothing of Mr Tillmans before this exhibition. Well maybe I had seen one or two of the spectral images where he had arsed about with the photographic production process (don’t ask me how) like Exhibit A above. But my oh my, does he get about. Different angles and perspectives, lots of close ups, street scenes, night scenes, landscapes, seascapes, still lives, portraits, self-portraits, fashion shoots, adverts, studio manipulation, the studio itself, colour fields, colour fields in a box. It seems that everything which has been fair game to the fine, the decorative and the commercial artistic worlds in the past and present can be appropriated by Mr T. And all this work is displayed in all manner of ways to further the assault. The OED should probably create an addendum for its definition of prolific.

However, in the hands of a halfwits like me, and, no offence intended, maybe you, this plethora of photos would just be so much garbage. The world is not short of digital images but it is short of this man’s. It is just endlessly fascinating and thought provoking with a host of strikingly attractive images many of which leap far beyond my aesthetic hurdle. Waves, a deconstructed (literally) digital printer, car headlights, lobster claws, fungi, pears, an arsehole and a pair of bollocks in alarming proximity, a pair of jeans in a box. Just some of the stuff I can remember.

And then there is all the material with a political or moral perspective. No empty one-note sloganising here (well maybe a bit), but some developed ideas and provocations drawn from many sources. I particularly liked the room which juxtaposied newspaper and other media stories about key geopolitical events with extracts and lists from psychological and neuroscience journals outlining frontier research on cognition, behaviour and heuristics.

Oh to have the eye and brain of Mr T. Mind you, whilst I am a keen advocate of the elevated audio experience, (though in practice am addicted to my old style I Pod and newer MP3 kit), I have to draw the line at his taste in music. If you have state of the art kit then playing late 80s electronic, white funk/reggae reclusives Colourbox on it is a big mistake, (they were the worst band on 4AD and that is saying something). And a portrait of Morrissey only adds fuel to this particular lapse-in-musical-taste fire.

Still forgive and forget eh major when there is just so much life on show here. You kids with your constant screen tapping and minimal attention spans will love it. Seriously though, and switching off the curmudgeonly, misanthropic pose for a moment, it really will appeal to anyway with a interest in life. So that’s everybody. You look around. So does he. He is just better at knowing how and when to record and extend the experience than you are. So that you can then breathe it all in. The perfect synthesis of high and low art. And a lot of joy in the mundane and a child-like glee in his making process. Not unlike the Rauschenberg retrospective which was next door and just wound up.

Highly recommended and on until mid June.

 

 

Austentatious at Leicester Square Theatre review ****

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Austentatious

Leicester Square Theatre, 26th February 2017

So I am guessing that a good number of people have already stumbled across the comedy joy that this improvisatory troupe bring. So I’ll get to the point. The premise is simple. Take some suggestions from the audience for daft, “unpublished” Jane Austen novel titles and then improvise plot and character over the thick end of an hour around that. I suspect there may be a little “deus ex machina” in the choice of title that is actually picked out of the hat but even so, the revolving cast of actors are so honed at this that there are guaranteed chuckles, titters and, for me, quite a few belly laughs.

Now obviously if you see this you probably will have some regard for the work of Austen. And it helps that the great lady herself was a master at the art of gentle situation comedy. So taking her stock situations and characters and poking fun at them was, in hindsight, always going to be a winner. But this lot are doing it in real time, whilst having to gauge the reactions of each other and audience, resolve the narrative twist and turns, and make it properly funny. I massively take my hat off to anyone brave enough to do improv and it is often a device that disappoints or annoys. But not here. They are outstanding, including the cellist on the night we went, and very clever, as they have to be to incorporate the multiplicity of references and the barrage of sight gags. And I assume the more they practice they better they have become.

So if you think this sounds like your cup of tea then do not hesitate. They regular pitch up here, elsewhere in London, in Edinburgh during the festival and on tour, so it should be easy enough to track them down.

There is very little on which the tourist’s family can agree on in terms of entertainment. The complex negotiations required even to watch a DVD or Netflix film would test the Foreign Office. We are constantly praying for a new comedy series to appear on the box as this is the one likely constant in a sea of argument and resentment. MS, and even more so MSC, are careful to time their visits to avoid any potential TV watching longueurs. We can, just occasionally, look forward to the next Bond movie or backwards, misty-eyed, to anything by Mischief Theatre, but otherwise it every man or woman for him/herself, tapping away or staring aimlessly at their own devices.

For one precious hour though Austentatious brought us together. It might work for you too. “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn” as Ms A apparently wrote in P and P.

Tamburlaine at the Arcola Theatre review ***

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Tamburlaine

Arcola Theatre, 6th April 2017

In many ways this was a brave piece of theatre. Tamburlaine, in two parts, was Christopher Marlowe’s first performed solo play, written in his early 20s, and which changed the course of English drama and massively influenced all the big boys of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama including our Will. Blank verse with lots of tasty, hyperbolic flourish, big themes, heaps of action, proper heroes and villains. No wonder the punters loved him.

And obviously he, Marlowe,  was proper rock n roll – drink and baccy, gluttony, fighting, sexy times across the spectrum, heresy/atheism, conning, spying. Lust for life indeed. And this play is about the life and works of Mongol leader Timur (recast as Scythian), which mostly consisted of trying to conquer the entire known world, and who was also, I suspect, pretty rock n roll as well, and not a man plagued by self-doubt.

So no half measures here. Yellow Earth Theatre is a British East Asian company which has risen to the challenge in conjunction with young director Ng Choon Ping, who has adapted the plays to strip them back to a manageable couple of hours. In the Arcola’s smaller space with just a light wall, a few well chosen props and the taiko percussion of Joji Hirota, they do an admirable job of bringing the play to life. Given the streamlining of the text, the doubling/tripling/quadrupling of some of some characters and the abrupt shifts in location there are times when the action teeters towards a kind of hyped up, declamatory travelogue (Persia, Scythia, Egypt, Turkey, Africa, even Blighty gets a mention), but for the most part the cast does a great job in telling the story and particularly delivering the verse.

The production does capture the interplay between the personal and the geo-political and the tragedy of ambition. It also smartly draws out the innate conflict between differing world-views, Christian, Muslim and Judaism, and how these world-views serve the interests of power. This is not a play that goes easy on religion, and reminds us to beware not to underestimate a man on a mission, in this case being the “scourge of god” – the contemporary parallels are obvious. And it explores the inevitable disappointment of succession in dynastic family (always a potboiler though the solution to a workshy son here might strike some as rather drastic). Hard to single out from a uniformly strong cast but Lourdes Faberes as the eponymous, fearsome tyrant, and Leo Wan in multiple roles, caught my eye.

So all in all a fine effort which might have been better served by more resource. Anyway, Yellow Earth are now firmly on my radar. This is off on a tour to Oxford, Colchester and Birmingham in the next couple of weeks so definitely worth a look.

As an aside when I was a sad, friendless, little tween I had an unhealthy obsession with the rise of the Mongol Empire. It you are/were similar I highly recommend you seek out the film Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan, a co-production led by a Russia directing team which explores the early life of its subject. Very satisfying.