America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

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America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper

Ashmolean Museum, 26th June 2018

Those clever people at the Ashmolean in Oxford have come up with another fine exhibition to rank alongside last year’s survey of Modernism in France Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****). There are plenty of paintings, and photographs, on show here that you would be hard pressed to see without hopping over to the US, as there is b*gger all from this period in public collections here, and the theme, the “cool” in American art in the first half of the C20 is both aesthetically and intellectually interesting. An excellent counterweight to the recent surveys of Abstract Expressionism and American art in the 1930s which came to the Royal Academy as well as the Tate Modern exhibition of Black American art from the 1960s onwards.

There isn’t a great deal of pure abstraction here in contrast to what was going on, in large part, in Europe at the time. Most of the artists on show keep at least one foot, and often more, in the figurative camp. Indeed escaping the influence of those swanky French seems to be part of what many of these artists set out to achieve. There are some early experiments in abstraction in the first room but they are not really up to much. Landscapes and cityscapes predominate. This is not art rich in portraiture: indeed one of the defining features of the survey is the absence of the human figure. The artists here are generally fixated on the rise of modern, urban America: capital accumulation, the factories, the infrastructure, the cities, the technology. Lines are hard, sharp and exact, the natural light is sharp. Twilight and artificial light get a good look in. In the best of the work on there is a weird sense of alienation and stillness. A very detached eye. The rapid social and economic transformation seems to have unsettled some of these artist folk. The rural does get an outing, but this is agriculture as industry, and not the wide, open spaces of American myth. There are a fair few barns.

The paint colours are “cool”, washed out, not vibrant in the way that European art was preoccupied with at that time. Forms are precisely rendered. There is a fair bit of “flatness” on show. The influence of the exact, “abstract” and architectural photography of the likes of Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and, a new name for me, Imogen Cunningham is exemplified. There are a lot of buildings.

The core of the exhibition is the “precisionist’ art of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler but the curators have also succeeded in drawing a line back to the more naive, and near abstraction, of Arthur Dove, Helen Torr and early Georgia O’Keefe (Black Abstraction from 1927 is the stand out), which catch the eye in the first room, as well as forward to the uneasy genius of Edward Hopper. The exhibition ends with three blockbusters from said Mr Hopper, which, for me, are the best things here by far, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride up to this specific thrill.

So what were the biggest surprises beyond those artists I had some familiarity with? The three eerie townscapes from George Ault, New York Night No 2, View From Brooklyn and Hoboken Factory. It seems Ault trained in London, good man, saw three of his four siblings commit suicide, fell out wth his precisionist chums and was an alcoholic. Perhaps this explains his penchant for the twilight world.

His work is certainly a lot darker that Demuth. He is the one who liked text in his paintings of cities, indeed his must famous work is the iconic I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold which title about sums up the subject. Sheeler, who was an amazing draughtsman and nearly as good a photographer as he was painter, is probably the epitome of the “cool” aesthetic that the curators have tried, and succeeded, in showcasing. I was most taken with Demuth’s Welcome to Our City which I assume depicts his native Lancaster, Pennyslvania to whence he returned from New York due to ill health, and away from the circle of artists around Alfred Steiglitz. Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn (shown above) is almost hyper-real in its detail, barely distinguishable from his photographs of the same subjects on first glance, but as you look more closely a triumph of oil on canvas.

The two paintings from a precisionist follower, Canadian Ralston Crawford, Buffalo Grain Elevators, and Smith Silo Exton, take the inspiration of Sheeler’s rural buildings but lend it a more abstracted geometric construction. Great stuff.

There are also a pair of oil paintings from Joseph Stella, Telegraph Poles with Buildings and Metropolitan Port which show his association with the precisionists but also his early exposure to the Italian futurists. The handling of the paint here is a lot freer, there is almost a “smoky” quality, which I was much taken with.

Outside of these paintings I was also drawn to the carefully chosen lithographs on display. Louis Lozowick presents dynamic perspectives in drawings of Minneapolis and New York, there is a superior looking barn from the extravagantly named Benton Murdoch Spruance as well as a couple of fine examples from Sheeler again. Now I am not sure Grant Wood could reasonably be seen as central to the concerns of many of the other artists on show here. A regionalist, focussed on the rural, master of the “American Scene”, I don’t think he was big into for city or industrial subjects. He certainly has the air of detachment that others exhibit here though, albeit with a much heftier dose of irony and/or nostalgia, you are never quite sure. Anyway there are three of his tremendous lithographs in the exhibition, one of haystacks covered in snow, another of MidWest fields, and one of a barn and American Gothic style house. There are Durer-like in their detail and execution.

There is also Martin Lewis’s iconic drawing Which Way? with a car seemingly lost in a snowstorm. Lewis was born in Australia and came to the US to work as a commercial illustrator, a profession that  many of the greats of US art in the C20 took up to keep the wolf from the door, and which underpins the American take on modernism when compared to their rather more esoteric European peers. He found great success in drypoints, a technique he mastered on a visit to Japan, but his fame quickly faded. I think I have seen this image before but I can’t for the life of me remember where. I guessed it might have been used in connection with David Hare’s adaptation of George Simenon’s The Red Barn at the National Theatre directed by Robert Icke (a qualified success), but that image was actually another drypoint image of a barn in the snow by an artist I can’t identify. It seems that the  barn, in whatever weather, is the greatest staple of American art since the founding of the nation. There must be tons of academic papers on this.

Anyway Lewis’s drawing is not a barn but it is a perfectly wrought rendition of artificial light, here the car headlights against the snow, against the dark night. And it is probably a metaphor for the country itself, given this created in 1932, just as the US was emerging from the very worst of the Great Depression.

Now it turns out Lewis was a mate of Ed Hopper. who also has four etchings on show here, all of which show that his mastery of line. shadow and viewpoint wasn’t confined to painting. They would be worth the entry fee alone but, as I said above, there are also three oils to savour, which I think are on show in the UK for the first time. It is hard to believe that his big breakthrough didn’t come until the early 1930’s, and especially after the retrospective at MOMA in 1933, when he was already 50. Prior to that he too had to support himself as an illustrator.

I can’t believe that there is anyone who couldn’t get something valuable out of seeing Hopper’s paintings. The stillness, the light, the murkyish palettes, the shadows, the melancholy, the introversion, the uneasy suggestion. The SO, who doesn’t care for much art, adores his work reproductions of which are plastered on the walls around me as I sit writing this. Mind you, dare I say it, puritanical realism is her bag. Anyway suffice to say we love Hopper.

From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), shows the top floors of a handful of late C19 buildings seen from the eponymous bridge, with a woman perched on the ledge of one open window in the afternoon sun. Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), is a view of a train departing, and the buildings opposite, framed by the platform. Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) is a wider perspective of the railtrack and a cityscape.  All are wonderful.

So soak up what is on offer in this fine exhibition, see if you accept the curator’s argument, I do, and then take as long as you like with this Hoppers. It is worth it.

Many of the works on show are drawn from the Terra Collection for American Art and the Met. So thanks chaps. Just goes to show that there are some things that have come over from the States in recent weeks that aren’t, to borrow the language of astute political commentator Danny Dyer, twattish.

 

Genesis Inc at the Hampstead Theatre review **

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Genesis Inc.

Hampstead Theatre Upstairs, 25th June 2018

Sometimes less is more. A lesson that writer Jemma Kennedy and director Laurie Sansom here chose to, if not ignore, certainly bypass. Made even more frustrating because, at the kernel of this play, and in its execution, are some very good ideas. I applaud the ambition of the creative team at the Hampstead Theatre under Edward Hall, and the variety of the offerings, but it does mean that, just occasionally, there is a misfire amongst the hits and the deserved West End transfers. Some of my favourite productions over the last couple of years, (Gloria, Prism, The Firm, Dry Powder, The Phlebotomist and Describe the Night), have shown at the HT, both Upstairs and Downstairs, and often I have enjoyed them more than the critics. Sadly Genesis Inc. was not one of them.

Jemma Kennedy, who is also a screenwriter, has based her first major commission for the stage, (I believe), on her own experience of IVF treatment. She has also chosen to write a comedy. So far, so good. There is a vital personal and political story to be told about the commercialisation of reproduction and fertility in an ageing capitalist society and the dilemmas this creates. She has well-structured arguments to present, and, with distressed couple Jeff (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and Serena (Rita Arya), and prospective single parent banker Bridget (Laura Howard), sympathetic, and sufficiently complex, characters to present those arguments. Harry Enfield plays Dr Marshall, the medical entrepreneur behind the fertility clinic that the three of them turn to. There are some pointed exchanges, sharp observation and some very funny lines,

But Ms Kennedy cannot then resist the temptation to add complication through additional characters and formal invention. And this is where the play goes awry. Bridget has a gay, impecunious, teacher friend/housemate/ex, Miles, played by Arthur Darvill who does a musical turn and falls for the priest, Father Scales (Arthur Wilson), at the school he rocks up in. He needs money to get on the property ladder so decides to sell his sperm for a few quid. Serena’s Mum, and dead Great-GrandMum, (played by Shobu Kapoor), poke their noses in. There is a sub-plot involving a social worker and salt of the earth victim of domestic violence played by the wonderful Claire Perkins, who also plays the childless alpha-female boss at the investment bank she works in. They, of course, get to IPO Dr Marshall’s clinic. Karl Marx and Susan Sontag are wheeled in. There is even a biblical scene involving Old Testament Abraham, wife Sarah, (90 years old when she conceived if you believe the big book), concubine Hagar and son Ishmael, and even, as you can probably guess by now, God himself. And maybe more startling, Serena’s ovary and vagina get to say a few words

All this is thrown in to allow Jemma Kennedy to make important points about the way in which women and their fertility has been treated through history and how the patriarchy and capitalism have degraded reproduction. This scattergun approach, taking aim at so many different targets, leads to some odd tonal shifts though, especially in the fantasy scenes, and especially at the end, and results in a distractingly complex set from Jess Curtis and some awkward on stage prop-shifting and costume-changing, (there are 42 named roles!).

It was a more than a little frustrating because there was so much in the basic premise, the satire of the moral framework which supports this unsavoury industry, which seems to trade on hope through unsubstantiated claims. Ms Kennedy is a smart enough writer I think to have made some of her points, and still got the laughs, within the context of the narrower personal stories. Harry Enfield is still an awkward stage presence, as he was in Once In A Lifetime at the Young Vic, but here his charm, alongside comic SA accent, masking a more ruthless commercial streak, seemed to work. Kirsty Besterman, as his officious assistant and sales jockey, had some choice lines. The stress that the IVF treatment put on the relationship between Jeff and Serena was well observed as was Bridget’s struggle to balance her desire for a child, by freezing her eggs, with career and demand for a relationship. Arthur Darvill has an unsteady naivety which matched his character and gamely rose to the challenges he was posed.

I can certainly see why the idea of stripping out the sub-plots and fantasy sequences would not have been an option for Ms Kennedy or director Laurie Sansom. The ambition to emulate the dense intellectual and theatrical experience of say an Angels in America, (cited by Edward Hall in the programme), is laudable but it didn’t really come off. And, by over-egging the pudding, I was left dissatisfied with the whole. Intrigued yes, entertained at times, made to think for sure, but just that bit uncomfortable that everyone involved was straining too hard to pull this off.

 

 

 

Sea Wall at the Old Vic Theatre review

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Sea Wall

Old Vic Theatre, 23rd June 2018

I might have told this story before. My memory is failing. A few years ago the SO, BD and LD went to see Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Terrific film and terrific musical. Made more terrific by the presence of Ben Wishaw and Andrew Scott in the audience just in front of us. Topping that LD got a pic of herself with them at the interval thanks to the SO’s no-nonsense lack of star-struckedness. Made our days though I was too scared to talk to them. If I had it might have gone … “I hope your Hamlet Mr Scott is as good as yours Mr Wishaw” or some equally bone-headed guff.

Anyway it turns out that Mr Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida was even better than Mr Wishaw’s. Some achievement that. Don’t listen to those who say his style was too “conversational” or that he dumb-downed the verse for the hoi-polloi, (aided and abetted by some suspiciously “European auteur” style direction from Robert Icke). Those are the sort of snobs who would keep you all from the exquisite joy that is Shakespeare and have you all bored rigid for four hours with men in doublets and tights at the Globe.

Sea Wall was written especially for Mr Scott by Simon Stephens, who, on his day, is as fine a dramatist as any alive today. It is apparently the favourite of his play. It was commissioned by Josie Rourke in 2008 when she was AD at the Bush and has subsequently popped up in Edinburgh, Dublin and at the NT under the auspices of Paines Plough and the director here, George Perrin. It is only 30 minutes long, that was the brief, and Mr Stephens had only 3 weeks to write it. This left no time for fannying about so, after catching a glimpse of an incident whilst on holiday in France which forms the denouement of the monologue, he just got on with it. Which explains its immediacy and power I suspect.

At first there is just a hint that Mr Scott is showboating here as he breaks down the barrier between actor, character and text. Given the prices some of the audience will have paid, (not this skinflint), and the hype surrounding the play and his performance, there was a faint air of “so what” for the first few minutes. Then somewhere in the story the spell is cast so that by the end Mr Scott had, forgive the cliche, the entire packed Old Vic crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. The monologue, when perfectly realised as here, can be the most perfect form of theatre. It is just story telling after all and in this simple family tragedy Simon Stephens is able to squeeze in all of his favourite themes, science, faith, mortality, twists of fate, compassion, exploration, fatherhood, Chekhov, grief, the possibility of redemption, all in one perfectly tight bundle. Delivered by a man who, for all the world, looks like he is watching the story unfold alongside us, as observer and observed. Other actors have performed the part of Alex but at the end of the day this is Scott’s voice in the text.

There is a short film version and hopefully he will get to play it again. Meanwhile this family at least awaits his next move, TV, film or stage, with bated breath.

 

 

Cave at the Printworks review ****

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Cave

The Printworks, Surrey Quays, 23rd June 2018

Cave is the second collaboration between composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake. Their last work, Between Worlds, which took as its subject the Twin Towers on 9/11, was superb. It was an immensely moving and sensitive elegy which focussed on the last conversations with loved ones of just five victims trapped together on one floor watched over by a benign Shaman or spirit, superbly directed by Deborah Warner. The audience I saw it with was floored (even if a couple of jaded critics were a bit sniffy).

I have since heard a few of Ms Davies’s very fine works including the premiere of her Concerto for four horns, entitled Forest. She has a way of finding the right shape, sound or phrase to match the intent and mood of her music, without ever serving up the obvious or banal. There is a rhythmic underpinning which I think reflects her familiarity with popular music genres, especially funk and post-rock. Her music can be muscular, industrial if you will, but, equally, she is capable of great lyricism. In more recent commissions she has been afforded the opportunity to work at a larger scale, but there is still a chamber like intimacy to her work, even when it is belting out in full on forte. In short she has the gift, and, even if contemporary classical music isn’t your bag, in fact maybe especially if contemporary classical music isn’t you bag, I defy you not to hear it.

She is also pretty keen on conveying a message in her music. As is librettist Nick Drake. Cave is set in a world disfigured by ecological catastrophe. A man (Mark Padmore) stumbles into a cave. He probably nibbles on some crazy mushrooms. He remembers his daughter Hannah, played and sung by Elaine Mitchener, and, when young, played by Akilah Mantock at my performance. Her spirits fills the cave. That is pretty much the long and the short of it. There are seven scenes in total beginning with the entry of the audience into The Lost River which runs through the cave.

The Printworks in Surrey Quays used to be where the Evening Standard was printed in the pre-digital era. It is a cavernous industrial space, as I discovered on my pre-prandial hike to the loo just ahead of the opening of the opera, which plays host to a variety of events, united in there “alternative” vibe. Perfect for this work. The audience was lined up along both sides of a very narrow, very long space in Mike Britton’s set, covered with, I think, wood bark. and with the seven members of the London Sinfonietta at one end and vast plastic hanging “doors” at the other. It was largely left to the marvellous lighting of Jack Knowles, who despite looking about 5 years old, has a massively impressive list of credits behind him, to conjure up the required magic, along with a sound design from, usual culprits, Sound Intermedia, as well as the electronics of Tansy Davies and Rolf Wallin.

Even with the principals moving up and down the space there were times when the “action” was a bit “laterally compromised”, especially for those of us pig-headed enough to go right along to the end where the ensemble was positioned. On the other hand this perch did afford a perfect insight into all the moving parts of the score, and, at one key point, the vocal pyrotechnics of Elaine Mitchener. She is not your opera mezzo diva. Thank goodness. Usually to be found in repertoire which is even more boundary-pushing than this, she has an extraordinary range of expression. I was spell-bound. For those of us who are regular listeners to Bach, Britten and Baroque, Mark Padmore needs no introduction at all. Here his singing was predictably exquisite. He also put in an acting shift as the Man plagued by his memories and a world that has literally fallen apart around him. I also suspect this won’t be the last I see of the precocious ten year old Akilah Mantock – no fear at all in what must have seemed a slightly odd role when she went to the audition.

Mr Drake’s other job is a poet. No kidding. The second scene, the Echoes, starts out with the Man hearing Hannah’s voice before he goes into an astonishing quasi aria describing his journey into the cave. This is when we see the connection that Ms Davies and Mr Drake intended to make to some of the very first human impacts on the earth. Apparently they went for a trip to have a peek at cave paintings in Niaux in the Pyrenees, which proved a crucial inspiration. I am not surprised, this is where art and nature recognisably first collided.

Scene three, the Cave of Birds, has the Man describing the onset of ecological catastrophe, and some sort of vision, scene four, The Mirror Cracks, is a “rave of agony” as the Man recalls losing Hannah, who “responds” by singing the last part of his “song” backwards. The Tree of Shadows starts with the Man and Hannah remembering a past holiday and then Hannah going a bit preachy as she describes how she wants to save the world from the havoc wrought by the generations which preceded her. A powerful instrumental interlude (with electronics I think) follows, The Storm, which then gives way to a lullaby shared by the two principals which shows off their superb singing. The final scene The River sees the man leaving the cave, presumably to die, but probably healed.

This is an epic myth, or more exactly a parable, and, in that, I was reminded of Britten’s Church Parables, which I don’t think were a direct inspiration, but, for me, have a similar vibe. The scoring is sparse, under the expert baton of Geoffrey Paterson, with most of the colour coming from the winds and brass, the clarinet/bass clarinet of Timothy Lines, contra bassoon of John Orford and horn of Michael Thompson, contrasted with the prominent harp of Helen Tunstall, set against a sort of continuo from Jonathan Morton’s violin and Enno Senft’s double bass. Elaine Mitchener gets to give a hefty whack to a drum at one point and, as I have said, electronics and some other sound effects (plenty of echo) play a major part. Overall you have no difficulty in musically distinguishing the scenes, there are some breathtaking sounds here and no little drama. I was not entirely convinced about the articulation between music, words and message but that probably says more about my pessimism than the creative talent on show here. It is certainly not the fault of director Lucy Bailey.

I don’t want to get more frightened of, and helpless about, the world around me as I get older, but it seems to be happening nonetheless. It certainly does feel like we humans are accelerating towards our inevitable extinction event despite the apparent gift of consciousness. Mother Earth will get over us I suppose. Anyway it is good that Tansy Davies and Nick Drake are not engulfed by this sort of negativity and prepared to make an ambitious stand of sorts in their art. It is also good that they are not cynical about all things “spiritual”. As this piece is sub-titled, courtesy of modern day environmental shaman and prodigious psychedelic drug-taker Terence McKenna, “Nature loves courage”.

At the end, Ms Davies was zipping by to thank the performers. I briefly thanked her. No doubt she thought I was a nutter so apologies but I felt compelled to offer up my appreciation. Thank you.

 

 

Zama film review ****

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Zama, 22nd June 2018

Now here is a work of imagination. Just what film is for. I suspect its languorous pace might not be to everyone’s taste but it delicately captures the sense of isolation and ennui that its hero, the eponymous Diego de Zama finds himself trapped in.

We are in Asuncion on the Paraguay River in the C18. Zama has been scantily rewarded with a position as a government magistrate in the service of the Spanish Empire after his exploits in battle, an americano born in present day Argentina, desperate to return to his family in Buenos Aries after many years away. His oft-promised transfer requires the imprimatur of the ministry in Madrid and that requires a letter from the Governor. Meanwhile Zama has to just get on with the unlovely business of life in a colonial outpost, flirting with the wives of the ruling elite, avoiding the temptations of the local prostitutes and drowning his sorrows in drink. Daniel Jimenez Cacho brings a palpable sexual frustration to Zama, alongside the barrenness of his emotional and intellectual landscape. You sense his despair at the hand that fate has dealt him and his own shame at the man he has become. The film opens with him spying on some indigenous women bathing in mud on the banks of the river. Not a good look.

The setting is magnificent. Interiors and exteriors look and feel totally authentic. Nature intrudes. The heat is oppressive. Cholera is endemic. Domesticated animals wander in and out of buildings. The colonisers and colonised are entwined. Indeed it turns out that Zama himself has a child with a local woman. The colonisers don’t have much to do here at the end of the world. Zama has a few cases to deal with, one of which exposes the ugly racism embedded in his office, and precipitates a scrap with his Spanish subordinate, who, much to Zama’s chagrin is “punished” by being sent away. A new, even less sympathetic Governor, replaces the incumbent when he returns to Spain and he takes over Zama’s quarters forcing him into a decrepit shack on the outskirts of the outpost. Early on Zama steps in, unconvincingly, to protect the honour of the local inn-keeper’s daughters, later on he fails to have an affair with the Governor’s wife.

Eventually Zama, deciding he has nothing to lose, throughs his lot in with a bunch of Quixotic bounty hunters who are tasked with tracking down a local bandit named Vicuna Porta, who may or may not exist. This, you won’t be surprised to learn, doesn’t end well.

Now if I was a betting man I would say that Zama is a walking metaphor for colonial guilt. He exists in a perpetual state of paralysed reverie. Someone is needed to represent the “civilising” force even as it becomes progressively less “civilised”, only able to bring “order” through terror and moving on once the economic exploitation is complete. Everyone on the ground is trapped in the hierarchical bureaucracy.

Familiar territory in some ways, novelists Achebe, Conrad, Forster, Orwell, Naipaul, Rushdie, even Kipling in his ham-fisted way, have been there, with film-makers like Coppola, Denis and Herzog following, and Fanon, Said, Rodney, and countless other academics, have examined the corrosive effects on coloniser and colonised and the profound impact on our world today. Indeed Zama itself is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, who was tortured and imprisoned by the junta in 1970s Argentina.

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martell  has served up a very worthy addition to this canon. This is her first feature for 10 years which probably explains why I had not heard of her but I will hunt out her previous films. Apparently some people think she went on a trip up the Amazon, Kurtz like, during her hiatus. If so she has put it to good effect in the visual language of Zama.

If you are of a patient disposition, keen on stories that might stretch you a little further than usual in terms of space and time, and enjoy cinema for how it looks as well as where it goes, then I recommend you give this a viewing if, and when, it pops up on your chosen streaming service. I was reminded of the films of Terence Malick as I watched it, which is mostly, though not exclusively, a good thing.

 

Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre review *****

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Red

Wyndham’s Theatre, 21st June 2018

The original production of John Logan’s play Red at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne passed me by. More fool me. So I was looking forward to catching this revival directed by Michael Grandage, (who directed the original), with Alfred Enoch now playing fictional assistant Ken alongside Alfred Molina once again as Mark Rothko. It went directly to Broadway after the Donmar, and has popped up over 30 locations since, but this was the first revival in the UK.

Red isn’t a complicated set up. Ken pitches up to “interview” for the job. Rothko takes a shine to him. Their relationship develops. It is really just a device to explore the nature of art and artists in general, as well as specific, terms. Rothko wasn’t a jolly chap by all accounts but he thought long and hard, perhaps a little too long and hard, about what he did. The play focusses on the months in 1959 when Rothko had taken on the commission to create a series of panels, like a Renaissance great, to hang in the restaurant of the Four Season hotel in the Seagram building in New York, a commission he eventually refused to complete.

I have been fortunate/unfortunate enough to eat a couple of times in the restaurant. It is a cathedral to late C20 neo-liberal capitalism. It doesn’t need any paintings. It is certainly not a place for quiet contemplation. Apparently Rothko was partly inspired by the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a visit to Europe in 1959, another “f*ck you” little people, we’re the elite” OTT mausoleum. Apparently on an earlier trip in 1950 he was bowled over by Fra Angelico’s supreme frescoes at San Marco. I know which I prefer.

The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator, Christopher Oram, complemented by the masterly lighting of Neil Austin, is a triumph. It imagines the studio in the Bowery where Rothko created the Seagram murals with representations of some of the 40 or so canvases/studies that Rothko created, three different series, in dark reds and browns, to meet the commission. We are afforded an insight into Rothko’s materials and (secret) process; in one marvellous scene we see real physicality as Molina and Enoch prepare a canvas with a wash. The activity provides a counterfoil to the initially one-sided, but increasingly argumentative, as Ken’s confidence grows, dialogue examining Rothko’s own frustrations with the Seagram commission itself and with the reaction of society to his own art.

Rothko was born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in 1903 in Latvia of Russian-jewish descent and came to America with his family in 1913. His father died shortly afterwards and Rothko questioned his religion. He was brought up in Portland, Oregon and initially set out to be a union organiser given his strong socialist beliefs. Fiercely intelligent, he gained a scholarship to Yale but dropped out, moved to New York and became an artist and enrolled at a design school where he was taught by Arshile Gorky and Max Weber. Initially he was influenced by German Expressionism, turning out some well regarded early work, though needing to teach at the Brooklyn Jewish to supplement his income. In the early 1930’s he entered a circle of artists, (including Alfred Gottlieb and Barnett Newman), who surrounded Milton Avery and took trips to paint in Massachusetts. In 1934 he had his first solo show which revealed his skill with deep colour, founded a movement called The Ten, exhibited in Paris and New York and worked with the Works Progress Administration alongside the likes of Pollock and de Kooning.

Rothko’s singular way with colour was emerging in his figurative work but he also experimented with surrealism and paintings drawn from mythology. The influence of Europe was still strong even as the modernists in the US took aim against the specifically “American” art of the inter war years.  He separated from wife Edith for a short period in 1937 and took up US citizenship in 1938 and changed his name, fearing the wave of anti semitism might lead to deportation.

Rothko’s tireless search for an intellectual, cultural and philosophical framework for his art eventually led him to that other tormented soul Nietzsche, notably the Birth of Tragedy, which spurred a series of works drawn from Classical and Judaeo-Christian mythology. Following a less than successful exhibition at Macy’s department store in 1942 Rothko penned the following which about sums up the direction he was about to take. “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

After separating from his wife again and a period of depression Rothko went to California and struck up a friendship with Clyfford Still who would become a clear influence on his work. I have a deep suspicion of much US Abstract Expressionism but Clyfford Still’s monumental slabs of bright colour, punctuated by jagged lines, and drawn from the landscape of his native North Dakota, are arresting and extremely beautiful. A return to New York, and another not entirely successful exhibition at the Guggenheim, saw Rothko move closer to pure abstraction which properly appeared from 1946 in the so called “multiform” paintings; blocks of colour devoid of human form, landscape or symbol. More essays, an obsession with Henri Matisse’s Red Studio and finally, in 1949, an exhibition of works which defined the Rothko style from there on in,  and now a cornerstone of modern Western art. The two or three blocks of complementary, coalescing, contrasting colours flickering and shifting with the light, though initially the tones were often quite bright; greens, blues alongside yellows and oranges.

Rothko’s popularity, and the value of his work, spiralled but he became increasingly protective of his art, and one might argue, overly grandiose in his claims for it. He asked viewers to examine the works from up close to intensify the “spiritual experience”. The colours got darker maybe mirroring the increasing darkness in the artist’s own pysche Cliche or not Rothko certainly walked the talk of the tortured artist, as did Pollock in his own way. His politics left him uneasy with the trappings of commercial success (Fortune magazine singled out his work for “investment), though he still reportedly liked the money. He got lumped in with his Abstract Expressionist peers, much to his chagrin, fell out with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, who accused him of being a sell out, went through loads of assistants and became a father with second wife Mell. As his fame grew so did his alienation. Here was an artist who might have been happier to work in cloistered obscurity. Or would he?

That is were Red the play picks up the story. Now if I tell you that vast swathes of the potted bio above are referenced in the play, largely by Rothko himself, you will probably realise that you are in for a bit of a lecture here. However, by having Rothko pour it all out to Ken, himself an aspiring artist, though he never plucks up the courage to show his work to Rothko, it doesn’t feel ponderously didactic. It probably helps if you have a rough idea of what Rothko was about, and a smattering of art history, but it is by no means essential. the play stands as terrific entertainment even without that.

Which frankly in large part is down to Alfred Molina’s amazing performance. He just is Mark Rothko. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have no idea what Mr Rothko was like but, thanks to the illusion of theatre, I, and I would be willing to guess all the audiences that have seen this, believe that this is Rothko. Which means all of the references to his own life and art, to the history of art and to the relationship between art, society and economy, fall naturally out of the discussions with Ken. Above all you accept that MR didn’t go in for small talk, (which reminds me there is no little humour on show to leaven proceedings), and, for all his intellectual certainty there was something something lacking emotionally. in the man. An intellectual prize fighter, spoiling for a fight, but desperate for attention. Apollo and Dionysius. Which explains why he lets Ken stick around for a bit.

Rothko went on to even greater fame after pulling the plug on the Seagram murals, (some of which now hang in the special room at the centre of Tate Modern). Other mural projects followed culminating in the slightly preposterous conceit of the Rothko Chapel in Texas. However he was overtaken by Pop Art in the 1960’s, a movement he despised, but which is, in the play, championed by Ken.

A heart condition, fags, booze, bad diet, separation from second wife, smaller paintings and a Marat style suicide and an argument over his estate. There is probably another play here. 836 paintings, spread around public and private collections, including in his Latvian birthplace, books, posters, postcards, snapchats, there are few artists whose work is so well known. I always want to sneer and walk away whenever I see a late Rothko, (I haven’t seen enough of his earlier incarnations to make a judgment), but I never can. They cast a spell and, cliche alert again, invite contemplation. Such is the power of colour, paint, form and tone and Rothko’s special technique.

The play lasts just 90 minutes yet the Wyndham’s and MGC folk are asking you to shelve out full West End prices. Is this good value? I’ll leave you to decide but it is a superb play and better than most anything else in the West End right now. A Russian oligarch paid near US$ 200m for a 1951 Rothko painting a few years back. Presumably he thought he got value for money. Mind you he is the same fellow he recently sold the ropey Leonardo for US$ 450m and appears to have been conned by his dealer. Look him up. Quite a character.

The Flight of the Conchords at the O2 Arena review ****

flight_of_the_conchords

The Flight of the Conchords

The O2 Arena, 20th June 2018

Father and Son
Deana and Ian
The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)
Inner City Pressure
Bowie
Chips and Dips
Albi The Racist Dragon
1353 (Woo a Lady)
The Ballad of Stana
Bus Driver’s Song
Mutha’uckas / Hurt Feelings
The Seagull
Back on the Road
Carol Brown
Shady Rachel
Robots

Dairy products, meat, wood, locations for hobbits and rugby teams. New Zealand’s most valuable exports? Nope. The Flight of the Conchords, surely. Only joking. New Zealand has an extraordinarily rich cultural life from what I can see and landscapes of immense beauty, Sadly I suspect I will never get there.

So for the moment I will have to be content with Bret and Jermaine. Originally we intended to go en famille. BD’s loss, (poncing around at some uni bash), was MS’s gain. LD might not quite have the compulsion of the rest of us but has had enough exposure to the classic tunes to mean that it was pretty easy for her to get into the swing of the evening.

Over the last few years I have been constantly surprised by how few of my friends and acquaintances have caught the Conchords bug and, indeed, how many have never even heard of the boys. Clearly though filling this many large venues, (and the pre-tour at the Soho Theatre), even after the accident to Bret’s hand, suggests there are plenty of fans 10 years after the original HBO show and 15 years after storming the Edinburgh Fringe.

No need to preach to the converted then. You were probably there. On the night we went the boys took their time coming on, and by virtue of my miserliness, and a big of bad luck on the open for the original dates, we were about as far away as it was possible to be in the O2 which, as everyone knows, is A VERY BAD IDEA. But I figured we’d be so happy anyway that it wouldn’t matter too much if we relied on the screen to see the boys.

Of course they were brilliant (including Nigel on cello aka the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). Of course the banter, less knowing and much looser than of old, was hilarious. Of course the classics were a joy even when they ballsed them up (deliberately?). But the best thing about the whole evening were the new songs. Especially the meta The Seagull, piano ballad Father and Son, country rock The Ballad of Stana and the hilarious madrigal 1353 (Woo A Lady). The reviews let us know what was coming but a song that might have been written especially for MS was the highlight of our evening.

There is not much point going on. If you don’t know “the fourth most popular folk parody duo in New Zealand”, or if you’ve had a look and don’t get it, then no matter. Your loss. For some of us this is still about as funny as funny gets.