Richard III at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Richard III

Arcola Theatre, 10th June 2017

I have had a surfeit of Dickie IIIs over the last few years. Mind you I am not complaining.

Mark Rylance on his return to the Globe found a vulnerable, despairing Richard who didn’t seem to care about his actions. Ralph Fiennes was a ruthlessly efficient c**t which left next to no room for audience complicity. Lars Erdinger was the narcissistic showman, even in the buff, in the Schaubuhne Berlin production at the Barbican. Benedict Cumberbatch, in the Hollow Crown II version (just get this on DVD if you “don’t like Shakespeare” and then change your mind), upped the comedy quotient which I enjoyed but was ingratiating for others. Robert Sheehan (the pretty boy off the telly’s Misfits) was one of the best things in Trevor Nunn’s marathon, “proper Shakespeare” War of the Roses at the Rose Kingston (yep all in one day for me) with his youth offering up a more bolshie Dickie. Best of all was Hans Kesting in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War. Like the War of the Roses this had the advantage of providing the back-story for Richard’s tale that the standalone productions don’t have, which ensures the other characters are in the flow of the action from the off. Kesting, with his tight fitting suit and birthmark but with no limp or withered arm, created a Richard with physical presence and superior intelligence who is able to bully all those around him. His actions almost seem reasonable such was his charisma making the final “I am a villain” monologue, when his loneliness is laid bare, here delivered to a mirror, even more disturbing.

I have to say though that Greg Hicks, in this Arcola production directed by its inestimable head honcho Mehmet Ergen, tops the lot. This is because he captured all of the facets of what it is to be a Richard III in my view. Now remember this is a piece of Tudor propaganda as filtered through Will S’s imagination so no need to get too hung up on the “reality” of the body count or the misogyny. A bloody route to kingship was par for the English course through most of history. What matters is how the performance and production seeks to balance the contradiction between the audience’s repulsion and attraction to our leading man and the dialectic between the thirst for power and the self loathing that torments him. The best plays obviously feast on contradiction and big Will serves these up in spadefuls in this play.

Greg Hicks was not setting out to play the joker here, though the delivery of some of the classic asides to audience served that purpose. His crystal clear delivery of the lines, together with changes of tone and phrasing, and the masterful use of pauses, revealed intent in ways that had not been clear to me before, notably in the “group’ scenes with Rivers, Hastings and Stanley. His constant movement of face and body (with leg permanently chained to arm) and habit of getting right in the face of the other characters emphasised the desire to twist events to his advantage. This was a Richard in a hurry. The crown was the payback for the hate meted out to him in the past. The unhidden misogyny and careless manipulation was simply the means to this end. Not “pure evil”, not a charming pantomime villain, not solely motivated by self hate and a desire to avenge, self-aware but still consumed by the deception of rightful inheritance. This is when an intervention by a trained psychotherapist in childhood might had saved a whole lot of bother later on.

The compact Arcola space with its steepish seating, the sparse staging and costumes, sympathetic staging and lighting, all served to focus attention on the actors. The support from this medium sized cast (there was a bit of doubling) was admirable, particularly Paul Kemp as Clarence/Stanley, Sara Powell (so good in the recent The Plague on this very stage) as Elizabeth and Matthew Sim as a full-on psycho henchman Catesby, but matching Mr Hicks proved a big ask.

We know Greg Hicks is an outstanding Shakespearian actor having been and done it with the RSC and NT and I hope there are many more to come. But I would love to see him revisit some Pinter, create a hard-arsed Volpone or have the lead role in a future Martin McDonagh play.  For the moment though I have this performance to savour.

Robots at the Science Museum review *****

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Robots

Science Museum, 7th June 2017

The Robots exhibition at the Science Museum is now around half way into its run (ends 3rd September) and with school holidays done and dusted I figured it was safe to take the plunge and have a look. Mid afternoon slot and near empty when I went in.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like children. I have three of them in my collection and over the years they have provided me with hours of, albeit expensive, entertainment. There was even a time when this exhibition might have been, with appropriate concessions granted after intense negotiation, a candidate for a “family trip out”. But time marches on so now I am flying solo with this sort of thing. 

Anyway an opportunity to have a good nose around. I had high hopes. The Cosmonauts exhibition from a couple of years ago at the Science Museum was a triumph. The exhibition certainly starts with a flourish with a collection of Medieval and Early Modern automata and other beautifully constructed machines. I would have been happy just with these though I suspect they may not be exactly what the average punter has in mind when it comes to robots. These pieces are, understandably, in vitrines, and the atmospheric lighting veers towards the murky, but they are beguiling.

If I am honest the next section is a bit half hearted. I guess it would have been possible to assemble a few crackerjack machines from the golden age of the industrial revolution across the West in C19, but, again, this might not have sat neatly with the exhibition offer. What followed this was also a little underwhelming, a collection of classic “science fiction” style toy robots from the mid C20 with accompanying imagery, and some full size early humanoid-like robots. You know the score. Knocked up by earnest blokes with beards in sheds using whatever materials they had lying around. Ingenious.

It is though the final couple of sections that really sends the head spinning. There are demonstrations of the key current areas of focus for roboticists through some well chosen exhibits accompanied by short explanatory videos from the top boffins in each field. And then we see, and in a couple of cases, get to play with, some of the most advanced commercial robots from the last decade. I defy anyone not to be swept along by the possibilities that are opening up. The curators though also diligently explore some of the wider issues that will arise from a world where robots become more widespread.

So all up if you have any curiosity at all about this subject, and you probably should, then get along if you haven’t already. Kids of all ages welcome. Despite my curmudgeonly comments above.

Killology at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

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Killology

Royal Court Theatre, 8th June 2017

There are a few plays every year where I kick myself that I missed them. Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Stott from 2015 was definitely one of them. So I was determined to see Killology (pre-reviews) even though I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the Royal Court blurb. I shouldn’t have worried, there was way more to this play than this teaser implied. If I was a brighter boy I probably also would have conducted a rudimentary search of the title for this would have led me to the inspiration for Mr Owen’s play Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who research is referenced in the text.

Killology deals with male failure and violence, notions of responsibility and the troubled relationships of son to father and father to son. It is not an easy watch. Through a series of pacey, interlocking, non-linear monologues, it tracks the stories of three men, Alan, his son Davey and Paul, whose own unseen father also looms large. Alan has left Davey to the care of his mother. Davey is bullied, and with no viable alternative he takes revenge on his tormentors, but, in turn, the bullies take revenge on him. This act of torture is animated by a shooter video-game. Killology. Alan in parallel takes revenge on Paul, who is the creator of the game. Paul describes the pain and anger that has damaged him, and skewed his own morality, because his own unseen scornful father only sees his failings.

There are a few convenient leaps in these narratives, but these devices are easily forgiven as they get to the core of the humiliations that fuel the violent reactions. There is no proselytising from Mr Owen, no glib answers and no simple resolutions even if he does explore the possibility of good in one of the apparent narratives. Monologues are, of course, brilliant story telling vehicles as they make us, the audience, create detailed pictures in the theatre of our minds (sorry for the unquestioning dualism here – just run with it). Yet sometimes this means the emotional power is compromised. Not here. This really packs a visceral punch.

Rachel O’Riordan (the artistic director of the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff) directs the work with flexed efficiency amplified by the set of Gary McCann and the sound world of Sam Jones. An awful lot is asked of all three actors but they respond magnificently. Sean Gleeson captures the sense of Alan as a broken man with no hope of redemption. Richard Mylan turns Paul into a repellent nihilist but still invokes our compassion as we learn what shaped him. And Sion Daniel Young as Davey simply astonishes.

Mahan Esfahani at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Mahan Esfahani

Wigmore Hall, 5th June 2017

  • Thomas Tomkins – Pavane in A Minor
  • Giles Farnaby – Woody-Cock
  • Henry Cowell – Set of Four
  • WF Bach – Sonata E Flat Major
  • Steve Reich (arr Esfahani) – Piano Phase

The harpsichord is certainly not my favourite instrument. (Electric guitar since you ask). More than happy listening to it tinkling away as continuo in the best of Baroque but less persuaded of its solo virtues. Yet in the spirit of adventure, with an appealing programme and with Mr Esfahani’s reputation as one of the best in the harpsichord business, this was worth a shot. (For those that don’t know £15 for these lunchtime recitals at the best chamber music venue in the world is a bargain so, if you work locally, get in).

Now a cursory glance at previous posts will show that I am a sucker for liking most of what I see. I like to think this is because I have a eye for the best that the London cultural world has to offer (within the self-imposed boundaries I have set). However, I know that the reality is somewhat different. I am simply far too polite to offend and anyway I am enjoy reminding myself just how discerning I am in my solitary little echo chamber. So you would be wise to ignore everything I say.

In this case though I took a bit of a punt on something and I was genuinely bowled over. I didn’t know it was possible to hear a harpsichord make these kinds of sounds. The two early pieces from Tomkins and Farnaby show, in astounding fashion, just what the bewigged musicians of the Jacobean and Tudor period where up to following the example set by the master William Byrd. Woody-Cock (no sniggering at the back please), the piece by Giles Farnaby, takes a simple Scottish folk tune and turns into a dazzling display of keyboard virtuosity –  the woodcock being a dowdy nondescript little brown fellow until he starts displaying when he turns into the Nureyev of the air. Anyway it was a real lesson in what the harpsichord can do.

As was the piece by Henry Cowell. The programme notes tell me that Mr Cowell set out to marry the musical structures of the Baroque golden age of the harpsichord with the tonal language of composition in the 1960s, and with more than a nod to the then voguish fascination with the gamelan and Balinese music. It was certainly fascinating with a wide range of colours that I had not thought possible on the harpsichord. Not sure if I would seek it out again but I am glad to have been given the opportunity to hear it. The WF Bach took us back to more familiar ground although this era, the galant, the bridge between Baroque and Classical, when all was lightness of touch, can still sometimes come across as a bit frou-frou. Not here to be fair as there was still enough of the Baroque rhythmic backbone and a few darker touches in the piece.

Finally Mr Esfahani took on Steve Reich’s piano phase which he has arranged for harpsichord. So on with the headphones and the tape machine, and off with the jacket, leaving him looking like the least cool DJ on the planet. As he himself freely admits this piece pulls in a new audience to hear the harpsichord – including me. My musical education has come on in leaps and bounds but this still was the main draw for me. The harpsichord creates avery different sound-world when compared to the piano. The slight delay of the tape recording, which is the signature of Reich’s technique, created sonorities which were closer to Reich’s percussive pieces that the piano version. It certainly seemed to forge a more repetitive structure than the versions I am more familiar with.

Overall then this was an excellent journey through the possibilities that are offered by the harpsichord and I will certainly look out for Mr Esfahani’s next visit to London.

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades

Barbican Hall, 6th June 2017

  • Gerard Barry – Chevaux-de-frise
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major. Op 55 “Eroica”

That Beethoven eh. Too busy being a genius to get a decent haircut. Another reason why he is my sort of bloke.

I have raved about the other two concerts in this cycle, Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review ***** and Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall ***** so I suspect you won’t be too surprised if I do the same again here. Whilst I am not sure I would want my Eroica to always sound this way it was, as with the performances of Symphonies 1 and 2, an exhilarating restatement of this mighty work.

First though the Gerard Barry piece that Thomas Ades chose to pair with it. Apparently this got a kicking when it premiered at the Proms in 1988. I don’t know why. Yes it is loud, sometimes excruciatingly so, but it is hardly difficult. It was inspired by the destruction of the C16 Spanish Armada off the west coast of Barry’s native Ireland. and the title refers to those pointy wooden array of fixed spears that were used on battlefields to defend against cavalry attacks. You educated types will also know that it refers to a spiky piece of prose deliberately inserted by an author to unsettle you.

So Mr Barry didn’t hide his intentions. The piece begins and continues with a wall of sound from strings, then brass and woodwinds and then the whole shebang, and pretty much continues in this vein for most of the first ten minutes. There are then some “softer” interludes and a glockenspiel (I think) chimes in which offers the only percussive influence (thus making the noise-fest more interesting I think). The chords are comprised largely of crotchets and quavers, the score is marked “spikily” or “brutally” and the effect is of pounding dissonant rhythms. I loved it and I suspect that anyone who has been near any form of “loud” rock music from any genre would feel the same way.

Having located the inner Napalm Death in the Britten Sinfonia Mr Ades seemed keen to channel this into the Beethoven symphony. From the off we were treated to fast tempi which is my preferred default setting (one of my favoured Beethoven cycle recordings is John Eliot Gardiner’s with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique which will hearld a few sniggers from classical buffs). Minimal vibrato and a clear, brilliant sound really pumped up the score which, as any fool knows, is a work of unparalleled genius. (I know the “great male genius” narrative of artistic endeavour is bullsh*t but Beethoven just was, so yah boo sucks to you).

It was just really exciting though in places it did threaten to career out of control. Yet the detail of the phrasing and the dynamic breadth more than compensated. This will sound cliched but it really did feel like the whole score had been given a thorough cleansing, like a restored old master.

I cannot recommend this cycle highly enough based on the three symphonies so far. Thomas Ades and the Britten Sinfonia will be back in May next year to take on 4. 5 and 6. Please go along. If you have never been to a classical concert and don’t think it is for you make this your debut. Get a decent recording of these pieces, shove them on your IPhone, wait for the movements to shuffle through a few times to get to know the tunes, then take the time to listen to the whole thing one evening (phone off). This will mean you are tooled up for the real thing come next May. Then sit back and wait for your socks to be blown off.

The Island at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Island

Southwark Playhouse, 5th June 2017

The Island was written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, whose other major work is Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and first performed, illegally, by the writers to an integrated audience in Cape Town in 1973. It was devised and rehearsed in secret under the threat of government censorship, when even discussion of the conditions in the infamous prison on Robben Island was prohibited. It takes inspiration from a performance of Antigone in 1970 on Robben Island by a group of inmates including Nelson Mandela as Creon.

For these reasons alone you should see this play. For those under 40 (and there were a number at this performance – good on them) I assume that the reality of apartheid is hard to grasp. This play, and the spirited performances delivered by Edward Dede and Mark Springer under the direction of John Terry (of Chipping Norton not Chelsea), is a shocking indictment of this regime, but also a universal reminder of how the state can still repress today. The two actors play John and Winston, who are cell mates on Robben Island, and who are planning to stage their own version of the trial scene from Antigone. It skilfully charts, through reminisces, their three years of shared captivity, their families beyond the prison, the reasons for their incarceration, and the intense friendship, indeed brotherhood, which keeps them defiant despite the injustice they are suffering.

The play opens with fifteen minutes of wordless, and prop-less, acting out of the pointless and back breaking work they are compelled to undertake – shifting sand to each other. They are then forced to run whilst shackled together whilst being beaten. It is uncomfortable to watch – that is the intention – and leaves you to ruminate over why this would ever be done to someone. The two actors make this imaginary pain feel very real. If you are getting fidgety after fifteen minutes of acting try 27 years locked up in this place it seems to say.

Thereafter there are few conscious reminders of their captivity – no guards (the unseen Hodoshe represents their captors and the whole apartheid machinery) or any other characters, and a near completely bare stage. The play instead focuses on what they do for, and say to, each other to keep their spirits strong and cling to the ideals of freedom. The dynamic shifts when John is told his appeal has been successful and will be released. The last part of the play sees the enactment of the scene from Antigone, where Antigone accepts her fate because she has done the right thing and thereby unmasks Creon as a tyrant hiding behind the law, and this is where the real power of the play is unlocked. What was true in Sophocles’s age was true in racist South Africa and is still true today.

Anyway go and see it. If it you find it a bit dour or hard work it might just remind you how free you are. And maybe make you think about the redemptive power of the theatre. And how the bastards in this world will always lose out in the end. And that surely is a good thing.

Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery review ***

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Vanessa Bell 1879-1941

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 3rd June 2017

Sun shining. Dulwich Park at play. Bit of a picnic then off to the Vanessa Bell retrospective with SO, BUD and KCK. This is London. It won’t go away.

Dulwich PG does a fine job in bringing together thoughtfully curated exhibitions of the non-blockbuster names in a concentrated way. Nothing to frighten the horses but not too stuffy either. And the location is always worth the journey. In the last couple of years I have enjoyed exploring the work of artists as diverse as Nikolai Astrup with his bold Norwegian landscapes, the under-appreciated Winifred Knights, Eric Ravilious with his exacting eye and best of all MC Escher with his unique prints (so good I saw it again in the Hague). There have been some disappointments: the Adriaen van de Velde was the final proof that I just don’t get on with Golden Age Dutch landscapes.

This, broadly, was a success. I am not utterly convinced that the talents of the leading lights of the Bloomsbury Group were as considerable as they might have imagined. Their louche lifestyles (Bell was married to critic Clive Bell, was sister to Virginia Woolf, and had affairs with artists Roger Fry and Clive’s lover Duncan Grant) and absence of home-grown competition, might have secured them a more elevated place in British cultural history than is warranted. I am probably wrong on Virginia Woolf, the SO is the expert here, though interesting to note that Woolf herself envied her sister’s talent with paint, and certainly wrong on John Maynard Keynes, who applied his massive intellect, with self-evident success, to the world of Mammon rather than the Muses. I know it is a class warrior cliche to have a pop at this lot but generally I am not sure much of the painting that come out of the key BG figures was actually up to much.

Vanessa Bell though represents the best of the rum bunch however. This exhibition, apparently the first retrospective of this scale which surprises me, does highlight though that she never seemed to shake off the influences of her Continental peers, notably all those post-Impressionists. There are traces of German Expression here, a bit of van Gogh there, some Cezanne in the landscapes, Monet haystacks, Matisse dancers, some abstract experiments, a still life that is a dead ringer for her teacher Sargeant’s style. After a while however her voice does emerge and the whole does turn out to be more satisfying than the sum of the parts. The paint is tenderly applied and the colours, which are undeniably muddy throughout, do start to push out. The subjects, whether it be her toff mates, the lovely landscapes and houses she was fortunate enough to frequent, or the well composed still lifes, are undeniably attractive even if they don’t say much beyond that to me. I just can’t see the radical painter that others identify.

So all in all a very pleasant experience. I mean that in both a good way and a not so good way. This is the document of a privileged life seen through the art of a privileged woman. They are very pretty pictures but nothing that offered any new perspectives for me. Definitely worth viewing but only as a complement to other more challenging contemporaneous artistic output.