Against at the Almeida Theatre review ****



Almeida Theatre, 9th September 2017

The more plays I see the more I realise there are many ways to build a work of theatrical drama. You can build the foundations on language and the space around it, You can create powerful, memorable, immediate characters. You can construct a plot of more or less complexity to draw the audience into the narrative. Or you can explore ideas, from the individual mind all the way through to the global. And you can do all of this in a more, or less, naturalistic way. The joy of theatre is that all is possible and that it is a shared and ever changing experience. Which means when it works, (which is not as often as you might think), it knocks all other art forms into the proverbial cocked hat.

Some playwrights (and the directors, actors and the rest of the team that bring these works to life) take these elements, in various combinations, and give them a thorough, muscular work-out. Some are more subtle however. On the basis of Against, as this is the only one of his plays I have seen, Christopher Shinn is one of the latter. In fact he is at the extreme of dramatic subtlety. This is I suspect a very difficult trick to pull off, but in this play I think he largely succeeds.

Luke is a techhie billionaire in Silicon Valley with fingers in rocket science, solar energy and AI pies. Following a “message” from “God” he decides to explore the causes and meaning of violence in contemporary America. His devoted assistant, Sheila, joins him on the journey. He travels across the country visiting the parents of a student who murdered his peers in a shooting spree, the college where this took place, a campus plagued by sexual violence, a prison where he meets the father of a horribly abused child, some remarkably eloquent addicts and an Amazonian type warehouse (as in Amazon the company not the women of legend) owned by a fellow billionaire type. He returns at one point to his childhood home and to mummy. We hear of Luke’s other exploits as his messianic search for knowledge builds into a cultish following. Simultaneously he falls in love with Sheila, and, on his journey of discovery, finds out stuff about himself and his fellow Americans. The relationship between two of the workers at the warehouse is also sketched out to reinforce the power of love.

Now the cynics amongst you are probably already rolling your eyes at the seeming naivety of this set-up. And I accept that Mr Shinn’s dialogue at times would only encourage you in this impression. There is a fair amount of faux philosophising from the characters and there are some surprising shifts in tone and position. I think this put off a number of the proper reviewers. Yet, slowly and surely, Mr Shinn breathes life into the characters and situations, and the gentle meandering rhythm of the drama gives us, the audience, plenty of time to reflect on what we are seeing and hearing. And this is what makes this a worthwhile play to my thinking.

In no particular order the play got me cogitating on the following. How would a powerful entrepreneur, who claimed to have been directed by a “God”, be received in contemporary society? Should Silicon Valley billionaires have such power? How can they influence society with their wealth and their control of digital media and networks? Is our belief in technology to overcome limitations on growth about to get a terminal shock or will we have further great leaps forward? Why is violence so prevalent in today’s society? Is it worse now than historically? Does the media scare us into an unwarranted fear of violence? Why is it always blokes that do bad stuff? Is violence an inherent part of the human condition? Will insights from neuroscience and social psychology help us? Do humans need conflict? How are violence and hate to be squared with our tendency to altruism and love? How do we “turn the other cheek”? Why do people get so angry about the behaviour and identity of others?

Now you might say to yourself, blimey there can’t have been much going on on the stage for the Tourist to drift off and start musing over all this stuff. On the contrary the light touch that Mr Shinn, and director Ian Rickson (who always ensures clarity, most recently in Edward Albee’s Goat), explicitly allowed these thoughts to float around as the scenes progressed. Answers to the questions were not really on offer, beyond a simplistic love trumping hate, but I am not sure that should be seen as a failing. It’s only a play after all. The conclusion, whilst not particularly original (a nod to Chekhov methinks), did sort of make sense in the context of what had gone on before.

Given the structure of the play and the loftiness of the ambition we did need an outstanding performance from our lead, and that is what we got. Man-child Ben Whishaw looks the saviour part and managed to carry off the strange mix of authority and guilessness that I think the character Luke was supposed to possess. He uses his twitching body as much as his voice to portray his inner struggles. There were times though, when even his willingness to suspend his disbelief stretched ours a little too far, but no matter, he is still a tremendous stage actor. Amanda Hale as the partner on the journey had a little less to play with but struck exactly the right note. And the rest of the cast were able to invest the remaining characters with real identities in spite of, or perhaps because of, the somewhat didactic dialogue.

Best of all I didn’t have to make up my own mind about Against. For I was treated to the company of the Captain, who can sniff bullshit out at a range of a couple of miles. And there was enough here to engage the Captain’s mighty intellect. And that my friends is as high a recommendation as you need. Trust me.

PS. One final thing. As the play of ideas swirled round my head I was drawn to remembering a few books I had read which seemed to mark out similar territory to this play.. I don’t read much now, I don’t have the patience and in matters literary I defer to the SO who consumes fiction at demonic pace. But they popped into my head so here you are.

First up Messiah by Gore Vidal. This is more a satire on Christianity but this was the great man flexing his genius in the early 1950’s. For those who don’t know Gore Vidal – put this right. He might just be the greatest author of the second half of the C20.

Next up The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel or probably better still Scorsese’s film. Not an easy watch with its glacial pacing but a powerful piece of cinema. No idea why all the religious types get so wound up about it – I would have thought it captures the dilemmas Christian wrestle with to a tee.

Anyway I see I am getting a bit too zealous about the messianic theme in the play so final thought: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  Now I confess I only just about getting to grips with this but it seems to squarely take on some of the issues that Mr Shinn’s play is grappling with. And it is a text that straddles the academic world (BD is knee deep in it for her degree) and the “popular science” market And I see that is was endorsed by none other than Messrs Gates and Zuckerberg, which seems sweetly ironic in the context of this play.


London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall review ****


London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Alina Ibragimova (violin)

Prom 71, Royal Albert Hall, 6th September 2017

  • Igor Stravinsky – Funeral Song,
  • Igor Stravinsky – Song of the Volga Boatmen,
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Violin Concert No 1 in D Major
  • Benjamin Britten – Russian Funeral
  • Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No 11 in G Minor “the Year 1905”

What with one thing and another, but mostly my stupidity at missing the booking opening, I only made it to one RAH Prom this year and missed out on two or three that I really wanted to hear/see. Never mind BBC Radio 3 came to the rescue with their recordings. BTW I WILL PERSONALLY KICK SHIT OUT OF ANY POLITICIAN WHO HAS THE TEMERITY TO FUCK ABOUT WITH THE BBC. I can’t move quickly but I am a big lad so you don’t want to get in my way. Understood. Just joking. I think.

Moving swiftly on. The main reason for picking this Prom was the opportunity to hear the LPO with personal favourites Vladimir Jurowski (a man who seems to conduct with his shoulders and head as much as his hands and eyes, riveting from my choir perch), and the meticulous violinist Alina Ibragimova, having a crack at some hardcore C20 Russian repertoire. And specifically Shostakovich 11 which gets an outing now and then but not regularly enough to miss. Having said that I still can’t decide how much I like it.

Before the main event we had some early works from clever clogs Stravinsky. The score for Funeral Song, Op 5, was only recently rediscovered and is a memorial to teacher and mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. The latter’s influences are fairly clear, (we must thank N R-K for Stravinsky’s mastery of orchestral colours), but, for me,, the louder voice was Wagner, not a good thing to my ears. This was followed by Stravinsky’s arrangement of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which is a rousing, if very short, ditty which served as the original Russian anthem post 1917 Revolution.

I don’t know if I will ever “get” Prokofiev. I have heard some convincing performances of his works recently, the Quintet and Martha Argerich playing the Piano Concerto No 3 (mind you I reckon Martha could leave you open mouthed in admiration playing Happy Birthday on the spoons). And the piano sonatas I remember seeing performed have been interesting. But there may be too many ideas in the music for me. My ears and brain crave repetition and structure. There is enough rhythm in Prokofiev but there is a lot of flitting about. So I may not be up to it. Still I will keep trying. This Violin Concerto created the same confusion for me. Ms Ibragimova puts line and detail into her performances and really convinces. There were passages of real interest, even when it all got a bit too lyrical, and there were such clever twists and one blinding fast passage, but once again it was just too “bitty”. Sorry. Moreover, whilst I was close enough to hear the violin clearly even with my ropey ears, I suspect the gallery punters might have been working a bit harder.

In contrast to Prokofiev Britten is dead easy for me to understand. Russian Funeral is the only piece he wrote for brass band and it is an open, Mahlerian march bookending a disquieting scherzo. The march is taken from a Russian funeral song (which appears again in the DSCH symphony), hence the title, and the whole thing reflects Britten’s anti-war stance. I loved it.

Now the main event. It is a heck of a slab. An unbroken hour, four movements, slow, faster, slow, fastish. It is based on four revolutionary songs and takes the events of the failed 1905 uprising. The programme is pretty clear, The Palace Square in winter as the revolutionaries march to petition the Tsar. The fighting starts, the Imperial Guard opens fire and the assembly is brutally quashed. We then mourn the thousand dead and finally look forward to when the proletariat will succeed in throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. Now there are some absolutely belting tunes in all of this, but it is a long, drawn out affair. This is one of the DSCH symphonies that drifts towards the cinematic which is fine except we have no pictures for the eyes so the ears get a bit of an overload. And the contrast between the icy despairing chords of the Adagios and the martial drumming of the Allegro movements is a bit overwrought. As ever with DSCH you can sometimes have too much of a good thing.

Having said that it certainly clears out the passages and conjures up an epic vision of the struggle. There isn’t very much of the sardonic or sarcastic audible here, or if there is, it is well hidden, so I can see why this went down a treat with the big boys in the Party when it was served up in 1957 as part of the 40 year celebrations. DSCH did make a few veiled comments pointing to what wad happened in 1956 in Hungary but it didn’t leap out. But then the old chap never did give much away. From the perspective of the centenary of the Revolution though it does feel a bit odd especially when you know what DSCH delvers when he nails it. Can’t fault the playing though and Mr Jurowski wisely gave as much room as was needed to the expansive phrases. No point rushing this edifice as it isn’t going to make much of a difference. And when needed he and the band turned it up to 11, indeed right at the end when the bells come in, we were treated to a 12 on the Tufnel scale.

When all is said and done, and despite the shortcomings, No 11 is still an extraordinary wall of sound and the LPO nailed it. Thanks lads and lasses.




road at the Royal Court Theatre review ****



Royal Court Theatre, 7th September 2017

Another useless review as this revival of Jim Cartwright’s seminal debut play is about to end its run. But I would be pretty confident it will pop up again somewhere in the next few years. And that is because, as this production shows, despite it being set firmly in the mid 1980s, it is as relevant today as it was then.

The play is set on an unnamed road in an unspecified Lancashire town, largely, over one night. The vignettes are threaded together by our pukish narrator Scullery, here played by Lemn Sissay, of whom more later. We alternate between scenes of raucous comedy and tragic monologues (and most memorably an affecting duologue). The dignity of labour is in short supply in this part of the North, money is tight and hope crushed by circumstance. So most of the residents are focussed on living for today with lashings of booze and sex offering release. For some characters though the absence of money, of love, of friends fuels nostalgia, or worse, despair.

Now too often this set-up can turn into a theatrical misery fest. What makes this different is Jim Cartwright’s beautiful writing. It is a cliche but there is real warmth and poetry here. The words are so powerful that you feel you immediately know these characters despite there being no attempt to provide a before of after to their lives outside this night. He doesn’t need to bash you over the head with the message and never offers up caricatures or stereotypes. John Tiffany’s expert direction does not deny the irony of a bunch of well heeled punters in Sloane Square gawping at a bunch of actors playing those left behind in “Thatcher’s Britain”, but still allows the pathos to shine through. I haven’t the faintest idea how we reconcile the social, economic and cultural divide between the haves and haves nots in this country today but road remains a powerful document of that divide.

Chloe Lamford’s set is a model of effective economy, with a glass lightbox acting as a device to frame some of the key scenes/monologues and heighten the voyeurism. And John Tiffany, much like in his recent Glass Menagerie (The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****), with lighting designer, Lee Curran, takes the opportunity to plunge the backdrop into darkness at the crucial moments. I gather this makes for a very different (and shorter) experience to the original promenade version of the play but it facilitates absolute audience concentration. For an ageing post-punk type like me the soundtrack was also a joy – an ensemble routine set to the Fall’s Hit the North was the highlight. There is a parallel between the poetry of Mark E Smith (just to remind you the greatest songwriter of all time) and Jim Cartwright’s lines. I even tolerated Elbow as the backing to a surprisingly effective conclusion involving the whole cast.

And the cast were excellent. I have seen the TV version of the play with the mix of cast members from the original Royal Court productions and other acting luminaries and, for me, this troupe matched them (though as the play is so well written that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise). I think I have heard Lemn Sissay, the poet and broadcaster, on the radio but his performance here was terrific and I now see from his biography what an admirable man he is. Michelle Fairley shows just how powerful an actor she is as hilarious seductress Helen, and then again as the desperate, wheedling Brenda. I am so looking forward to her Cassius in the forthcoming Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre with Ben Whishaw, David Calder and David Morrissey – surely a winner. Mark Hadfield similarly shows, firstly, his comic timing as pissed lothario Brian and, secondly, his ability to invest imagery into Jerry’s nostalgic reminiscences. June Watson as lonely pensioner Molly nearly brought a tear to my eye, I kid you not. Mike Noble’s curious Skin-Lad is the one ostensibly violent character in the plan and his missive was delivered with real menace and mystery.. Faye Marsay as Clare, (hard to believe this was her stage debut), and Shane Zaza (watch this young man) as Joey, really hit home with the play’s most astonishing scene as the young couple who have literally given up on life. Liz White as Valerie delivered another affecting monologue lovingly bemoaning her workless, drink addled, pathetic husband. She also played Carol, who, along with Mike Noble now as Eddie, Faye Marsay now as Louise and Dan Parr as Brink, deliver the final, famous (at least to me), epiphanous scene with total conviction, helped of course by the voice of the master, Otis Redding.

So any way you look at it this was an excellent and worthy revival, of a masterly play on the stage where it premiered. I haven’t seen any of Mr Cartwright’s other plays, including Little Voice, either on the stage or TV, though not for want of trying. I hope I shall. And I highly recommend you find a way to see road. I suspect that, unfortunately, its power or concerns will not diminish through time.

Sargent Watercolours at Dulwich Picture Gallery review *****


Sargent: The Watercolours

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 5th September 2017

There have been some top drawer exhibitions already this year. The comprehensive survey of American painting in the 1930s at the Orangerie and Royal Academy, the joyous Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, the astonishing survey of Michael Andrews’s spray painted landscapes at the Gagosian, the journey through modern and contemporary US artists prints at the British Museum and the insight into Giacometti at Tate Modern. There have been others as well which would be equally worthy of a mention.

And there is more to look forward too at the end of the year, notably for me the survey of Monochrome works coming up at the National Gallery, the Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and the Jasper Johns survey at the Royal Academy.

Yet if I take total time spent in an exhibition and total joy derived (tricky to measure I accept) then this bunch of watercolours from the American sophisticate John Singer Sargent, might just beat them all. Though I am a sucker for watercolours – I had a fine time at the recent British Museum splurge of British watercolours – British Watercolour Landscapes at the British Museum review **** – and I would commend you to take in the Turner watercolours at the end of the Clore Gallery in the Tate – if I am honest they are my favourite of all the great man’s works.

Now this apparently is the first time in 100 years or so that we have been able to see a large scale assortment of Mr Sargent’s watercolours. There are a fair few dotted around the place in the UK but to see these eighty or so works together is reason enough to pop along to the Dulwich Picture Gallery if you haven’t already done so. (There is a month of so left of this exhibiton). And best of all the ratio of land- and city- scapes to portraits is skewed firmly in the favour of the former.

JSS made his name as a portrait painter, like his idol Velazquez, with the great and good nouveau riche at the turn of the C19, from the US and Europe, queueing up to offer their patronage. Whilst there is no doubt that having one of his large scale, full length, expressively bold, oil portraits towering over you is a sobering experience, it can get a bit overwhelming. The a la mode frocks and coats of the toffs are all terribly la-di-dah and he could never resist the urge to show off his skill in painting white fabrics. Everyone he painted looked so stylish, thin, pale, with hints of androgyny in the formality. And they pull you up in a gallery. Witness that Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in Tate Britain (trust me you have seen an image). Drop dead gorgeous.

But for me it is the watercolours, after he packed in the oil portraits, that is his best stuff. There are many reasons to like JSS, not least his fulsome tache and beard combo and his love of his grub, but the watercolours he painted in Venice top the lot. Now Venice is a popular choice for the artistically inclined, it being the most beautiful place on earth by some margin. And JSS chose to look at the small rather than the big picture here with his watercolours of views seen from the vantage point of a gondola; light, water, colour and architectural feature and texture perfectly captured. Detail not panorama. These are not classic compositions and in some cases the angles take a bit of adjusting to but this, I think, is the way everyone really captures this city in their eye and minds. He had me at the first fragments of Venice in the first room. There is something in the water – literally. I can’t ever recall the play of light on water captured so exactly.

Other cities and other landscapes are fully represented across the exhibition, as are figures and portraits in the final room (with some of his trademark elegant young ladies lolling about in white dresses).

have no idea how to paint in watercolours but to me these looked technically faultless. Big washes of colour, clear confident marks, never overworked, with the paper still present underneath to lend a stunning luminescence and real dynamism. The way he crops the compositions is fascinating. None of that wishy-washy, impression of a landscape, wide-skied, nonsense here. Our man just picked up the brush and “drew” with it. Just like that. 

These paintings generally weren’t commissioned or intended to be exhibited. They were largely painted for his own pleasure, as he jaunted round Europe, and it shows. Some might say they are too pretty, unthreatening, too clean, too urbane. I say poppycock. Take a closer look. Sometimes art doesn’t have to punch you in the face to work. It is OK to feel good.

The cutting edge of artistic endeavour has always been suspicious of JSS. He in turn wasn’t bowled over by the work of his contemporary Modernists. A peripatetic lifestyle, an emigre, siblings who didn’t make it to adulthood and a complex sexual identity. All this, in the minds of the criterati, should lead to dark, emotional stuff which doesn’t seem, on first viewing, seem to be there in his work. So what I say. There is substance here to marry with the style. 

I hasten you to get along to this exhibition. Take your teenage kids, your granny, your aunty or even a mate who professes to have no interest in painting. I promise you they will love this. That or your money back. If you can find me. Mind you I will probably go again so you just might.



Logan Lucky film review ****


Logan Lucky, 30th August

Every so often BD and myself settle down to take in one, two, or sometimes all three, of the Ocean’s films (not sure if that is grammatically correct). The pleasure lies in knowing exactly what is going to happen and in the happy feeling it brings on. So boo hoo me as BD will be off soon into the big wide world but I reckon we might still get a few more viewings on her intermittent returns.

And now we can add Logan Lucky to the stable. It is Steven Soderbergh directing again and once again it is an impossible heist movie that goes right (for the perpetrators), with a cracking twist and no real victims. What’s not to like. Well nothing as it turns out.

Now in contrast to the Ocean’s stable our heroes are not Flash Harrys (or whatever the US equivalent is) and we are a long way from glamorous Las Vegas. West Virginia to be exact complete with John Denver, NASCAR, roadside bar, country fair, beauty pageant, and penitentiary. Divorcee and single dad Jimmy (Channing Tatum sporting a subtle limp) is booted out of his job so turns to brother Clyde (Adam Driver doing the full on wry, droll Adam Driver shtick) and sassy sister (Riley Keough) to pull the heist and get rich quick. To make the plan work they need local big crim Joe Bang to literally provide the bang – trouble is he is in the nick. Daniel Craig as Joe doesn’t hold back. Dyed blonde buzz cut, guns permanently flexed and a ludicrous Southern drawl. (Mind you this is not the worst accent by some margin – cue Seth MacFarlane  as a British drinks entrepreneur – surely the worst mangled Cockaneee since Dick van Dyke). For no particular reason other than comic effect the unlikely Bang brothers are roped in (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid – as bozo cliched as you like) and the convoluted plan is set.

And a marvellously entertaining plan it is. No details here. Go see for yourself. What is most heartening though is the affection with which the film treats its characters. This means there is a welcome focus on the lives of, particularly, the Logan siblings, and from this emerges a very gentle morality tale about the fairness of life in modern (in this case white) America.  The Logans have a history of bad luck – hence the title – and this story marks some form of recompense. We laugh with, not at, these characters. Not always laugh out loud but audible chuckles certainly. Lovely stuff.

So the inverse in some ways of the Ocean’s crew. But you will feel the same, if not more, affection for the Logan crew and you will get the same pleasure in seeing how the deed was done. And it is funnier. And, it its own way, as cool. We know Steven Soderbergh is a masterly and versatile film-maker (roll on Ocean’s 8). But I was most impressed here with writer Rebecca Blunt. And I loved the soundtrack. Can’t wait for a second instalment.

Detroit film review *****


Detroit, 29th August 2017

I sheepishly admit that, up to now, I had not see a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow in its entirety. I have tried to get going on The Hurt Locker a couple of times but seemed to recall interruptions and general life business got in the way. I mean to correct this omission on the assumption that her previous work is as powerful as Detroit.

For gut-wrenchingly powerful this is. Ms Bigelow and previous collaborator-writer, Mark Boal, have taken the real life events at the Algiers Motel in July 1967, set against the backdrop of the Detroit race riots, and created a genuinely gripping polemic against racial injustice. Hate, fear and violence are realistically portrayed by a uniformly excellent cast. From the direct historical prologue, through the police raid on the “blind pig” celebration party, which was the catalyst for the 12th Street Riot, and finally the closing scene where one of the survivors, Larry Reed, seeks some closure by returning to a career in singing, I was transfixed. The hand held cinematography of Barry Ackroyd takes you right inside the Algiers Motel during the crucial hours, but the cameras work just as effectively in the “vintage” riot scenes, the courtroom scenes and the scenes in the police station. It seems to me that every shot has been thought through to craft a “realistic” experience. The soundtrack adds to the intensity and the story of soul group, the Dramatics, whose lives changed dramatically that night, adds an agonising poignancy to complement the anger. 

If I had to single out one performance it would be Will Poulter as Philip Krauss, the leader of the Detroit Police Force patrol which raids the Motel. He is up against pretty stiff thespian competition in the form of John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes, the conflicted security guard who gets caught up in the incident, and Algee Smith, as the aforementioned Larry Reed. Poulter captures the matter-of-factness of Krauss’s racism perfectly, but also shows the way he seems to be both addicted and fearful of his own paranoid recklessness. You will hate him but you will recognise him.

I confess I knew nothing of these events and only had a vague knowledge of the Detroit riots. I certainly had no idea as to the scale of the response by the authorities to these riots – National Guard, army, tanks, artillery, snipers – the spectre of Vietnam hangs heavy. I gather Ms Bigelow and Mr Boal have made some fairly significant changes to explain the gaps in the “known” facts of the case, and have collapsed down the investigation and subsequent trials. In a telling construction the black characters in the film largely reflect the real life protagonists but the names of the white characters have been altered. This has served to heighten the drama and the argument. It seems from the extensive Wikipedia entry that the injustices meted out to the victims here were carried through into the subsequent trails of the police perpetrators, and that the events had a profound impact on the nature of race relations in the US.

And yet you will be left with a profound feeling that very little has changed. I am no expert on the nature of racism in the US, and my view is informed by my politics and reading (so damn me as a hand-wringing liberal), but, it seems to me, that by dramatising these events of 50 years ago, the makers of this film have served to underscore what is still so wrong now.

I can see that some might recoil at the graphic way in which events are portrayed or might reject the way in which white police brutality is so absolutely contrasted with black helplessness. But I was left reeling and seething from a very fine piece of film-making. There is enough utter escapist shite on the screens of cinemas everywhere, or indeed, serious films that run scared of taking a view. So those like Ms Bigelow, who get the budget and the cast to make such howls of indignation, should be rewarded by us the audience with our attention in my humble opinion.

From Selfie to Self-Expression at the Saatchi Gallery review ****


From Selfie to Self-Expression

Saatchi Gallery, 20th August 2017

I hadn’t really intended to seek out this exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. I had forgotten it was on but realised I would be passing when engaged on another mission (taking a twirl around the relatively newly opened National Army Museum, since you ask – highly recommended, since you ask, even for those, like me, who are not routinely drawn to this sort of thing).

The exhibitions at the Saatchi are normally rum affairs, usually cobbled together with whatever the curators could lay their hands on and lenders, including the eponymous owner, are willing to lend. This serves to boost the profile of the artists and therefore the value of the artworks on display to the benefit of the owners. Not complaining, that is the point of a private gallery, though Saatchi by its very size, and massive digital presence, occupies more of a private-public role. Nor am I for one moment suggesting that this means there isn’t some dammed fine stuff on show. Just that it is all a bit haphazard. And this exhibition is no exception.

The conceit here is to track artistic depictions of the self, from the works of the canonic great masters through to the ubiquitous, democratised, smartphone selfies of today. And with that all sorts of stuff is then chucked at the walls (and floors) of the Saatchi galleries. There’s a bit of vague explanation for many of the works but nothing to hurt the head. And yet, as I wandered through, I actually found the juxtaposition of all this stuff much more interesting than I had expected.

The exhibition kicks off with some backlit digital images of some tip top self portraits by pre C20 masters. These are just images. There is no paint. They are completely flat. The artificial light is very bright. The images are constantly rolling through as slideshows. You can press “like” buttons. For a pretentious twat like me, armed with a bit of “art knowledge”, is should have been a nightmare. And, true to form, at first I stood there inwardly tutting. But, but, but it turns out that, for those pictures which I have seen before (I don’t “know” them nor ever will), it was really interesting to compare these strange, bastard, “copies” with the memory in my head. Got me thinking again about what it is about the most striking self portraits here (the Rembrandt, Cezanne, van Gogh) that really gets to me compared to the admittedly marvellous stuff elsewhere in the room. And about the way in which paint conveys so much more than a “photo”. A photo is no more a slice of objective reality than a can of beans (not entirely sure what I mean by that but hopefully you catch my drift). It is still two-dimensional. It is not the way we see – try looking at something without moving you eyes – impossible. We construct our own reality and modify thereafter. There is no time dimension in a photo. The colours are mediated through the print or digital process which creates the image. An so on and so on.

So call me a crusty old fart but I would far rather look at a painting than a photo. Even if the painting was probably constructed will the help of some sort of optical process. And self-portraits are as near to as perfect a refinement of the painting process as it is possible to get. Now I am not going to get all “staring into the windows of the soul” on you. That is patently bollocks. But seeing, through a series of paint marks made with tools, what the artists sees of, (and,yes in), him or herself can be pretty moving.

So, like I say, being confronted with this in such a striking way in this first room was an eye-opener. Literally. And it was a smart, if predictable, choice to show Las Meninas projected on one wall. I am not sure yet where I stand on Velazquez, but this riff on the art of portraiture (and status), is a cracker and stands as metaphor for much of what follows. As instructed by clever people I spent a fair amount of time looking at this in the Prado and did the same again here. And you can have a good old nose at this without getting in anyone’s way. And it is really weird to see the projected flat image of the paint and marks right up close. And not as massively empty and experience compared to “real thing” as it should have been. Strange.

The next room contains a raggle-taggle of other C20 and contemporary artists takes on the self portrait – again some “copies’ of paintings, others which were/are photos. Bacon, Freud, Hockney, Chuck Close (I highly recommend you read about the life and work of this fascinating artist), Tracey Emin, Hirst, Warhol, Bruce Naumann, Nan Goldin’s disturbing testament, Cindy Sherman’s unsettling “Hollywood” poses – there is a whole bunch of stuff in here which is rewarding and gets a bit closer to some of the questions I think the exhibition wanted to ask.

Right thereafter I started to get confused, though still kind of stimulated. Juno Calypso’s slightly voyeuristic, slightly baffling work. A room of full of art photos of celebrities (including celebrity artists) and selfies by celebrities/politicians. Rooms of art works constructed from selfies, individually or en masse. These are “ordinary” people, to contrast with the “celebrities”, inanely grinning, like “ordinary” people, just with more cash. Very provoking. There are playful interactive art works (most interesting is the “smoke eyes” of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer). Odd bits of sculpture. Shortlisted entries for a selfie competition. Interestingly most of these competition entries work because they omit the face of the creator. And many are elaborately staged. Thus reminding us of two valuable lessons. Pictures of people (whether self generated or not) are predominantly as dull as ditchwater (I prefer the old etymology here as in other things) and even “reality”. especially when photographed takes an age to set up.

There were one or two things that really stood out, notably the Noble/Weston sculpture/projection, (always wanted to see their work), and the Alison Jackson “fake” selfies – with a call back to the Velazquez. But far more important was the overall impression that the exhibition created, and the food for thought that it provided on the nature of the public image of self, exactly because so much of what is shown here is ostensibly “artificial”. Does the nature of the “self” change with the exponential rise in images of “selves” – over a million a day and rising? Just asking. Remember too, historically the average punter had neither the inclination, time or technology to care about his identity. So count yourself lucky. Or unlucky. 

I’ve only ever taken a handful of selfies. I like to pretend it is because I forget I have a phone. But the reality is I have no audience. I have nowhere to “put” the image and no-one to “send” it to. And when I do take one I “peer” strangely into the camera. Why?

See this bloody exhibition has made me think too much. So I suggest you get along to this. Of course it is full of banality. There isn’t too much in the way of “art” to consume for those of us trying to “educate” ourselves but it is mightily entertaining and everyone there when I visited seemed to have a whale of a time. Can’t really ask for anything more.

Except of course an empty room with my own late Rembrandt self portrait with no idiot youths gurning in front of me endlessly taking selfies on their phones.

Reflection, projection, it’s alway been there. Leaps in technology just mean more people can create images – doesn’t make them better. Old Rembrandt knew that. It is in his eyes, like just about everything else that has happened, or could ever happen.