Coriolanus at the Barbican Theatre review *****

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Coriolanus

Barbican Theatre, 16th and 17th November 2017

This angry looking chap is Sope Dirisu and he is playing Caius Martius ,who you might know better as Coriolanus, in the RSC’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last proper “tragedy”. This will be followed from Stratford to London by the other plays in the Rome season, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and the gorefest Titus Andronicus, as part of the “Rome” season. You can read all the proper reviews from the Stratford run, but, if this is anything to go by, I reckon I am in for a treat with the rest, as this was better, in my view, than those reviews let on.

Now it helps that I happen to like this play. A lot. Maybe not as much as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet, but, whisper it, more than Lear. It is sparse, he (Coriolanus) is a flawed character, and the writing is, by Shakespeare’s sublime standards, a little lacking in poetry and lyricism. This is exacerbated by a “prose driven” production – suits me but maybe not the  purists. Like Macbeth and, indeed Titus A, it tells of a hero, (or maybe anti-hero, that is why it is so clever), whose destiny is bound up with that of his country, in this case 5th century BCE Rome, the early days of the republic. Coriolanus is, like these other “warriors”, a complex and unique personality, whose vanity and inability to compromise leads to his downfall. He harbours powerful homo-erotic desires for his mortal enemy, Tullus Aufidius, and he has the mother of all mother complexes, as it were.

There is some humour, and some satire, though I get that it is a bit buried. The body count, by the standards of Shakespeare tragedy, is minimal, just one at the end. There is War though, unusually very early on, which allows fight scenes that this cast revelled in. Fight  director Terry King deserves a great deal of credit. The plot is straightforwardish, (WS once again pinched his story from Plutarch), and revolves entirely around the Big C himself. It is his connections with his family, his own people and the Volscian people of the enemy state Corioles, that defines the play and what makes it interesting for our, (and probably plenty of other), times. For the play brutally examines the exercise of political power, the relationship between classes, the limits of democracy and representation, the dangers of populism, the nature of patriotism, the business of compromise, the call of duty in both military and civil society, in addition to all the deep, Freudian, psychological stuff. Ancient Rome is fundamentally different to our world today but the issues it grapples with are uncannily similar.

Which is why, in its way, its the best “Brexit” play I have seen this year. People’s visceral reactions to what is “right” and what is “fair” and the way in which they are, or think they are, being treated by their leaders, is what lies at the heart of this play. The continuing tensions between the haves and the have-nots, the “leaders” and the “led”. As ever though, there is no black and white with big Will, as you oscillate between hating and maybe admiring Coriolanus’s actions and intentions, and you see the ways in which those around him react, Mum, wife, nemesis, tribunes, friends, soldier colleagues and substitute Father, all try to influence and manipulate him.

Now a twist of fate “permitted” me to watch the first half twice, up to Big C’s banishment. A technical issue on the first performance I saw meant a return the next day to see the rest. I confess I was so pumped up by the first half and by the cliff-hanger when Coriolanus tells Rome to go f*ck itself that I was bound to return. And the tightwad in me wasn’t going to miss a free hour and a half of this. Turns out the repeat viewing was an insight into how the interplay of text, action, acting and audience can create a very different experience. Same play, same production but different lines and words leapt out; I focussed on different characters at different times and thought about different aspects of plot and message as it evolved.

Sope Dirisu turned out to be a suitably virile military man and the camaraderie and mutual admiration between him, Charles Aitken’s ardent consul Cominius, and Ben Hall’s pragmatic general Titus Lartius, rang true. As did his hesitation with Hannah Morrish’s wispy wife Virgilia. The turning point scenes with mother Volumnia also stood out. Whether extolling the virtues of her son’s military achievements in full on patrician mode, or achingly pleading with him to curb his revenge even though she knows what this will lead to, Haydn Gwynne was magnificent in the role. Duty trumping family. The best performance of the evening. Mr Dirisu also shines in the scenes with Tullus Aufidius, but once again this as much reflects the skill of James Corrigan’s performance as the bested Volsci. It is tricky to convey the admiration, nay passion, that he feels for Coriolanus whilst still letting us know that he intends to play him to his country’s advantage when Big C turns treacherous.

It does take a bit of time for our Coriolanus to ramp up from haughty disdain to bilious disgust of the people, and the two tribunes, Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus, who orchestrate them. This though created a welcome ambivalence in our political sympathies. Should we side with the put-upon plebeians, hungry and overlooked by the out of touch Senate and the aristocratic Consuls, or with fearless Coriolanus, who may saved Rome from the enemy, but who sneers at the people and refuses even a pretence of the humility expected to secure their approval for his election as Consul?

Having two women play the tribunes, given Coriolanus’s conflicted relationship with the opposite sex, added an interesting dimension, and the contrast between Martina Laird’s more measured Junius and Jackie Morrison’s more provocative Sicinius was also well observed. Paul Jesson’s patient, though frustrated, Menenius, father, mentor and apologist for Coriolanus, was another fine performance.

Now as it happens Paul Jesson has a bit of form with Coriolanus having played Junius Brutus in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film version. This is an outstanding production, with a magnetic performance by Mr Fiennes, who also directed, a stunning cast and the uneasy backdrop of Serbia. Angus Jackson, with this modern dress production, has, perforce, created a somewhat different tone, but, I think, similarly makes the case for what I think, is a riveting play. It seems to me that there is a case for moderating Coriolanus’s “pride” and subsequent “fall” and for questioning the political “rights and wrongs” and, if that is true, Mr Jackson’s definitely direction succeeded here. A bully oozing utter contempt may lead to more powerful lead performances but can be overbearing. I liked the contrast of Mira Calix’s string and voice led score and Robert Innes Hopkins design (excepting the troublesome plinth) was coherent (it carries through the whole season).

Coriolanus a tricky, difficult, awkward play. Nonsense, as many recent productions have shown. Mind you I’ve never understood the difference between Shakespearean tragedies and comedies, so you can safely ignore me.

 

 

 

 

 

Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

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Rules For Living

Rose Theatre Kingston, 13th November 2017

The Tourist loves the Rose Theatre. Admittedly it helps that it is just a hop, skip and a jump, (well brisk walk), away from him. It does serve up some interesting theatre though, in amongst the music and comedy, and it does a grand job for the local community, notably for the young people. Understandably most of the theatre it produces is shared with other venerable regional houses but this makes eminent economic sense. And by and large, when it has nabbed something for itself, the decision has paid off. All this is achieved without an Artistic Director or commissions. Given the size of the place, 900 seats, comparable with the Lyttleton say, or the newly opened Bridge, this seems to me a laudable strategy.

Over the last couple of years we have had the excellent productions of My Brilliant Friend (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****) and The Good Canary, the outstanding Junkyard, (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), which was a massive positive surprise for me and BD, a pretty good recent revival of The Real Thing (The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), the ambitious and largely successful Wars of the Roses, a fine All My Sons and decent productions of Toast, The Herbal Bed, The Absence of War and Maxine Peake’s Beryl, (looks like the marvellous Maxine will end as good a writer as she is actor). Oh and we got the Play That Goes Wrong before the West End.

Coming up we have a new production of Much Ado About Nothing with Mel Giedroyc, (which means BD and LD are already signed up), as Beatrice, (dying to know who will be Benny), and a Don Carlos, (shared with the Nuffield Southampton and the Northcott Exeter so LS will be instructed to attend), in which Tom Burke, (you know him off War and Peace), will partner again with the fancy-dan Israeli director Gadi Roll. A bit of Schiller should wake up the good burghers of Kingston.

Right that’s the puff piece over. What about Rules for Living? This play by Sam Holcroft premiered at the National Theatre in 2015 where it was, by and large, well received. Brothers Matthew (Jolyon Coy, last seen by me in the somewhat different Little Eyolf at the Almeida) and Adam (Ed Hughes) have returned to the family home with, respectively, partner Carrie (Carlyss Peer) and wife Nicole (Laura Rodgers), for Christmas Day. Matriarch Edith (Jane Booker) is marshalling the troops ahead of her husband Francis (Paul Shelley) coming home from hospital, after, it transpires, having had a stroke. Last, and probably least since she is off stage in bed until the end, is Emma, the fragile daughter of Adam and Nicole.

So far, so middle class sitcom. Carrie is a flighty actress, who wants successful lawyer Matthew to pop the question. Adam was a cricketer whose career was ignominiously cut short when he froze on his Test debut. He is now a provincial solicitor. Adam and Nicole’s marriage is on the rocks. Dad Francis was a judge and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Under Edith’s direction the festive activities are run with military precision. 

Now the twist, because, as it stands, this cracker would be more Poundland than Waitrose.  Each of the characters has to follow a rule to govern their behaviour. This flashes up above Lily Arnold’s lovely doll’s house set. The detail of this rule is expanded through the play. So, for example, Matthew has to first sit down, and then eat, when he tells a porkie. I will refrain from trotting out the other rules in case you chance to see this. You get the picture I am sure. Ms Holcroft took learnings from cognitive behavioural therapy as the inspiration for the play and cleverly ensures each of the rules matches the characters faults, frustrations and personalities.

This then is the catalyst for the hilarious goings-on and, initially, at least, there is much humour in this conceit. Having weaved this into the plot though, Ms Holcroft then doesn’t see to entirely know what to do with it, so we veer off into a quasi-farce which ends with a food fight. Amusing yes, and it bears comparison with the master it emulates in Alan Ayckbourn, but it felt to me that the idea was too clever for the execution. The conceit boxed the characters in and didn’t leave enough room for the pathos which was needed to balance the farce.

The cast entered into the spirit of the venture with energetic enthusiasm, even Ed Hughes and Carlyss Peer whose “rule’ was the trickiest to pull off without being annoying. Jane Booker had the pick of some very funny lines and Paul Shelley, with no lines as such and precious little stage time, was a hoot. Laura Rodgers probably dug deepest though her “rule” gave the most opportunity for nuanced development. Director Simon Godwin, who has had some notable successes at the NT, especially his Twelfth Night, chose to anchor proceedings in the family home and play down the “game-show” context of the original production.

All in all then like a game of family charades. A really good idea when it kicks off but wearing after an hour or so. We are going to try doing massive jigsaw maps in silence for Xmas this year. Yo ho ho.

PS. I see that Sam Holcroft is writing a play for the Bridge based on the novel The Black Cloud by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. Blimey. There will be some big ideas in that for sure.

 

 

Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****

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Alban Gerhardt cello, James Ehnes violin, Jean Johnson clarinet, Steven Osborne piano

St John’s Smith Square, 14th November

  • Shostakovich – Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67,
  • Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

I don’t suppose Olivier Messiaen had any idea, when he composed his chamber masterpiece in such harrowing circumstances in 1941, just how “popular’ it would become. A packed St John’s Smith Square waited expectantly (I know, I know, it’s hardly Glastonbury on Saturday night but this is as excited as us classical buffs can get).

First up though Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 which I think should get more regular airings. Like Messiaen’s Quartet, this was written during WWII, completed in 1944 and dedicated to DSCH’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky. DSCH saw it as a tribute both to the victims of the Holocaust and to those who died at Stalin’s behest. Four movements, a canonic first, a sardonic scherzo, a brooding Largo in the form of a Passacaglia which then returns in the finale after some dancier lines based on Jewish folk tunes. So all the usual DSCH material but here used with economy and with some striking dissonances that gets the point across. I have to say regular partners Alban Gerhardt (who is a Shostakovich whizz) and Steven Osborne really gelled with James Ehnes’s violin to give a properly dynamic and scary performance.

Messiaen was captured in 1940 with two friends, cellist Etienne Pasquier and clarinettist Henri Akoka, and eventually shipped off to Stalag VIII-A in Silesia. They met violinist Jean La Boulaire in this labour camp and Messiaen composed a trio for the three musicians. Cold and hunger left OM hallucinating and the devout Catholic took to writing another 7 movements to accompany this trio which became the Intermede for the Quartet. The whole is prefaced from the Revelation 10 which describes the descent of an angel. The first performance outside in the camp, in the middle of winter, on rickety instruments, must have been indescribably intense. Hard to repeat that but listening to this is always overwhelming wherever you sit on the devotional scale.

The first movement Liturgie de Cristal sees the piano and cello moving in isorhythm (don’t ask) with the clarinet and violin tweeting the bird song over the top. The following Vocalise is punctuated by a beautiful chanting theme. The third movement is the Abime des oiseaux, birds singing again, for solo clarinet with a painfully slow tempo at times. Then, after the Intermede, comes the extraordinarily beautiful meditation Louange a L’Eternite de Jesus for cello and piano. The Danse de la ureur which breaks the spell is exactly that though this could have been even angrier. The Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel harks back to the structure of the second movement before the final movement which echoes the fourth movement but now for violin and piano. The fade at the end is almost unbearable. Messiaen wanted to capture the infinite and pretty much succeeds. If you want to know the definition of “rapture” listen to this.

Jean Johnson is Steven Osborne’s wife so they knew what they were at. James Ehnes fitted into the two duos like a glove. A terrific evening. I suspect the four of them will give this another go somewhere.

If you have never heard the Quartet for the End of Time you must. If you think all modern classic music is unlistenable this will prove you wrong (though it isn’t actually that challenging anyway though it is a bit bonkers at times). If you don’t have an ounce of religious fervour don’t worry. This is simply, for the most part, one of the most beautifully moving pieces of music ever composed.

All you need is love as another quartet intoned.

 

Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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Labour of Love

Noel Coward Theatre, 15th November 2017

The Tourist is wracked with guilt. A couple of lovely women who were sat next to him asked his opinion at the interval as to whether James Graham’s Ink or Labour of Love was the better play. He said Ink. By the time this was finished he had changed his mind. Ink is a fabulous play (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****), don’t get me wrong, with superb performances and a delightful set, but Labour of Love is funnier, and, in its own way, quite moving. There are one or two occasions where Mr Graham’s script goes for the easy laugh, or is slightly too blunt in terms of characterisation, but as in his other plays, all is forgiven because of the sheer level of entertainment which is delivered.

Two plays in the West End, Quiz playing in Chichester (and surely West End bound), This House embarking on a national tour next year, a commission, The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts, for Hull Truck in the pipeline and, I bet, some revivals of his earlier Finborough Theatre plays will pop up. It seems the boy wonder can do no wrong.

That’s because he has the gift. Writing consistently very funny plays, with real dramatic momentum, gentle formal innovation, about relatively recent events, which manage to examine big and important issues, (the way power is wielded in our modern democracy), and which pack in the punters, is not easy. Otherwise everyone would be at it. Yet James Graham makes it look effortless. And he is in the groove. No doubt about that.

Labour of Love charts the course of the Labour Party through the seven General Elections from 1992 through to 2017. The wheeze is that the first half shows events in reverse, the second then rolls forward again. Martin Freeman plays David Lyons, an initially ambitious Blairite, who is tasked in 1990 by Party HQ with fighting a “safe” Labour seat in Nottinghamshire, near where he was brought up. His ambitious lawyer wife Elizabeth, (well played by Rachael Stirling, given the somewhat one-dimensional hand she was dealt), initially intends being his constituency agent but is reluctant. In steps Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) who was married to Terry, the previous MP before he became ill. She knows the ropes and is Nottinghamshire through and through. The MP and his inherited agent then play out, over the years, the struggles between the left and the right of the Labour party, the democratic socialists and the social democrats, against the backdrop of a Northern town that falls further and further behind through the 1990s and 2000s.

The relationship between David and Jean is alternately wittingly combative and awkwardly tender and is, eventually, consummated (don’t worry, not literally). Kwong Loke plays Mr Shen a Chinese industrialist who might prove the town’s employment salvation, Susan Wokoma is Margot Midler ,who is roped in as a local activist, and Dickon Tyrell is Len Prior, council member, old school Labour and, for a time, Jean’s second husband.

You have to feel sorry for Sarah Lancashire who was initially cast as Jean but had to withdraw on doctor’s advice. Her loss however was Tamsin Greig’s gain. And ours. Jean is an absolute peach of a role. And Ms Greig, who might be our greatest current comic stage actress, literally wolfs it up. She is marvellous. As with her Malvolia at the National before this (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****) it is not just that she is a master of timing but that she can connect with the whole audience wherever she is on stage and in whatever she is saying. And, as in Twelfth Night, when the tone shifts so does she. Immediately. And we the audience follow her. Immediately. Martin Freeman is equally at home as David, in particular when he gets to deliver a rousing soliloquy, on the virtue of pragmatic Government rather than the sanctimony of permanent Opposition, which saw the audience break into spontaneous applause.

This is a joint production between Michael Grandage and Jeremy Herrin’s Headlong with the latter in the director’s chair. He may have misfired a little with Common at the National, but he is back on form here having previously brought This House to life. Lee Newby’s set is as workaday as you like and a big call out to wig and hair director Richard Mawbey, who convincingly took the leads backwards and forwards through the three decades. Also vital in plotting the history is the video and projection design of Duncan Maclean and the master sound designer Paul Arditti has some fun with the soundtrack.

Labour of Love. Labour of course, that is the subject. Labour of Love because it is pretty clear where James Graham’s sympathies lie, though he scrupulously avoids the soapbox. Labour of Love as a pun on his writing skill maybe, as this feels like it was anything but a struggle to create. And Labour of Love because David and Jean’s witty sparring has more than an air of Benedick and Beatrice about it. A popular playwright, banging out the texts, selling out the theatres, engaged with the politics of the day, making us laugh, (sometimes with the most obvious of material), and making us think. It worked five hundred years ago. It is working for James Graham now. Maybe this is the lost Love’s Labours Won.

 

 

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition at the V&A review ****

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Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

V&A, 13th November 2017

You can’t seem to navigate on t’Internet, (all right, the bit that isn’t hate, porn or celebrity, which doesn’t leave much), for confessionals from opera lovers telling you how they came to love the “queen”, or is it “king”, of art forms. Alongside this are guides on where to start and how to enjoy your first opera. All this tends to come with an undercurrent of pleading though. The rare opera reviews here from the Tourist always seem to start with a diatribe about how bad opera can sometime be. I have tried with limited success to convert the SO, MS, BD to the cause though BUD, given his admirable lust for life, has responded magnificently. 

The fact is that opera can be hard work and that all of us inside the tent, by trying to appear welcoming and non-patronising, often come across as the exact opposite. Like evangelical Christians. The other problem is, despite what some of us want to believe (“it’s for everyone”, “you can pitch up in shorts”, “there’s tons of tunes”), there is always a proportion of the audience, especially at the ROH, who are there because they, (or someone else on their behalf), can afford it and not because they love it. And whisper it, some of it is unadulterated shite with preposterous plots, silly costumes, designers and directors craving kudos over interpretational vision, under-rehearsed divas who can sing for sure but can’t act and don’t care what happens beyond their arias. Yet when it works the “state of grace” you enter cannot be matched, even in my beloved “straight” theatre or from music alone.

It’s an utter mystery to me how this works for those who get off on Wagner (I’d rather have an enema), Verdi or Puccini but, as Aretha would have it, Doctor Feelgood has pitched up for me during Britten, Mozart and Monteverdi to name but a few.

So how were the curatorial boffins going to make this work. A minority art form, which may have a visual component but is primarily aural, which spans hundreds of years. Surprisingly well as it turns out. Through the simple device of picking a few specific works, premiered (though not the Wagner) in specific European cities in specific years, usually periods of immense social, political and economic change. And by not going in too deep. And with the use of those natty headphones which have worked so well since the ground-breaking David Bowie Is exhibition.

Now there are proper reviews bleating about what is “missing” in terms of composers and/or locations. Or saying the “wrong” works have been chosen. Or saying there isn’t enough musical content. Doh, it’s an exhibition not a performance and all this carping comes across “as I know better” elitism, the very thing this exhibition should eschew. For my money, given the obvious limitations. the team has done a terrific job in pulling together all manner of material and relating it to the contexts they have chosen to highlight.

You will get a sense of how the chosen operas reflect the societies from whence they came, the themes that each engaged with and the process of their creation and performance. All spiced up with lots to stimulate eye and brain. I accept that the soundtrack, with excerpts from the seven chosen operas, is a bit limiting but I didn’t care. I got to see lots of lovely objects, maps, paintings, scores, costumes, props, posters, programmes, models and instruments. I got some well chosen video footage of performance. I got a recreation of a set for Handel’s Rinaldo in booming London and of Shostakovich in his study banging away on his piano. I got all sorts of spurious feminist interpretations of Strauss’s still horribly ropey Salome in Dresden backed up with some dirty pictures from Kirchner. I got a sense of just how much ducking and diving Dmitry had to do to create his two premieres of Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in Leningrad. I saw why the Italians are proud of the boy Giuseppe V, here with the big chorused Nabucco in Milan. I could hear how Monteverdi changed the Western musical world, albeit all for the decadent few of La Serenissima. I could see and hear how the Enlightened Mozart and Da Ponte stuck two figures up to the Viennese elite. The exhibition even has a swing at equating Wagner’s dodgy Medieval comic book warriors with the genius rebellion of Manet. Yeah, right.

Now I admit sometimes the urge to capture the big picture, and the need to make exhibits relevant, leads to some overly imaginative treatments from the curators. I would also have liked a bit more hard information on the handful of post 1945 productions we were treated to at the end. The footage was all well and good, (and the selection suited me), but might have left the uninitiated a bit bemused. Which is a shame because, for my money, the stories, plots, acting, productions and ideas which contemporary operas encapsulate are far easier to stomach than some of the “classics”, and the music no more challenging than the soundtracks to many big budget cinema releases.

Still mustn’t grumble. This is another blinder from the V&A and the new gallery is nice and airy (I know it’s underground). It isn’t going to pack ’em in Pink Floyd style and I have to say that my attendance, admittedly on a weekday afternoon, only served to reduce the mean average age. If you have some interest in opera, and are not too snobby, you will definitely be rewarded. Perhaps more importantly I would say that, if you have any interest in European social, economic and cultural history, even if opera isn’t your bag, over the last 500 years, this is also for you. Which frankly should include everyone who goes through the doors of the V&A.

Right there’s my puff. Now can I have my Punk and Post Punk 1977 to 1985 exhibition please Mr V&A.

 

The Cardinall’s Musick at St John’s Square review ****

The Cardinall’s Musick // Andrew Marwood - London Wednesday 5

The Cardinall’s Musick, War and Peace

St John’s Smith Square, 19th November 2017

  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Ad Dominum cum tribularer
  • Benjamin Britten – Advance Democracy
  • James MacMillan – When you see the millions of the mouthless dead
  • Orlando Gibbons – O Lord in thy wrath
  • James MacMillan – A Child’s prayer
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for four voices
  • Philippe de Monte – Super flumina Babylonis
  • William Byrd – Quomodo cantabimus
  • James MacMillan – Emitte lucem tuam
  • Arvo Pärt – Da pacem
  • James MacMillan – Christus vincit
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for four voices
  • William Byrd – Peccavi super numerum

Sitting in Thomas Archer’s fine Baroque masterpiece church, rapt audience, listening to one of the UK’s finest ensemble interpreters of C16 and C17 British vocal music, here singing a diverse set of texts from composers past and present framed by extracts from William Byrd’s finest works, the Masses for four and five voices. And all to remember the fallen of past conflicts.

The Britten piece is packed with drama and I see nothing wrong with the pungent warning against Fascism in the text. As ever with the James MacMillan’s work the directness and invention wins you over but I have to say A child’s prayer, written in memory of the victims of Dunblane, pulls you right up with its repeated dirge of “Welcome”. Even by Part’s standards Da pacem is sparse but still so powerful. The biggest surprise of this excellent evening however was the Philippe de Monte motet which apparently stuck a chord with the nominally recusant Byrd. And the concluding five part Byrd motet, Peccavi super mumerum, which was new to me, left me pinned to my seat.

Don’t go through your life without William Byrd. I should probably stop there. So I will.

Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy review ***

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Jasper Johns “Something Resembling Truth”

Royal Academy of Arts. 10th November 2017

So here’s my theory. Sometime in the mid 1970s the real Jasper Johns was kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a cloned doppelganger. All the AI software was packed in but they forgot to prevent him from clicking “remind me later” when the updates rolled in. Which means that somewhere out there some little green fellas with one eye and a pokey-out antenna in a parallel Piccadilly are right now swooning over some sexy encaustic rendition of a far away galaxy. Whilst we look at bits of string dangling over some grubby canvasses or some vague tracings from a man too preoccupied with his own mortality.

How else to explain the chasm between the powerful and seductive work of the 1950s and 1960s and the relatively mundane offerings of the last few decades? This large scale retrospective kicks off with an introductory room with an iconic 1967 Flag, a trademark 1961 Target, and one of the grey cross hatched paintings from the 1980s where the doors have closed. Which seems prophetic. The curators have chosen to follow a broadly chronological format but have snuck in some of the later works to emphasise the links between the different periods of Mr Johns illustrious career. For me it just serves to highlight the fade in the power of the ideas and of the execution.

Mind you when it’s good it’s bloody marvellous. I can’t see how anyone could fail to be blown away by their first sight of Johns’ US flags from the mid 1950s. Conjured by a dream apparently, begun in oil but finished with strips of paper and that drippy, waxy encaustic paint, they have the material quality of their Abstract Expressionist predecessors but none of the boorish arrogance. Here is an everyday image, rendered realistically, but of a symbol charged with meaning. A sign of the signified. Having experienced this eureka moment there was no holding JJ back in his hunt to give us ““things that are seen and looked at, not examined”. Targets, the contents of his studio, hooks, coathangers, cutlery, beer cans. And the maps, those marvellous maps. I love maps, (I confess, without shame, to a geography degree), but these are something else. Of course I say maps, but bar one diversion, it is just one country and one typology. And then the numbers. One font, multiple variations, multiple materials. I wanted to go and lick the wall of bronzes. Don’t ask me why. Had to settle for staring.

All this symbolic stuff mixes the best of the pop, the conceptual, the minimalist and the Duchampian everyday with the beauty of the making. The fascination with language and meaning and the urge to deconstruct the painting itself led to some other jaw dropping stuff. Paintings prised apart by balls, the dissonance of primary colours and their linguistic identities, a canvas bitten by a bloke, presumably Johns. Bits of bodies. The bronzes perfect in their verisimilitude and the inspiration for subsequent generations. Love it.

Then he discovered that wretched cross-hatching and it all came off the boil. I can see the urge to portray repetition, literalness, the absence of meaning. But take away the mystery of the symbols and you risk banality. Trying to make us think there is something behind this doesn’t cut it for me. Same with the references to Munch, the collaboration with Samuel Beckett, the Catenary series, the revisit of his Seasons work which take up the second half of the exhibition. There is still much to chew on for sure and the imagination is fertile. They just don’t grab you by the throat like the earlier work.

In contrast to his mate Robert Rauschenberg, whose sense of fun and collaborative urges meant he could keep leaping from one bonkers project to the next, I reckon this dissection of the everyday might have been a bit of a trap for Jasper Johns which proved tricky to escape. Which is maybe why he has ended up quoting himself, always a bad sign. Still lucky for us he fell into it in the first place as we would be much poorer without it. As a reminder “art” is simply that which the rich and powerful buys, (with their own money or yours via pubic galleries), in this most perfect of capitalist markets. But, luckily for us plebs, the key externality is the opportunity to see some life enriching stuff. The first five or so rooms of “Something Resembling Truth” are about as good as it gets in terms of the second half of the C20 for such stuff.