Les Damnes: Comedie-Francaise at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Les Damnes (The Dammed)

Comedie-Francaise, Barbican Theatre, 21st June

The Tourist is now so far off the pace in terms of commenting om his cultural adventures that there must surely be a strong case for giving up. Hurrah I hear you cry. Well I am afraid any joy you feel will be short lived. The purpose of this blog is to force me to collect my thoughts on what I see and hear. Any interest from you beyond that is a happy by-product. So time is not, I am sorry to say, of the essence. Which means I am going to soldier on and try to catch up.

However this dilatory attitude does have clear drawbacks. Not least of which is that the Tourist can’t always remember the details of his what he has seen. Take The Damned at the Barbican for example. The abiding single image is of a couple of naked fellas, including the simply brilliant Denis Podalydes as Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, rolling around in beer on the Barbican stage, Tackle out. Drunkenly singing fascist songs. Before being massacred. Filmed and projected then meshed together with previous footage to create the full brownshirt bierkeller effect. This being the so called Night of the Long Knives. A powerful image which is very difficult to shake off.

It wasn’t the only one. It is also impossible to look away from the unsettling scene where the young, and very disturbed, scion of the von Essenbeck family Martin, (a stunning performance from Christophe Montenez), “befriends” his young cousin. This is echoed later on in his encounter with the daughter of a prostitute, though the play holds back from emulating the corresponding scene in the film which is the most brutal signifier of the decay and destruction that the Third Reich represented.

Or the funeral scenes, announced by a factory siren, as members of the clan shuffle off the mortal coil in more or less nasty ways, to be “buried alive” in the coffins lined up stage left. Especially the tarred and feathered Baroness Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre), mother of Martin and widow of the patriarch’s only son who was killed in WWI. Then there is the awkward dinner party, complete with artfully choreographed silver service. All of this takes place on a day-glo orange platform with on stage costume changes and make up stage right and backed by video screens relaying the live camera-work.

Now you theatre luvvies will have probably worked out from all the above that all this wizardry comes courtesy of theatrical mastermind Ivo van Hove. His busy, high concept approach, of which this is the epitome, doesn’t always come off but then again neither doesn’t his stripped back, high tension, “psychological insight” alternative.

This though is a triumph. And what makes it extra special is that it is achieved without the collaboration of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam company, IvH’s own troupe. Mind you if you are going to play away then it would be hard to beat the Comedie-Francaise. Founded in 1680 thanks to a decree of Louis XIV it is the world’s oldest theatre company. It’s had its up and downs but, backed financially by the French state since 1995 and with three venues to showcase its vast repertoire, this is about as good as it gets acting wise. Shame we in the UK have nothing similar.

Not for the first time, when they dreamt this up in 2016 with the company, IvH and designer partner Jan Versweyveld, turned to the Italian film auteur Luchino Visconti in seeking the source for their theatrical adaptation, Specifically his 1969 epic which charts the disintegration of the Essenbeck family, who own a steel company thatcollaborates with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. The reciprocity between state and industry, which forged the autarky that powered the Third Reich war machine, often takes a back seat in dramatic representations of Nazi Germany. Not here though. Yet this is still primarily a terrifying family psychodrama, with an emphasis on the psycho, Greek in scope and savagery.

The story kicks off with a party and then the the murder of the paterfamilias Baron Joachim (Didier Sandre – would have been good to see more of him). On 27th February 1933. The same night as the Reichstag fire. The Baron detests the Nazis. His kids and nephews, with the exception of Herbert Thalmann (Loic Corberry), who runs the company, are less principled, in fact they turn on Herbert and frame him for the murder. He escapes but his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy) and kids are shopped to the Gestapo. Leadership of the company passes to the Baron’s thuggish nephew Konstantin (see above) an SA officer ahead of his own bookish son Gunther (Clement Hervieu-Leger) and his deviant nephew, the aforementioned Martin. Meanwhile the firm’s fixer, Friederich Bruckmann (Guillaume Gallienne), makes his bid for control egged on by his lover Baroness Sophie, despite not being a family member and coming from an lowly background. He is initially aided by her cousin Wolf von Aschenbach (Eric Genovese) who happens to be a high ranking SS officer and all round c*nt. It is he who drives the company into the arms of the Nazi Party. To realise his ambitions Fred shoots the drunken Konstantin during the SS coup against the SA in 1934 the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Wolf however turns on him denouncing him as a traitor to the Nazi cause. Herbert returns for his exile and reveals that wife Elisabeth died in the Dachau concentration camp and hands himself over to the Gestapo to save his kids. Aschenbach and the now certifiable Martin who has also joined the SS cook up a deal to oust Friedrich and Sophie from control of the firm. Martin shags his Mummy but allows Friedrich to marry her as long as they then commit suicide. Marty finally hands the firm over to his beloved Party. The End.

See what I mean. Uber nasty and very Greek. Or maybe twisted Racine is a more apposite label. Visconti’s film is tiled La caduta degli dei in Italian, which translates as The Fall of the Gods. In German then Gotterdammerung, the actual subtitle, this conjuring up an OTT Wagnerian vibe. The film doesn’t stint on sets, costumes or symbolism. Though it does on lighting and linear storytelling. And IvH and his dramaturg Bart Van den Eyede, who also worked on Roman Tragedies, have taken their lead from this deliberately mannered approach. Now I can understand why some might recoil at this operatic approach, chock full of modern European theatre tropes, and at the less than subtle allusions to our own troubled times. Notably when the house lights go up after each death and a camera is trained on the audience to remind us of our complicity if we just stand by. Me I don’t mind. This offers theatrical spectacle by the bucket load, a cast of cracking deplorable characters for this superb company to sink their teeth in to and if the moral of such immorality is overwrought, well why not? The lessons of history require magnification and repetition if our vicious species is ever to learn. And for once, in contrast to IvH’s Obsession or his Bergman homages, this is definitely an improvement on the film.

The two unbroken hours passed by in a heartbeat which is not something the Tourist can always say. OK so there were moments when the images distracted a little from the telling of the story and a modicum of effort and knowledge of relevant German history was required to keep up. Tal Yarden’s video, Eric Sleichim’s woodwind and brass driven score, (which makes ironically liberal use of Rammstein’s militaristic thudding NDH grooves) and JV’s lighting don’t hold back but this suits both story and space. And you either love or hate sur-titles.

I do wonder whether the whole would have been quite the equal of the sum of its parts without this extraordinary cast. As with ITA it is thrilling to see and hear actors of the quality, both as individuals but, more than this, as a company. They join initially as pensionnaires, paid a wage, before graduating to societaires, with a stake in the company’s profits. Just a brilliant structure. There have only been 533 since 1680. The longest tenured on the stage here, Sylvia Berge, had the smallest part, the least experienced, still a pensionnaire, Christoph Montenez, had the “best” part as Martin. None of that “star” billing stuff that debilitates West End theatre. And remember all this admiration from the Tourist for a play delivered in a language that he cannot speak. Acting isn’t just the words folks.

Modigliani at Tate Modern review ***

Amedeo_Modigliani_063

Modigliani

Tate Modern, 5th March 2018

One Modigliani nude or one Modigliani portrait is a thing of not inconsiderable beauty. Less so, one hundred, or what feels like hundreds. The elongated bodies, the mask-like faces, the blank, almond-shaped eyes. Look beyond the USP’s though and the influences, from which Modigliani never really escaped in his short life, are clear. Cezanne, Kees van Dongen, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, his mates Soutine and Brancusi, the art of Africa, the Khmer art of Cambodia. If you mix with the best there is a chance your own work might fall a little short though.

Mind you this has proved a pretty popular exhibition I think. I postponed on a couple of visits to the TM, put off by the queues. If there’s a queue to get in, I reckon, you ain’t going to get to see much. This may reflect the virtual reality recreation of AM’s last studio space in Montparnasse which forms part of the entertainment. No surprise that I can’t be doing with that sort of thing. It probably also reflects his bad boy reputation. He managed to hold out until he was 35, eventually succumbing to the TB which he carried through his life, but was permanently poorly and penniless,not helped by knocking back the absinthe and smoking prodigious quantities of hash, in part to hide the TB symptoms. He dressed like a dandy, when he wasn’t getting his kit off in public, never missed a party, and wasn’t picky in his choice of lady friends. He was a very good-looking chap. He read all sorts of dodgy literature to prepare himself for the life of bohemian excess, Nietzsche was a favourite, as well as immersing himself in all that Antiquity and the Renaissance had to offer in his native Italy, and, when in his cups, he reportedly worked like a dervish.

Barely sold a canvas in his lifetime and destroyed a lot of his early stuff. Relied on mates and dealers for studio space and materials. Moved to Paris in 1906 and lived in Montmartre and Montparnasse, natch. Eventually his dealer Leopold Zborowski sorted out a public exhibition for him in 1917 in Paris to showcase his nudes, but this got “closed” on its opening day by the coppers because it was too dirty, what with loads of lady fluff being on show. Dumped his muse, poet and art critic Beatrice Hastings, to take up with young toff dauber, Jeanne Hebuterne, with whom he had a daughter. Wants to marry her, but Mum and Dad unsurprisingly think their daughter can do better than a penurious, drug addled artist, raddled with TB, and say no. He dies, she, eight months pregnant, chucks herself out of a window.

And if all that were not the epitome of artistic excess, he goes and gets himself buried in Pere Lachaise. So AM had, and has, a reputation to keep up. Which has been fuelled by avid collection of his many works (and plenty of fakes) through the last century. The first work in the exhibition is a self-portrait from 1915 where AM sees himself as Pierrot, the sad clown, the trusting fool, one eye obscured, which sets the scene for AM’s invention of himself as the ultimate bohemian artist.

Is the art any good though? Well there is a salacious thrill in the room of nudes but, engage your brain and it soon passes. His models wear expressions of complete indifference. The transactional nature of the nude painting has rarely been more apparent. Cliched soft-porn? Don’t ask me, there’s some worse stuff from the High Renaissance, but it’s pretty sleazy. The portraits show more variation if you ask me, with posture, expression, colour, there is much to ponder and, I admit, enjoy. There is much biographical significance given his wide circle of mates in the heady atmosphere of Paris in the 1910’s (and the 1890’s, 1900’s and 10920’s mark you). Cocteau, Picasso, Gris, Rivera, amongst some lesser lights.

There still seems to me to be a hefty distance between artist and subject, and not just because he painted masks. Not quite the distance that Cezanne employed to allow him to concentrate entirely on what he saw in his portraits. (Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****). Modigliani does not, alchemically, turn people into brush strokes even though his portraits echo those of Cezanne. Nor is this the confrontational distance that his mate Chain Soutine conjured up in his portraits of hotel folk, the f*ck you stance of his bell boys for example, (Soutine’s Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery review ****). No this is a distance, a lack of connection, which seems to me to be closer to neo-classical portraiture. Filtered through the lessons of cubism, Modigliani can then focus on what, I think, he mastered, to wit, the line. It is not the colour, the brush stroke, the paint, which excites, but the first marks, the lines that create the structure. The shape the faces, the curve of the thighs. One of AM’s nudes is even explicitly posed to ape Ingres’s Grande Odalisque.

Which maybe why I found the room of sculptures the most interesting. Modigliani didn’t persist with sculpture beyond a year or so in 1912: the work was tiring given his ill-health and the materials expensive. The limestone busts on display here are thrilling. The elongated faces, almond eyes, swan necks would all be exhausted in two dimensions but the debt to antiquity is here more vivid. The volume which is absent from the paintings brings a new, literally, dimension. The room prior to the head vitrines shows some of AM’s preparations and sketches for more substantive public sculpture where, again, the artistic precedents are writ large.

AM left Paris in 1917, at the behest of his dealer, (artistic not drugs), and headed to the French Riviera with Jeanne Hebuterne. Other artists did the same. There is a distinct shift in the intensity of his work, reflecting the light maybe, but maybe the poor fellow eased up a bit on the sauce. There is even a tiny landscape. It’s not much kop though. Still everything here seems a bit less of a struggle, less of a show than the wall to wall nudes of the prior room, mostly from 1917, with a few later, softer examples.

Gaugin, van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani. These are the biggest brands from the years when Western art was ruptured. I take a bit of persuading on Gaugin, but it’s not tricky to work out what’s special about the next four. But Amedeo Modigliani. Hm, on the basis of this exhibition I am not so sure. Definitely worth seeing this uncluttered, expansive, extensive and expensive collection, this is big bucks art after all, and there are a fair few paintings here secured from private collections, but not a patch on the Cezanne portraits which were, until recently, gracing the walls of the NPG (and where, mystifyingly, there were no queues on the occasions I visited).