Sunday, 18 March 2018

'Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth' at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

An exhibition of works by Fra Angelico is rare enough to take note, but that the exhibition is bringing together four linked works for the first time in centuries is definitely worth a trip to see them. The current exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum brings together four reliquaries by Fra Angelico that were commissioned for Santa Maria Novella in Florence. I packed my bag and jumped on a plane for Boston just after an unexpected snowstorm had hit the city and everywhere was coated in a deep layer of snow.

Reliquaries are containers for holy relics. In the case of the painted panels by Fra Angelico, the relics would've been contained in small drawers or alcoves built into the frame so the paintings themselves are decorative as well as providing a focal point for veneration. The reliquaries would have been brought out from safekeeping on feast and holy days so weren't generally seen even back when they were painted. The current frames for the panels are not the originals but rather replacements made in the early 1800s. Brief background lesson over, let's look at the exhibition.

The first painting you see on entering the exhibition is the Corsini Triptych from the Italian national collection in Rome. I've seen it twice before, as part of the Fra Angelico exhibition at Musee Jacquemart-Andree in Paris in 2011 and again, last year, in Rome. It was cleaned a while ago and the colours and gold leaf shine out like new. In the Corsini Gallery the work is hung in a glass case without a frame but here it is in a simple wooden frame that seems to enhance its brilliance. There's a similar, earlier work by the Fra using a similar composition in the Gemaldegallerie in Berlin (that needs to be cleaned). The panels show the Ascension, the Last Judgement and Pentecost

The next painting along is one of the large panels from the Armadio degli Argenti, the silver chest, which is on display at San Marco in Florence. The panel shows ten scenes from the life of Christ and the final panel shows his family tree to remind viewers of his royal heritage. This panel deals with the last days of the Christ from the road to Golgotha, crucifixion, ascension, Pentecost, Last Judgement and the crowning of the Virgin in heaven. These paintings are easy to read and follow to anyone who knows the Christian tradition so it's the detail that makes them more interesting and shows how the Fra decided to tell the stories. I didn't measure them but each scene is about one foot square so that's a lot of detail in each scene.

Next is a panel I've not seen before, 'The Entombment of Christ'. Christ has been taken down from the cross (see the three crosses on the hill in the distance?) and has been carried to his tomb where he is mourned and cleaned before being entombed. The scene takes place in a Tuscan landscape (I love the prominent tree) and the symbols of torture are laid out on show.

Although this is a relatively simple composition, it's actually really important in the development of artistic trends at the time. The Fra sets this scene in a landscape whereas some of his contemporaries would've still used a golden background reminiscent of Gothic and Byzantine paintings. The style hadn't totally changed when this painting was completed but the Fra is clearly stating which side he's on - he's humanising the divine while saying this is the here and now, we live in holy times so be careful of your behaviour since the Christ is returning just as he rose from the dead all those years ago.

The final work in this first room is a predella - a series of small paintings that sit underneath a main altarpiece - depicting scenes from the lives of Saint Cosimas and Saint Demian, two brother physicians who were the patron saints of the Medici family. This predella is attributed to both Fra Angelico and to Zanobi Strozzi, thought to be one of the Fra's pupils.

The Fra painted the two brothers numerous times, presumably to keep the Medici's happy, including in the San Domenico predella in the National Gallery in London. We see scenes of the brothers escaping death such as being saved from drowning by an angel, surviving being shot with arrows and, when it was decided to get rid of them by burning them alive, the flames turned on their oppressors and left the brothers safe and whole. Finally, chopping off their heads worked and the brothers were martyred for their beliefs.

The main room contains a special semi-circular framing device to hold the reliquaries but before looking at them there are three more paintings to look at. The first is the 'Marriage of the Virgin' which includes the tale of how Joseph won her hand when his bough sprouted into new life, one of the many tales from 'The Golden Legend'. Many of the tales in this manuscript were popular at the time despite not being in the Bible but you don't really need to know that, just enjoy the painting.

This is a lovely little panel full of colour and story-telling. I like the bloke in red at the far left trying to break his tree bough to find a fresh place to encourage it to grow while two others hold their boughs like sticks. Then there are the two blokes patting Joseph on the back, almost as if in congratulations until you see that their hands are clenched into fists. This isn't congratulations, this is jealousy. And there is poor old Joseph with his bough sprouting new leaves as he weds Mary the Virgin. If you were familiar with the 'Legend', and many people were back in the day, from stories told and repeated, then you'd easily read this painting and understand God's plan.

Next is a much larger painting on loan from the Uffizi in Florence, called 'The Coronation of the Virgin' there but called 'Paradise' here. The holy pair are surrounded by angels and then by saints holding their symbols so we can recognise them. I particularly like Mary Magdalene kneeling to the left of the group of women saints on the right of the painting. Her flowing hair and clothes of red/pink highlight her as she looks out of the painting back at us. Her mouth is open and her gaze is direct, other than the other women. If she can be saved then so can can we.

I love the gold leaf in the background of this painting, scored in lines radiating out from the holy pair so that, wherever you stand, the light catches it in a different way. I'd love to see this painting lit only by candles and see what it looks like in flickering candlelight.

The final painting on that wall is a small 'Dormition of the Virgin' that also features Jesus Christ at his mother's 'funeral' (although that's not quite right). The Jesus figure is holding a boy so, perhaps, he's meant to represent God the Father and the Son?  I'm also not sure why Mary's body seems elongated, perhaps in preparation for her ascent into heaven. I'll need to check this out and it may be explained in the catalogue.

The reliquaries are presented in glass cases in a semi-cicircular area of arches, almost like cloisters or arches in a sacristy, so we see the reliquaries and also the back of each panel. The frames were built around the panels and we don't, now, know what the original frames looked like but I liked what I saw. From left to right, there are two reliquaries, a drawing of Saint Jerome, another panel showing the 'Dormition of the Virgin' and then the further two reliquaries.

The first reliquary shows two scenes, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. Underneath is a sort of 'predella' with the Virgin and child surrounded by female saints and, underneath that, is a small strip in gold and green with some of the words from 'Ave Maria'. This reliquary glows.

At the very top of the reliquary we see God the Father surrounded by angels all in blue sending his spirit to the Virgin as Gabriel explains what's happening. The Virgin and Angels are on a carpet with pelican designs, a symbol of the death of Christ to come, so, even at this early stage, Christ's fate is sealed. Between them is a vase with lillies, the symbol of purity often seen in paintings showing this scene. Underneath this we see what happens nine months later as the Magi come to worship the new king.

This 'Adoration of the Magi' is my new favourite depiction of the scene. Mary holds out the child to the oldest of the Magi who removes his crown as he crouches down to kiss the foot of the new king while the other two Magi stand and bow. I like their retinue who don't seem to understand what is happening in front of them and, instead, chat to each other, or, perhaps, tell each other to be quiet. Who knows? The man at the back seems to be having trouble with his camel. Only one of the men seems to be looking towards the scene in front of him, the others all looking elsewhere, missing the significance of what's happening. Gorgeous colours and composition and don't forget the story.

The next reliquary is the 'Coronation of the Virgin' with the familiar scene, just on a smaller scale with it's gorgeous range of colours. The 'predella' shows Mary and Joseph adoring the Child surrounded by angels all dressed in blue. This is quite striking and really stands out with the angels all dressed in the same way.

At the front of the scene we once again have Mary Magdalene with her unruly hair streaming down her back, but most noticeable is the figure of St Thomas Aquinas looking out at the viewer. He's holding his Bible and looking at us. Another character looking out at us is St Peter in the front row of saints to the left hand side. Why are these two looking at us? I have no idea but presume there is a link between them somewhere. Maybe it's a kind of 'read your Bible if you want to get into Heaven' kind of message?

Next to this reliquary is a small drawing in ink of St Jerome. It's only a few inches tall and is quite faded but the Fra still manages to bring some expression to the face and his voluminous robes.

Next to this is another panel showing the 'Dormition of the Virgin', about a decade earlier than the other Dormition panel and a lot busier with people gathered round trying to help as we do at times of stress, and not always for the best. Above we see the angels gathering to welcome the Virgin into Heaven, with Christ in the centre. I like how most of the men are shown as being old - this is not the young Virgin who gave birth to their Lord, the years have passed and they're all older now but their devotion remains.

The next work is the reliquary bought by Isabella Stewart Gardner and was the first painting by Fra Angelico to come to America. It's usually hung in the Palace (as her house is now called, attached to the exhibition centre) in a rather odd place on the side of a fireplace so it would be easy to miss unless you know it's there. I found the place it normally hangs because I'm nosy. Apparently it's part of her will endowing the museum that none of the paintings can be removed other than for short exhibitions in her own museum and where they're hung can't even be changed. She decided where everything would be seen to best effect amongst her astonishing collection. This panel shows two scenes, the Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin as she ascends to Heaven.

We see Christ at the very top of the panel, identified as Christ since he has the cross of the resurrection in his halo, waiting to welcome his mother into Heaven. A rather ethereal Mary is ascending towards Heaven surrounded by angels and leaving her earthly body behind in the bottom scene. Once again, the Dormition scene includes the risen Christ carrying a young boy, presumably himself before he grew into his godhood. This is the painting that inspired other American museums to start trying to acquire paintings by Fra Angelico so is quite important in that respect.

Since it's the Gardner Museum's own painting then the gift shop has lots of products for sale based on it - prints, glasses cases, bookmarks, fridge magnets and more. It's also the face of the exhibition and I saw an advert for the exhibition using this image on the side of a Green Line underground train.

The final reliquary is a simple Virgin and Child and the good Fra had painted many Virgin and Child's by the time he produced this one. Called 'Madonna della Stella' (Virgin of the Star) it really catches the eye with it's deep, deep blue robe and simple composition. The very simplicity of the piece is what makes it so gorgeous, the simple colour palette and the gleaming gold-leaf background highlighting the figure of the Virgin with her child. And just look at those angels on either side the Virgin, they're marvellous and fully rendered. I think my favourite is the top left angel in the pale lilac robe.

And just look at how that baby is nuzzling into his mother's cheek, a lovely scene of maternal affection. I also like the way the gold leaf has been tooled to produce rays of light emanating from the holy pair. This is another work I'd love to see by candle-light.

The reliquaries are all presented in glass boxes so you can also see the back of the works and see how the frames were built around the paintings. The back of the panel for the Dormition and Ascension was the most interesting with the pattern on the back and the shape being obvious. I like seeing the back of paintings, you never know what you might see. And, of course, remember that none of these frames are the originals.

This is a fascinating exhibition and if you're in Boston in the next couple of months then I'd certainly recommend a visit. There are a series of events and talks associated with the exhibition and I was lucky enough to catch a talk from one of the Museum experts on my second visit (yes, I went twice).

After seeing the exhibition - which was why I was there - I went to wander round the Palace, the name now used for Gardner's house and museum, and found a range of fascinating stuff, including a Giotto sitting on the top of  a desk. But that's a blog for another day.

Thank you Gardner Museum for such a great exhibition about Fra Angelico, I thoroughly enjoyed my visits.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

'Macbeth' at the National Theatre

'Macbeth' at the National Theatre on the Olivier Stage? Rory Kinnear as Macbeth? Well, obviously I had to go and see it. It's one of those awkward plays where I've yet to see a great production so maybe this will be it? 'Macbeth' is one of those plays where there's a lot going on and the director really needs to decide which avenue to take the production down and what story he really wants to tell. Rufus Norris directs this production and, since he's the current Artistic Director of the National Theatre, then this is really his baby.

I've seen Rory Kinnear in loads of things over the years (except his 'James Bond' role) and he's done the 'greats' of Shakespeare - Hamlet, Iago and now Macbeth, all on the Olivier stage - and I look forward to seeing his Lear one day when he's older. I really enjoyed his most recent roles in 'The Threepenny Opera' and 'Young Marx' and was looking forward to seeing what he would do with 'Macbeth'.

There's always that moment when you first walk into the Olivier Theatre and see the stage and the initial set - the stage is too big to be curtained off - and that sets the pattern for the thought processes. In this case, we had a funny looking bridge with totem poles and a backdrop of black plastic bags stuck together to create a rocky grotto or a waterfall (I'm not sure which). I quite liked it at first. What's all this meant to be then? It doesn't look like Scotland to me but I'm sure it'll all become clear at some point. Then, without any notice and while the audience was still chattering, a few people ran down the bridge followed by enemies and while some run off another is beheaded. And then the wyrd sisters arrive to open the dialogue. I wasn't quite sure why one of them kept running round and round the stage but why shouldn't she be on speed? She's a witch after all.

So. Quite a dramatic start and I'm all approving - drama, spectacle, blood, magic and weirdness. That's what I want. Then the play's off and running and we see characters all dressed a bit steampunk except the king who's in a cheap red suit. Then we see Macbeth's castle which seems to be a few concrete bunkers and I start wondering what's going on. Why would a great lord who commands an army dress and live like that? It makes no sense. Throughout history rich people dress richly, not in a hodge-podge of bits and pieces like anyone else. Otherwise, why be rich and powerful?

There seems to be a trend at the moment for 'ugly' productions. I saw 'Julius Caeser' a month ago which features Mark Anthony, one of the richest men in the world, wearing a cheap flannel hoody and I sat there thinking 'why would he wear that?' rather than listening to the text. Ugly productions can be very distracting and it didn't really help this production of 'Macbeth'. It must've been great fun to be let loose with the dressing-up box but isn't there more to putting on a great play on one of the nations great stages?  Doing a steampunk version might sound attractive in a rehearsal room but does it really work?

I also wasn't too keen on some the '90's elements of the production, like the boisterousness of the men at some points, banging tables and shouting 'oi! oi! oi!'. Really? That just struck me as lad culture gone to the extremes. This was particularly galling in the banquet scene in a  Nissen hut with folding tables and spindly chairs (exactly what you'd expect in a king's castle) and the queen dressed in pink bits and pieces. Are these people squatters or what?

I suspect part of the problem is directors and producers wanting to make Shakespeare 'relevant' to a modern audience, to young people, and attract people to the theatre. What they seem to forget is that Shakespeare's plays are being put on because they are great plays with universal themes and great poetry and don't need to be adapted. Let the play tell the story because, let's face it, it's a great story. Trust the material you've got in front of you, it's been around for 500 years and still works.

Overall, I think I quite liked this production - or, rather, some elements of the production - but wouldn't go back for seconds. I liked the weird witches in all their witchiness but I'm not sure why they climbed the totem poles in the final scene, I liked the main characters (until Banquo became a zombie rather than a ghost) and some of the acting was great but, I think, held back by the overall design of the production. Bits of the play seemed to have been switched around and cut for some reason but it flowed well enough.

I liked Kevin Harvey as Banquo (until he became a zombie), Trevor Fox as the porter and Amaka Okafor as Lady Macduff, all great performances. I was less impressed by Patrick O'Kane as Macduff who came across as 'Belfast thug' rather than anything else.

Anne-Marie Duff was fine as Lady Macbeth and seemed to push her way through the awful patched rags she wore as a steampunk queen to give us some real emotion. And so did Rory Kinnear, especially in the quieter scenes. They both know how to speak Shakespeare.

There you are. I'm pleased I've seen it but I won't be going back to see it again. I'm still waiting for the great 'Macbeth'. One day ....

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

'All Too Human' at Tate Britain

I braved the snow and cold to visit the new exhibition at Tate Britain, 'All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life'. The title sort of suggests it's all about life painting but it also included some paintings - not many - of painting the built environment, such as Auerbach's paintings of his North London stomping ground and works by some other artists. One of these paintings that stood out for me was 'Citadel' by FN Souza with it's strange jewel-like colours and dark background. But it was the life painting and portraits I wanted to see.

The focus was very much on the second half of the 20th Century which makes it a bit odd subtitling the exhibition as a 'century' of painting. The first room includes some works from earlier in the century, such as 'Polish Woman' by Chaim Soutine and two portraits of Patricia Preece (one clothed and one naked). We then rush forward to works produced after the Second World War and artists like Bacon Souza and William  Coldstream.

I was quite taken by Coldstream's 'Seated Nude' from 1952-53, by it's simplicity and accuracy. Look at that head and face, that is definitely a woman placed in a specific time with short hair, simply styled, and white body with some colour on arms and legs where they've been exposed to some sun. She is not idealised and, other than the hair style, could have been on the Number 19 bus this morning going to work. There were a couple of other nudes by Coldstream, including one of an older woman who was bare breasted but wearing a white skirt for some reason, but I liked the simplicity and honesty of this one. I wonder who she was?

There were a few paintings of the city by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, and one that really sprang to life was Kossoff's 'Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon 1971'. I'm the right age to have been in that massively overcrowded pool in 1971 and I could almost hear the shrieking and laughing of the kids jumping in and splashing each other, and the teacher or life guard shouting at a group of boys up to no good. I've been there. Of course, no sane person would allow so many people in the pool at once.

I'm not too keen on Bacon but I was very impressed with the selection of portraits by Lucian Freud. I haven't seen that much of his work before so it was good to see so many of his paintings at the same time, some head and shoulders, some full body, big and small works from odd angles. One of the first we see is an early self-portrait ('Man's Head (Self Portrait I)'from 1963) with slabs of contrasting colour and vigorous brush marks. Bright highlights and darker tones easily capturing the image in a surprisingly simple and effective portrait.

Another of Freud's paintings that caught my attention was his portrait of Frank Auerbach from 1975-76. Again, it's deceptively simple and shows the shape of the forehead and nose with simple, blunt strokes that brings the painting to life. He added a touch of green to the skin tone here, used a brush stroke there and voila! a real life person captured in paint. I stood in front of this painting for a while trying to work out how he'd constructed this portrait and made it so life-like. I suspect that some of the colour of his shirt has made it's way into his face (I would've done that too).

The room is filled with other paintings by Freud, including portraits of Leigh Bowery and of Sue Tilley (both, strangely, asleep) and a large painting of Freud's assistant and his dog, 'David and Eli'.

There's a room full of paintings by Paula Rego which are worth viewing and a rather striking self- portrait of Celia Paul called 'Painter and Model' from 2012. I'm not entirely sure why this painting attracted me, a slender woman with an extreme hair-cut wearing a smock covered in paint spatters. Maybe it's the sheer messiness of the painting, with squeezed tubes of paint at her feet and the dirty smock covering her from shoulders to feet. Or maybe it's the stillness of the painting that simply says, 'I'm here'.

The final room included a huge painting by Jenny Saville, at maybe 6'x6' square, simply of her face called 'Reverse' from 2002-03. The label beside the painting says that she 'collected' images of flesh wounds to try to match the skin colours and this painting just radiates that, with the deep red flesh tones around the mouth. I wasn't the only viewer to be fascinated by this painting with a few others while I was there looking at it then at others and returning to it. It's a very strange and powerful image. And big.

So there you have it, my take on another exhibition at Tate Britain. It's not one of their best but it's definitely worth viewing and I'll be going back, if only to examine those Lucian Freud portraits again.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

'Lady Windermere's Fan' at the Vaudeville Theatre

Continuing the Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville Theatre is 'Lady Windermere's Fan' and they've really pushed out the fan motif with this one, with fans around the proscenium arch, on the curtain, the window and the back of the stage and even the floorboards. Well done to the designer! Of course, you don't go to the theatre to check out the designers work (well, I don't) but it was a very nice, clean design that we saw when the curtain rose.

'Lady Windermere's Fan' is another one of Oscar's mistaken identity plays, a play of misunderstandings and untold truths and, as you'd expect, a satire on 'society'. We're in high society here and everyone in the play has a title of some sort, Lord this or Duchess that, other than the common (but quite nice) Australian with his kangaroos and odd accent but great wealth. And, of course, the servants (but they don't really count, do they?).

The play opens with Lady Windermere arranging some roses on the morning of her birthday party and mentioning that her husband has got her a new fan (I think I'd be upset if that's all I got). Then the Duchess of Berwick arrives to commiserate with the Lady that her husband is obviously having an affair with Mrs Erlynne who is the talk of society. Lord Windermere arrives home and insists that Mrs Erlynne is invited to his wife's birthday party that evening but can't explain why. O dear, why do people do this?

The party is full of gossip, particularly about Mrs Erlynne who flirts with everyone. Lady Windermere, however, can't take the humiliation and decides to run away with Lord Darlington who has expressed his love for her. She writes a note to her husband and leaves but when she gets to Lord Darlington's rooms he isn't there and Mrs Erlynne appears to plead with her to return to her husband. And then the men arrive from their club, not quite drunk enough yet to go home. The ladies hide but, during the banter, Lady Windermere's fan is discovered and accusations fly. That is when Mrs Erlynne reveals herself to the assembled menfolk and when Lady Windermere can slip away unseen... I won't take the story forward since that will spoil it for anyone with tickets to see the play.

This production is great fun. I really liked the stripped back stage with it's bare floorboards in the shape of a fan, the few bits of furniture as props and the clean, light view we're offered. It works so much better than the traditional over-furnished Victorian drawing room. It gave the actors space to move, especially the ladies in their large frocks.

We are definitely in comedy territory here with lots of witty word play and laugh out loud moments. It's also very contemporary with the #MeToo moment except here it's th women letting their men off the hook to give them a break. It's directed excellently by Kathy Burke with a light touch and letting the writing tell the story.

As with the other play I've seen in this season we are given a musical interlude by the characters in the play between the acts and tis time we have the Duchess of Berwick singing with the collective servants of the household giving us a rude song. The Duchess came out between acts three and four to give is her ribald song about being touched on the bum - or 'fan' - with lots of sly looks at the ladies maid beside her as she got too enthusiastic with her instruments. I very much approve of these interludes.

This production is great fun and I'd happily see it again. Wilde is still obviously using his characters to express his views on 'society' and the 'lost child/lost parent' storyline is a bit obvious but that doesn't distract from the production in the slightest. Jennifer Saunders is great as the Duchess of Berwick (and our interlude singer) while Samantha Spiro is both coquettish and caring as Mrs Erlynne. Joseph Marcell is also worth mentioning as Lord Lorton with his bunch of red roses. I also liked Kevin Bishop as Lord Darlington who was gifted with the words that 'We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars'. It's quite nice that those words are repeated a few hundred yards down the Strand on a monument to Oscar Wilde opposite Charing Cross Station.

 If you get the chance then go and see this play - it's great fun and well worth seeing!

Friday, 23 February 2018

'Punk and the Pistols' at Regent Street Cinema

Regent Street Cinema put on a screening of an Arena documentary from 1995, 'Punk and the Pistols', and I was there. I didn't see the documentary back in 1995 so it was a bit odd to watch something that was already over 20 years old that was looking back at something that happened 20 years before the film was made - over 40 years ago in total.

Views on punk change over time, including the people who were directly involved, and they express their views differently. What we saw were views stuck in time in the early '90s as some of the main protagonists looked back to the '70s. Interviews with Vivien Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and Jordan, from Siouxsie Sioux and Captain Sensible and, of course, from Glen Matlock, Paul Cook and John Lydon (but not from Steve Jones). Interestingly, the documentary was made before the Pistols' first reunion gigs. There were some great clips of Poly Styrene and the Damned and even a brief look at the Clash and The Jam. There were other names interviewed including Richard Hell who claimed to have invented punk and said the New York Dolls invented throwing up in airports (personally, I suspect it was the beer and spirits that caused throwing up in airports). It was great fun and it was nice to look back at my youth.

The Q&A afterwards was a different matter entirely. We had Paul Tickell, the director of the documentary, and Jon Savage, punk chronicler. It was interesting to hear Paul talk about the background to some of the film, the logistical problems, delays in broadcasting until they'd secured an interview with John Lydon and his own memories of the time. Jon Savage tried to be a bit more intellectual and wide ranging and a little bit smug, saying that he thought punk was over by 1977 when it actually just broke out of London to the wider country.  

The Q&A was a car crash as these things usually are and the chair did nothing to try to manage or direct the session. It ended up with the usual thing of people making statements of their own views rather than questions and discussion, asking questions about topics that have already been covered and, because it's about punk, arguing with each other. O the fun we had.

The positive thing about the Q&A session (awful as it was) was that people still cared. That is a good thing. At one point Jon Savage commented that all the original punks were now in their 60s and a lot of the audience were as well (quite clearly in many cases). Time moves on but I wonder whether people are living in the past or whether they're living their own truths? I hope it's the latter.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

'Satyagraha' at the Coliseum

Philip Glass's 'Satyagraha' is on at the Coliseum with the English National Opera. I saw his 'Akhenaten' there a couple of years ago  and thought it would be interesting to see another of his works. I wasn't quite sure what I was watching a couple of years ago and that experience was repeated last week at this performance.

The production tells a version of the tale of Mahatma Ghandi's early years in South Africa, some of which I'm vaguely familiar with but not to the extent of knowing about the specific incidents we saw on that stage. I'm also, you'll be surprised to hear, I'm sure,  not familiar with Sanskrit so couldn't follow the tale by listening to the words since there were no surtitles. It all came down to the visuals, and some of those were astonishing.

Phelim McDermott's visuals left the stage bare at times and at others incredibly rich with spectacle built upon spectacle. Giant animals made out of baskets appear out of nowhere, gods on stilts battle for supremacy and random pages from a newspaper create a swirling maelstrom that Ghandi both disappears into and is created from. What on earth is this? What am I watching? The answer is that I didn't know while I watched and still don't know. I don't really want to know since I'd much rather revel in the random artistry of the piece.

The singers and chorus are dressed variously as Victorian ladies and gentlemen and this gradually changes to dhotis and saris for many of the characters as the story progresses and Ghandi rejects British modes and adopts his traditional Indian dress and traditions. It struck me as rather strange at the time, something quite challenging in it's own way since we rarely see a stage full of people dressed in what we think of as traditional Indian garb.

The music is slow and stately, swirling and repetitious with the same phrases seemingly repeated endlessly. Far from making me nod off it actually kept my attention riveted to the music, possibly simply waiting to spot the moment when it changed, perhaps? That will remain a mystery. I have to say that I don't think I could listen to it without the visuals. This is definitely one of those pieces that relies on the whole, rather than it's parts, in order to work.

Toby Spence sang Ghandi with sopranos Charlotte Beamont and Anna-Clare Monk. Karen Kamensek was the conductor (who also conducted 'Akhnaten' a couple of years ago).

While I quite like simply revealing in the experience and not wanting to try too hard to understand it, something that simply increased my frustration as the production moved forward was the continuous slow pace of every movement. How on earth can someone physically move so slowly across a stage for just under three hours? Even the memory of it makes me feel frustrated and need to move with increasing speed.  I can only give the performers kudos for sustaining it but, c'mon people, have some regard for it might make the audience feel!

I wonder what the next Glass production might bring?