Monday, 31 March 2014

Hockney, Printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery

The perfect time to wander round an art gallery is a sunny Sunday afternoon provided it's not packed out with people doing the same thing. Yesterday we went to see the David Hockney exhibition of his prints over the last 50 years or so and it struck a nice balance between being busy and having enough space to see the pictures at your leisure.

I've never been a big fan of Hockney - he's always been a bit too famous for being famous kind of thing - but this exhibition shows us different sides to his art and his creativity. How many artists have tried making prints by using a photocopier? And who is still experimenting with techniques he first touched in the 1950s? That's dedication, particularly when he could simply paint the pictures he sees in his head.

His early works mostly seem to be line drawings, sometimes with a splash of colour and other times resting on their simplicity. We're given his series of prints from his visit to New York in the early '60s, his version of the Rake's Progress, and, later, his erotic series illustrating the poems of Cavafy with young men in states of undress and in bed together. The notes beside the series of printed questions whether this was his contribution to the campaign to legalise homosexuality in 1967. Possibly, but even Hockney isn't sure.

These are both interesting series of prints that help the viewer to grasp how he constructed his more narrative works. The relative simplicity of his early prints is attractive in its own way but I prefer his later and more experimental pieces.

We see some of the various series of prints he created while in California as well as portraits of the people he knew in those days, such as his 'Hollywood Collection' and 'The Weather Series'. From that section of his career I'd pick out the delightfully simple 'Coloured Flowers Made of Paper and Ink' with flowers in a vase and coloured pencils laid out on the table in front of the vase. It's sheer simplicity beckons me in.

I onder if that's it's attraction? I stood in front of it for longer than many of the other prints and I noticed other people resounding in a similar fashion. What is it about it that catches the attention and makes us look again? There's shape and colour but what else? Or is simply the coloured pencils in the foreground?

The final room of the exhibition is the most unforgettable, at least for me. The vibrancy of colour is astonishing, particularly from his 'Moving Focus' series of prints that capture the courtyard of a hotel in Mexico he only discovered when his car broke down. The complexity of the printing technique he was using and the astonishing colours make these impressive in anyone's language.

The pictures here don't adequately reflect the glory of the colour, the deepest, violent red and the calmest green, the imaginative perspective and the absence of humanity to declaim the architectural beauty of the place. I was aghast - how can these colours exist without me knowing? This reproduction bears no resemblance to the glory of the real thing. There are two prints of the same scene done at different times, one portrait and one landscape, both using the same incredible colours. If I could steal any of the prints and get away with it then I'd steal one of these.

 The exhibition is on for another few weeks so get yourself down to Dulwich and glory in the colours and shapes Mr Hockney creates.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Kate Bush - Before The Dawn

If you've been living in a box on the far side of the Moon then you might not have heard that Kate Bush is returning to the stage for live shows at Hammersmith Apollo (or the Eventim Apollo as it now seems to be called) between August and October this year. Hammersmith was the site of Kate's last live gig in 1979 so it's fitting that she returns there for this residency of 22 shows.

Kate is doing what she can to ensure that tickets aren't simply hovered up by ticket agencies and touts by limiting the number of tickets anyone can buy to four, all of which will have the buyers name printed on them and the buyer will have to provide photo-ID to get into the venue. It'll be interesting to see if this works or if it just leads to huge queues getting in but well done to Kate for trying.

This morning there was a pre-sale for fans on the mailing list and, luckily, that included me so I managed to bag two excellent tickets near the front and centre of the stalls. Excited? I should co-co! Then I thought 'what if the show is even more fabulous than I expect it to be and need to see it again' so went searching again and found great tickets in the balcony for a different night... and sat on them.... for five minutes... until it timed out. By buying more tickets means that someone else probably won't see Kate at all whereas I'd already bought excellent tickets. Is that foolish? Does anyone actually care?

I care. I usually feel guilty getting into gigs and show in advance of a general sale - well, I do after I've bought tickets, obviously - but that's the way these things are done these days. That's why I maintain my Southbank membership for things like Meltdown that go on sale to members a few days before general sale, just like this pre-sale. But it can mean that lifelong fans don't get into shows because they weren't on the right mailing list or something. I'm not sure what else can be done and that's partly why it'll be interesting to see whether the ticket restrictions for Kate's gigs will work and whether others will follow her approach.

Tickets go on general sale on Friday morning at 9:30am and you just know the Internet will be burning with people chasing tickets. At least, after selling out the pre-sale in half an hour this morning, another seven shows were added so there's more of a chance for people getting tickets. I might throw my hat in the ring again in the general free-for-all.

Good luck people and thank you Kate.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

#CockInASock 4 @BallsToCancer

Something strange happened on Twitter yesterday when loads of naked men and others with bare crotches posted photos of themselves with their willy modestly hidden within a sock. I did not join in - thought I'd say that right up front. I doubt the sight of a flabby white, hairy belly would do much for the cause but I do have the best socks in the world (obv). That's been proven on many occasions and is proven yet again below.

The cause was the male cancer charity Balls To Cancer. It hasn't been around very long but is making its mark by using social media and plain speaking messages. The sensible tweet from men showing off including text numbers to donate funding (text ball08 to 70070 to donate £2) but, whatever, it's raising awareness of the issue and that's a good thing. There seems to still be a thing about not showing the male body - or at least genitals - or talking about male-specific cancer or other illnesses. What's that about? Half of us are men and we know what we've got down there so what's the problem?

This weekend there also seems to have been a spate of #selfiewithoutmakeup postings on Twitter, with women posting photos of themselves without make-up. That then led onto a discussion about whether and why that was considered 'brave'. Amanda Palmer, who recognises no nudity taboo and who's naked body I have personally written on, was soon brought into the Twitter discussion and with killer precision posted:

there shouldn't be anything "brave" about looking like yourself. what kind of a fucked up world do we live in if that's true?
23/03/2014 16:52

It is a sad comment on us all that covering up is wrong and not covering up is wrong. Which one is right? Does it matter if either is right or should we all just go our merry way and be ourselves? The prude and the libertine have been warring for many years but I'd rather think we're all beautiful in our own way. Young people are all beautiful so are the wrinkly old couple walking along the street holding hands. And those of us in-between? Well, we're obviously the most beautiful of all!

So, here's a photo that was tweeted of the Ibiza Rugby Club doing the sock thing yesterday:

And here is a sample of my own socks (see? I told you... but no cock in them):

And here is Amanda Palmer singing 'Dear Daily Mail' at the Roundhouse in 2013 after the Daily Mail made an idiot of itself by commented on her escaped breast at Glastonbury (it has escaped many, many times before). I was there that night to clap along, enjoy the humour and joined in the final 'up yours!' at the end. Watch and enjoy!

'Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger' at the BFI

I went to see Sam Feder's film, 'Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger' at the British Film Institute the other evening. Kate transitioned to female in the '80s but, as she says, she's not a woman and not a man so what is she? That's what the film explores.

I didn't know anything about Kate before the film but she's one of those rare breed of people who find their own path and follow it. Going through university in the late '60s, becoming a scientologist in the '70s, marrying and having a daughter before leaving her behind and changing her body in the '80s but, seemingly, being the same person inside. She's written plays, been a performance artist, a gender theorist and writer and goes on book tours and continues to give public readings. She's been around.

The film was made over the last three years, with clips of Kate talking to camera, recordings of some of her talks, old film clips from the '80s, chatting about the past with friends, handing out her 'get out of hell free' cards to street performers and going back to where she grew up. She also tells us about being accused of being transphobic for using the term 'tranny', which is how she describes herself. She's undergone treatment for lung cancer and was clear for a while but it's come back - and we see her receiving the call from her doctor - and she's back in treatment. That meant she couldn't attend the screening to do a Q&A.

The title of the film comes from the memoir she published a few years ago, 'A Queer and Pleasant Danger', in which she tells her story as man, woman and gender outlaw. We're given a portrait of a very smiley person - I can't recall if there are any images in the film in which she's not smiling - who accepts people for who and what they are or want to be and perpetually drags on an electronic cigarette. It's a fascinating glimpse in to the world of someone who created their own world through sheer force of personality, taking on the world on her own terms and, if not winning, certainly keeping on an even keel.

I think it's important that films like this are made and screened, firstly as a record that people like Kate live and work to make the world a better place, but also to allow the rest of us a glimpse into a world we would probably, otherwise, not know exists. Or, if we do, would probably only see a skewed version of it. I saw a similar kind of documentary a few years ago about Candy Darling called 'Beautiful Darling' but I've heard nothing about it since then. Hopefully the portrait of Kate will be seen again.

As Kate says at the end of the film, standing on the beach with the Atlantic behind her,  'Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living, just don't be mean'.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

'Ghosts' at the Trafalgar Studios

On Friday we went to see Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts'. It was originally produced at the Almeida but transferred to the Trafalgar Studios to keep it going for a few months. It was a good job it did so I could see it.

I'm not the greatest fan of Ibsen and, in a way, this play confirmed my fears. It was another Scandinavian public v private morality tale with a few twists in the tail. Another tale of outwardly good citizens with dark secrets and a life hidden from society. Of hypocrisy, of private danger, of sin and retribution. Of children suffering for the sins of the father.

It's a relatively short play of only 1:40 hours so it packs a lot into a short space of time. Even so, it's nice to see some fully rounded characters in the cast despite the short time they have to establish themselves. The weakest was, I thought, the pastor, who was a bit one dimensional and very stereotypical, even when found out setting light to a newly build orphanage and instantly getting off by lies and deceit. The other characters were, I felt more strongly drawn even those with far fewer lines, or, at least, they came alive to me.

It's one of those plays when I have no difficulty splitting off the play from the performances. There are five characters and all emerged neatly from the page to live and breathe in front of us, the two most compelling were the mother and son in whose house the play takes place, the son returning as a prodigal from the flesh pits of libertine Paris to small town, protestant, Scandinavia on the eve of an orphanage opening in the name of his dead father. The father never appears but is thoroughly painted as a bad 'un, out drinking and whoring until the cows come home, or, in his case, syphilis. The mother kept the public facade going despite reading radical feminist treatises and political pamphlets. When push comes to shove, she has to tell her son that the maid he wants to run away with is his step-sister. At that point she re-invents the past in that she might have been the one to push her husband to drink and debauchery. Who knows?

It's a production of peaks and troughs, of moments of tension growing and growing and then being smoothed out, releasing the tension for a time before it builds again. Up and down we go as one moment of catastrophe is averted to be followed by another. And then it is, in the finale, that sees Lesley Manville throw all caution to the wind and dive head-first into a role that requires her to help her beloved son to die. Can she do it as the orphanage is in embers in the distance? The son she tried to save by sending away as a boy and the sins of the father returning to wreak revenge. It's a magnificent, spell-binding performance.


Thursday, 13 March 2014

'Oh What A Lovely War' at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Stratford East is presenting a revival of 'Oh What A Lovely War' 51 years after it was workshopped and performed on that very stage and 100 years after the start of World War I, the subject of the musical. I've never managed to watch the film all the way through but I saw a different revival four years ago at Richmond and that made me want to see this version at its birthplace.

It's a story about the First World War from the events that caused countries to declare war on each other to the end with a photo of six British Tommys with metal cups of tea in a trench as war is finally over. We see the snobbery of those in power around the globe one-upping each other and the losers are always the ordinary working man. One scene is about war-mongers from different nations selling arms to each other irrespective of their own nationalities - money doesn't care. It may be 50 years old but it's also timeless.

In many respects it followed the expected pattern of the cast in pierot costumes (because Joan Littlewood hated khaki and uniforms), images of the war projected on a screen at the back of the stage and a 'ticker tape' display giving us the headlines of how many died at Ypres and other battles for no gain.

Everyone in the cast came on playing different roles, often with a coat or boots over their pierot costume to reflect who they were meant to be, from an aristocratic 'brave Belgium' to an East End Tommy. The women get the most costume changes when they play music hall singers encouraging women to shame their menfolk into signing up for the army or sing a tongue twister about Susie sewing shirts for the army (I couldn't join in with that one).

Despite the pierot costumes this is a deeply serious play wrapped within a musical comedy format. The first half is largely scene-setting with most of the horror of war being shown in the second half - we've been drawn in by that time. The horror is personified by General Haig (of the whisky y'know, trade) who is seen to intrigue his way to the head of the war office to try out his ridiculous ideas of how to win the war by sheer numbers - throw more at the enemy and we will win eventually. Um, no. In one awful scene we see him praying to God to win the next offensive before the Americans join the war. It's all about him.

The star of the show for me was Caroline Quentin as lead lady, a role originally played by a young Barbara Windsor. I've seen Caroline lots on telly but never before on the stage and she was a delight, drawing the spotlight when she was up-front and blending into the crowd at the back when appropriate. She brought a welcome lift after some of the more harrowing scenes and did it with ease. I'd like to see her on the stage more often.

One of the final songs was about how the Tommy's didn't talk about their experiences when they returned home. And that's true. My Granda was 17 when the war started and he returned home at the age of 21 leaving his left arm in France. He never spoke to his children about the war or to me when I visited him in the '80s and he'd take me to his local pub for the obligatory pint or two. The war was something not to be shared or talked about, even so many years afterwards.

I can't help but feel that 'Oh What A Lovely War' is more of a statement than a piece of theatre but is that wrong? It's a powerful message that is still relevant today. If you're going to declare war anywhere then please watch this musical first. You might change your mind.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Ronnie Spector - Beyond The Beehive at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Last night we went to see Ronnie Spector's 'Beyond The Beehive' show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in which she takes us through the story of her life with words, music, photos and videos. The show was part of the Women of the World series and she brought out and talked about her own experiences as a woman in the early days of pop music through to today, most particularly being married to a controlling and threatening man.

Ronnie kicked off my taking about her childhood in Spanish Harlem in New York, her mother part Black and part Cherokee while her dad was Irish. As she talked she showed photos of those long ago days, keeping it fast paced and punctuated by songs, from her love of doo-wop to forming the Ronettes, touring the UK supported by the Rolling Stones, flirting with the Beatles and the shock of leaving the music business unexpectedly when she married Phil Spector. The format was a few minutes of talk and photos or video projected behind her followed by a song and then more spoken word.

The core narrative seemed to be that she married a jealous control freak who ended her career when they married and, when she escaped, bullied and threatened her into becoming a non-entity and erasing her from the history of pop music. She fought her way back into becoming the singer she always wanted to be and ended the show by saying she will not be erased from history. She sounded delighted about finally being inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame against threats from Phil Spector, her place finally secured. But she still wants us to remember the music, the songs she helped bring to life.

She gave us songs from across her long career, from the Ronette's 'Be my Baby' in the 60s to 'Girls From The Ghetto', an autobiographical song from her last album in 2006. She gave us her version of 'Time Is On My Side' by the Stones, the song she recorded for George Harrison, 'Try Some, Buy Some', 'Say Goodbye To Hollywood' recorded with the E-Street Band and 'She Talks to Rainbows', recorded with Joey Ramone. She brought us right up to date with her version of Amy Winehouse's 'Back To Black'.

It must be odd being in Ronnie's position, someone who was around from almost the start of pop music as we know it, became a huge star and then vanished just as her career was really taking off. Knowing all the luminaries of the 60s and 70s, appearing now and then to make music with them but never reaching that peak again. Resurfacing with Bruce Springsteen and later with Joey Ramone, always the rock chick but no longer the superstar. She tells a fascinating tale.

My favourite piece of video was the Ronettes shaking their pert bums at incredible speed on stage in the early '60s - how did they do that?

Extra kudos to Ronnie for playing The Ramones as the entrance music ('Blitzkreig Bop' anyone?) and closing with Joey Ramone's 'What A Wonderful World'. That's a nice tribute to an old fan and friend who is no longer with us.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Amanda Palmer 'Ukulele Anthem' 2014

I was privileged to see a preview of Amanda Palmer's 'Ukulele Anthem' at the British Library in 2011, with Neil Gaiman on his knees holding up the lyric sheets since it was such a new song. I've seen Amanda play it a few times and there are various videos on YouTube performing it all over the world. But, today, Amanda posted the perfect version of her playing the song at the Sydney Opera House with the wind whipping her costume around her. All I can say is 'wow'.

Amanda is supposed to be writing her book about crowd-funding and the future of the music biz but she obviously needed some time off to perform. She's been quiet on Twitter for the last couple of weeks which is always a sign that something is up... The video was taken down in the small hours for some reason but it's back up and that's good for all of us.

This video is simple and so fantastic, focusing on the words of the song as Amanda fights against the wind. And she wins. This is an example of why I love her.

Lovely to have you back Amanda!