Saturday, 27 February 2016

'After The Rain' and more at the Royal Opera House

Last week I went to see a triple bill of ballets by Christopher Wheeldon, namely 'After The Rain', 'Strapless' and 'Within The Golden Hour'. All were danced by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. And all were marvellous!

'After The Rain' is an abstract piece with little staging, just the music and the dancers and really subtle lighting. The rain appears with the first dancers and becomes a storm, with the ladies dancing tippy-toe in the puddles, delicate steps, many steps as the rain falls down and wind blows and the leaves swirl in the puddles and then the sun comes out and it's all so languorous and lazy. The final scenes are voluptuous in their laziness, lying in the sun to dry and refresh, gentle, as opposed to the business of the rain storm. And then it's over. The astonishing thing is that I did see a rainstorm, I did see puddles, I did see leaves in puddles, all from the skill of the choreography and the dancing. That is what art is all about.

'Strapless' is a far more narrative piece and a new work from Mr Wheeldon premiering this season. It's about John Singer Sargent and 'Madame X', his great portrait of Amelie Gautreau that saw them both ostracised from fashionable Parisian society in the late 1800s because the strap of her gown had fallen over her shoulder. The narrative takes us from the morning when Amelie wakes up and can't decide what dress to wear, to Sargent's studio where he is busy painting the handsome Dr Pozzi in his long scarlet dressing gown and, seemingly, flirting as lovers, to Amelie seducing (or being seduced by) Dr Pozzi on stage when Sargent leaves them alone. Then the painting is displayed to universal dismay and disdain and the end of her stint as a socialite. She travels forward 100 years and we see her in her underwear in a gallery with crowds of modern day people admiring the elegance and beauty of her portrait but no-one can see her, just the image remains.

I loved this and I loved the extended seduction scene when Amelie and Dr Pozzi danced and gyrated and made love and consummated their union as lovers do. It was very powerful but it left poor Mr Sargent out in the cold somewhat.

The final ballet was 'Within The Golden Hour', another abstract ballet with repetitive movements going  on and on and building and building never ending as the pairs of dancers moved together. It was constant and rhythmic and ever so mesmerising as the movement never stopped or significantly slowed, it just kept moving forward, even as the curtain fell there was no lessening of the movement. And it was nice to see Steven McRae again who I saw a couple of times last year and who was Romeo in the ballet that made me fall in love with the classics.

There is a magic about ballet - good ballet - that speaks a tongue I can't translate but it is marvellous. And the Royal Ballet speak it excellently! Go and see them if you can.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Three Plays In Four Days

Had a bit of theatrical overkill last week with 'Husbands & Sons' at the National Theatre, 'Mrs Henderson Presents' at the Noel Coward Theatre and 'Kinky Boots' at the Adelphi, two musicals and one play as far from being a musical as is possible. Or so it felt at the time.

'Husbands & Sons' is three plays by DH Lawrence knitted together into one performance, handily all set in a mining village in Nottinghamshire at the turn of the century. Each play takes place in one family so we have the outlines of three small houses on the stage for the action to take place in and around and, to be blunt, this set up got weary very quickly. The miming of opening doors, taking off and hanging up coats became tiresome very quickly (they weren't even very good mimes and were too elaborate).  

I quickly got quite tired of the plays - the same thing multiple times can be quite wearying. Tales of poor marriages, of falling apart marriages, of matriarchy, of misplaced fidelity... o dear, o so depressing. I should have known really. I really liked Lawrence when I was younger, his grit and unflinching light-shining on social ills is all terribly right on but o so dreary to watch a century later. And the accents? O no, one bloke's accent was so thick I couldn't make out what he said sometimes. I managed to understand the 'Pitmen Painters' so how come I failed with this? Play to your audience not to your preconceptions.

It's now closed at the National but I think is opening for a season in Manchester. 

Second up was 'Mrs Henderson Presents' based on the film of a few years back with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in the lead roles, so yes, another film transfers to the stage. I had hopes for this and booked tickets for what I later realised was its first ever night in front of a paying London audience. So we had Don Black, the lyricist, in front of us to one side, Christopher Hampton and his straggly hair right in front of us and Baz Bamigboye over to the side in front (can he ever just go to the theatre without being waited on?). Don needs some new rhymes, Christopher needs a haircut and Baz needs a more colourful scarf. That's all I'm saying.

What I quite like about this tale is the bravery of the Windmill theatre 'never closing' during the war, all that British pluck and stiff upper-lipness. By the time I first saw the Windmill in the early 80s it was another sleazy strip joint in Soho along with so many others that have now vanished in favour of Starbucks and Cafe Nero coffee bars. I actually don't know if the Windmill is still there - I shall have to look the next time I'm up that way.

The story is the same as the film, so you know what you're getting, and you do actually get naked women on stage - so much braver than the men. The scene where the women are asked to strip off for the first time is retained, and they ask the men to do the same and that is where one of my doubts crept in. Back in the 70s when some of the men on stage were working and the fathers of the  younger men could have been working then they'd all have it all out on show but here they were strangely coy. In a sort of weird sexist way, where the men feign stripping but the women really do. What's that about? Clearly the men are meant to be nervous but they don't know that we - the audience - are present so why be so coy? That jarred rather.

And so did the lead actress playing Mrs Henderson forcing her Judi Dench accent on us. She's meant to be a posh member of the upper class and Judi isn't really that so what's with the accent? Stop it, it's distracting, do a standard upper class old woman accent please.  But what really annoyed me was some of Don Black's trite rhymes in the songs. After a few songs I played the 'guess the next rhyme' game and was surprised at how often I won. That's enough thank you.

Y'know what? I did like it and wish it well as it struggles to find its place and audience in the West End, less than a mile from the site of the Windmill Theatre. It needs work, it needs tightening up, and it needs the actors to calm down a bit and place hats on tables in a manner that suggests they'll stay there but I quite enjoyed it. I particularly liked Emma Williams who can not only belt out a song in measured and controlled tones but can strip off and walk to the front of the stage to offer the tradition V sign to the Blitz. Well done Emma!

The third play was the best, 'Kinky Boots' at the Adelphi on the Strand that I saw when it was still in preview and enjoyed it so much I wanted to see it again. Of course, I chose the performance that Killian Donnelly decided to do the first few scenes and then stop the show so his understudy could come on - I've not seen an explanation for that yet but I'm not too bothered really, I liked the understudy's voice better.

This show has class written all over it, more so than the other shows this week. The songs are by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein so what's not to like? And Cyndi delivers a score that's worthy of her own back catalogue, changing moods and tempos, taking the story forward rather than just interrupting it. The cast have all grown into their roles since I first saw it last year - I thought Matt Henry as Lola and Amy Lennox as Lauren (would-be girl-friend) were excellent and delivered terrific performances. I also liked Jamie Baughan as Don, the last man you'd ever expect to wear some kinky boots but he does and with great style. 

It's a lovely feel-good show and there's nothing wrong with that at all. If you've had a tough week then round it off with a trip to see this show and you'll come out smiling and maybe even humming along to one or more of the songs. I know I did!

Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Wallace Collection, London

There are lots of cultural places in London I've still yet to visit and one of those was the Wallace Collection. I say 'was' because I finally paid a visit last week. It's sited in an old mansion house in Manchester Square behind Selfridges on Oxford Street, so easy enough to get to. It's terribly grand when you get inside with thick carpets, period wallpaper and plush curtains - it looks like a lot of money has been spent keeping it up and it's free to get in. It has a nice-looking restaurant in the internal courtyard, a nice sized gift and book shop and is't too crowded since it's slightly off the beaten track - a steady stream of visitors rather than crowds which is a good thing.

The ground floor seems to be mainly what I'll call 'artefacts and armour' with loads of suits of armour on display with weapons and horses for models (and yes, there is horse armour too) and some large display cabinets full of ceramics (and not the mass produced stuff either). Upstairs is where the painting and furniture is, mainly French 18th Century works and a lot of it. It's not just what's hanging on the walls that needs to be looked at, it's the walls themselves and everything else in the rooms. There was some glorious wallpaper and matching curtains as well as period furniture of all sorts. It is an old family house after all, even though it a rather large house! It has 25 galleries (i.e. rooms).

My first double-take was when I saw this painting, 'The Swing' by Fragonard. It was a double-take because I saw a large sketch for it in an exhibition of his works in Paris when I was there last year and had no idea that the original was sitting here in London. It's deceptively (and to me surprisingly) small since I'd assume it was larger simply from the subject matter of a young gentlewoman on a swing hung from the branches of massive ancient trees. Her lover is hiding in the bushes beneath and she kicks off her slipper for him, conveniently letting him see up her dress - yes, that's Fragonard for you! The young lady is a vision of salmon-pink just off-centre with everything else in shades of green and blue. I wonder what her servants found when they went looking for the slipper?

Not far from Fragonard was another painting by someone I should have recognised if only for the depiction of the face of the sitter and the composition as a whole - Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. I went to a marvellous exhibition of her works in Paris last year, her first major retrospective in France and learned about her style and her grace and her skills in painting people, real people. She often smoothed over her sitters' flaws but made up for that by making them look like the individuals they were.  The painting was of 'Madame Perregaux' from 1789.

Where was she? Was she indoors or out? What was she looking at or who had she just caught doing something by brushing back the heavy curtain? Was she listening to someone we can't see as she brushed aside the drapery and has yet to turn her eyes to what's in front of her? We'll never know but it's fun to speculate. And that's what Mme Vigee Le Brun allows us to do in so many of her paintings - they're not only great depictions of real people but there's scope for a little bit of romance and wonder.

Wandering through more galleries, vaguely looking for more hidden gems and I walked into a large room that must have been the site of feasts and balls back in the day and there was a group of school kids there with their drawing pads and pencils. I looked round to see what most of them were clustering around and had the shock of my life to see 'The Laughing Cavalier' by Frans Hals. The Cavalier was very popular in the early 70s for some reason and I recall seeing the picture on biscuit tin lids and all over the place but had no inkling that he lived in London. How on earth did I not know that this painting was just a few miles up the road and had been sitting there waiting patiently for me to drop my jaw in surprise one wintry afternoon? Bet he had a quiet guffaw at that. Sometimes you just don't know what you might find when wandering round looking at pretty pictures. It's always worth a wander.

There's a lot more to see at The Wallace Collection and I will definitely go back to explore it again. If you're in that part of town with an hour or so to fill you could do a lot worse that wander up to Manchester Square and take a look inside the Wallace's old house. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' at the National Theatre

Ma Rainey was the 'mother' of the blues back in the 1920s before Bessie Smith and this play was written about her in the early 1980s. Well, maybe not about her but about an episode that might've happened in her life. A day in the life of Ma Rainey in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927. And what do you have in a recording studio? You have the star (obv), the manager, the producer, the band and, probably some hangers on. So that's what we get in August Wilson's play, one of a series he wrote to depict the 'black experience' in America.

What we see is a play about a group of people all trying to get the best of life in hard times. The hard times is because they're black. It couldn't be plainer. Each member of the band has they're own story to tell, of how they were formed and how they ended up in the recording studio that day. Broken marriages and racial violence, a child being slashed with a knife for trying to protect his mother from rape, a black woman stopped in her own car for having a car, it's all in there somewhere. But not as a polemic - it's a play after all so we learn this over the couple of hours of the play.

Ma Rainey has a reputation for being difficult in the studio, it's made plain right at the start, and she is, but that's because she understands her art and won't compromise. It's also her only lever with the Man (who is obviously white). They want her voice but she's not going to give them what they want for free or in a cowards way, she stands up for herself and her people because she has the upper hand for once. They want her voice after all.

It's on the big Lyttleton stage at the National and that's probably not the best place for it since all the action is clustered in the centre wasting all that space on the empty stage. The musicians' rehearsal room is a long thin room that rises at the front of the stage, claustrophobic and, presumably, deep in the bowels of the studio. That's where most of the action is set, emphasising the wasted space of that big stage. I remember they used that 'pop-up' corridor of a room as trenches in a play set in Russia I saw there a few years ago (what was it called?).

The acting was all excellent, particularly the imperious Sharon D Clark who I've seen in a few plays now and I certainly wouldn't want to fall foul of her in her Ma Rainey persona. She ruled that stage and the musicians in her employ, arguing with her white manager and winning. Small victories but important to her. I liked O-T Fagbenie as the young trumpet playing Levee with high hopes for the future since the record producer wants his songs and has hopes for his own band. But the Man decides to rip him off anyway and buy the songs for $5 to 'take them off his hands'. And then it all goes wrong for Levee and he lets his lifelong rage out and ... but I won't spoil it for you.

This isn't an easy play to watch and I don't suppose it's easy to act, either. There's a lot of pain in this play, a lot of history that's never been really addressed. I found it a very thoughtful play, very thought-provoking and chilling by turns. Did all that really happen? Sadly, I suspect it did...

'Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins' at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I went to see Dame Eileen Atkins playing Ellen Terry at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse a couple of years ago and I saw her again on Sunday as she played another season of her 'one woman show', again at the Playhouse in the Globe. Just Eileen, a desk, some papers and a glass of water on the stage, candles lighting the stage and the polished wood and gold shining. Eileen rarely still, pacing the stage, standing and being contemplative for a moment before setting off again.

Eileen plays Ellen Terry, one of the great Victorian actresses renowned for her Shakespearean roles, giving one of her lectures about Shakespeare in her later days. The lecture is about Shakespeare's women based on her experiences of playing many of the women and enhanced by her own tales of her stage performances. Eileen was terribly impressive, not least for remembering all those lines since she doesn't stop talking for about 80 minutes. It's a joy to hear her talk about Shakespeare, his creations and her (ie Ellen Terry's) interpretations of them, such as that Juliet should not be played by a young girl but by a more mature actress with greater powers capable of interpreting her great lines and emotions. Her Juliet's death-bed scene was a wonder to behold.

Eileen - or is she Ellen - talks about and performs as a number of Shakespeare's heroines and she discusses their strengths and weaknesses. We get Rosalind and Beatrice, Portia and a brave Emelia (from Othello), Juliet and closing with Ophelia (as well as others such as Mistress Page from the Merry Wives). She gives a masterclass performance and this should be filmed for mandatory study by anyone wanting to play Shakespeare. She was truly marvellous and had us in the palm of her hand throughout. The intimacy of the Playhouse (i.e. small!) helped but it was Eileen's sheer power and conviction that completely won over the audience (and me). Go and see her if you can.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

'Painting the Modern Garden - From Monet to Matisse' at the Royal Academy

I like gardens and flowers, I like painting and I love Monet and Matisse so this exhibition was designed to reel me in, wander round awe-struck and then buy postcards and the exhibition catalogue. I couldn't help it and neither could the unknown crowds who visited with me. After the first few rooms I decided that this was the must-see exhibition of the Spring in London - it is gorgeous, it is emotionally stimulating, it is truly fab (obv). Hundreds and hundreds of paintings (-ish) and dozens and dozens of rooms (well, it felt like it), the Royal Academy has scored a hit with this exhibition. Did I like it? O yes!

I've been to quite a few exhibitions at the Royal Academy and this was easily the most crowded so, if you want to see it, book tickets now to avoid disappointment. Is it the idea of gardens or flowers or the Impressionists and those that came after them that proves to be the draw? I don't know but I certainly want to go back before it closes. The paintings are glorious and it will take your breath away to see so many paintings on a similar theme all grouped together. It's fascinating to consider how different artists at different times saw their gardens so differently.

The Royal Academy keeps the theme going by replacing the leather benches with park benches to sit on, plants growing in a mini-greenhouse and books and letters describing the gardens we see. That's a nice touch from the curators - let's show that some of the painters were also serious gardeners and swapped cuttings and ideas. Because they did. I was vaguely surprised that some were keen gardeners but I'm not sure why that is - why shouldn't they like growing things and designing gardens? I'm jolly pleased they did because it led to some wonderful paintings.

There was one room that made me feel like I was in the flower tent at the Chelsea Garden Show, surrounded by banks of flowers, and I'm sure that's what the curators intended - one of the paintings is on the cover to the catalogue, Monet's 'Chrysanthemums', which is a glorious explosion of colour. As I entered the room I saw the painting out of the corner of my eye and headed straight for it. I've never seen it before and I wanted to jump into it.

As well as Monet and Matisse, there are paintings by all sorts of people, from the Impressionists onwards to those who took their art so much further. We see the delights of Pissarro and Renoir, a few by Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot, Van Gogh, and there are paintings by Kandinsky, Klee, Munch, Nolde and so many others. There are lots of paintings by M. Monet and his garden, of course, and the final room shows three enormous water lilies canvases placed together as a farewell to the art of painting a garden.

It's also nice that the curator hasn't gone for the 'usual' or 'obvious' paintings by the artists (except for Monet - you've got to have some waterlilies!). This shows us another side to these artists, a side I didn't know. Who knew that Caillebotte used to swap cuttings with Monet? I've only ever seen his 'urban' Parisian paintings but now I've seen his garden and learned more about him. It's also nice that this exhibition starts in winter and closes in spring - the glorious warm colours and shafts of light brightening up the cold, drab, grey winter outside. Great timing. When it finishes London will be full of greenery and spring flowers again.

Don't miss this amazing exhibition - I shall return!