Monday, 25 April 2016

'The Winter's Tale' at The Royal Opera House

Last week I went to see a stunning performance of 'The Winter's Tale' by The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. This is my third production of 'The Winter's Tale' in five months (Kenneth Branagh's version followed by the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production) so I am very familiar with the story of jealousy and reconciliation, a jealousy that emerges from nowhere and destroys people and families. But how would Christopher Wheeldon and the Royal Ballet tell this story? How do you dance jealousy?

The production starts with an energetic and joyful prelude, showing the three protagonists as younger versions of themselves, dancing up a storm before moving to the present day when the boys are kings and Hermione is a queen. Leontes and Hermione have one son and another child is on the way as Hermione dances with her prominent baby bump. Polixenes of Bohemia is, again, a guest and enjoying dancing with his two friends when Leontes starts having suspicions that his wife and friend are lovers and we see his mad jealousy as they dance in the garden of statues and we see through is eyes. That is all the proof he needs and he fights his old friend and arrests his wife on grounds of treason. You know the rest - Hermione gives birth and appears to die while the infant is sent away to die on a foreign shore but is rescued by a shepherd and grows up to fall in love with the prince who just happens to be Politeness' son and they flee back to Sicilia for the big reveal.

The story is relatively straight-forward in that respect but it's underpinned by the nature of kingship, the evils of jealousy and loss, love and reconciliation. But it's how they get there that's fascinating in this production with some great stage effects and plot twists. I loved the 'silkwork' that brought the bear at the end of the first act to life in terrifying form, I loved the sea chases as the young lovers flee to Sicilia and I loved the tree. O yes, what a marvellous tree at the centre of the stage for the celebrations in Bohemia where we have Florizel and Perdita dancing their youthful love. It was a lovely change from the formality of the first half with the natural scene and vivid costumes, the young people dancing and celebrating while the few old folks watched on.

Florizel and Perdita take most of the dancing but are often joined by their young friends, showing off and showing their skills, an elaborate courtship dance.

After a sea chase the young couple seek sanctuary with Leontes and, unlike in the play, we see the big reveal that Perdita is actually his daughter when Paulina recognises that a piece of jewellery she wears was her mothers that she had hidden in the baby's basket when she was taken away. But there is another reveal when Pauline shows Leontes the statue of Hermione and her dead son but, magically, Hermione is still alive and dances a stately forgiveness of her stupid husband. She finally meets her daughter and leaves the stage with just Leontes and Pauline. Leontes touches the statue of his son to see if he will come alive too...

This is a marvellous re-telling of the old tale of winter in the heart, magically re-invented by Christopher Wheeldon and the Royal Ballet. It's a new ballet first performed in 2014 and this was the 15th ever stage performance (it said so on the cast list). The dancers were, of course, marvellous, but I must single out Itziar Mendizabal as the brave Paulina who was the epitome of grace on that stage, every movement building on her character and story and a joy to behold. I'm so pleased I saw her Paulina. Also great praise for Marianela Nunez as Hermione and Bennet Gartside as the wretched Leontes. Vadim Muntagirov and Beatriz Stix- Brunell were also lovely as our young lovers Florizel and Perdita.

As ever, the staging was wonderful, as were the costumes, lighting and music. The music was by Joby Talbot, designer was Bob Crowley and the magnificent silk effects (for the bear and sea chase) were by Basil Twist. This really is a marvellous and magical production and I'm so tempted to go back again if I can get tickets... See this production if you can - you might think you don't like ballet but this could well change your mind.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

I am Fire and Air ... The Complete Walk

Yesterday I did The Complete Walk to celebrate William Shakespeare. It's now 400 years since his death and his work is still as alive and vibrant as ever and what better way to celebrate his 37 plays  than to set up 37 video screens along the Southbank and Bankside and show videos of all of them. The Globe theatre on Bankside is, of course, Shakespeare central and it was the hub for this event. Full details are here, along with a map and a brochure of the special films

It is such a great idea and a great way to celebrate Shakespeare with these old plays being shown on the latest technology for all the world (well, if you were in London) to see and enjoy and relive all that great story telling and poetry. I saw 29 of the 37 films - not all of the screens were working but, as I know from long experience, the technology can always let you down at the last minute. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw wandering up and down the river.

For me, the Walk started at Blackfriars as I wandered along to The Globe to pick up a map and continued along to start my viewing from Potters Fields. The first screen I stopped at was Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens filmed in Athens and sited outside Southwark Cathedral - I saw him in this play at the National Theatre in 2012 and it was really touching to hear some of those speeches again, particularly filmed around the Acropolis. Just to keep it all real, the bells of the Cathedral started chiming just as he started talking about gold so, with a wry smile, I walked on since he was drowned out.

I left the trail and headed round to Potters Fields where four of the screens were sited but only one was working and, thankfully, that was for The Tempest' that I saw at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse' in The Globe a couple of weeks ago. This screen showed excerpts from a previous production at The Globe as well as specially filmed segments with Douglas Hodge as Prospero filmed in Bermuda. A memorable section showed him standing on the beach with him reciting a speech before walking into the sea and continuing until he was completely under water and the camera lingered with him still under the waves, a really dramatic moment that will stay in my mind for a while to come.

Walking along the river I found 'King Lear' beside one of the pagodas with Kenneth Cranham slowly going mad on the cliff tops at Dover, making his own crown from grasses. It was all very emotional but I preferred the quieter, later section with Joseph Marcell also playing Lear but in a wheelchair on top of the cliffs when he's greeted again by Cordelia (Zawe Ashton) and he says he will drink her poison. That was so touching and gentle, this reconciliation of father and daughter before he dies. I would love to see him play Lear on the stage after that great performance.

Just along from 'Lear' was 'Anthony & Cleopatra' which was a magical mixture of excerpts from the great production at The Globe a couple of years ago and specially filmed scenes set at the pyramids at Giza in Egypt. The Globe scenes showed Anthony dying in Cleopatra's arms and the film picked this up with her own defiant suicide with her loyal maid Iras as she brings the deadly snake to Cleopatra at the foot of the Red Pyramid.

And then, surprisingly, they climb up to the entrance of the pyramid and go inside to the chamber where Cleopatra puts on her crown and says those immortal lines.

'Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me ...
I am fire and air, my other elements
I give to a baser life...'.

Eleanor Matsuura was Cleopatra and Katy Stephens was the brave Iras. It was a very touching scene, particularly as the camera stayed on Iras as Cleopatra died in the pyramid. I've been in that pyramid and so know what it's like inside, stuffy and warm and full of history across the millennia and myth.

After a late lunch we continued walking along the Thames, stopping to watch this screen and that but the next one I really liked was 'The Merry Wives of Windsor', a play I've never seen performed. Again, it was a mix of a live performance from The Globe and filmed portions with Paul Chahidi and Mel Giedroyc as mistresses Page and Ford each receiving an identical letter of everlasting love from that rogue Sir John Falstaff. O such a rogue is he and they will have their revenge! Paul and Mel made an excellent couple and I'd love to see them do this on stage sometime. It was great fun!

Then onto the Southbank proper and more screens with lots of the history plays, lots of Henrys and Richards. Jonathan Pryce reprised his role as Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice' with scenes from his Globe performance last year as well as a new scene filmed in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. And further along was a touching performance of 'King John' that was dedicated to the death of Shakespeare's young son, Hamnet. Underneath Hungerford Bridge we see extracts from the Globe production of 'Titus Andronicus' (the one that gained publicity for people fainting at all the gore) with extra scenes filmed in Rome featuring Peter Capaldi.

The final screens were in the gardens outside St Thomas's Hospital with a very touching 'Henry VI, Part 3' in which we see Henry sheltering in a church at Towton with a soldier who realises he's killed his father in the opposing army and a father who finds that he has killed his son. What a wretched king to witness the sorrow of his people. But on the other side of the lawn we visit a sun-drenched castle in Verona with an acerbic Meera Syal as Lucetta in 'Two Gentlemen of Verona'. Meera was excellent with her trademarked glances into the camera as if to say *you* know what I'm saying even if this young girl doesn't. O yes, Meera, we do!

By now it was dark and you can see the lights in the wards at St Thomas's Hospital at the top of the photo and the outline of trees to the right.

'The Two Gentlemen of Verona', as Shakespeare's first play, was actually Number 1 on the map and the film included lots of excerpts from the other screens but I did the walk from last to first. Of course, there was still time to catch some more screens so we headed back to see if any of the screens not working earlier were now working and caught 'The Comedy of Errors' with Omid Djalili filmed in a Turkish restaurant and a few others. We finally gave up at London Bridge to get the train home. Phew, with aching feet too.

This was a very tiring and madly crowded day but great fun and a fitting tribute to Shakespeare. There were log-jams of people at various places along the riverbank with the crowds brought out to enjoy the free show along the river and, frustrating and annoying as that was, it's nice that so many people wanted to join in the celebration. I'm certainly pleased that I did. It's a bit disappointing to see the criticism some unthinking people have left on the Globe website this morning because some screens weren't working. I'm grateful that so many were working. I'm also grateful that this celebration was arranged in the first place with some excellent film clips picking out some of the key parts in the plays and presented so well. Hopefully all the videos will be available on DVD at some point - I'll certainly get a copy!

It was great to be involved in a celebration rather than just sitting on the sofa at home and watching something on telly. Well done to The Globe, to everyone involved and to the volunteers handing out maps along the route - good show people!

'Botticelli Reimagined' at the Victoria & Albert Museum

On Friday afternoon I trotted off to the eagerly awaited new Botticelli exhibition at the V&A in South Kensington. I first heard about it about a year ago, so it's been a long-time coming. It's another one of those 'here's a painting by the artist and here are some more he influenced' type of exhibitions but we were also promised lots of Botticelli's so I'm okay with that.

The exhibition is in three parts. Firstly, very modern works that have been inspired by Botticelli, then a section on the Pre-Raphaelites that helps to 're-discover' Botticelli in the 1800s, and finally a large display of Botticelli paintings (and those of his workshop) and drawings. The latter was, for me, the highlight since that's what I wanted to see.

I found the first section rather unappealing. It didn't seem to be so much about the influence of Botticelli, more about people doing their own versions of 'The Birth of Venus' and 'Primavera'. To be fair, the title of the exhibition is 'reimagined', but it's still mainly these two iconic paintings.

We see snatches of film, paintings and prints, photographs recreating 'Venus' and even Dolce & Gabbana dresses made with 'Venus' printed cloth. Um, ok. Some of it was very meh and some at least made me do a double-take to check what I was actually looking at, but now of it made me go wow. There was nothing I wanted to see again (including the Magritte man with Primavera on the back of his coat).

Someone's put a lot of effort into tracking down these often odd pieces and, while I'm not convinced it was worth the effort, it more than adequately shows the influence of Signor Botticelli still lingers, or at least the influence of these two paintings, either to be loved or ridiculed.

Next up was a room full of paintings mainly by from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (and sisterhood in some cases) to demonstrate Botticelli's influence on painting under the Victorian as his works were rediscovered after languishing in the second league of painters for most of the previous few hundred years. It's odd to think that someone so popular today was largely ignored for hundreds of years. The major contributors in this room are Burne-Jones and Rossetti and many of them have been included in other exhibitions over the past ten years or so, but there were a few paintings I hadn't seen before (such as this reimagined 'Venus' by Walter Crane) so that made it worth wandering round. But then, on to the main event of a large space given over to the works of Signor Sandro Botticelli himself.

Of course, when you think of Botticelli, everyone wants to see 'The Birth of Venus' and 'Primavera' but that's not going to happen unless you go to the Uffizi in Florence. Luckily, I have been to the Uffizi and they're a gorgeous sight. What we're given is a collection of religious paintings, mythological paintings, portraits and drawings, both by Botticelli and by his workshop and it's interesting to guess which were by him and which by his staff copying his style, some of more obvious than others.

It was interesting to see multiple versions of portraits of the same people and how the styles change slightly. It was also good to see styles unchanging over the years in some of the Madonna and Child paintings, with their heads looking the same, even at the same angles despite the years, with the backgrounds being different. There was series of round paintings with the Child's chubby face exactly the same in several different paintings.

More interesting to me was 'Mystic Nativity' which is on loan from the National Gallery and which I suspect everyone has seen on Christmas cards. It's surprisingly small with an awful lot of detail that rewards close scrutiny. The angels are dancing partway between heaven and Earth and three crowns are suspended just under their feet, presumably for the holy family. The central group of the family with a cow and donkey reminds me of the small painting above a door in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, also by Botticelli, so, perhaps, is another example of Botticelli repeating his successful compositions.

The shepherds are receiving crowns of laurel or olive branches suggesting the crown of thrones at the other end of Christ's life. If you look in the bottom corners of the painting you can also see small devils watching and, presumably, waiting their turn. It's all rather strange when you put the composition together and is very different from the other paintings on display.

I think my favourite painting was the large 'Pallas and the Centaur' which I can't remember seeing before. It shows Pallas Athene taming a warlike Centaur with his bow lowered. She's fondling his hair like a favourite pet and his head is bent towards to her, almost unwillingly like a wild creature she's just tamed.

It features Botticelli's trademarked flapping drapery with gorgeous designs and the many-layered wavy hair of both mythological figures. It's always worth a closer look at the background of paintings and it's nice to see the contemporary (for the time) ship sailing into the port of whichever land this happens to be. I went back to look at this painting several times - it rewards a repeat viewing.

It's been a long time coming but I enjoyed it and I'm pleased to have seen so many Botticelli's in one place, particularly seeing similar compositions and being able to compare them. It would've been nice to see more, of course.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

'Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art' at the National Gallery

I finally made it to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery. It's one of those 'here's a painting by the named subject and here are some painters he influenced' type of exhibitions that have become so popular in recent years. This one works better than most. I really wanted to see the painting used for the poster - the lion with a dangerous-looking spear poised to stab him. I am, of course, on the lion's side in whatever's going on here. I'm very much in the 'gerrof, you deserve to be savaged' camp.

Anyway, Delacroix. I don't know much about him at all. I know he's painted some iconic paintings and was held in great reverence by people like Baudelaire but that's really about it. He sits in the latter part of that period when my art knowledge is sketchiest, i.e. between the Renaissance and the start of the modern period around 1850-ish so this was a good opportunity to learn about him and his work. And that's sort of what the exhibition doesn't really do so I still don't feel that I know much about him. The exhibition is about his influence rather than being about himself so that's reasonable.

The first room is a collection of his more ordinary paintings and portraits, including a self-portrait. This is his world of people and places, ordinary but brought to life.

I much preferred the next room with paintings from when he visited North Africa and painted scenes and subjects far more exotic compared to his safe Parisian world. These still look exotic today, largely because they're historic and the same scene wouldn't happen today - he's captured a lost world that was novel back when he painted as well as today. I got a bit puzzled by seeing a cliff-top Tangier when it's built at the top of a beach, but what's detail between friends? The compositions and colours are really good, capturing the dramatic and telling a strange narrative behind them.

We then go into a room of floral paintings since he seems to have been responsible for  reinvigorating the art of the flower still-life. That's all fine and good, but I have to say that I preferred Gaugin's flowers to Delacroix's vase of flowers and fruit.

The paintings that really impressed were in the later rooms and they weren't by Delacroix. They were by Cezanne, by Monet, Matisse, Gaugin, Van Gogh and by Kandinsky, all of whom acknowledged the influence of Delacroix.

I loved the 'Pieta (after Delacroix)' and 'Olive Trees' by Van Gogh, both dated 1889. Such marvellous and expressive paintings and neither of which I've seen before. The 'Pieta' was the poster painting for an exhibition in Florence last year that I dearly wanted to see but I left the day before the exhibition opened but I remember it well beaming down from hoardings all over town, rubbing my nose in my bad timing. And I've finally seen it, with it's hundreds of blues, lemon yellow and Vincent's face and ginger hair on the Christ figure. There are approximately 2,596 shades of blue in Mary's frock, and I gazed and gazed at the swirling colours... and then went back to gaze again.

As ever, these reproductions don't do the colours or the intense brush strokes justice but they at least give you an idea of what the paintings look like. Such as the glorious colours in Van Gogh's 'Olive Trees' that even the merchandise in the National Gallery itself didn't do justice to.  The gorgeous sun and sky, bright lemon yellow helping the trees to put forth their offering of olives, the trees with their purple shadows in that scorching sun. The only green in that parched landscape is the silver-green of the olive tree leaves. Wow. I want to go to that land.

One of the last paintings was by Wassily Kandinsky (who also features in the 'Modern Gardens' exhibition at the Royal Academy up the road) and it was really quite stunning in its visual intensity. It has the odd title of 'Study for Improvisation V' with a woman kneeling before a man who's in a gale with two horse-riders in the background and goodness knows what else. I remember the exhibition of his works at the Tate Modern 10 years ago and seeing more of his paintings in the 'Russia' exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. More recently I remember his flower painting at the 'Modern Garden's exhibition and the large photo of him in shorts in his garden.

The colours are so much more dramatic than in this reproduction. I can't help but keep looking at the horse-riders and wonder where they're heading? They're obviously in a rush so it must be important.

All in all, it's a good exhibition and I intend going back again in the next few weeks to see if M. Delacroix speaks to me more loudly. And to enjoy the paintings I liked again, of course. O, and if you're interested, here's the full painting that the poster is drawn from. In my world, the lions are protecting their pride from ruthless hunters and savage everyone in sight and then stroll off leaving the bodies to vultures...

Sunday, 3 April 2016

End of the Winter Season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The winter season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe is coming to an end with its final production, 'The Tempest'. I've seen all the plays this season - 'Pericles', 'Cymbeline' (see earlier blogs) and 'The Winter's Tale' - and a good season it's been.  The Sam Wanamaker is the indoor theatre at the Globe with it's beautiful, golden, panelled wood stage and backdrop, it's cushioned benches and the candles to light the stage, all very atmospheric and delightful. Now that the days are getting longer and (at least in theory) warmer, it's time to start readying the open-air Globe for its glorious summer. But not just yet.

I saw both 'Pericles' and 'Cymbeline' earlier the season and saw 'The Winter's Tale' a few weeks ago. I saw Kenneth Branagh's version with Judi Dench before Christmas and loved that production, opening with a Christmas set and carol singing just in time for that great time of year. I've seen it before (there was an awful production at the Old Vic 6-7 years ago) and it's not one of my favourite plays. In part, that's due to the characters.

We have Leontes of Sicilia who grows insanely jealous of his wife with no reason whatsoever, turns on a lifelong friend and forces a servant to try to kill him, imprisons his heavily pregnant wife and, when the Oracle at Delphi says she's innocent, refuses to believe her and his son dies. What a pleasant man. There are lots of ways of playing this role, almost slyly like Branagh or in wild fits of rage as in this production. I liked the rage.

I also find Hermione a bit problematic, Leontes wife who sees a loving and tender husband grow into a green monster overnight. And while denying adultery, she accepts everything her husband does to her, including imprisonment. Um, c'mon lass, have some backbone. And then, when she hears her son has died and she swoons into a feint and is pronounced dead to save her, she hides away for 16 years despite the whole kingdom being aware of Leontes grief and remorse at her passing. And in the end, she still loves him. O come on.

We also have Paulina, wife of Leontes chief aid, who is right about everything and I do mean everything. It can either be a powerhouse of a role or a damp squib of righteousness coupled with game playing and pulling the wool over Leontes eyes. It's not an easy role.

'The Winter's Tale' also has some of the most annoying 'rustics' in the whole of Shakespeare (and he wrote quite a few). We meet them endlessly in the second half of the play set in rural Bohemia with its farmers and farm girls, it's country dances and annoying accents. The vagabond rogue gulling daft farmers right, left and centre, making his fortune only to lose it again. O yes, it's all in there somewhere.

But at the heart of the play are two love stories, stories about friendship and trust and, as ever with Shakespeare, consequences. If you pay attention you'll learn a lot about jealousy and unthinking rage, about relationships and friendships and about love. It's always seemed strange to me that the big reconciliation scene takes place off stage and we simply have it reported by courtiers afterwards. Why is that? But it paves the way to the next reconciliation scene when Leontes and Hermione finally meet again after 16 years (and don't appear to have aged much, strangely) after she poses as an unloving statue only for Leontes to touch her and she comes alive.

John Light as Leontes, Rachael Stirling as Hermione and Niamh Cusack as Paulina were all excellent as were, to be fair, the rest of the cast (yes, even the annoying rustics). If I had to pick one word to describe this production it would be visceral.

'The Tempest' is very different territory and one of my favourites, a tale of magic and mystery, of revenge and love and of freedom and slavery.

You know the tale of Prospero, Duke of Milan, who is deposed by his brother who is supported by the King of Naples, and set sail only to be shipwrecked on a noisome  island where he raises his daughter Miranda. He finds Caliban already on the island and frees Ariel, a magical creatures from incarceration in an oak tree to do his bidding. His brother and the King are sailing nearby and Prospero calls up a tempest to shipwreck them on his island so he can take his revenge. The King's son falls in love with Miranda and she with him and they are betrothed before the gods so Prospero can forgive his former enemies, renounce his magic and return to his dukedom. The end.

It's a simple - and quite a lovely - tale, the kind of play it's easy to see an older man writing but there's a lot packed into it such as the nature of slavery with Caliban and Ariel, power and corruption with the King of Naples' brother plotting to emulate what happened in Milan, with drunken colonists and how they treat the native populations, o yes, there's so much to explore in this play.

I have great admiration for the set designer and the sheer imagination let loose on this play. The Tempest demands magic and there's not much scope for special effects in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse so creativity is required. I loved the opening scene when Prospero summons the storm and an ornately painted sea-scape is brought onto the stage with two people rocking the waves and the boats by hand - loved it! And I loved the actors falling en masse from one side of the stage to the other to simulate the rocking of the ship. So simple and yet so effective. And later when Ariel descended from the ceiling on ropes with her cape as wings like a vengeful angel to berate the King's company. And later still, we see the gods descend in similar fashion. Very impressive and unexpected.

There were also more simple techniques of bringing on stage a miniature island and using it as a prop in various scenes. For each scene, the island was turned round lightly to make it clear that the scene  was taking place in a different part of the island. Very simple and yet very clever that!

I suppose you're getting the impression that I liked this production? Well, you're right, I thought it was smashing and the best and least pretentious version of the play I've seen! It's marvellous! It brings out some of the humour in the play that's easily missed, such as Miranda's admiration at her first sight of men even though we in the audience can see they're nothing much and the actors feign embarrassment at the praise. And Ferdinand reminding Miranda with a gesture that she's forgotten to take a log off stage when he's completing the tasks demanded by Prospero. There was a good chuckle there.

There's marvellous storytelling and beautiful poetry in this play, as well as some harsh political lessons. Every now and then the poetry just shines from that stage and you marvel at it, wanting to roll it round your tongue and speak the lines.

Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes, nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange...

There are hints at magic and the ceremonies of John Dee, of the empire to come in strange, far off lands, of exploration and danger that make this one of Shakespeare's more interesting plays, at least to me.

Phoebe Pryce and Dharmesh Patel made a nice couple as Miranda and Ferdinand, our young lovers, Joseph Marcell was a solid Gonzalo (he also plays Cymbeline in the play of the same name) and Paul Rider was a trustworthy Alonso, King of Naples (who is also in 'Cymbeline'). A shout-out also to Dominic Dromgoole as Director of the production and Jonathan Fensom, the designer.

I wasn't terribly taken with Tim McMullen as Prospero or Fisayo Akinade as Caliban but I was quickly won over by Pippa Nixon's Ariel. I liked how she switched from almost magisterial in some scenes to a puzzled aborigine in others, marvelling at these strange creatures that have invaded her island. In other scenes she was almost a wild animal padding round her potential prey and, at the end when she is finally freed by Prospero, she stops and turns round once to check that he's not playing some game, before fleeing quicksilver-fast without a word. I wasn't sure at first but she's a powerful and potent Ariel. Well done Pippa!

The winter season is only on for another three weeks so, if you can, you'd be well advised to try to get tickets for either of these two plays. For me, I'm looking forward to the new summer season at The Globe, the Wonder season, with 'The Taming of the Shrew' in the first week of June. 

Buffy Sainte-Marie Wins TWO Juno Awards for Power In The Blood

Buffy Sainte-Marie has won not one but two Juno Awards: Aboriginal Album of the Year and Contemporary Roots Album of the Year for her latest album, the great 'Power In The Blood'.

As well as receiving two awards, Buffy also presented the Album of the Year Award to Adele for her album '25' - she wasn't there of course since she's touring here - which is a nice honour to give to Buffy.

Well done Buffy!

Saturday, 2 April 2016

'Giselle' at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I was lucky enough to get front row seats in the Amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House to see the Royal Ballet's latest production of 'Giselle' a couple of weeks ago. It was most marvellous and is definitely the springiest, jumpiest ballet I've seen so far. Those dancers just couldn't keep both feet on the ground.

'Giselle' is a tale of love and loss, of mistakes and their consequences. It moves from the down to earth rustic setting of the everyday world to nightmare and the supernatural. It's all in there as the story progresses through some amazing dance, sets and lighting.

Our tale opens with young Count Albrecht coming to the village in the forest to see his beloved Giselle on the last day of harvest and the first tinges of autumn are in the leaves. Albrecht is pretending to be an ordinary villager rather the nobility as he tries to leave the stresses of court life behind. He has found a pure and simple love in Giselle and her first dance when she comes out of the cottage is one of youthful joy as she leaps around the stage and joins her beloved. Ah, how beautiful and right. But Hilarion, the woodsman, also courts Giselle and her mother prefers that match but Giselle loves her Count.

It starts to go wrong when the Counts guests and his noble fiancee pass through the village on a hunting trip and the fiancee rests in Giselle's cottage. It's only when the Count returns that he is unmasked and his secret is exposed. Giselle can' believe that her beloved is already promised to another and this sends her over the edge into madness and she kills herself. The first act ends with joy and life turned to madness and death, the villages grieving and the young Count distraught that his beloved is now dead.

The second half is grimmer and takes place at the side of Giselle's grave in the dark of her first night dead. The lighting was terrific in these scenes, creating an other-worldliness of spooky magic for the scene to play itself out. Giselle is dead and buried but these woods are haunted by the Wilis, the spirits of women who have been jilted before reaching the alter and, if they find a man in their woods, they will make him dance to his death.  Martha, the Queen of the Wilis, comes to claim the spirit of our heroine.

We catch glimpses of the Wilis in their white veils and dresses as they flit between the trees and then they finally emerge en masse, all 26 of them, led by their Queen, and this is a marvellous and spectacular sight! 27 ballerina's dancing together, synchronised movements and then going up on tippy-toes - such glory! Martha leading them in their dance of righteous retribution. They find Hilarion and force him to dance to his death, but when they come across the Count it's a different story since Giselle rises, not to join them, but to save her beloved and that's just what she does, challenging Myrtha and her Wilis to protect her Count. She keeps them away for just long enough for the first light of dawn to penetrate the forest and he is safe. But she is still a shade and returns to her grave, leaving her beloved safe and distraught.

The haughty Myrtha is defeated by a young ski of a girl and you can see that in their dancing, with Myrtha always straight and firm while Giselle is more fluid and lithe, a young girl against an ancient spirit. So much beauty on that stage - how on earth do they do it?

One of my favourite moments was when Giselle and the Count were dancing with Myrtha looking on from the side, ramrod straight and unmoving. And suddenly she goes up on pointe and in tiny steps moves to her left to exit the stage, arms and torso still, legs hardly moving, but her feet taking tiny steps to move her off stage. That was a wow-and-a-half moment!

So many amazing dancers and artists created this ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa with music by Adolphe Adam. This was the 571st performance by the Royal Ballet over the years and I know so since it's printed on the cast list. Giselle was first performed in 1841 in Paris and the first performance by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in 1946 featuring Margot Fontayne. So it has a grand history.

My Giselle was Marianela Nunez with Vadim Muntagirov as Albrecht and Itziar Mendizabal as the haughty Myrtha. Those images of them dancing with the massed troops of Wilis will stay with me for a long time.

Like A Magpie... in a Garden

Yes, that's me at an exhibition. Not the slow, stately walk along one wall following the crowd, then along another wall, moving at the pace of the slowest person further along. No.  I'm here, there and everywhere and back again. If there's a queue to see a painting why wait your turn when you could see another great painting on the opposite wall?

There's a strange dynamic about exhibitions that I've noticed loads of times and that is that the first few rooms are always busy and then the crowds slowly start to spread out in the later rooms. Why is that? Shouldn't the rooms all be equally crowded as people move through the exhibition? There are probably studies into this strange phenomenon.

I went to see the 'Painting The Modern Garden' exhibition at the Royal Academy again on Friday evening - the Royal Academy stays open until 10pm on Fridays so it's a good to avoid crowded weekends and see exhibitions after work. I've done that a few times in the past and it's great to stroll round the venerable old galleries while London comes alive on a Friday night. Except, guess what? The exhibition was totally sold out so it might as well have been peak hours.

It is an excellent exhibition and it's only on for another three weeks so go along and see it if you can. So many artists painting gardens and flowers, so many styles and so many different interpretations of what a garden looks like and how it can be painted. I loved it - it'll take a lot for any other exhibition to top this one this year. I first saw it in February and I'm tempted to go a third time, it's that good. So many paintings by artists I know and those I don't know, some I'm very familiar with and some I've only vaguely heard of but all on the theme of gardens. It's clearly a smash hit. A palpable hit.

There are, of course, many paintings by Claude Monet, that great old man of painting who refused to leave his home during the First World War and kept on painting his beloved gardens and ponds and bridges and trees, sometimes joyful and sometimes sorrowful. I've seen his enormous paintings of his waterlily ponds in the Musee de L'Orangerie in Paris and those are an astonishing and moving sight, Monet's gift to Paris, celebrating peace. There are many painting of waterlilies in the exhibition but this one really caught my eye, 'Corner of the Waterlily Pond'

This photo really doesn't do the painting justice, it's too light, but it at least lets you see what got me so excited. The thick oils merging and twisting to create new shapes and colours to try to capture the texture of the scene, the lush plants with hundreds of greens and the odd flower here and there. A serene view and a storm of emotion. Monsieur Monet was having a good day when he finished this painting and overloaded it with creativity and vibrancy - he threw everything at this one and I like to imagine him smiling in satisfaction as he put his brushes away and left it dry at the end of the day. You really need to see it to glimpse it's beauty and power. I went back to gaze at it three times.

In one of the final rooms is a set of large blown up photographs of many of the artists in the exhibition and some film footage of them too, so I can say I've seen M. Monet painting. There are lots of photos of Monet in his later years with his bushy beard and floppy hat but have you ever seen Wassily Kandinsky digging in his garden, wearing shorts and with a cigarette in his mouth. Well, here he is:

You may not be able to jump into the paintings or smell the blooms and feel the breeze but you can gaze at some of the most marvellous paintings and share the vision of some of the greatest painters the world has ever seen. Visit this exhibition while you can. It's gorgeous. And say hello to Claude and Wassily for me.