Thursday, 30 June 2016

'Shakespeare in Ten Acts' at the British Library

I went to see the Shakespeare exhibition at the British Library the other day, 'Shakespeare in Ten Acts'. It's based around ten performances of Shakespeare plays that changed the way they were viewed or that changed the history of the plays in some way. It's a novel approach and there was some fascinating stuff there but it was a bit underwhelming. Darkened rooms with everything spotlit seemed a bit, well, odd. The exhibition was book and paper-based which I expected (well, it's in a library after all) with some of the later rooms using video of performances or costumes.

The first exhibit is, of course, one of the prides of the Library - its copy of the First Folio in a glass case opened at the title page with the portrait of William himself. Beside it is a note that says Ben Johnson certified the pen and ink portrait as a true likeness. Mr Johnson's plays don't seem to be performed very often these days.

It wasn't so much the theme of the exhibition that caught me, it was some of the objects on display and their historic significance. Such as this little book that contains the prologue specially written when a woman first took to the stage in a production of a Shakespeare play, in this case 'Othello' in 1660. The first woman is thought to have been Anne Marshall. Can you imagine a time when women weren't legally allowed on the stage and the female roles were taken by boys? How odd is that.

The rest of this room went on to show portraits of some of the women who took to the stage with potted histories of their lives. There were also extracts from newspapers that raised against the new-found habit of men buying tickets back stage to watch the new actresses get dressed!

Another book to grab my attention was a small copy of 'Hamlet' thats' been passed from actor to actor in the 20th Century who've played the role. It's signed by some of the actors including Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole and Derek Jacobi. The sign notes that the book is passed on to note particularly celebrated performances. Jacobi passed it to Kenneth Branagh when he did his film version of 'Hamlet' in the '90s. Now, that's what I call a great gift. I've not seen Branagh's film but I did see Derek Jacobi play 'Hamlet' back in 1978 so that made me smile. I wonder who Branagh will give it to to continue the tradition?

One of the odder exhibits was Vivien Leigh's dress from her performance of Lady Macbeth. It's a nice enough frock but it was odd since the main poster for the exhibition shows her all gossamer and fairy as Titania from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' but that frock isn't there.

And finally, here is a large red and white handkerchief that I coveted - I like the man bottom-right with the legend 'Ha! Ha! Hah! In places', presumably noting the potential response to one of the comedies.

'The Threepenny Opera' at the National Theatre

A new production of 'The Threepenny Opera' has opened at the National Theatre and I was lucky enough to see it in preview and again last week. Yes, I've already seen it twice and it's only been playing for a few weeks. Does that give you a clue?

This is a new version of the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill play translated by Simon Stephens and brought up to date  and stars Rory Kinnear as Macheath, aka Mack the Knife. It also proudly boasts that it 'contains filthy language and immoral behaviour'. Ooo-er, I did hope so!

The show opens with the Balladeer introducing us to Mack the Knife who has returned to London in time for the King's jubilee (and we see some of his handiwork, liberally slaughtering the populace), introduce us to Mr Peachum and his troupe of beggars and miscreants and learn that his daughter has gone missing. O dear, where can Polly be now that Mack is back? He's only married her to get his leg over but when his gang also want her she sings 'Pirate Jenny' to show how foolish they'd be if they went down that route!

We meet Mrs Peachum coming home in the early hours after a night on the town (she seems to have 'an understanding' with Mr Peachum) in her Otto Dix red dress, Jenny the drug addict and prostitute who loves the dashing Captain Macheath, and, later the chief of police. A more disgraceful bag of ne-er-do-wells it would be hard to find. And it gets worse because Peachum has given his gang of beggars a cause and something to believe in and he could bring down the establishment... seems rather current given the referendum.

This version of the play is fast moving and quick-witted and it's certainly found its feet. It almost felt like these actors were their characters, there's a belief in there somewhere that was most impressive. Dashing around the stage, up and down the ladders and platforms, every now engaging the audience as if we're part of the crowd on the street watching the shenanigans, all of it kept the pace going, moving swiftly through the scenes.

I loved the set made largely of plywood and brown paper (they must have a huge roll of brown paper backstage to replace the number of panels people crashed through), starting off sparse and gradually becoming thick with panels as the actors brought more 'walls' on stage and later when a huge set emerged from below and whoosh! we have a complex stage to reflect the back streets of the East End. The staging and the lighting all worked, moving from simple to complex and back, actors moving the set around the stage as needed for the next scene. Well done to Rufus Norris and Vicki Mortimer for that.

It was great fun to see Rory Kinnear take on the role of Captain Macheath, milking it for all it's worth and he can really sing. Rory has a great list of Shakespeare under his belt (and I saw him try comedy  in 'Last of the Hausmans') so he can act but it was great to see how versatile he can be. It was also good to see Haydn Gwynne as Celia Peachum careering round the stage in her tight red frock giving as good as she gets and Nick Holder does good sinister as Peachum. Meet him in a dark alley? I don't think so! Rosalie Craig was very good as young Polly who brought a nice sense of menace to 'Pirate Jenny'. George Ikediashi (aka Le Gateau Chocolat) set the scene nicely when he opened with 'Mack the Knife' and Debbie Kurup was great fun as Macheath's lover (one of many, obviously) in her sing-off with Polly in the jail scene.

This show is great fun and deserves a sell-out run. It is dark and menacing, laugh-out loud at times, full of great songs and performances and a lovely set that really works. Well done people, I'll be back!

Sunday, 19 June 2016

'The Taming of the Shrew' at Shakespeare's Globe

I've never seen 'The Taming of the Shrew' on stage before so when The Globe announced it I had to buy tickets. It's not a favourite play but it's by Will, so it's worth seeing. For this production the story is set in Ireland at the time of the 1916 rising to commemorate the event but, other than the accents and some rebel songs, you'd never know it (or at least I didn't). By coincidence, the Bolshoi Ballet is also offering us their version of the play at the Royal Opera House over the summer and I've booked to see that as well.

As ever with Mr Shakespeare, there are various stories going on within the play but the one we're most engaged with is with the main characters of Katherina (Kate, the 'shrew') and Petruchio (the 'tamer'). The central tale is of Kate who speaks her mind and isn't keen on marriage and her sister Bianca who wants to marry as soon as possible, presumably to leave her father's house. Bianca has suitors but the men are all scared of Kate. Unfortunately for Bianca, as the younger sister, she can't marry until her older sister is safely wedlocked. Enter Petruchio who hears the men talking about Katherina and then vows that he will marry her to make the way clear for the men to woo Bianca. And so he does.

So far there's some good give and take with Kate giving as good as she gets but the second half shows the breaking of Kate as she's degraded and made to suffer until her spirit is broken.  It's this that really gets to the misogyny of the play and it's difficult to get it right - I'm not sure there is any 'right' with this play. It is rather unpleasant to watch and the final scenes when Petruchio allows Kate to visit her home for her sister's wedding are equally fraught when he orders her about like a slave to demonstrate to the men how it's done. And Kate submits.

Leaving aside the more unpleasant aspects of the play, I liked this production. I loved the costumes (and I'd happily wear some of the jackets and trousers myself) and the staging was clever, using both levels of the Globe stage in a way I haven't seen before. There was some lovely comic acting as well as more serious scenes. Aoife Duffin was a stand-in for the lead actress who was off sick and I thought she delivered an excellent Kate (I think she's now taken the role so good for her) with Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as her sister Bianca. I was less keen on Edward MacLiam as Petruchio whose accent was so thick at times that I found it hard to follow what he was saying or, rather, shouting - he seemed to be playing it as a stereotype loudmouth, drunken Oirishman which only partially worked for me. Having said that, I enjoyed the production and am pleased I've now seen 'Shrew' on the stage. It's on until the start of August so there are plenty of opportunities to see it.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

'Born To Boogie' at The Ritzy, Brixton

On Tuesday evening I received a benediction of glitter from the Electric Warrior and it was good. A re-mastered version of 'Born To Boogie' is being re-issued on DVD and CD and has received a limited cinema release. Miss seeing Marc Bolan and T.Rex on the big screen? I should co-co!

The film and the concert footage from the Empire Pool, Wembley, is 44 years old - how on earth did that happen? It's great to see Marc up on the screen in full rock god mode in his silver sequinned jacket and green satin trousers leaping, kneeling, strutting and generally being godlike. The excitement in that auditorium as he riffed on his guitar was almost palpable - this was real. And Marc clearly loved every minute of it.

It's the concert that's the centre of the film and the rest of it is a bit whimsical and hey-ho. Ringo Starr was obviously being the 'responsible adult' on the set - it was his film after all. Marc was the biggest thing since the Beatles at the time which is probably why Elton John was also featured on piano. Everyone wanted some of Marc's reflected light, preferably amplified by some glitter.

Marc does all the hits up to that point on stage and sat cross-legged for some, singing 'Cosmic Dancer' with his acoustic guitar. It was great to hear those songs live and pulsing on the screen. The energy and the madness was great to witness. 'Jeepster', 'Telegram Sam', 'Children of the Revolution' all beating out to ensnare to unwary with their perfect electric pop sounds. I liked the string quartet medley during the tea party segment with Marc cross legged on the grass and loved the final song, an extended version of 'Get It On' that just went on and on, spiralling upwards and Marc using a tambourine to play his guitar - Electric Warrior indeed! Wow! Stage shows were pretty basic back then with just the band and a few lights - what would he have been capable of with the technology and lighting racks we have as standard today?

Go and see this film if it's released near you and see what a real pop star looks and sounds like. It's deeply sad to think that a mere five years later Marc was gone.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

'X-Men: Apocalypse' and Me & Marvel

This afternoon I finally got round to seeing 'X-Men: Apocalypse' on the big screen and my immediate reaction is WOW! Special effects heaven with superpowers galore. This is a big tale with lots of characters and lots of back-story changed for the film but it works superbly. We even see Prof X losing his hair at one point. Where to start?

My personal history with Marvel goes back to 1970 and The Avengers and X-Men. Imagine my joy in the mid-70s when I discovered a newsagents that regularly stocked the monthly comics as well as the 'specials' and reprints. I bought them. And I was there for the amazing Phoenix saga in the early '80s, waiting month on month for the next episode. Then discovering Forbidden Planet on New Oxford Street for my Thursday evening hit from it's huge stock of comics. Forbidden Planet has moved and I no longer feed my habit but I'm still loyal to Marvel films, particularly The X-Men and The Avengers. The back-stories in the films don't always match the original comics but I don't mind that since it creates a new avenue to explore.  

My addiction was confirmed in the early '80s when I bought my fix in a Saturday market in Cardiff, with the comics carefully displayed in plastic covers. I was reading Jung at the time and so much of the content of these comics resonated with his theories of archetypes and cultural recurrences and that added another level to my thinking about these comics. Are comics art? I think that's another blog for another day but they're more than just colourful paper and they can touch you quite deeply.

When watching the films you've got to remember that these are films, not comics, and need to follow their own disciplines. That might mean they don't follow the narrative of the comics and that's ok. This film introduces us to Prof Xavier's (James McAvoy again) school and a range of new mutants, some of whom have more air-time than others. Since it's set before the original films then we also meet the young Cyclops and Marvel Girl (who is so much more than a mere Marvel Girl). Other characters return, like Mystique and the Beast, along with an American Quicksilver who has a great sequence saving the entire population of the X-Mansion before it blows up (as it does with depressing regularity).

Some of the characterisations I didn't agree with, like Storm being a rather incompetent thief and then a Horseman - as if! And Psylocke without pyschic powers - what's that about? But I loved the continuing story of Magneto and Mystique as leader of the X-Men - never in the comics but it works here. And seeing Charlie's hair dropping off was quite strange. And the rather gratuitous use of Wolverine was a bit unnecessary - he doesn't have to be in every X film.

But Jean Grey, o yes, Jean Grey, always a pivotal character, and this time played by Sophie Turner, aka Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones. I didn't know she was in it so it was a nice surprise to see her and I thought she got the role just right. It was also nice to see he kick off after the sedate character she plays in Game of Thrones. Seeing her explode into Phoenix and flames was great and left me wanting more.

I will patiently wait for more. Just as I sat through the credits to see the teaser at the end - yes, there's always a teaser...

Sunday, 12 June 2016

'Sicily: Culture and Conquest' at the British Museum

One of the new exhibitions at the British Museum is all about the island of Sicily, the people that have lived there over the millennia and their cultures. Most interesting is how those cultures have meshed to become unique until relatively recent times. It's one of those exhibitions where it feels like there's more to read on the walls than look at in display cases but that may be because I know so little about the island so felt the need to read the display captions and larger signs to understand what I was looking at.

I found the exhibition oddly fascinating, a description of the cross-roads in the Mediterranean for so many wayfarers over the years and so many cultures. The poster for the exhibition suggests we'll be looking at ancient stuff and that's what I expected. There was loads of old stuff - amphorae, statues, chipped busts and all sorts - and that was all very welcome (particularly the Medusa heads) but the part of the exhibition that sparked my imagination were the exhibits from the last thousand years. For some obscure reason Sicily was invaded by the Normans after they invaded Britain and that changed the society there forever. What is it with those Normans? Didn't they like France at all?

So, after the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Germanic tribes, the Muslims and even the Vikings (I kid you not) we have the Norman dynasties and what do Normans do? They build. The exhibition includes pieces from the castles and churches, some quite delicate Byzantine mosaics and, in one part, a reproduction of the ceiling of the cathedral in Palermo. It's really odd wandering through separate segments of the exhibition dedicated to the various invaders and rulers to end up back with Byzantine glories leading to early Renaissance paintings. It all comes round.

The beauty of Sicily is that for centuries it managed to create it's own culture, it's mix of religions and peoples that created tolerance, understanding and learning. A real melting pot that proved a melting pot could work. We clearly have so much to learn from these ancient peoples. With the current arguments of whether to stay in Europe or not, it seems incredibly timely for this exhibition to so clearly demonstrate that countries can survive and prosper with a multicultural population. If they want to.

Friday, 10 June 2016

'The Deep Blue Sea' at the National Theatre

'The Deep Blue Sea' is a play by Terence Rattigan from 1952 that doesn't seem to be revived very often but it may be better known as the 1955 film with Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More or the 2011 film with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. I saw the 1955 film a few years ago in a cleaned up print at the British Film Institute but haven't seen the 2011 version. Neither had I seen the stage play until this week at the National Theatre.

The play takes place over one day in the life of Hester Collyer, a supposedly middle class lady married to Freddie Page and is referred to as 'Mrs Page'. It's the early '50s (the timing is nicely signalled by reference to rationing) and is set in a down at heels boarding house at which the Pages rent the first floor flat. The place is dowdy and dismal and a far cry from what Hester is used to. It open with the landlady and a neighbour forcing open Hester's door because there's a smell of gas, rushing in and finding her on the floor beside the gas fire, apparently a case of suicide. Hester has failed at her suicide because she forgot to fill up the gas metre. And from there the story unfolds.

We learn that Hester is actually married to Judge Collyer, a famous High Court Judge but she's run away with Freddie Page whom they met at a golfing weekend outside London. Freddie was a dashing Spitfire pilot during the war and who made a living as a test pilot until he lost his nerve and turned to drink. Hester was perfectly happy in her loveless marriage - it's what women of her class do, after all - until she met Freddie and theirs is a passionate physical relationship rather than the rather staid round of dinner parties she's used to.

Hester is scared that Freddie is getting bored with her and, when he forgets her birthday, that's when she tries to commit suicide. That in itself reeks of a relationship gone wrong and, later that day, Freddie realises it too, that they're not right for one another and will kill each other eventually so he must leave. It's painful but has to be done and is, quite possibly, the most grown-up thing he's ever done in his life. This prompts Hester to go for suicide again but is interrupted by the blacklisted doctor who lives upstairs who somehow gives her hope by buying one of her early paintings and, when he leaves. allows Hester to pull herself together and look to a more positive future that she must make for herself.

The play takes you on quite an emotional journey, but it's restrained emotion, controlled with a stiff upper lip, very upper middle class and very British. I've seen a few Rattigan plays in the last few years - 'French Without Tears', 'Flare Path', 'The Winslow Boy' - and that's a characteristic they all share. He's a skilled story-teller and that shines through, despite the poshness of his work.

The set was truly depressing, with the big Lyttelton stage dressed as Hester's depressing flat, with sparse furniture, drab furnishings and see-through walls so you can just about make out other people moving in the other flats from time to time which made the very open stage quite claustrophobic. The atmospheric lighting added to that feeling as the play moves through the day. It was all quite bleak.

Helen McCrory plays Hester in what must be an exhausting role since she's on-stage the whole time. She was really quite excellent as the repressed housewife who's found her escape from a humdrum little life into a more exciting world only to have it crumble around her. She made me believe in Hester and want the best for her - and that's good acting. I saw Helen in 'Medea' as the witch-queen and in 'The Last of the Haussmanns' a few years ago, so she can easily go from dramatic and tragic to comedy and this role let her do a bit of both with everything in between.

I was less convinced by Tom Burke as Freddie who came across as boring and a drunk. Yes, that's partly the role but it's also how you play it. Freddie was exciting and a war hero before the booze so where's that aspect to him? Where's the charisma that Kenneth More captured so effortlessly in the film that attracted Hester in the first place. Missing, is where it is. On the other hand, I did like Nick Fletcher as the former doctor with a past who seems to be the voice of reason whenever he appears on stage and who ends up by giving Hester some hope for a future of her own. His performance was underplayed and touching.

It's a play that seems to make the small things big and belittle the big things. It's about love and lust, post-war depression, suicide and the future, but there are also some laughs in the production - it's not all worthy and depressing. It is definitely worth seeing, especially for Helen McCrory's performance and the growth of her character.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

'The Philanderer' at The Orange Tree Theatre

Last week we went to see the latest revival at the Orange Tree Theatre in the deepest, darkest suburbia of Richmond at the end of the District Line. It's 'The Philanderer' by a certain Mr George Bernard Shaw, a man renowned for fitting as many words as possible into any play. I'm always in two minds about Shaw - I ought to like him but there's always this little piece of dread in my heart whenever tickets are bought for any of his plays. I've seen a few of his over the years - the big beasts of 'Pygmalion' and 'Man and Superman' and some smaller versions such as 'Widowers Houses' at the Orange Tree a few years ago. I enjoyed these but there's still a little knot of fear.

It's the tale of a group of young people who are members of the progressive 'Ibsen Club' that wants to do away with 'manly men and womanly women' and treat people as people. Of course, emotions get in the way and our hero, the philandering philosophy professor, wants to marry one member (Grace) while another (Julia) professes her love and won't step aside. O dear, the problem is always people, of course. Gradually the extended families and fathers of each women are drawn into the discussions as well as a random doctor who ends up marrying Julia (to his later regret).

It's quite a fun play - surprisingly so, I must admit - and not really that dated. Some of the philosophical and theoretical arguments about gender are a bit odd from our 21st century perspective looking back at the 19th century but they rarely get in the way of enjoying the play. There's also an element of modern society that would probably benefit from being exposed to them. Placing the actors in modern dress helped, I think, but why the philanderer had to wear the same jacket and shirt as I was wearing in the audience is beyond me. My beard's better though.

Rupert Young was fun as the philanderer (but please stop tucking your shirt into your trousers throughout - that means your shirt is too short) and Helen Bradbury was suitably icy as the intellectual love interest. The flame-haired Dorothea Myer-Bennett was great as Julia, the clingy lover who doesn't want to let go and get's what she wants in the end (sort of). I saw her in 'The Merchant of Venice' last year at The Globe and was much impressed. Also a shout out to Michael Lumsden as Julia's befuddled dad, Colonel Craven (Michael is, of course, better known as Alistair Lloyd in 'The Archers').

The Orange Tree Theatre is doing something right to get us trekking out to Richmond so keep it up people!

'Obsidian Tear/The Invitation/Within The Golden Hour' at the Royal Opera House

Last week we went to see a triple bill of one act ballets performed by The Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Two ballets were new to me and one I'd seen before (the endlessly moving 'Within the Golden Hour').

The catalyst for going was 'Obsidian Tear', a brand new ballet by Wayne McGregor who became a firm favourite with 'Woolf Works' last year, and this was the second ever public performance of the ballet so that, in itself, is pretty special. Even more so since it was danced to music written by Esa-Pekka Salonen who also conducted the orchestra for that ballet, with Vasko Vassilev on jittery, scary violin (and who got a well deserved ovation at the end).

So, what is 'Obsidian Tear' about and is it 'tear' as in cry or as in rip? I have no idea what the answer is to either. I suspect that's part of the joy of the piece. It spins a yarn that we don't know and isn't explained but tells it through expressive and joyous movement that let's you make it up as you go along. So I will.

Some of the words that came to mind while I was mulling it over were Stygian, ancient, ritual, male, unknown and dark. O so dark. The bare stage remains bare and we meet two men in black and red dancing around each other, sometimes for themselves and sometimes to show off to the other, dancing in their own language and patterns. They're joined by seven more men in various black costumes, all competitive and trying to out-do one another in their athleticism. But what's going on? Some kind of ancient ceremony for men only, it seems, as each takes the limelight with one dancer introducing a slightly more menacing tone by elbowing, kicking and head-butting the red dancer out of the limelight so he can have his turn.

Swirling and constant movement, watching every part of the stage, each of the dancers seems to be dancing his own dance, none repeating the other, telling their own story in a language I can't decipher. But then black trousers picks up red trousers and carries him to the back of the stage and throws him into the fiery pit. That was a shock. Sacrifice? This is about sacrifice? Like the old Mayans and Aztecs where the sacrifice knew it was coming and were prepared?

And the dance moves on and on, swirling across the stage until black trousers jumps into the fiery pit himself and the curtain descends.

What's been going on here? It's primal, it involves ancient gods we've forgotten about and I was a witness. Phew! It's almost exhausting to watch. I've still got no idea what it's about but I want to see it again, to take me a step or two closer to the vision at the centre of this piece. This was art and I was part of it by simply sitting there and observing. It doesn't need any validation. It is.

'The Invitation' is a very different kind of ballet, an exploration of the loss of innocence by Kenneth MacMillan. It's the summer when a girl and a boy leave school and start the journey to adulthood along with their friends. The tone is set at the start with covering up the genitals and boobs of statues on the stage, a time of prudes and caution. But the young folks are invited to a party with adults who exert an unforeseen influence on the youngsters that ends up with the girl being raped by an older man. The man is agonised by his acts and the girl can't relate to the boy again. Her innocence has been lost.

Even though I was sort of expecting it, it was still a shock to see the rape on stage, the girl wrapped around the man's crotch and then slowly, so slowly, sliding down his legs. It was definitely an 'O!' sort of moment. And there was lots of tippy in this one.

The third ballet was 'Within The Golden Hour', a series of pas de deux and ensemble dances that go on and on and repeats it's wondrous beauty as you get dragged further into it and swirl and leap until you're exhausted.  This piece is by Christopher Wheeldon who explores repetition and solo dancing to the extreme. How they don;t bump into each other is a testament to their professionalism and training since, every now and then, there are so many dancers in the same space on stage that it gets mesmerising and almost addictive. The sound, the movement, the dynamics of them all doing the same - and/or - different things on stage is incredible. It takes your breath away.

These three ballets were all well worth seeing and, as ever, I've yet to be disappointed by the Royal Ballet. I didn't even see any of my favourite dancers but these performances were spectacular and well worth seeing again.  Every now and then when I caught my breath I wondered how on earth they can remember all the steps and movements in the ballets, how they don't forget where to stand or who to catch when they leaped? Endless, endless training and practicing, of course, and they achieve perfection in movement and art. When I fail to be astonished is when I've seen too much ballet. It hasn't happened yet.