Monday, 21 August 2017

'Committee' at the Donmar Warehouse

We went to see 'Committee' at the Donmar Warehouse a few weeks ago, the new 'musical' based on transcripts of the Parliamentary hearing about Kids Company and how it went bankrupt.  It was big news for a few days, about his successive Government grants had kept Kids Company afloat for years until the Cabinet office said 'no more'. Everyone with a public platform, including Prime Ministers had said what marvellous work Kids Company did, helping young people that social services couldn't reach so it was a brave minister who said 'no'. No doubt he already had everyone lined up behind him for when the proverbial hit the fan. Which it did with threats of civil disturbances that didn't really happen.

We see the select committee getting ready for another hearing, alerted that it might actually get some publicity since the people involved are Camila Batmanghelidjh and Alan Yentob. The script and songs are lifted from the transcript of the hearing, which is an interesting idea but I'm not sure it worked terribly well. When this play was first mentioned I didn't want to see it at all since I was involved in the margins of briefing for the hearing, but then I thought 'why not?'. It's only 80 minutes without an interval so it's not like it's a full evening wasted if it's not good.

Was it good? Well, not really as a whole. There were some nice performances (Sandra Marvin was excellent in all the padding as Camilla and Alexander Hanson is always worth watching) but it didn't work for me as a play. What was it meant to do? Send us out into the night commiserating with Kids Company or congratulating government on finally having some balls and saying no? Or something else? Simply presenting us with a highly edited version of the transcript of the hearing doesn't really take us anywhere. And calling it a 'musical' was a mistake. Where were the tunes?

Where it dd work were the impersonations of some of the politicians, like Rosemary Ashe as Kate Hoey (accent and all) and Rebecca Lock as Cheryl Gillan. I particularly liked Cheryl since I worked to the real Cheryl in the '90s in the dying days of the last John Major government. Her apparent inability to pronounce Camilla's last name was so on target.

It wasn't a wasted evening by any means and I'm pleased to have seen it but I don't think I'll go to any future revivals... if it's ever revived.

'The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt' at the National Portrait Gallery

The current drawings exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery proudly proclaims we'll see works by artists from Leonardo to Rembrandt and that's what we get. We only get one drawing each by those big name artists and there's a goodly selection of Holbeins (as there would be) but it was the lesser known drawers that I found fascinating and it's them that I'll focus on. Not lesser know artists, for they are great masters, but not necessarily known for their drawings.

The first one I noticed was 'Man Wearing A Cap' by Filipino Lippi (the son of Fra Filippo Lippi). I've seen his glorious paintings in the National gallery and elsewhere but I've never thought of him as a drawer in any medium. That's clearly daft since he must have drawn to design his paintings but thinking of him sitting in his studio or in a tavern sketching away is something I've never considered. It's the same thing for Benozzo Gozzoli and his small drawing of a 'Boy with Curly Hair' - Gozzoli painted jewel-like panels and frescoes but he also drew.

I never expected to see drawings by Gozzoli or Lippi and that's why I enjoyed this exhibition so much. It gives us a glimpse into another side of artists we're familiar with but haven't considered in this way before. Was it just part of the job or was it recreation for these artists? Did they draw too relax or was it to collect faces and bodies to use in their painted works?

Another unexpected thrill was to see a drawing of a 'Woman Wearing A Hood' by Domenico Ghirlandaio. I love Ghirlandaio's series of frescoes around the high altar in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, with the variety of scenes and bright colours making the altar shimmer. There are lots of faces in those frescoes - they're full of crowds - and now I'll be wondering if this woman is one of them. Who is she and where did Ghirlandaio see her? Maybe he saw her in a market and wanted to catch her slight air of solemnity thinking that expression would look good in whatever work he was currently painting. Who knows?

One of the quotes on the walls around the exhibition was attributed to Leonardo who says, "Do you not see that among the beauties of mankind it is a very beautiful face which arrests passers-by and not their rich adornments." In a real sense, all faces are beautiful.

An artist I'd never heard of is Francesco Salviati and he's represented by 'Young Man Looking to His Left' which is exactly what he's doing. It's a lovely, delicate drawing and is more than a sketch - some serious work went into this drawing with all it's delicate shading. Look at that ear and then ruffle his hair. I wonder why Salviati wanted him looking to his left but not simply turning his head - what was he trying to capture? I'll never know.

There are, of course, a lot more drawings and artists in the exhibition than these I mention. There's a series of drawings by Holbein, almost a court-ful of Tudor faces and clothes, from the royal collection. It's odd to think that we all look broadly the same as people did all those centuries ago. I wonder if some enterprising soul will put on an exhibition of 20th and 21st Century drawings in a few hundred years time? Wouldn't that be something?

I'll close with one final drawing, this time by Leonardo who everyone knows as a drawer of rare distinction, and here's his 'Study of a Nude Man'.

The final quote on the wall, just as you exit, is from Cennino Cennini who wrote 'The Craftsman's Handbook' in around 1400. His words are wise:

"Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good."

'The Tempest' at the Barbican

The Barbican isn't my favourite arts venue but it's producing the latest version of 'The Tempest' but the Royal Shakespeare Company with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and loads of technical floo-flam so I had to go. I want to see Ariel fly and create storms and one day I will. This was a step in the right direction but didn't quite do it for me - Ariel actually flies, y'know, he doesn't just pretend to fly.

You know the story of 'The Tempest' right? Prospero is the deposed Duke of Milan and is exiled to an island with his daughter where he finds Caliban and Ariel. He conjures a storm to shipwreck his enemies and extract his revenge, finally giving up his magic to return to Milan. O yes, a nice straight forward narrative that's anything but straight forward. But is full of magic and amazing verse.

Layered on top of this is a set decked out like the carcass of the great ship that is wrecked at the start of the play. The ribs of the ship like a giant whale on the stage. This is where the magic starts, with lighting that makes the ship rock and move like a ship in jeopardy before sinking. The magic lighting continues with Ariel as a physical actor and as a magical sprite playing in and around the lights on the stage, bound in the tree and escaping to see his new master, Prospero.

It was great to see the special effects that tried to bring the magic in the play to the stage. We see Ariel trapped in the tree by Sycorax, Caliban's witch mother, and freed by Prospero to then enslave the sprite to his will. It was all pretty spectacular and very well acted. but it was't quite the magic I expected. I don't really know what was missing but it seemed a bit contrived and over-worked. I liked the wedding scene when Proposer summons the three goddesses and I thought that worked better than some of the more tech-heavy scenes.

Overall, I'm pleased to have seen this new version of 'The Tempest'. It wasn't all that I'd hoped for but will any production have the seal of magic around it? On the plus side, this had Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, deposed Duke and master manipulator.  I also enjoyed Mark Quartley as Ariel slinking around the set when he wasn't captured in video shots somewhere in the air. It occasionally felt as if the set ruled the production rather than the play or the actors. Trying to fit everything into the stage is a problem particularly when the basic stage remains the same (ie the wreck of a ship) but it just about managed to rise above this.
I'm pleased to have seen this production but I'm still waiting to see my perfect 'Tempest'... one day ...

'Coming Clean' at the King's Head Theatre

A few weeks ago we went to see the last play by Kevin Elyot - 'Twilight Song' at the Park Theatre - so it was only appropriate to go to see his first play, 'Coming Clean' at the King's Head Theatre, this week. Kevin Elyot wrote 'My Night With Reg' a decade later and it's interesting to see the similarities in characters and themes. He clearly had his own agenda and he stuck with it.

'Coming Clean' is the tale of four gay men in the early '80s, two of whom are in a committed relationship of five years but are allowed to 'play away', their long-term friend and the out of work actor who becomes their cleaner. There are only the four of them in this play (well, five, I suppose, if you count the friend who comes on as a German leather queen at the end) so it's very intimate and needs a strong story to keep it going. That's what puzzled me for a while - what is the play about and where is it trying to go? It took a while to get going.

Something that rather irrationally annoyed me was that Tony and William came on stage ten minutes before the play started to 'do acting' as the audience came into the theatre, being camp and eating with open mouths. Why? I mean, why? What does that add to the experience? It just annoyed me.

So, there we have it, with Tony and William talking about last night's cruising adventures when the would-be cleaner arrives in the shape of out of work actor Robert. William instantly fancies Robert who we subsequently learn in gay. Later we meet Tony's partner, an American writer and teacher, Greg. Their fifth anniversary dinner is cooked by Robert but William arrives late with black eyes from being gay-bashed in his own flat by a pick-up in a gents toilet. Tony takes William to hospital and, we later find out, that's the night that Greg and Robert get together for the start of their affair.

Four months later Tony arrives back early and finds a naked Robert bent over for Greg in their living room. An open relationship is one thing but being confronted by it is quite another thing. This spurs questioning about the nature of their relationship and whether it can continue. It took a long time to get there but this is the core of the play.

It was an interesting journey but I didn't really care for any of the characters. It was probably a brave play back in 1982, to explore gay relationships before the threat of HIV/AIDS when sleeping around and hedonism was ok. But it didn't touch me and I didn't care whether Tony and Greg's relationship worked or not. I didn't care about the disingenuous Robert or the uber-camp William. They didn't matter much to me. Not like the more fully-rounded characters in 'Reg' a decade later.

What really irritated me about the production were two relatively minor things, I suppose. Firstly was Tony's incessant faffing with this hair and putting it behind his ears. Not a minute went by but he faffed with his hair. Is that meant to be a gay trait or something, to signal that he's gay? Just stop it! The other irritant was the set, yes, the whole thing. It's set in Tufnell Park so it's not that glamorous but having worn through paint work on the door and wall paper that looks like it's going to fall off with damp is hardly the flat of a successful writer and teacher. And which writer only has about ten books on his bookshelves? Most annoying of all was having a shelf full of records above the stereo - why on earth would you have the records above the stereo waiting to fall on it rather then under the table the stereo sits on? I hated it.

I also had deep sympathy for the actor that played Robert who wandered round the set naked in the second half and who then knelt down at the front of the stage waiting to be buggered within a foot of the front row of the audience. He had nothing to be embarrassed about expect that none of the other actors even got down to their pants, so it was a bit obvious and hardly fair on the junior actor.

So there you have it, criticisms of the play but more so for the production that was just annoying in various parts. But it's well worth putting this on if only for the historical context. 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

'Matisse in the Studio' at the Royal Academy

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy is 'Matisse in the Studio' upstairs in the Sackler Gallery, up all those glass stairs, and it is exactly what it says on the tin. We see a collection of M. Matisse's 'stuff' that also featured in or influenced his paintings. Matisse collected stuff and used it in his paintings, a vase here, a mask there, a table with more stuff on it or a silk screen in the background. He didn't make these things up, they were there in his studio ready to be called onto his canvases. This exhibition tells the story of his stuff.

The theme of the exhibition is kicked off in style by the first painting called simply 'Vase of Flowers' from 1924 and, beside the painting, in a glass case, is the very same green glass vase that features in the painting. On the other side is another painting featuring that vase. That nicely summed up this exhibition to me - see that thing there? it's in *that* painting. And it is.

The artefacts aren't always as obvious as the vase, of course, and they're sometimes in the background but all help to make up the totality of a painting. According to one of the signs in the exhibition Matisse described his stuff as a 'working library' waiting to be called up for duty in this painting or that.

The exhibition includes works from throughout Matisse's career and shows us how he continually used his stuff to illustrate and augment his paintings. He seems to use his stuff to add more patterns and shapes to his paintings and there's nothing wrong with that. One of my favourites was 'Yellow Odalisque' with it's lush, bright colours and balanced composition that make it part still life and part portrait. Which is it and does it matter?

The little table beside the chair is the object on display in the exhibition beside this gorgeous painting. It's not an exact rendering of the table by any means but that's not the point - it's there, it's part of the whole.

There are a few of Matisse's 'odalisque' paintings in the exhibition and they're all gorgeous. Another is the 'Reclining Odalisque' beside a tray with an elaborate tea pot like a samovar (I assume) and this is what is on display.

We see the photo that inspired 'Standing Nude' in the Tate collection, bronze busts, African masks that feature in paintings and inspired Matisse's developing style. We even get a few of his cut-outs. That old man never stopped creating.

One of my favourites of his later works was 'Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table' and, by this time, I'd stopped looking for the artefact near the painting and just indulged in the colours and shapes in the painting. I couldn't help but look through the open window towards the garden and wonder what flowers were out there under the trees, what shapes the flower beds were in and whether the flowers were ready to pick to put in a vase and paint them. There's always something else to paint.

It's not a very big exhibition but it is really gorgeous. If you even vaguely like Matisse then you must visit it and drink in the paintings and the objects that feature in them.

Alma-Tadema at Leighton House Museum

The latest exhibition at Leighton House is 'Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity' and I've been looking forward to seeing it since it was announced a year ago. It's the biggest exhibition of Alma-Tadema's works in ages and it's so appropriate for it to be held in the former home of his contemporary and friend Frederick Leighton. 

I hadn't heard about Alma-Tadema until I saw some of his works at an exhibition about Victorian paintings at Leighton House a couple of years ago and it was his paintings of scenes of antiquity that made me sit up and take notice. So I started looking for more wherever I went and found a few in the Guildhall collection and elsewhere and was pleased to see his self-portrait in Vasari's Corridor in Florence. There's even one of his painting's in the Prado in Madrid. To see so many of his paintings in Leighton House - along with some by his wife and daughters - is really quite fun, wondering what you'll see next. Sometimes there are some big surprises too.

Born Lourens Alma Tadema in Holland in 1836, he wanted to be an artist, not a lawyer his parents thought he should be. So he painted a self-portrait in part to show his parents his skill with a brush and what an amazing work it is for someone who was only 16 at the time. Naturally, he paints himself as an artists with easel and brushes. It seems to have convinced his parents since he went to the academy to train as an artist. 

This is one of the first paintings you see in the dining room at Leighton House. Other paintings on the ground floor include a lovely little portrait of his mother and scenes of folk-lore and history, all very colourful but in rather dark tones. There's a change in his work after his first trip to Italy and the Mediterranean in 1863 and his colours grew brighter. 

One of his earlier paintings in his new style is a rather fun painting of a Roman matron getting out of her chariot with her son at the theatre. Another is 'The Flower Market', a lovely painting of what Alma-Tadema imagined a Roman flower shop might look like, with a man in a toga, presumably the owner, surveying his wares as a couple of potential customers enter stage left. It's the detail that caught my eye, the bricks, the discoloured flagstone pavement, the many leaves and flowers of the plants spread around and a woman tending them. No doubt there are more wonders in the shadows of the shop. This is not a traditional 'history' painting, depicting a specific historic event. Here we have Alma-Tadema imagining what an everyday scene might look like but set in the antique rather than his contemporary world. We are also given exotic flowers, and flowers and plants feature in so many of his paintings.

Something I like about Alma-Tadema is that he's not afraid to return to a subject. There is a pair of matching paintings in the exhibition called 'An Audience at Agrippa's' (1875) and another called 'After The Audience' (1879) - in one we see a guest arrive and in the other, almost exact painting, we see him leave. There are also some lovely long, thin, paintings set on a balcony overlooking the blue Mediterranean with a young man wooing a maid, one called 'Pleading' (1876) and the other 'A Question' (1877). Both paintings shimmer with the bright Mediterranean sunlight.

There are other paintings using this same light and a similar setting high above the sea with the potential for panoramic views cut short by walls, just hinting at what lies beyond, such as 'An Exedra', 'A Foregone Conclusion' and 'A Kiss'. There's also the lovely 'Coign of Advantage' with three young women looking out to sea. I particularly like the statue of a lion resting with a wreath of flowers around his neck. Those girls are very high up - impossibly so - given the size of the ship below. Are they waiting for their betrothed, their lovers, their fathers? Who knows, but I'm sure the Victorians had a field day making up their stories. This painting is the poster advertising the exhibition and rightly so since it's a lovely painting.

I wonder how and why Alma-Tadema hit on this setting of marbled terraces high up overlooking the sea? It's certainly a romantic and dramatic setting and allows viewers to weave tales around the paintings. It also allowed him to demonstrate his skills with colours and light.

The two highlights of the exhibition, and the largest paintings on show, are hung side by side in the final exhibition room: 'Roses of Heliogabalus' and 'The Finding of Moses' painted 16 years apart. 'Roses' has been on show before at Leighton House a year or two back with the addition of the smell-o-vision of rose petals in the air since the Roman emperor in the painting is smothering his dinner guests with rose petals for his entertainment. He'd wasn't emperor for very long.  
'The Finding of Moses' is a painting I've never seen before and it is drenched in small details that really benefit from a detailed viewing of the painting. It is incredibly realistic and I couldn't help but think you could see the faces of those slaves anywhere in London today - those are real people that might be on the bus to work or going for a night out. 

 There is so much more in this exhibition too, such as some theatre designs he did for various plays and a fun section that showed how film-makers from Cecil B DeMille to Ridley Scott used Alma-Tadema's paintings as the basis for the world they tried to bring to life on the big screen. Alma-Tadema was noted as the 'archaeologist artist' who visited Pompeii and made sketches, took measurements and studied the subject matter of his paintings.   
This really is an exhibition worth viewing, with paintings on loan from institutions and collectors in 12 different countries and I'm so pleased I've seen it (I will return again to drink in these works). I'll leave with another self-portrait painted in his 50th year in 1896 and by which time he was known as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a bastion of British society in Victorian London. I was very surprised to see this self-portrait in its ornate golden frame since the last time I saw it was a couple of years ago in Vasari's Corridor in Florence where it is part of the Uffizi collection. 

The exhibition is on until October at Leighton House so pop along if you're around High Street Kensington with an hour to spare - it's well worth it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Fra Angelico 8/12

It's the 18th of the month so it's Fra Angelico day again! To celebrate Fra Angelico's feast day on 18 February I'm posting a painting of his that I've seen on the 18th of each month this year. This month I've chosen 'The Crucifixion' in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It's a relatively early painting by the Fra and I always think it's a painting of two parts - the upper more traditional part of Christ on the cross, angels carrying symbols of the passion and the golden background. The lower half is more interesting and experimental with it's crowd of soldiers and saints. Mary has collapsed to the ground in shock at her son's death, surrounded by the Marys and with John looking on and twisting his hands in anguish.

Behind Mary and the saints there's a cluster of soldiers in contemporary dress and a soldier holding the pole with the sponge of vinegar looking up at Jesus. The Fra is experimenting with perspective in the man's head and with realism by giving him a hairy chest - how many hairy chests do you see in Renaissance painting?

The painting is full of small details in the clothing and the horses and all those faces are different and might be based on fellow friars and the donors who paid for this painting. It really is a bit of a gem. It would be lovely to see it freshly (and very carefully) cleaned.

Photos by me.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Fahrelnissa Zeid at Tate Modern

Every now and then a major art institution puts on an exhibition of someone you've never heard of and you wonder why. Then you see a piece of their work, often the poster advertising the exhibition, and think 'that looks interesting' and you pop along to see what it's all about. Then you wonder how on earth you didn't know about the artist and her work and you do now because you bought the catalogue to pour over the wonderful works in detail and at leisure. That's what happened to me with Fahrelnissa Zeid, a colour master who combined western abstraction with eastern Byzantine and Persian styles and created a world of colour of her own.

She seems to have led an interesting life with training in Istanbul and Paris, marrying into the Iraqi royal family and her husband being posted to London as the Iraqi ambassador. She exhibited in London, Paris and New York, has studios in London and Paris and set up an art school in Amman in her later days. She clearly had privileges most artists don't have but what is fascinating is that painting and creating weren't the hobby of a woman with time on her hands and who could afford indulgences. She was an artist and she had to paint, continuing even after the Iraqi royal family were assassinated and she and her husband began to live a more 'ordinary' life.

She seems to have gone from broadly figurative painting through abstraction and out the other side, back to figurative painting in her final years. Of course, even her figurative paintings were products of her time and show her experimentation as she tried to find her own style. Just look at 'Third Class Passengers' from 1943 with the passengers sitting on gorgeous carpets with people in small groups. It seems almost like a piece of stained glass work with black outlines and that's often how her later abstract works are referred to, as stained glass windows. This painting isn't very big so a lot of delicate work has taken place on the detail of the carpets and rugs to show the mosaic of colour. I suspect this painting would dazzle if the black outlines were removed - that's what controls the colours and the clashes and keeps them in a more normal palette.

The late '40s and '50s was when Zeid did her most outlandish and colour spectrum-bending works on large canvases with colours placed beside each other to create an amazing sight that made me smile and revel in the colours. It's difficult to imagine some of the colours she uses and creates in the real world but she brought them to us. One of her first paintings after she'd started on her new path was 'Resolved Problems' in 1948, a vision of kaleidoscopic chaos that pulls you into the painting with its swirling, sparkling colours. Every time I look at this painting I see its centre somewhere else in the painting, but never in the centre. Those colours are pulsating and moving round a core of gravity that keeps moving, pulling and rearranging the strange, colourful shapes. It's almost a meditation piece if it wasn't for the movement.

Another painting that has a similar effect is 'The Arena of the Sun' from 1954 when she was still creating these big paintings full of colour and movement.

She gained some inspiration from flying and looking down on the world from a great height and you can see that in some of the paintings. What I can't work out is what was she seeing - but does that matter?

Zeid continued to experiment through the '60s and '70s, developing new approaches to sharing her vision before returning to figurative painting and, in particular, portraits. I was quite taken with her self-portrait from 1980 called 'Someone from the Past' in which she consciously mixed different styles of painting, using her own image to demonstrate that she's a product of different cultures and different traditions, but she is unmistakably herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and, coming from the quite busy Giacometti exhibition in the old Tate Modern building it was quite refreshing to get away from the crowds and have the time and space to just gaze into some of Zeid's paintings. I will be going back to see them again and I hope that next time the exhibition is busier - more people need to see them and learn about her. I'm really pleased that I've discovered her and her art.

'The Ferryman' at the Gielgud Theatre

Last week we went to see 'The Ferryman', Jez Butterworth's new play set in a republican house in 1981 in rural Northern Ireland.  Jez wrote the great 'Jerusalem' 8 years ago (or something like that) and this is in similar territory - small people that big things are happening to - but with a powerful political backdrop to the whole thing if you're old enough to know about it. I was sitting beside an American couple in the theatre who clearly didn't know about the 'troubles' and every now and then laughed in the 'wrong' places. I found that both annoying and distressing but never mind. That helps to give some context for the play.

Yes, we're in rural Northern Ireland - the bit that remained part of the UK rather than be part of the Republic of Ireland - at the height of the 'troubles' and the hunger strikes of Bobby Sands and others. I remember those times. After a short scene with some IRA men and a priest to ram home the timing, the play opens in a farmhouse kitchen on the morning of the annual harvest and all the menfolk will be out harvesting when their cousins arrive from Derry to help out. The family has it's harvest traditions and we watch these been followed that involve a kite and a goose. It's all normal, small things happening as we meet the extended family over three generations and an adopted English farm worker, all with memories of this special day in their rural calendar.

Then a shadow arrives in the shape of the family priest with news that Quinn's younger brother has been found dead ten years after vanishing. Quinn is head of the family and the farm is his and we realise that Caitlin isn't his wife and mother of the house but she's the wife of his younger brother who's been living with them along with her son. Quinn isn't surprised at the news - he was an IRA man in his youth and understands these things. And then the IRA men appear to ask the family to keep quiet when the news of the body is released to the press.

The darkness gets deeper when we have a scene with the lads of the family and their cousins from Derry who seem to aspire to be the next generation of IRA men. As the drink flows the friendliness of the lads turns to arguments and threats and poison is poured into the ears of Caitlin's son whose father was Quinn's younger brother who was found executed in the peat bogs the day before. The priest has betrayed Caitlin's secrets to the IRA to protect his sister but at the cost of his immortal soul for breaking the laws of the confessional. And then the tragedies strike. It's a powerful and shocking last few minutes that left me needing a deep breath.

It's a very powerful, visceral play with love and death at the centre, family bonds and friendship, of old friends lost and strangers found. It's not all dark, of course and there's some lovely lyrical passages written for some of the characters. One of my favourites was when Aunty Maggie 'came back' and started her story of visiting the fairies in the south at the peak of their war and then goes on to deliver prophecies about how many children the girls will have. She tells us how she saw the banshees years before and, on the morning of the tragedies to come she hears them again. There's still magic in the modern world after all.

The reason for the name of the play becomes clear towards the end of the play when the old uncle is talking to the priest about what might've happened to his nephew's soul in the ten years he's been dead and buried in unconsecrated ground. Then he quotes the classics as lost souls cry out to Charon to ferry them across the Styx but they're condemned to wander the world for a thousand years. It's these little insights, poetic turns and flights of fancy that add to the power of the play.

I'd highly recommend seeing this play if you possibly can. Paddy Considine was excellent as Quinn with Laura Donnelly matching him as sister-in-law Caitlin. The older members of the extended family seemed to have some of the best lines particularly Brid Brennan as Maggie, Dearbhla Molloy as bitter Aunt Pat and Des McAleer as Uncle Patrick. I also liked John Hodgkinson as the strange English farm worker who was adopted into the family years ago. And, of course, the real baby, the baby rabbit and the goose. The whole cast worked well together and gelled as a family both protecting and fighting each other the way families can do. Well done all!

Saturday, 22 July 2017

'Sargent: The Watercolours' at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Yesterday morning I hopped on a bus to see the new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery of watercolours by John Singer Sargent. It was a bright, sunny morning, just right for seeing some never-before seen watercolours of bright sunny places. I'm not a huge fan of Sargent's but I was impressed by his portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago and enjoyed the ballet based on the story behind his portrait, 'Madame X', performed by the Royal Ballet. So why not try his watercolours?

I know some artists treat watercolour as one of their main media but I always think of watercolours as sketches, a quick dab here with a brush and a stroke there creating an image quickly. Of course, some paintings are more complex than others and Sargent seems to have taken both approaches. There are lots of paintings of Venice and the sea and lagoons, of buildings, landscapes and people. I really liked seeing the dappled light on water and, on closer inspection, you can see that some of the effect is due to not painting parts of the page, leaving gaps, and that's just as important and what you colour in. It gives a great effect of movement.

I wasn't too bothered by his paintings of buildings or, rather, details of buildings. He rarely painted a whole building but seemed to 'crop' the view to focus on this colonade or that doorway or window. A couple of them took me back to the NPG exhibition and thinking that some of the watercolours were similar in style to the situations he placed people in in his portraits. Was he using these watercolours to help him imagine his bigger portraits and play around with the compositions? I wonder.

One of my favourite paintings was this one of his sister painting on one of their Continental painting holidays, with his sister sitting in front of the easel with a brush in her mouth. It looks really naturalistic - why wouldn't you temporarily hold a brush in your mouth while you're adding a wash or a detail? I'd be happy to have that on living room wall any day.

Another favourite was this painting of one of his nieces lying on the ground under her parasol, awash with the volume of frocks a well brought-up late Victorian or Edwardian young lady should wear.  The frivolous side of me wondered how on earth the maids would get the grass stains out of that white dress after lying on the ground, but I'm sure they had ways of doing this. It also made me think of another painting earlier in the exhibition of a tarpaulin covering a boat being repaired in Venice or somewhere, the expanse of white carefully shaded here and there in all sorts of colours reflected from the sun and surrounding buildings and trees.

The face is more of a sketch of features than a portrait but it works very well in context. This painting is, quite rightly, the poster for the exhibition and the cover for the catalogue.

The final room turns to watercolours of people and the last few paintings are of soldiers (when he was a war artists at the end of the First World War) and male nudes. It probably shows my lack of knowledge of Sargent that I didn't know he painted male nudes but he seems to have done a lot. The one I'm choosing to highlight is this painting of a young man on a bed who's come back from the beach or sunbathing and is just lying there naked. His sun tan lines are clear from the singlet marks on his chest and shoulders to the tops of his thighs from his trunks. He's had a hard day sunbathing or swimming and he's now relaxing back at the hotel with a cigarette on the bed. What a natural scene, the white bedclothes set off the brown wooden bedstead and table and the tan of the man's body.

It's a really nice exhibition and perfect for a sunny summer's day. We went in shortly after 10am on a Friday morning when the Gallery opened and it was already relatively crowded. That's a good indication of its popularity. I wouldn't say it was a great exhibition full of eye opening materials but it's well worth visiting - painting wasn't just Sargent's 'job', it was also his 'hobby'. The exhibition is on until October so you've got plenty of time to pop along and see it.