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.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

'Angels in America: Millennium Approaches' at the National Theatre

I went to see both parts of 'Angels in America' at the National Theatre a couple of months ago and was so impressed that I immediately signed up to be part of the monthly ballot for tickets and was lucky enough to be one of the winners. So last night I went to see part 1 again, 'Millennium Approaches' on the Lyttelton stage. Until I saw this production a couple of months ago I'd never seen the play or the film and knew nothing about it other than it dealt with HIV/AIDS in the '80s. It was nice to see it again, this time with some knowledge of the plot and characters.

'Millennium Approaches' is set in New York in the mid-80s and is all about beginnings and discoveries, love and betrayal, as we're introduced to the characters and see them interact. Prior Walter, the latest of that name in a line going back to the Norman conquest of England, discovers he has HIV and tells his boyfriend just before he goes to bury his grandmother. Louis, the boyfriend, can't handle illness and leaves Prior when he's taken to hospital after a particularly bad night. Coincidentally, he works at the same court as Joe, a closeted and confused Mormon whose wife, Harper, takes too much valium and has hallucinations. Joe also knows Ron Cohn who is also closeted but has had sex with men for years who knows everyone in power and swears like a trooper. Thankfully there are also characters like Belize, the nurse in Prior's hospital who is also an old friend, to lighten the load.

There's a swirling play of tales within tales and characters having random conversations that somehow take the play forward. It's so well written and performed that you hardly notice this play is three and a half hours long - it certainly didn't feel it. It's a great ensemble piece with all the actors playing multiple parts, from the rabbi at the start played by Joe's mother, Prior playing the leather queen in Central Park who lives with his parents servicing Louis and characters also playing Prior's ancestors on their hallucinatory visits to warn that the Angel approaches... or, are they hallucinatory?

The further we get into the play the more there are questions about reality and hallucinations. Harper has hallucinations from the start because of her valium intake but we then get drawn into Prior's hallucinations - are they from the drugs he's taking or are they real? Harper get's transported to Antarctica, which we know isn't real, but are Prior's hallucinations of his ancestors real? Are they really predicting a visitation from an Angel? It seems they are since the Angel crashes into Prior's life just as the lights go off at the end of the play. It's all terribly dramatic and I loved the effects.

I thought that all the actors were excellent and the production as a whole is excellent. It totally won me over. It's directed by Marianne Elliot (not Poly Styrene I hasten to add) who deserves kudos for her work on this. Andrew Garfield and James McArdle play Prior and Louis, Russell Tovey and Denise Gough play Joe and Harper, and Nathan Lane and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett play Ron and Belize. All were thoroughly good and caught us up in this strange world from 30 years ago.

Looking forward to seeing part 2 next week!

Fra Angelico 7/12

I'm posting a photo of a painting I've seen by Fra Angelico each month on the 18th of the month to celebrate his feast day as a Beato. This month I've chosen a small painting from San Marco in Florence in, I think, the refectory. We see a Dominican monk (Saint Peter Martyr, one of the first Dominican saints) with his finger to his lips and a bible in his other hand. You can almost hear the sound of him saying 'ssshhhhh' as he encourages the friars to be quiet and study their bibles.

It's a lovely little painting, high up on the wall and in plain sight to everyone. Get any group of people together and the noise level rises and Dominican friars were no different. It's quite a fun way for Fra Angelico to get his message across.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

'Twilight Song' at Park Theatre

Last week we went to see 'Twilight Song', the last play by Kevin Elyot before he died, at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. Kevin Elyot wrote 'My Night With Reg' which was revived by the Donmar Warehouse in 2014 before transferring to the West End. Like 'Reg', 'Twilight Song' is full of gay (and possibly bisexual) characters with the exception of the lone woman in the cast (well, as far as the text suggests anyway). It's a small ensemble piece and lasts about 75 minutes and that's the right length for this piece. Warning: SPOILERS.  

It's a tale of a small middle class family of no consequence fifty years apart, set in both 2017 and in 1967. The year 1967 is prominently signalled by references to the Beatles world-wide performance of 'All You Need Is Love' (I wonder how much using that song costs the production?). The play opens in 2017 with an estate agent, Skinner, looking over the old Victorian villa that Barry is interested in selling. He lives there with his mother who is out for the day. After some banter and some truths Barry asks Skinner how he earns the extra money they're talking about and he says he fucks women and men. It is rather out of the blue but does make sense of the almost-flirting earlier. Barry hands over the money and the scene changes to 50 years earlier with newly married Basil (Barry's dad) and Isabella (his mother) having recently moved into the house and taking their Uncle Charles and family friend Harry out to dinner to thank them for their help in buying the house. The two older men are secretly lovers and have been for years.

Through various twists and turns we learn that Harry commits suicide because he is being blackmailed and we also learn that the worker renovating the garden is not only Harry's blackmailer but the father of Barry's younger brother who went missing when he was a baby. Earlier in the play we learn that the gardener wanted a baby and Skinner tells us that his dad came into some money at short notice and emigrated to Australia after his mother died. Coincidence? Or is he family?

The casting probably helps with that question since Adam Garcia plays both Skinner and the gardener and Paul Higgins plays Basil and Barry (i.e. father and son). Bryony Hannah played Isabella in both 1967 and in 2017 - she did good limp with a walker to stress her age but I think the simple addition of a grey wig might've helped. The old blokes were Hugh Ross and Philip Bretherton.

It's a bit of a strange play in many ways and, although it doesn't have the immediacy of 'My Night With Reg', it's stuck in my head.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

'Turandot' at the Royal Opera House

Last week we went back to the venerable Royal Opera House to see a performance of 'Turandot' by Mr Puccini. It was his last opera and wasn't finished when he died so no-one really knows if the finished opera is as how he intended it but I don't mind, it's a 'biggie' and worthy of a look. This was the 277th performance of the opera at the Royal Opera House - I really like that they include details like that in their cast lists and programmes. This production was first staged in 1984.

Turandot is Princess of China and has decreed that she will only marry a prince who can answer three riddles. No-one can, of course, so they are put to death, the latest being the Prince of Persia. There's a riot baying for blood outside the royal palace in old Peking and that's when we meet Timur, the deposed king of Tartary, who is reunited with his son Calaf and they're both saved by the slave-girl Liu who is secretly in love with Calaf since he once smiled at her (as you do). Calaf sees Turandot as she is carried through the streets of Peking and falls for her, determined to take the riddles task and marry her.

Despite others trying to persuade him otherwise he refuses to change his mind and, luckily answers the riddles correctly. Turandot flies into a rage and refuses to honour her part of the bargain so Calaf offers her a chance in that if she can find out his name by dawn he will be at her mercy. Turandor orders her soldiers to torture and kill the people of Peking to find out his name and brave Liu is captured and kills herself so she can't reveal his name. Calaf does nothing to help her and lost my sympathy - him and bitch queen Turandor deserve each other. Before dawn Calaf tells Turandot his name and they 'lay down together' - which I assume means he rapes her since she wouldn't do that voluntarily. And somehow she discovers love and, at dawn declares his name to be 'Love' and they embrace. It's a very odd ending but I was pleased with Timur leading out the cart with Liu's body in it and across the stage to show us who the true heroine was. Brave Liu.

The staging was gorgeous with lovely sets and colourful costumes and, of course, the singing was excellent. I followed the tale by reading the words to the songs in the surtitles above the stage. I didn't like the character of Turandot at all and her conversion to love at the end wasn't terribly well handled.  I did, however, love the three 'comic' characters of Ping, Pong and Pang who kept the story moving and danced and sung their way through the opera. I particularly liked their sequence at the start of the second act when they sang about their homelands and wished they could go back there, to their gardens and bamboo groves. I thought that was particularly lovely. I can't quite forgive them for torturing Liu though. The real heroine of the show was Liu who killed herself for love which seems to be an ongoing theme in Puccini operas.

Aleksandra Kurzak sang Liu, Roberto Alagna sang Calaf, the Unknown Prince, and Lise Lindstrom was Turandot. I'm also name-checking Leon Kosavic, Samuel Sakker and David Junghoon Kim as the three colourful, comic characters that moved me. I must also give a shout out to the Royal Opera Chorus of about 60 singers that created such a great noise that filled that grand old hall to the rafters. Well done all, I was most impressed. I might now have a new favourite opera...

Monday, 10 July 2017

'Bent' at the National Theatre

Yesterday I went to to see a staged reading of 'Bent' at the National Theatre. It was on the Lyttelton stage on which 'Angels in America' is currently playing and the scenery for that play was in the background. So, a play about gay men in the '80s as the background to a play about gay men in the '30s. The reading was part of a short series of 'LGBT+ Readings' as the National Theatre's contribution to Pride 2017. I've never seen 'Bent' so this was a good opportunity to hear it.

The chairs were set out in a row at the front of the stage and the actors walked on and took their seats, with a narrator reading out the stage directions and book-ending each scene. It starts out in Berlin after the Nazis have taken power but before the war. Max is a young man living with his boyfriend Rudy who also likes to invite others back home for sex when he's drunk.

The day starts with a hangover and Max not remembering what happened the night before like many other mornings. This morning, however, the Gestapo break into their flat because Max's shag last night is wanted by them. This implicates Max and Rudy who flee to the nightclub that Rudy works at seeking help. They then go on the run to stay ahead of the Gestapo and Max tries to do a deal with his wealthy family to help them get to Amsterdam through his uncle who is also gay but lives a more discreet lifestyle. They're arrested and, on a transport train to Dachau, Max denies knowing Rudy and is forced to hurt him so severely that Rudy dies. Max denies being gay and insists that he's Jewish so that he wears the yellow star rather than the pink triangle.

The second act takes place in Dachau with Max and Horst, who is gay with a pink triangle on his jacket, working together and slowly falling in love with each other. They can only talk for a few seconds as they move a pile of rocks but the relationship deepens. When Horst falls ill the prison guard instructs him to commit suicide by retrieving his hat from an electric fence. Instead of meekly dying Horst attacks the guard and is shot and Max is instructed to get rid of the body in a pit used to dispose of bodies. Max does so and returns to his work only to jump into the pit to retrieve Horst's jacket and put it on before walking into the electric fence himself, finally acknowledging who he really is. The stage direction read out says that lights at the back of the stage flare and blind the audience.

It's a powerful piece of writing and the actors were all really good, a small cast that only got together for a first rehearsal three days before the reading. Simon Russell Beale played fruity uncle Freddy who likes a bit of 'fluff', George Mackay was Rudy, Paapa Essiedu was Horst and Russell Tovey was Max. Russell is very familiar with that stage since he's currently in 'Angels in America'. All three young men were excellent and gave understated, controlled performances which brought even more emotion to the stage since such horrific things were happening to them. They deserved the standing ovation at the end of the play.

It was followed by a too-short Q&A chaired my Michael Cashman with Martin Sherman (writer) and Stephen Daldry (director). Well done all!