Friday, 18 May 2018

Rodin at the British Museum

Sometimes it must be really odd to be the British Museum. You've been around for so long and so many people have visited you that some must have gone on to become famous. So it is with Rodin who visited the Museum in 1881 and fell in love with the Parthenon sculptures and friezes and they went on to influence so much of his subsequent work. Fast forward 130-odd years and the British Museum puts on an exhibition of Rodin's work alongside some of the marvels from the Parthenon. I wonder, would he have been proud or embarrassed?

The first sculpture you see is 'The Age of Bronze', a statue of a naked young man that I first saw a version of in Berlin. This is the statue that caused Rodin to be accused of making the cast from a living body rather that a sculpture, because it's so realistic. The play of light over the muscles and toned body is really quite astonishing and it's a perfect start to the exhibition.

The sign in front of the sculpture shows a photo of the actual model and two statues that probably influenced Rodin at the time. The model was a Belgian called Auguste Neyt and I wonder what he felt about the statue and what his family thinks today. I hope they're proud of it and him since it really is a beautiful work to see. If that was my great-grandfather I'd be proud! Look at the beauty he bequeathed to the world long after he grew old and died.

An exhibition of Rodin's work wouldn't be complete without a version of 'The Kiss' and 'The Thinker', his two mega-hits. I've never been up close to 'The Thinker' before - in the garden of the Musee Rodin in Paris the statue is up high on a plinth amid the hedges - he looks good but you can't really examine him. On a close inspection at the British Museum the thing I really noticed was the size of his feet. They're big and solid and gnarled and don't look like the feet of a thinker to me. This thinker's been out and about and trod in some marble quaries over the years. It looks like a really uncomfortable pose but he's been holding it for over 100 years so I suppose it's not too uncomfortable.

The big feet seem to be a theme across his work, with out-size, muscular feet being a trademark across the works on show. Time again there are big feet. My favourite was the legs and feet of 'The Walker', one of the last works in the exhibition. Big, muscular legs balanced above big feet and, while most impressive, clearly aren't the legs and feet of a walker. Walkers tend to be skinny - muscular but skinny - and that's definitely not the form of this statue. Those legs and feet are so solid, you can feel them pressing into the earth, moving forward and dragging you along.  I wish I could draw legs like that.

It's good that we also get to see some of the works that helped to inspire Rodin. Normally the Parthenon statues and friezes are exhibited quite high up to reflect how you'd see them at the Parthenon but the exhibition shows them much lower, at eye height. I particularly liked this frieze of horsemen with the man in the middle clearly checking his messages on his mobile phone. Those ancient Greeks were way ahead of their time, obviously. It really makes you wonder how humanity was so stupid to have lost that technology for over 2,000 years - just think what we'd have by now if technology had continued to develop?

I went to the exhibition late in the afternoon when it wasn't too busy but I can well imagine that it's not good for seeing the works around a busy lunchtime. The exhibits are nicely spaced out (apart from around the Thinker for some odd  reason) and the British Museum is encouraging people to go along and draw some of the works, with folding stools available if you want them. After I'd been round the exhibition I went back to the start again and did a quick sketch of 'The Age of Bronze' and here it is. This is a really good exhibition and well worth the cost of a ticket. Thanks British Museum.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Zippo's Circus at Figge's Marsh

I last saw Mr Zippo's Emporium of Fun and Frolic - aka Zippo's Circus - years ago on Streatham Common so I jumped at the opportunity of a free Bank Holiday Monday to see them again and I'm so pleased I did. There was juggling and acrobatics, high wire and rocket ships, strong men and horses, clowns and singing and budgies. Maurice the Budgie didn't deserve the applause because he was quite naughty really - don't encourage him.

I didn't smell the grease paint but I did smell the horses. The 'Cossack' riders were thrilling and they didn't use the whips that, I assume, were there for show.

I ate candy floss for the first time in decades and clapped and cheered and joined in the singing (reluctantly).

When I grow up I shall run away and join the circus - I just need to work on my act...

'The Way of the World' at the Donmar Warehouse

I distinctly remember not reading 'The Way of the World' at university. I had to read Dryden and Pope and their wordiness was enough to turn me off other 17th Century writers and so it was with William Congreve. I knew the reputation of 'The Way of the World' but couldn't face reading it so I didn't. Fast forward 40 years (not quite) and it's on at the Donmar so, why not? Seeing it will fulfil my obligation without having to read it. It stars Haydn Gwynne and Geoffrey Streatfield so that's a good thing. And I can drink a glass of red while I watch so that's ok.

And you know what? I loved it! Yes, there were far too many words but when a speech went on for too long for my fancy I could inspect the gorgeous costumes, particularly the frock coats (and yes, I had a favourite). Most of the frocks were a bit 'meh' but Haydn Gwynne's were lovely and floral. One needs to have standards, obviously.

Basically, it's a tale of morality and immorality, of swindling and scheming, of nasty people and nice people, love and marriage, sex and infidelity and everything inbetween. It's also about word-play and word-games, of getting one up on another, the class system, the city (and society) against the country and all-sorts. I don't think it's particularly in favour of anything - that's up to you. It's easy enough to read the story online if you want to.

I was very impressed with Haydn Gwynne, merrily throwing herself around trying to find the right pose and moment to meet her new beloved and her distress on her betrayal. I know we're supposed to find her funny as an old woman chasing younger men but I saw the pathos as well as the humour and thought she was very effective. Similarly with Geoffrey Streatfield who moves from rake to saviour almost imperceptibly. Sadly for him, I will always remember him 'going down on a tree' on that stage in 'My Night With Reg'. Not in that wig, though. I also loved Fisayo Akinade as the permanently pissed fop in the best frock coat I've ever seen. Drunk or partially sober he was excellent.

If you get the chance then go along and see it - it's actually great fun!

'Eastward Ho!' at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

On Sunday afternoon we went to a 'Read Not Dead' performance of 'Eastward Ho!' in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. The 'Read Not Dead' series picks out little performed plays and gathers together a cast of players who have a single rehearsal on a Sunday morning and then perform the play, script in hand, that afternoon. 'Eastward Ho!' was co-written by Ben Johnson and that was enough to pique my curiosity so I booked tickets. I've only ever seen Johnson's 'Volpone' so it was an opportunity to see another of his works.

The Globe bill it as the tale of Master Touchstone's daughters, one haughty and one meek, but I saw a very different play. The daughters are in it but it's more about commerce, greed and power, using women as chattels to get funding, class and the ruling monied elite, the potential of Empire and, of course, morality and goodness against plain old selfish nastiness. That takes up a few more words, I suppose, but it's so much more than the tale of two daughters.

I loved it. It felt fresh and alive, many of the themes relevant to today and the thrill of almost sitting on the edge of your seat wondering whether they'll get it right. And, by and large, they did, which was very impressive. Well done to the troupe! I suppose it's that thing of getting the key essentials of the character right and then it doesn't matter if you don't get the odd line quite right or miss you cue, you still bring the 'reality' of the character to the fore. I particularly liked Michael Matus as Touchstone, Ralph Davis as his greedy apprentice and Daisy Boulton as Touchstone's haughty daughter who simply wants to marry someone/anyone who could give her the title of 'Lady' and a carriage. Well done people, and to everyone involved.

But Globe, please, why such uncomfortable seats? I know it's about recreating the Shakespearean experience but you've already relented by adding cushions so why not add a back to the benches? You don't have Shakespearean toilets so why insist on uncomfortable seats?

Linton Kwesi Johnson at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

On Monday night I went to see Linton Kwei Johnson at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. He was being interviewed and talking about his life as part of the Southbank's BOLD festival (i.e. B(e) OLD) about artists over the age of 60 (or something like that). Linton wasn't over 60 when he created his great works, but he is now, and looking good and dapper to boot.

I first heard of Linton 40 years ago in 1978 when he was righteous with his dub poetry album and heavy, heavy reggae backing to poems about protest and resistance to racism and police brutality and the wonderful and scary 'All Wi Doin Is Defendin'. I last saw Linton ten years ago at the Barbican when he was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first album, 'Dread Beat An Blood' (as Poet and the Roots) with Dennis Bovell and his band providing the reggae to his poetry.

Linton talked about his early life in Jamaica, coming to London as a child in the early 60s and experiencing racism, joining the Black Panthers and becoming politicised, developing his approach to poetry and performance, adding a reggae backing to his performances. There was lots of name-dropping, from influential black writers and thinkers to John Lydon and Public Image Limited who Linton supported in the late 70s.

He finished off the evening with a reading of four poems, beginning with 'All Wi Doin Is Defendin' which he wrote in 1978 even though it wasn't recorded and released until 1978. It was great to hear him read his poems and the rhythms in his voice.

It was fascinating to hear him talk about politics and some of the 'causes' he'd been involved in and led and the gradual rise of the influence of black politics. He gave a shout out to David Lammy MP for continuing this today. He also commented that he wasn't just spouting slogans, he was 9and is) a serious political activist - don't just talk it, be it and do something.

Some favourite comments:

- he hasn't published any new poetry in recent years since he doesn't feel it's up to the standard of his earlier material.

- in the early days he recited his poems to a reggae tape and had three mates skanking behind him to enhance the atmosphere - I loved him referring to them as his 'backing dancers'!

- he's not 'West Indian', he's Caribbean - 'West Indian' refers to Columbus getting lost and mis-naming the islands because he read his maps wrongly.

It was great fun to see Linton again and just listen to him talk about his life. The interviewer was Robin Denselow who asked a question and then wisely shut up and just let Linton talk. If only more interviewers were like that!  The photos were nicked randomly  from Twitter so I can't give credits - sorry, but thanks for posting.

If you're interested, there's a new selection of his poems recently published by Penguin and it's well worth a look.

Beatriz Milhazes at the White Cube

There's a great little exhibition of works by Beatriz Milhazes the White Cube, Bermondsey, at the moment featuring her first enormous tapestry, 'Rio Azul'. There are 18-19 large works, paintings, collages, mobiles and other structural works all brimming with colour and shape and movement.

I've not heard of Beatriz before but I saw an advert for the show on Twitter or Facebook and, on the basis of seeing one painting, decided I had to see the exhibition. It was very reminiscent of the Delaunays, particularly Sonia Delaunay and her colour theories, and I wanted to see more, wanted to see how the word were constructed and finished, and, to be honest, just wallow in the colours.

There are no signs or labels to describe or explain the works, date them or tell you what the materials are. There's a photocopied sheet you can pick up at the front desk that does this if it's important to you to know. I didn't bother.

The first work you come to is this giant pinky dangly-thing - calling it a mobile isn't quite the right word but it hangs from the ceiling and it's big. You can walk underneath it and look up at the various strings of beads and bits-n-bobs it's made up of. It's a room on its own with light coming in form the ceiling and, while I was there, everyone took out their phones to take a photo - everyone. I have no idea what it's meant to be or meant to represent - if anything - and I simply took it at face value. It made me smile, it's fun and i wanted to touch it and move it (but didn't).

The next gallery is the main event with two large rooms, the biggest holding the enormous tapestry, 'Rio Azul'. It's easy to see the threads used in weaving the tapestry and I really wanted to touch it, to feel the texture and test whether different colours felt different but I didn't. You can see the back of the tapestry at the edges and see loose threads and other threads sewn in. There's a video playing on loop in another room that features Beatriz talking about the tapestry and showing how it was made in France.

Some of the other works are paintings and others are collages and paintings. In one of the videos Beatriz commented on the influence of Matisse and, in particular; his cut outs, and I can see that in some of her works but I'd still say that Delaunay was more of an influence to a third party eye. I loved the colours and shapes, placing one colour next to another to see what the eye makes of it, linear and circular juxtaposed, all catching the eye and making it wander over the surface of the work.

It's a bit of cliche to refer to Mark Rothko's works as 'meditative' but, in a very different way, I think these are too. Stare at them and fall into the colour and swirliness of the paintings. There were no benches anywhere to sit and gaze at these paintings - perhaps the White Cube should invest in some (the rooms are big enough, after all).

There were no postcards or catalogue in the shop and you can add your name to a list to hear when the catalogue is available. I suspect that's more to do with the sensibilities and direction of the White Cube than bad planning but I'd have loved to go away with a few postcards to show to people and use as bookmarks (that's what postcards are for, isn't it?). It's also a bit of free publicity.

The exhibition wasn't terribly busy but the rooms were never empty, at least while I was there. I suspect the White Cube and Beatriz Milhazes have their own audiences and don't go in for the mass marketing of Tate Britain further down the river, but if you've got something good it's nice to share it. I'd certainly want to share Beatriz and these weird, colourful, magical creations. Thank you White Cube and thank you to Beatriz Milhazes.

'Hamilton' at the Victoria Palace Theatre

The Victoria Palace hosted 'Billy Elliot' for years and then it closed for refurbishment. The re-opening show is Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'Hamilton', a hot ticket guaranteed to pull in the punters. There's been a lot of hype about this show over the last year or two and, I have to say, it deserves it. It also deserves all the awards it's been given. It's one of those rare beasts that really is all-round good.

It's almost entirely sung/rapped with no dialogue as such and that keeps the momentum going. Scene piling on scene as we travel through the escapades of Mr Hamilton from being a young firebrand through the revolutionary war to becoming an elder statesman who's eventually cast out when Washington decides not to run for President again. I didn't really notice anything that signalled the passing of time - other than him suddenly having an adult child in a duel.

The songs are really good - there's no denying it - and they're delivered really well. But I'd also highlight the choreography and the lighting as a major contributor to the effect of the songs. Barely a song goes by without some sort of choreography and that's what really brought the show alive for me. Constant movement, dancers rushing on to almost make many of the songs into mini-videos and then dashing off. They must be exhausted by the end of the show.

I was very impressed with Jason Pennycooke who played Thomas Jefferson for all the world like an early version of Prince, haircut, purple clothes and everything. And why not? It really worked well. The character blithely asks what he's missed while hiding out in France while the revolutionary war was taking place. There are some lovely throw away lines in this play.

One of the few downsides to the show is that I don't really care about Hamilton the person and this play doesn't make me care about him. I don't have any real interest in American history or of the revolution so him being a 'founding father' means little to me. All I know about him is what's in the play (which may or may not be accurate) and he doesn't come across as a very nice person. He seems to care mainly about himself and what he wants to the extent of publicising an affair he had that ruins his family but ensures he can't be blackmailed about it in the future. I'm not sure if that's brave or stupid.

Jamael Westman was fine as Alexander Hamilton but I thought Giles Terera as Aaron Burr and sometimes the narrator was a more commanding presence on the stage. My favourite was Jason Pennycooke as Lafayette in the first act and Prince, um, sorry, I mean Thomas Jefferson in the second. He was fabulous as a fast talking, self-absorbed dandy (I recall Jason in 'La Cage Aux Folles' a few years back). Despite presenting them as a version of Destiny's Child, the ladies were less impressive but I did like Rachel John who sounded like she had a proper singers' voice rather than a stage voice.

I've mentioned the dancers before - an excellent and energetic bunch - and they were all dressed the same, all in white and cream so it didn't really matter who was dancing, they had great ensemble effect. But I noticed early on that the women wore skin-tight jodhpurs and a bodice-type thing showing cleavage while the men wore looser trousers and were covered up to their heads, including wearing neckerchiefs. With all the gender politics and #MeToo movements it seemed very noticeable - to me at least - the way that the dancers were sexualised in this way. How odd.

If you get the chance, go and se this show, you won't regret it. Oh, and as you're constantly reminded, don't throw away your shot (I'm not quite sure what that means).

Monday, 7 May 2018

'Picasso 1932' at Tate Modern

'Picasso 1932' is the current blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern, a big collections of paintings and other works from the single year of 1932 - what a prolific chap that Picasso was to complete so many works in one year and we only see a selection. It's an impressive achievement for the Tate to get so many paintings on loan for the exhibition. A little touch that I really liked was including the day and date the painting was created on the label - that sort of helped to emphasise that all these works were completed in a single year.

Apparently 1932 was a crisis year for Picasso with the advent of his first major retrospective exhibition, critics questioning his creative relevance and his marriage falling apart while he discovers a new muse rather than his wife. So, a year of challenge and discovery, and that's something i really liked about the exhibition - it exposes us to a wide range of styles and approaches to creativity that Picasso was experimenting with. Not all are equally successful but that's what you would expect and it's great to have an opportunity to see such a wide range of works.

The exhibition is laid out chronologically so we travel through 1932 with Picasso, from January to December, as his moods change and shift. His experiments change and develop and it's fascinating walking through the year with him.

There are all sorts of works in this exhibition - some sculptures, paintings, drawings, all completed in 1932. I quite liked some of the monochrome line paintings but there were some works there I wouldn't have guessed were by Picasso if I hadn't been told. There were a few small landscapes and paintings of his house at Boisgeloup that were delightful in their simplicity and restraint. I stood there grinning at them and wondering how I'd never seen any paintings like this by Picasso before. They were lovely.

As I walked through the year I started noticing that some themes and compositions were repeated, but not in the same way, almost like he was exploring his own artistic processes. One of these were paintings titled 'The Rescue'.  One of the quotes from Picasso that was written up on the wall was, "You start a painting and it becomes something altogether different. It's strange how little the artist's will matters." That's a bit like Paul Klee's 'taking a line for a walk' approach. The painting takes over and the artist must follow it where it leads.

It's a really enjoyable exhibition and I'll certainly go back (and pick a time when it's not so crowded - I really ought to know by now). It's a really good concept for an exhibition but there aren't that many artists of similar stature who produced sufficient works to focus on a single year. It certainly works for Picasso.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

'Manon' at the Royal Opera House

'Manon' is one of the great romantic modern ballets by Kenneth MacMillan and has been in the Royal Ballet's repertoire for a long time (I saw the 274th performance according to the cast list). The tale is worthy and sad - there are no happy endings in this ballet. But there is some great dancing, particularly the group dances and the various pas de deux of the lovers.

'Manon' is a simple tale of greed, lust and power and, of course, love. Isn't every ballet? Our heroine is Manon, a young girl who travels to Paris with her guardian to meet her brother and change coaches to take her to a convent. By the time she appears we've already met her brother, Lescaut, who pimps his mistress and is friends with the Beggar Chief and other thieves. He welcomes the grand folks from Paris in the hopes of getting money out of them. When his sister arrives, beautiful and young, he realises he can get money for her virtue and he deals with both her guardian and the rich Monsieur G.M. While the deals are being made, Manon meets Des Grieux, a handsome young student and they fall in love and flee back to his apartment where they dance their love. Unfortunately, they're followed by Lescaut and Monsieur G.M. who then woos her with furs and a diamond necklace and she succumbs. Her lover is, of course, distraught.

Some time later the scene changes to a society party with courtesans and lusty old men, young energetic men showing off and all gentlemen handing in their swords to avoid any trouble. Lescaut and Des Grieux arrive in their finery and Lescaut is already drunk and gives the best drunk dancing I've ever seen as he and his mistress cavort across the stage. Then Monsieur and Manon arrive and she's bedecked in all her finery but, inside, she's still the little girl who fell in love and she and Des Grieux plan to run away together.  Monsieur returns and swords are drawn as the couple try to escape and Lescaut help them. They make it back to Des Grief's apartment, followed by Monsieur and the local police - he shoots and kills Lescaut and prosecutes Manon as a prostitute.

Manon is deported to a penal colony in the colonies in America and Des Grieux follows to protect her. She is still a beauty and the local Gaoler takes a fancy to his new charge and rapes her at which point Des Grieux finally grows a pair and stabs him to death. The lovers escape into the swamps around the colony where Manon finally dies and we leave Des Grieux to his mourning. Clap! Clap! Clap!

So there you have it kids, don't give up your virtue for worldly goods because you'll probably die in a swamp. And you don't want that.

It's a fab ballet and there's some astonishing dancing. The best solo dances all seem to go to that rascal Lescaut in the first act, leaping all over the place, and he gets the opportunity to do great dancing and falling over in the drunken party scene. Our lovers of Manon and Des Grieux dance some lovely and tender pas de deux, sharing moments of passion and love. One segment I really enjoyed was when the ladies arrived in the colony dressed in rags and hair cut scandalously short and their ensemble dance with their hands behind their backs one moment and covering their heads in shame the next before passing out with the heat and their weariness. I was most impressed with that simple and heart-felt story telling, the restrained movements and innate sadness. It was most fab indeed.

Our dancers were Akane Takada as Manon, Alexander Campbell as Des Grieux, James Hay as the very bouncy Lescaut, and Thomas Whitehead as the nasty Monsieur G.M. Thank you for the magic.