Thursday, 22 November 2018

'Hadestown' at the National Theatre

The new musical at the National Theatre is 'Hadestown', a re-telling of the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. Guess who's town it is? It really is a bit of an oddity but it works and there are a few interesting twists to the usual story.

You know the old story, right? How Hades kidnapped Persephone and that's how we have winter? And how Orpheus found his way into Hades through the power of his music to rescue Eurydice but failed at the last hurdle? Well, that's the starting point but this play fills in the details in a slightly different way.

The show opens in a jazz club with the band on stage, the chorus at tables around the tables and Hermes, our narrator, telling us what we're going to see. He didn't have wings on his feet but he was definitely a messenger. He wandered on and off the centre of the stage bringing cool when needed to help take the story forward. Most of the cast were on the stage for most of the time so this must be a very tiring play for them to be in. The chorus was especially active in the second half when the turntable stage came into it's own.

In this telling of the old story Persephone is perpetually half-cut with a bottle of wine never far from her. I'd never thought of this before, the child of Ceres, goddess of summer and the harvest and her daughter is the recipient of that harvest of grapes and grain in the shape of booze. It was a nice touch. Even when in Hell, she has a handy hip-flask to share with the damned.

I was very impressed with the chorus who were bar-room buddies one moment and tormented souls in hell the next. A very disciplined group with some excellent and well practiced choreography. They really came into their own in the second half when the Olivier turntable stage came into it's own and the chorus were all over the place in synchronised movements. I also liked the three Fates, sassy and bossy by turns - I wouldn't want to run up against them.

I was surprised to learn that I'd already seen the two male leads on stage before, in 'Spiderman' on Broadway years ago. Reeve Carney played Orpheus and Patrick Page played Hades with a deep, deep vocal. Patrick came off best in this one. I also really liked Amber Grey as the half-cut Persephone with a hip flask always handy.

I really enjoyed the show, the bluesy/folksy songs, the use of the Oliver stage and the re-telling of those old, old stories. It's come from small theatre New York and is set to head back to Broadway so enjoy it at the National Theatre while you can. I quite fancy going back again later in the run.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

The new exhibition at Tate Britain is by Edward Burne-Jones, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the second half of the 19th Century. I always have a problem with the Pre-Raphaelites since there seems to be an exhibition involving them most years and too much exposure can lead to boredom. This exhibition is a bit different and isn't about the Pre-Raphaelites, it's about Burne-Jones, a solo exhibition with loads of examples of his work across painting, stained glass, tapestry, illustrations and a range of other things. That makes it a bit different and also makes it fascinating. It was also pleasing to see that the poster for the exhibition is a detail from 'Laus Veneris', a painting which normally hangs in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle and which is one of the first paintings I ever saw.

The exhibition is well curated and, as usual, is accompanied by a great little booklet that explores the themes of each room. The first works are some incredibly detailed small drawings that clearly suggest the artist to emerge once Burne-Jones had decided that was the direction he wanted to travel. We also see his earliest exhibited works, including 'Phyllis and Demophoon' which caused outrage when it was exhibited due to the frontal nude showing his genitals. Burne-Jones stuck to his vision and refused to paint over the genitals. The Pre-Rapaelites are such an established collective of artists, generally monied and privileged, that it's difficult to see them as rebels but, back then, that's what they started off being. They were never really artists starving in garrets but it took them a while to gain the stature they have today.

A painting that really grabbed my attention was 'Love AmongThe Ruins' painted between 1870-73. It's a large painting and is painted in watercolour and gouache on paper. How on earth he got watercolour to work like that is beyond me, and to think it's painted on paper is really quite surprising. Serious artists used oils back then, not watercolour, another sign of his own rebelliousness in using the media he felt comfortable with. The thing that really grabbed me was the perfection in the detail of the thorns on the left of the painting - very realistic and very impressive.

Further into the exhibition we see 'Laus Veneers', the poster for the exhibition, in it's glory, and also 'The Three of Forgiveness' which you can be forgiven for thinking you'd seen before. This is the same composition as 'Phyllis and Demophoon' from a decade earlier, but much bigger and, in this version, the man has a waft of cloth covering the goods. This is the version most people are probably more familiar with and it's a more accomplished painting. It's odd to notice how often the male figures seem to be scared of or dominated by the female figures in Burne-Jones' paintings. There are probably books written about this.

We're then presented with a room full of portraits, some paintings as portraits (such as a lovely painting of his daughter, Margaret) and others feature portraits in other narrative paintings, using his family and friends as models. We then see two series of paintings, firstly ten paintings in his 'Perseus' cycle and then four marvellous paintings (plus linking paintings) in his 'Briar Rose' series (another name for the 'Sleeping Beauty' story). I'm familiar with some of the 'Perseus' paintings but the 'Briar Rose' paintings were new to me and I loved them, their narrative with Burne-Jones choosing which scenes to paint from the story. I need to see these again.

The final room of the exhibition focused on Burne-Jones as a designer, often working with his friend, William Morris. In this room we are presented with tapestries, stained glass and a piano. Yes, a painted piano. The lid of the piano was painted on both sides and it stands in pride of place in the middle of the room for a 360 degree view. It's this aspect of the late Victorians that I quite like - a piano is for making music but why can't it also look pretty and colourful? Painting and design doesn't just belong on walls in frames, it can also enliven everyday objects like plates and curtains and, in this case, a piano.

We then move on to tapestries designed by Burne-Jones and produced by Morris's workshop, including the large 'Holy Grail Tapestries' including Sir Galahad being given a vision of the Grail. This was designed to hang high up in a room and has a section missing where a doorway was in the room it was designed for. We're looking uo at Sir Galahad on his knees before three angels with their glorious red-toned wings. That's when I noticed the ground in the tapestries, covered with grass and flowers, something repeated in the final tapestry in the exhibition.

The 'Adoration of the Magi' is another large tapestry with life-sized figures showing the three kings with their gifts for the new king they've been seeking. All have removed their crowns, with the lead Magi placing his on the ground beneath the hovering angel. Look at the detail of the ground, the grass and flowers. This made me think of another artist who was genuinely before Raphael - Fra Angelico - whose paintings include many flowers rather than bare earth. It's a lovely design and tapestry and deserves to be seen. I wonder where the original drawings are?

This exhibition is a must-see. For too long the Pre-Rapaelites have been lumped together as a group and movement and it's so refreshing to see the focus shift to one of their members rather than try to share the spotlight out amongst them all. I'll be going back for another viewing.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro

Last week I was lucky enough to get to the new exhibition by Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro with the snappy title of , 'The Moving Moment When I Went to the Universe'. The works all seem to be relatively recent with some created specifically for this exhibition. It's a very popular exhibition and that led to a small queue outside before being allowed inside in small groups to visit the first exhibit. Climb the old warehouse stairs to join the queue to walk inside the 'Infinity Mirrored Room - My Heart is Dancing Into the Universe'. I danced too.

I loved that room, total blackout apart from the disco lights and mirrors everywhere to disorient the viewer as we walk through the room in pitch black and primary colours. It was a great experience to walk through that room and it was over too quickly. If you're going, then linger to drink it all in, the sheer madness and delight of the place. It's great to go inside the art and be part of it - it's a different piece of art when I'm in it than when someone else is in it.

Then downstairs to see the giant, colourful bronze pumpkins and the paintings based on them. A couple of the paintings seemed to be dizzy-inducing with the complex circles and dots creating mesmerising patterns in bold colours. Then head out to the garden and 'Flowers That Speak All About My Heart Given To The Sky' on the decking outside. I loved the mad triffid flowers that I can quite imaging crawling along the ground after me, either wanting me to feed them or to eat me up. I'm not sure which.

This is where my only criticism of the place seeps in. After seeing the flowers some people turned round to leave because there was no signage to say there was any more of the exhibition. Luckily, I'm bolshy so I walked over to the door furthest away to see what was over there and was welcomed and told to take the lift to the top floor. Which I did. And was greeted by some of the biggest and most colourful paintings I've seen in a long time.

There were twenty-odd big canvases hung around the gallery of 'My Eternal Soul Paintings' with 20 of them hung together on one long wall creating a huge splash of colour and shapes. All the same size, the canvases are painted in the most colourful array of acrylic paints imaginable. I need to find out where she gets her paints from.

There are photocopied guides to the paintings with their individual names on so you can identify your favourites but I suggest you look at the paintings first and make your own mind up about what they're about before you read the titles. I loved these paintings and would happily have one on my wall - I could only fit one on my wall comfortably, sadly.

To find out more about the works pick up a copy of the small leaflet from the shop/office - I only noticed it as I was leaving. It's a ticketed exhibition and the tickets are free - check the Victoria Miro website for availability.

This was my first experience of Yayoi Kusama and I'm so pleased to have found her at last. This is an exhibition to set your spirit free and your heart soaring, just give in and let the joy in. I'm looking forward to seeing more of her works now.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

'Ribera: Art of Violence' at Dulwich Picture Gallery

The current exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is 'Ribera: Art of Violence' featuring the works of Jusepe de Ribera, an early 17th century Spanish painter who settled in Naples (which was governed by Spain at the time). It was probably in Naples that he saw the works of Caravaggio and that's clearly influenced Ribera's style of painting. I don't know anything about Ribera so this exhibition was an eye-opener and, to be clear, it's just focusing on one aspect of his work. It's a familiar aspect, though, since I've seen his work before, and one painting in particular I actively dislike - but more of that later.

The first room of the exhibition features two large paintings of the 'Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew' painted almost 20 years apart (1628 and 1644). There are quite a few renditions of St Bartholomew as you wander through the exhibition, along with paintings and drawings of other saints at the moment of their agony, such as St Peter and St Sebastian. That's the theme of this exhibition - the moments of pain and agony felt by the early Christian martyrs and others. The signs tell us that 'Ribera was primarily concerned with exploring  the contorted and restrained male body' and that the Church wanted art to 'inspire piety by arousing strong emotions'. It does that all right.

The later painting of St Bartholomew being flayed alive because he destroyed the images of pagan gods is the one that really captured my attention since the saint looks out of the painting with a piercing direct gaze - would you go through this for your god?

The next room took me back a few years to when I saw the main painting in an exhibition at Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris. Titled simply 'Saint Bartholomew' (1612) I wrongly thought the old man was the saint (the labels at the exhibition were in French) but the old man with the knife is holding the flayed skin of the saint. It's quite stark really. I didn't like this painting when I first saw it and I don't like it now. The background is a bit intriguing and 'modern' though.

This is where the drawings take over the exhibition, lots of drawings - and they're really good - where the artist tries out different positions of the subject matter for what will probably become paintings, tries to capture different body shapes for later use and so on. A few of the drawings capture physical illnesses and others capture torture and punishment. Not many are very pleasant viewing, especially when he he depicts the results of torture, such as a drawing of a man strung up by his arms defecating because the pain means he can't control his bowels. Not very pleasant stuff. I can only think that Ribera watched it happening so that we don't have to.

One of the drawings that really caught my eye was the 'Crucifixion of Saint Peter' from the early 1640s in ink (brush and pen). Look at that contorted body of an old man as he's man-handled onto an inverted cross. But also look at the two men handling him, the effort that's going into crucifying him, with a third pulling on a rope. A lot of effort is going into killing and humiliating an old man. There's a similar drawing hing close by of the same scene but with the cross at a more manageable angle.

The labels refer to Riber using real models for his works and I can well believe it. Some of his drawings look as if they're him trying to work out the best composition for a painting and the bodies and faces in the paintings look like real people. That's you and me in those paintings, warts and all.

Ribera also tried his hand at print making to be able to more easily spread his art and skill and, hopefully, get more commissions. There's a very detailed print of the 'Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew' from 1624 (I told you he kept cropping up as a favourite subject) which shows the skin being flayed from his arm while bound to a tree. Leaving the subject matter to one side, it's a great little print with loads of detail but I have to wonder why anyone would want this in their collection.

So there you have it, flayings, hangings, torture, executions  and all sorts of nastiness going on, all captured on the canvas or on paper by Ribera. One of the labels in the exhibition assumes that Ribera saw someone burned at the stake because of a drawing on that happening and his name prominently saying 'Ribera was here' across the bottom. Um, OK.

 The final, large painting has a room to itself and is kept dark with a curtain drawn across the exit. This is 'Apollo and Marsyas' in which the god flays a satyr alive. There he goes with that flaying thing again. Apparently, Marsyas bragged that he better at music than the god of music, they held a competition and guess what? the god won so he flays his rival alive. Trust Ribera to go with that story rather than any of the other stories of Apollo. As with the painting of Saint Bartholomew above, the satyr looks out at the viewer as he screams in agony.

So there you have it, not the most pleasant of exhibitions. There are only six paintings by Ribera (plus one by a contemporary) and lots of drawings. This was the least busy exhibition at Dulwich I've been to - don't know if Tuesday lunchtimes are traditionally not very busy or if the subject matter is putting people off - and I won't be going back for a second viewing.

Imagine my relief when I left the exhibition, looked to the right and saw two small Raphael paintings almost glowing with colour by comparison. Out of the darkness and into the light.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

'The Height of the Storm' at Wyndham's Theatre

We went to see 'The Height of the Storm' last week, the new play by Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton, The draw was, of course, seeing Dame Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce on stage together, both actors worth seeing that I've seen in various productions in the last few years. It's a fashionably short play with no interval and is set in the kitchen of a large house outside Paris, so only needs one set.

The play opens on the morning after a big storm, with Andre looking out the kitchen window at the vegetable garden when his daughter walks in and starts chatting. He doesn't respond and something is clearly wrong  - is it shock? is it dementia? He gradually starts talking as Anne, the daughter, fills the silence. It seems like her mother, Andre's wife, Madeleine, has died and she's tip-toeing around the subject to avoid upsetting him. And then Madeleine appears, back from the shops where she's been buying mushrooms for lunch and Andre comes to life again. Later in the scene we see Andre talking to both his wife and Anne, but seemingly ignored, so is it he who has actually died?

The story develops as we meet their other daughter and her latest boyfriend, an estate agent, and a mysterious woman who knew Andre many years ago and has a grown son. Who's son is he? And there's a mysterious bouquet of flowers without a card. What's going on? I kept thinking it'll all become clear any moment, someone will say something and it'll click into place. But they don't and I'm none the wiser. And then the scene changes again. I think the best thing is to give in and go with the flow and it'll become clearer by the end (which I won't spoil).

There's some very complex writing here that takes some concentration to follow. It's not a linear story by any means, almost circular and picaresque, seeing the scenes from different perspectives and view-points. Who actually died? Who's is re-living scenes from their life? There's a clue from Anne when she gets upset and says she's having trouble understanding what's happening being back in the old family home. Particularly since she's reading her father's diaries at the request of his publisher. What is fact and what is fiction?

I really liked the relationship between Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce, I think they really pulled off  the appearance of a long-term marriage where they're still in love after so many years. It's a good on-stage pairing with a text that offers them great opportunities to demonstrate their love, such as the ritual of mushrooms for lunch. It was quite touching to see them interact and react to each other, especially in the final scene when Madeleine says she'll always be with Andre, always, because she doesn't break her promise.

I really liked Amanda Drew as the older sister that takes the brunt of the situation, as is her job as the eldest and most capable in the family but whose personal life seems to be falling apart. She has the look of capable older sister about her. But I think it's the quiet scenes between Eileen and Jonathan that I'll remember, sitting at the kitchen table peeling mushrooms.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

'Fat Blokes' at the Purcell Room, Southbank

Last night I went to see some fat blokes dancing and talking on stage in 'Fat Blokes' at the Purcell Room. 'Fat Blokes' is a show by Scottee, a mix of cabaret, political diatribe, performance art and a challenge to the way we think about people who are overweight. Are they overweight or are they the right weight for them at that time? There are some serious and complex issues wound into and about body weight - not least the health impact - and these are explored in this show.

According to the blurb:

Fat Blokes is a (sort of) dance show about flab, double chins and getting your kit off in public by artist and forward facing fatso, Scottee.
Fat Blokes uncovers why fat men are never sexy but always funny, always the ‘before’ but never the ‘after’ shot.
It’s made in collaboration with choreographer Lea Anderson and four fat blokes who’ve never done this sort of thing before.
Prepare yourself for a show about pent up aggression, riot grrrl and the hokey cokey.
This is fat rebellion.
We have Scottee and his gang of four fat blokes, Asad, Joe, Sam and Gez. They dance, they talk and tell us their stories, they face challenges - what might happen next? There's a group dance or a monologue from Scottee and then one of them tells us his story. Joe tells us he grew up being bullied for being fat and that fat is a political issue; Asad tells us he loves big men but hates his own body and is on a diet, he also tells us he hasn't spoken to his father for two years; Sam tells us how he ended up having a glass being buried in the back of his head in Soho; and Gez tells us that he loves his body as it is. There are some powerful stories here.

Scottee also challenges himself and his gang with two tasks: choose to eat in public and choose whether to take a thin pill, depending on how they feel. Two chose to take the pill to make them thin.

Loud, brash music, great lighting and some creative choreography worked well with Scottee's monologues and the blokes' stories. It was an enjoyable and challenging show, thought-provoking and fun. Well done chaps!

Monday, 5 November 2018

Rehearsal of 'La Bayadere' at the Royal Opera House

Last week I was lucky enough to go to a rehearsal of 'La Bayadere' danced by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Rehearsals are usually the same as the final production with costumes and lighting and music, except the band are in jumpers and cardigans. For many people it would've been their first opportunity to see the grand old building fully opened up again after the renovation work that has meant parts of it have been shit for the last couple of years.

Most of the story-telling in 'La Bayadere' tale place in the first act in which we learn that the famous huntsman is in love with the temple dancer but the head priest also wants the dancer. When the huntsman gets back to the city he learns that the Rajah has decided he must marry his daughter. At the betrothal ceremony the temple dancer is invited to dance and is given flowers that she is told are from the huntsman but they're not, they contain  poisonous snake that bites her. The high priest has an antidote but she rejects it, preferring death to losing her lover. The second act is a prolonged opium dream in which the hunter sees visions of the dancer everywhere. The third act sees the betrothal ceremony again and the gods rain down death and destruction on the Rajah for poisoning the temple dancer and reunites the hunter and the dancer forever.

Ok, not the greatest plot, but 'La Bayadere' isn't about plot, it's about great dancing and spectacle. There are some spectacular moments and my favourite was at the start of the opium dream when first one, then two, then three and, ultimately, 24 ballerinas dance onto the stage using the same steps and dressed identically slowly filling the stage with visions of the temple dancer. That's a great moment. The same dance moves, halt, move forward a couple of paces to allow another ballerina onto the stage, and then repeat the dance moves. It's moment like those that make you love this ballet.

Another marvellous moment was at the start of the third act when the bronze idol at the temple came alive and leapt up to the rafters as part of his dance. Great leaps and bounds, twists and turns and all from this golden figure taking over the stage before the destruction begins. I also liked the temple dancer's dances with her exotic costume floating after her as she moved. I wonder if her costume really is made of silk? or some silk-like fabric?

For the rehearsal, the temple dancer was the most marvellous Marianela Nunez and the hunter was Vadim Muntagirov. The bronze idol was a very bouncy Alexander Campbell. The rehearsal went off with a hitch but I think the main spotlight person needs a bit more practice. Just saying. Well done people!

'Lorenzo Lotto Portraits' at the National Gallery

The new exhibition at the National Gallery is a collection of portrait paintings by Lorenzo Lotto, a 16th Century Venetian painter. If you like old art then you'll probably have seen two of his paintings that are the biggies, and that's probably it. It certainly was for me. One portrait of a man and one of a woman and that was my total knowledge of Mr Lotto. Little did I know there was so much more to learn and admire.

His problem seems to have been when he was born that put him in competition with his Venetian rival, Titian. Lotto worked with Raphael to paint the Pope's apartments in the Vatican so that's no mean feat at all. He pioneered innovations in portraiture due to the influence on Northern European painters that kept him working for a while. But, ultimately, he was over-shadowed by Titian and faded into penury and obscurity. Which is a great shame. He had links with the Dominicans (which is usually a good thing for art) and died in 1556 after entering the Holy House at Loreto and living there for four years. In his will in 1546 he wrote, 'Art did not earn me what I spent.'

Lotto seems to have been a painter for the middle classes rather than the aristocracy the time so we see more homely portraits than those of power and vast wealth. His sitters were pretty well off to be able to afford a portrait and have somewhere to hang it, of course.

One of the first things that I noticed about his portraits were the hands, very expressive hands and often, almost photogenic in their realism. The portrait of Lucina Brembati (above) is a great example even though the photograph doesn't do it justice. The hands could almost be photographs stuck onto the canvas.

Another very noticeable portrait is the one of Andrea Odoni dated 1527, painted when Lotto was the peak of his powers and he's showing them off in this painting. Odoni was a collector of art and antiquities so he's surrounded by some of his collection including a small statue that he seems to be holding out to the viewer. Beside this painting are two small statues similar to those in the painting, which is a nice touch. It's a great painting.

A few years after painting the Odoni portrait he painted 'Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia', thought to be a portrait of Lucrezia Valier. In one hand the woman holds a drawing of Lucretia, a Roman woman who killed herself to save her honour after being raped, while the woman's other hand points to it. There's some odd morality going on in this painting but, at the same time, it's a portrait of a woman telling the viewer that she is in control of her situation. The rather sumptuous dress and the delicate head-dress tell us she was definitely monied.

The paintings in the final room of the exhibition are possibly the most interesting and insightful into their sitters. 'Brother Gregorio Belo of Vicenza' from 1547 is a really powerful portrait. His very realistic features, the clenched fist, the robe draped over his shoulders while he reads a sacred book with a vision of the Crucifixion in the background. Brother Gregorio was a Hieronymite or Poor Hermit of St Jerome who is trying to emulate his patron saint. The book in his hand has been identified and a copy of the book is in a glass case beside the painting - I really like these little touches that help bring the exhibition and paintings to life. On the other side of the room is full length gown in a similar style to one worn by a woman in the portrait beside it (the dress on display probably belonged to Grand Duchess Eleonora of Toledo).

A final portrait I want to mention is 'Portrait of a Man with a Felt Hat' from 1541. The painting is oil on paper which we're told was common at the time but few have survived over the centuries. I wonder who this man was and why he had his portrait painted? He looks a bit nervous and shy, his clothes are a bit dowdy - but presumably his best - and he looks a bit tired. This is a masterly portrait with different textures in the clothing and the lined face. It also does what I like about portraits, it makes you wonder who the sitter was, what they were thinking about and what happened to them. Has this man been persuaded to run for public office so needed a portrait to hang in the town hall or something? I wonder ...

The exhibition opens today (5 November) in the ground floor galleries of the National Gallery and entry is free. It's spread across four rooms and is well worth visiting when you have a spare hour. The exhibition was jointly organised by the National gallery and the Prado, so has a good provenance. I'll certainly be going back, it's a really good exhibition that has whetted my appetite to see more works by Lorenzo Lotto.