Friday, 19 April 2019

'Romeo and Juliet' at the Royal Opera House

Kenneth MacMillan's 'Romeo and Juliet' is a staple in the programme of the Royal Ballet and it's rather special to me. I saw Steven McRae and Iana Selenko dance the title roles three years ago and that production made me finally 'get' ballet and fall in love with it. O yes, it's that personal to me. I saw the John Cranko version of 'Romeo and Juliet', choreographed a few years before MacMillan's, when I was in Boston last year danced by the Boston Ballet at the Boston Opera House and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I prefer the MacMillan version.

The ballet is back in the programme for this years' season at the Royal Opera House so, naturally, I bought tickets. Steven McRae was due to dance the title role again but sadly injured his knee so our lovers were Akane Takada as Juliet and Ryoichi Hirano as Romeo. I've seen Akane dance in 'Manon', 'Mayerling' and as the swan in last summer's glorious version of 'Swan Lake' and seen Ryiochi dance in 'Nutcracker' and in 'Frankenstein'. They both have excellent track records. There aren't any production photos of them dancing the current roles, unfortunately.

We all know the story. Romeo Montague is a lad about town, stirring up trouble with the rival house of Capulet and hanging out with the Happy Strumpets in the marketplace, and then, after blagging their way into a Capulet masked ball to show off Juliet they see each other and fall in love. That starts the tragedy - how can the young lovers from rival houses possibly marry? They marry in secret and share one night of love before Romeo must run and hide since he killed Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, in revenge for the cousin killing Romeo's best friend, Mercutio. Juliet's parents press her to marry the hapless Paris so she feigns committing suicide. And Romeo, ah if only he'd waited another few minutes.

It's a tale of love and joy and tragedy and along the way we meet other characters in Verona. We meet Mercutio, Romeo's best mate and great sword-fencer. We see the Montague (white tights) and Capulet (red tights) gangs sword-fencing in the marketplace and end up with a pile of dead bodies so that the Prince of Verona has to intervene to stop them. This is proper fencing too, fully choreographed of course, but it's very exciting to see all the lads slashing at each other and jumping and bouncing all over the place! Sadly Mercutio and Tybalt also fence later in the ballet and Mercutio is slain, stabbed in the back by Tybalt so Romeo takes swift revenge.

We also meet the Happy Strumpets - the cast list rather casually calls them 'Three Harlots' but I prefer my name for the three lasses. Lead strumpet was a surprise to me - Itziar Mendezibal! I've seen Itziar dance several times, always with so much grace and poise and she was fabulous as Paulina in 'The Winters' Tale' a couple of years ago so it was lovely to see her in a more knock-about role teasing Romeo and the others with her undoubted charms. Romeo is no longer interested after he's met Juliet but I'm pleased he knew the Strumpets.

There is a gorgeous range of dancing in this ballet, from the energetic sword fencing scenes to the joyous pas de deux of the love scenes and our leads did themselves proud. Akane was great as Juliet, so elegant and graceful, moving from being the child at the start of the ballet to the poised young women of later scenes. Ryoichi also did great dancing, spurring on his comrades in trouble-making and worshipping Juliet. But, for me, Steven and Iana remain the definitive lovers - Akane didn't quite capture the child at the start and Ryoichi didn't have the same level of characterisation as Steven (but, to be fair, he didn't have the same time to practice the role). I also really liked James Hay as a very bouncy Mercutio and Bennet Gartside as Tybalt. It's a masterful ballet and a great production and odd to realise that this was MacMillan's first full length ballet - he was truly inspired when he choreographed it!

If you want to try out seeing a full ballet you could do a lot worse than choose this one. It's playing until June and will be broadcast live to cinemas on 11 June - try it? You never know, you might actually like it!

Thursday, 18 April 2019

'Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light' at the National Gallery

Have you heard of Sorolla? I hadn't until the National Gallery announced this exhibition last year and, when I went to see it, recognised a couple of the paintings from visiting the Prado in Madrid. So, a Spanish painter in the Impressionist tradition reflecting the brightness of the Spanish sun. That was enough for me to want to see the exhibition so I popped along last week.

The first room is for portraits, mainly of his family, his children and his wife. There's a lovely portrait of his youngest daughter aged about 20 opposite a painting of her as a baby in bed with her mother. I liked that hanging. In-between was a portrait of Sorolla's wife, naked and from behind on a silk sheet. The glowing colours of the skin tones are marvellous with blue and green in there and the sheen on the silk sheets is created by great single-stroke daubs of white paint, very roughly applied when you look at it close up but gorgeous;y glowing from a distance. It shows a very confident artist knowing what he's doing.

The most gorgeous painting to my eyes is 'Sewing the Sail' from 1896 - just look at the light in that painting. There's a huge swathe of white in the centre of the painting, or rather, it's light grey with patches of bright white as highlights. Again, up close, these are daubs of white applied with a thick brush but are so effective. On the left-hand side there are wild roses crawling up the wall, adding reds to the composition and the right-hand side is full of lighter greens while the action takes place in the middle. This is a very large painting, much larger than the average Impressionist painting and you need to see it from a  distance as well as up close - good luck seeing it at a distance since it was always surrounded by crowds of viewers.

Sorolla was a successful society portrait painter and this exhibition includes his portrait of Amelia Romea. That profile is pure late Victorian and the notes beside the painting refer to him being influenced by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and that profile and face are pure Alma-Tadema. Of course, Alma-Tadema would've placed his sitter in a Roman villa or on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. He would've added details and lots of them.

The next room is full of paintings of children on the beach and in the sea, the boys naked and the girls in simple shifts. In the sea, splashing, running, chasing each other, lots of energy and joy in the sunlight and the sea. I think my favourite was 'The White Boat, Java' from 1905,  with two lads hanging onto a boat. The light is reflected in the choppy water, again created with big, broad brush-strokes of white to create the effects of the sun. A very happy painting.

After a room of paintings of people in traditional regional dress as part of a specific commission, Corolla returns to portraits of his family and my favourite was 'My Wife and Daughters in the Garden' from 1910. Again, the emphasis is on light and shade with bright highlights on their dresses and on the pooch asleep at their feet. Clotilde, Maria and Elena are partially shaded as they sit in the garden with knees exposed to the sun. It's a large painting and dominates the room with it's powerful colours and rightly so. I can't help but wonder what his children felt about being constant models for their father throughout their lives.

It's a good exhibition with a good selection of his works - we could've done with this exhibition being held over the winter so we could go in to warm up a bit in that lovely sunlight. Here are 'The Smugglers' climbing up the cliff with their goods. It's a long way down...

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

'Fiddler on the Roof' at The Playhouse Theatre

The new production of 'Fiddler on the Roof' was a sell out at the Menier Chocolate Factory and has now transferred to the Playhouse Theatre where we saw it last week. The theatre has been transformed into the village of Anatevka in the Ukraine with the seating re-arranged into a pathway winding through the stalls and the stage spilling out into the seating. It made for an interesting experience. I saw 'Fiddler' on Broadway in 2005 with Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O'Donnell in the lead roles so I've seen it before but don't have terribly good memories of it so I was interested to see what this production would be like.

It's the tale of Tevye and Golde and their five daughters during a period of change in Russia in the early 1900s and the Jewish pogroms. We meet the family and other villagers, like the matchmaker whose role is to find husbands and wives for the people of the village, the village butcher, the tailor and others. Tevye is keen to uphold the traditions he grew up with and regularly talks to God but his beliefs are challenged in a period of rapid change.

The match-maker finds a husband for his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, in the shape of the much older butcher Lazar Wolf but Tzeitel loves Motel the tailor. Tevye loves his daughter is won over to agreeing that his daughter can marry the tailor. His second daughter falls in love with a travelling bolshevik tutor and promises to marry him when he settles in Kiev and, once again Tevye relents and agrees to the match. His third daughter falls in love with a the son of a villager, a bookish gentile, and that is too much for him since his daughter cannot marry outside the faith and he disowns her, pushed too far.

There are moments of joy and sorrow as the tale progresses, and we see the marriage of the eldest daughter and the tailor gets his first sewing machine, we see his second daughter leave home to head to Siberia to join her beloved who has been arrested and imprisoned as a radical, and we see Golde turning away the matchmaker from making a match for the two youngest daughters. And then the local police issue the edict that all Jews must leave the village within three days and the villagers say their farewells and disperse, with Tevye and Golde heading to America while the eldest daughter and the tailor will save up money to join them at some point. The fate of the middle daughter is unknown since she's working in Siberia with her husband. There's a touching moment when the third daughter says farewell to her family and is ignored by her father. Her husband says that they too will leave the village since he does't want to live with such small minded people and, as they leave, her father quietly says 'God bless'. And the villagers all leave, carrying their worldly possessions to disperse to the four winds.

There are some touching moments in this production, directed by Trevor Nunn, and they seem to be the highlights of the show. I was surprised at how many of the songs I knew from Saturday evening variety shows in the late '60s and early '70s: 'Tradition', 'Matchmaker', 'If I Were A Rich Man', 'Sunrise, Sunset' and others. It's a very energetic show with lots of vigorous dancing and movement and that helps to highlight the quieter moments in the play.

The politics of the play are very current, with the Jewish community cowed and careful around their gentile neighbours who have all the power, Hodel prepared to travel by herself to the wastes of Siberia to marry her lover and, at the end, the entire community becoming migrants through no choice of their own, forced to seek new lives wherever they can. These are all essential parts of the play and not highlighted in any way but the parallels are there with what's happening in the world at the moment.

I wasn't sure what to expect but I liked this production, full of life and joy and sorrow, lots of laughs with big singing and dancing, telling the age-old stories of a family and a community. I liked the pairing of Andy Nyman as Tevye and Judy Kuhn as Golde who worked well together. I also liked Harriet Bunton as Hodel, the second sister, who brought her very touching sorrow and hope to the scene when she leaves for Siberia, and Dermot Canavan as old curmudgeon Lazar Wolf who makes peace with Tevye at the end. Louise Gold was also fun as the matchmaker who own't let you get a word in edgeways and decides to go to the Holy Land when they're forced to leave the village. I also liked the design of the production, the staging and lighting which were very effective.

Y'know, part of me wants to know what happened next. Did Hodel ever come back from Siberia with a tribe of children around her? How did Tevye survive the constant change of living in America and did he still talk to God? What happened to the matchmaker as she travelled across Russia and Europe and did she make it to the Holy Land. Or maybe not since we know that a world war awaited them, with a revolution and the dangers that brought, and then another world war and death camps. It probably wouldn't be a happy ending for most of the characters.

If you want a good night out you could do a lot worse than visit Anatevka for a few hours and have your spirits raised by watching life unfolding in front of you.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

'The Renaissance Nude' at the Royal Academy

The main exhibition at the Royal Academy at the moment is 'The Renaissance Nude'. It's quite a small exhibition up in the Sackler Galleries but it's also really interesting. I vaguely expected it to be full of Florentine paintings but it wasn't, there were probably as many works from the Northern Renaissance - from Germany and the Low Countries - as there were from Italy. That in itself is to be welcomed since it's quite unusual to see so many Northern works in an exhibition not specifically dedicated to them. It was also nice to see so many engravings and drawings as well as paintings and, with a few exceptions, all were new to me so it was nice to explore new works (new as in over 500 years old but new to me, of course).

The first painting that made me take a second glance was 'Christ on the Cold Stone' by Jan Gossaert. It looks rather Italian with the figure, the pose and the column in the background, but he was Flemish. The body is far more athletic and anatomically correct than many Flemish works and the simple fact of an exposed torso marks it as a bit different.

I like the highlights over the chest and shoulder and the rather improbable highlight over his belly but that lends an emphasis to the stress and tension in the pose. The musculature of the left arm is very realistic, more so than the multiple abs on the stomach. The body is quite different to another painting by Gossaert in the exhibition of 'Hercules and Deianira' that he completed 13 years earlier demonstrating how Gossaert's grasp of anatomy had significantly developed.

There are some drawings by Raphael, including 'The Three Graces' that includes three studies of a woman in different positions, pulled together. It's done in red chalk on paper and there's not a smudge in sight - these masters were trained properly back in the olden days. It's not very big and I suspect any gallery around the world would be happy to hang this drawing on its walls.

This study was included in the exhibition of Raphael's drawings at the Ashmolean in Oxford a couple of years ago. According to the catalogue the central figure was drawn first, the figure to the left was done next and the final figure on the right was added last. I wonder how long this took Raphael to draw?

Another drawing that caught my attention was simply called 'Reclining Male Figure' by Parmigianino. I don't know if it was study for another work or painting but it's an impressive work, with the man clearly lying down (look at the shadows on his body and around him) and almost as if he's about to start stretching. I'd be delighted if I could draw like this.

The exhibition doesn't just include paintings and drawings, there are also other artefacts depicting nude figures such as miniatures in books, metalwork and one statue. Not just any statue, this is a Donatello statue from the 1460s of Saint Jerome, clearly a penitent Jerome.

The statue is life-sized and depicts a thin, realistic body, not the idealised bodies of Greek and Roman statues. Donatello is trying to depict an average middle aged man, reaching for the realistic to let viewers know that this could - and perhaps - should be them in their devotion to their religion. It's almost like it's a body in pain or some kind of stress, particularly with the harsh angle of the head. I'd love to know what the person who commissioned this statue actually wanted and specified in the contract for it.

There are a few engravings by Durer in the exhibition and my favourite was his 'Adam and Eve' from 1504. Adam and Eve were popular choices for artists since they could show both genders and the differences in body shapes with Adam generally being muscled and Eve more voluptuous. There is usually some strategically placed foliage to cover the genitals and, in this engraving, somehow the participants have managed to stand behind stray branches with some small leaves to cover the offending articles.

With Durer it always pays to look at the detail as well as the overall composition. See the serpent putting the apple into Eve's hand, the goat hiding behind the tree under the serpent and what's that little mouse doing between Adam's feet?  There's story-telling going on here but there's also decoration to ensure that buyers were happy they were getting their money's worth when buying a copy of the engraving.

Another painting that caught my eye was 'Allegory of Fortune' by Dosso Dossi in 1530. The male figure is holding a sheaf of lottery tickets in his hand while the female figure sits on a bubble that could explode at any time. The figures are ok but what I noticed when I took a second look at the painting was the great musculature of the lad's right thigh - look closely and you can see the very slight bulge of the thigh muscle, a realistic muscle that any young man would have rather than an over-worked and extreme muscle that some artists would paint. It's really subtle and that's what impressed me about these figures.

I'll include a final painting for it's oddity rather than any beauty. It's called 'Lovers in an Interior' attributed to 'Jacometto Veneziano or close follower' from 'before 1497. The figures are ok but nothing special but what is odd is the inclusion of the glass of water with a sprig of some plant in it in the bottom right corner. What's that about? Placing stalks of some plants in water encourages them to root so is this some sort of allusion to fertility and maybe this couple are hoping for children? Or something like that? All very odd.

So there you are, some thoughts on the exhibition. Loads of works I'd never seen before and some artists I've never heard of but have now. It's a small exhibition but it's interesting and worth seeing if it's your kind of thing.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Bonnard at Tate Modern

The big exhibition at Tate Modern at the moment is all about Pierre Bonnard, the first major exhibition of his paintings in the UK for 20 years. The exhibition is subtitled 'The Colour of Memory' and that's what it's all about - colour. Bonnard is in a strange position of not being amongst the top flight of painters but he's still worth knowing. He's not in the same league as Picasso or Matisse or Kandinsky or Klee but he's still up there in the 'B' team and worth seeing and appreciating.

His themes tend to be what I think of as 'domestic' - interiors, gardens, his wife taking a bath, that sort of thing. Occasionally a full landscape or a portrait. His figure paintings leave something to be desired but it's interesting that he and his wife took photos of each other naked as Adam and Eve as the basis for possible future paintings. He seems to have been keen to be a Bohemian and that undoubtedly helped him.

One of the quotes on the walls stated: "Certainly colour had carried me away. I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously." Bonnard said this when he was in his mid-40s in 1912 and you can see it in the splurges of colour all over his paintings, particularly his paintings of landscapes and gardens. His splurges work very well, suggesting aspects of the landscape that you weave tales around and get lost in.

He also seemed to like painting rooms of his house looking out into his garden and the landscape beyond. There are quite a few of these paintings in the exhibition, with doors open or windows open, an interior and an exterior painting in one. I'm not sure why, but I really liked these paintings - maybe it was the calm and orderliness of the interiors contrasting so starkly with the wildness and unknown potential of the exteriors? Anything can and does happen out there.

I also loved his exteriors, his landscapes from the various places he lived, such as this 'Normandy Landscape' from 1920.  Just look at those colours. Can you see a brown tree? No, I can't either. When we're children we paint trees with brown trunks and green leaves but when was the last time you saw a brown tree? Tree trunks are more grey/blue/green than anything and it takes a certain strength to paint what your eyes actually see rather than what your mind thinks it knows.

Another impressive landscape is 'Landscape at Le Cannet' with it's gorgeous colours, panoramic view view and the outline of a young shepherd in the foreground. What's going on in this painting and why is the lad simply in outline? I would've been tempted to portray him in blue trousers and an orange top or something, make him the subject of the painting rather than an almost after-thought.

A similar approach seems to have been taken with an earlier painting, 'Landscape: Young Girl With A Goat' (1925) in which the girl (and the goat) is undefined but placed in one of the corners of the painting. The landscape clearly dominates the painting, as it should.

As well as his gorgeous landscapes and gardens, Bonnard painted people as well, and many paintings are of his wife. I wasn't keen on the paintings of his wife in the bath (apparently she had a medical disorder that demanded many baths) but I was quite take with the colours in this 'Nude in the Mirror' from 1931. Again, it's the colour that word for me, the almost stippled effect of the paint, of an elongated figure looking at herself in the mirror. His figure paintings aren't his best and he shied away from painting faces (much like me!) but this painting worked for me. The clutter of the room, the small space she's in surrounded by so many colourful objects all pull together to make this a very good painting.

My favourites at this exhibition were the landscapes and gardens, some making me want to jump into the painting to revel in the colours and the patches of flowers and blossom, the greens and blues, the mysterious reds and oranges and what's that bit over there...? If anything, his colours became bolder as he aged.

I want to walk in his garden, to smell the flowers and get lost in the foliage, wonder what plant that is and whether it retains it's colours over the winter, who knows? He painted the image of  plant and flower rather than the actual - a splurge of red or blue there, with some green beside it and that's it. But it's that splurge I want to see and touch and smell.

Something that did surprise me about his paintings was the size of some of them, some of them are very big for the time, maybe 10' by 10'? Too big for the average house. He also did a few paintings that he began in 1939 and didn't complete until 1945, the duration of the Second World War. Why was that? That's not explained in the notes to the exhibition but might be covered in the catalogue.

One of my favourite quotes of his up on the walls of the exhibition was: "I am just beginning to understand what it is to paint. A painter should have two lives, one in which to learn, and one in which to practice his art." He is so right.  

One of the final paintings in the exhibition is a self-portrait from 1945, just a couple of years before Bonnard died in 1947. Truth and honesty. It's not the prettiest of pictures but it's how he saw himself in his later years. I'm pleased to have seen this exhibition and shared in with his joy of colour - you could do a lot worse than spend an hour in his company.

Friday, 12 April 2019

'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' at the Palace Theatre

I've liked the Harry Potter stories since I read the first book. Then the films started to emerge. Then, a few years ago, the stage show. I got tickets at Christmas to see the show and the day finally came when I could make my seat a couple of weeks ago, and I did. After queueing to get in, bag search and body pat-down, the first thing I saw on getting into the theatre was the big merch stall selling wands for £32 as well as scarves for the four Hogwarts houses and goodness knows what else. Being sensible, I saved my money and went to spend it in the bar instead. The Palace isn't one of my favourite theatres due to the limited sight lines from many of the seats but these seats in the dress circle were perfect so I was looking forward to great things. And , thankfully, the play delivered!

Here we are, 19 years later and Harry works for the Ministry of Magic and his youngest son, Albus, is heading off to Hogwarts. He's with Rose, Hermione and Ron's daughter but on the Hogwart's Express he meets Scorpius, the clumsy and loud son of Draco Malfoy and against all odds they become friends. Both have to live down the reputations of their fathers' and that binds them together even more. It's when Albus overheard his dad talking about the death of Cedric Diggory that he actively hunts out the time travelling device to 'correct' the past that it all starts going wrong... seriously wrong.

JK Rowling asks us all to #KeepTheSecrets so I will and won't tell you what happens. But it was great fun and made me gag to see the second play the following night. Talk about cliff-hangers!

There were lots of swirling cloaks on stage as the scenery changed, atmospheric lighting and magical transitions as we all gawped art the stage and the special effects. One minute the play is about the young people and the next it's about Harry, Hermione and Ron with added Draco for good measure. It's a nicely crafted piece with something there for everyone.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play, the suspense and cliff-hangers. In a way it's the story and the characters that matter and it doesn't matter who the actors are, they're a cypher into a bigger world. The only actor I'd really pick out was Jonathan Case as an over the top Scorpius who makes sure you notice him whenever he's on stage. A lot of thought has gone onto the presentation of this play and I particularly liked the projection of Voldemort sigils all over the theatre at the start of part two. It's nice that someone was given the job of creating atmosphere for the audience in this show. Well done people!

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

'Maggie May' at Finborough Theatre

Last week we went to see 'Maggie May' at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court. It's a little performed musical by Lionel Bart (of 'Oliver!' fame) and, by little performed I mean it hasn't been put on professionally for over 50 years, so well done to Finborough for the revival.

I've never seen 'Oliver!' - yes, honestly - but I have seen another little-if-ever performed Lionel Bart musical in the form of 'Twang!' a couple of years ago that really should have been called 'Carry On Robin Hood' so my expectations weren't terribly high for 'Maggie May'. Despite that, I'm pleased to say that my expectations were totally exceeded and, while I can find lots of faults with the musical and with the production, I really enjoyed it.

To set the scene a little, the Finborough Theatre is a small space above a pub in Earls Court. The theatre space is probably slightly less than twice the size of my living room with seating for around 50 people. The stage space is small and there's quite a large cast for this play with lots of very active dancing, legs kicked high and they're oh so close to the people in the front rows - luckily we were in the second row so protected from random feet in the air. There is a lot of energetic dancing for such a small space and occasionally I could feel the floor moving. Nothing wrong with living dangerously in the theatre!

The play is all about Maggie May and Patrick Casey, a prostitute and a docker who grew up together on the Liverpool docks, got separated and then meet again years later and fall in love. It's also about unions and corruption and power but I prefer the love story. I liked Maggie's unapologetic approach to being a prostitute - it's her job, nothing more and noting less and certainly nothing to be ashamed of - which must've been quite startling back in 1964 when it was first performed. I also liked Patrick's approach to loving the woman and ignoring the job despite the dockers all reminding him what she did for money. In that respect it's actually quite progressive for the time.

Of course, the course of true love can't possibly be smooth so there are complications, break-ups, reconciliations and then tragedy. You see, Patrick is a man of principal, no matter how much he wants to distance himself from his father's reputation as a union man and martyr on the docks. But when he finds out the dockers are loading crates of guns heading to South America he can't do it since they're destined to keep the working classes - his brothers and sisters - under control. That's a step too far for him. And... well, you'll have to see the production to find out what happens next.

I liked this production and I liked the play. Our two lead characters change and develop during the play and it's nice to see them recognising changes in themselves, particularly Maggie, the classic whore with a heart of gold. Some of the other characters were more 'stock' (like the docker whose brief must have been 'stay angry and aggressive throughout'). Kara Lily Hayworth was excellent as Maggie, bringing both a tenderness and a hardness to the role with her versatile voice, always righteous and proud, no shame about her job there at all. James Darch was Patrick, the man of principle who knows who he loves and that's enough for him.

The show is sold out for the entire run but you might be able to get return tickets if you're lucky. I'd quite like to see this on a proper stage so here's hoping for a transfer.