Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Threepenny Opera

I was up at the National Theatre at the weekend for the New Views teachers' course, and a trip to The Threepenny Opera was thrown in. Never one to turn down an evening with Brecht and Weill featuring gangsters, beggars and prostitutes, I happily grabbed the ticket, realizing I'd only ever heard, but never seen, this Weimar masterpiece. Once, when the earth was in an earlier stage of its development, I wrote an A Level thesis, unpretentiously entitled 'Art in the Weimar Republic: Development and Dissemination'. Memories flooded in of the Bauhaus, of the Expressionists, and of those merry souls Beckmann, Grosz and Dix. The designers had clearly been looking at the same images: the look of Celia Peachum here, for example, was clearly modelled on Dix's portrait of Anita Berber, and Peachum's hairpiece was the exact same style as sported by Dix's wife Martha. Although the piece had been transposed in the script to London (not, perhaps, such a leap from the festering rancour of 20s Berlin to modern hard-Brexiting  Britain), it was a German twenties visual we saw, and all the stronger for it.

As for the work itself, it's hard to get a grip on. Taking off from Gay's A Beggar's Opera, which parodied the operatic conventions of the day with a story featuring a highwayman as hero and a medley of popular songs, The Threepenny Opera is a satire based on satire. It's very very knowing and self-conscious about what it's doing.  Over its own genesis the work turned from being mainly a musical to a play with musical numbers, the main credit shifting from Weill to Brecht. What is it now? An anti-musical, perhaps one might call it, a feel-bad show (as MacHeath reminded us, verfremdungheitingly out of character, when we dutifully came back for the second half). It promises at the outset that no moral ending is envisaged, and throughout laughs knowingly at its own operatic formulae. Choruses, duos, arias are all poured out in a thick tar of  cabaret songs, delivered with a snarl, and rendered naughtily delightful by an exhilarating set of obscene lyrics provided by translator / adapter Simon Stephens. And at the end, a deus ex machina and a parting moral are provided, the first for a laugh and the second for, perhaps, real. Brechtian alienation is a more dynamic thing than we are sometimes told, I think: instead of keeping us at a kind of arm's length from emotional engagement, it draws us in and then pushes us away again. Passages of bleak realism are undercut with a caustic joke or piece of knowing stage action; a storyline involves us then calls attention to its unreality.

The production itself made full use of the Olivier space, building up from a backstage look of platforms and flats to some clever designs, which quickly assemble and equally quickly collapse. Rory Kinnear was a suitably seductive MacHeath, who we can't hate as much as we know we should (I hear what he did at Kandahar and I still want him to escape - what's wrong with me? Aha! thus is the Brechtian mirror held up to my self-contradicting little mind). That's partly because those after him are if anything even worse, and because the world of sewers can, logically, only produce the sewer-dwelling rodent. There is a problem, though, in hammering on at length about how squalid and corrupt the world is and I must admit, by the end of the very long first half the songs were starting to sound pretty much the same as each other and to say the same things over and over again. Powerfully delivered, though. Nice - by which I mean not nice - movement work, neat differentiation of characters among MacHeath's gang, some fine choreography in, for example, the arrest of our vile yet strangely dashing hero. Still, that first half did feel long. The second was tighter,  the story coiling  around us. There was no escaping the sense of the play's bold, blustery bigness by the end. Great programme essay, too, by Dan Rebellato, on why we need Brecht today. His first reason is that Brecht is fun - it's the fun of kicking over a sandcastle and making, say, a sand abattoir instead. That sort of fun. But what was left after the fun, that evening? A sense of self-satisfaction at having seen a European classic at the National? Is the socially probing mischief lost among the well-heeled theatregoers of today's London theatre? Has the anti-classic simply joined the dinner party as another member of the canon? Well, Brecht would want me to be leaving with that kind of question, I suppose, hastening down the tunnel past Imax to catch the 10.35, developing and disseminating as I go.


Southampton's Nuffield Theatre is staging the premiere of Nick Dear's new play, Dedication.  This work gives us a speculative exploration of the possible relationship(s) between Shakespeare and his patron Henry Wriothesley (pronounced 'Rizzley'), the Third Earl of Southampton. The play is constructed on a slender basis of known facts. It's historically likely that when the theatres closed for plague in 1592-3, Shakespeare turned to writing narrative poetry, Venus and Adonis (by far and away his most popular work during his lifetime), then the more austere The Rape of Lucrece. These poems are dedicated in fulsome flattering terms to Southampton, but nothing can really be read into that language, since gushing dedications were the convention of the time, like long acknowledgements pages in academic books today. Beyond the dedications nothing is known of the nature of the relationship between these two men. There is a theory that the sonnets may have been commissioned by Wriothesley's family to encourage him to marry, and the play includes an enjoyable joke for the cognoscenti about the first seventeen sonnets all being basically the same. Henry Wriothesley (HW) has even been proposed as a candidate for the mysterious Mr WH, to whom the sonnets are dedicated by the printer.

The Essex Rebellion, which Southampton was drawn into, is certainly historical fact, as is the curious detail that one of Essex's followers persuaded Shakespeare's company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, to take the mothballed Richard II play and put it on, presumably because it showed an ineffective monarch being usurped. (It's not absolutely certain this was the Shakespeare play.) The company was questioned over this, but Shakespeare was not interrogated by Star Chamber, as he is at the start of Dedication. This is, of course, the play playing with notions of history and reality. As a dramatic opening device, the interrogation of the bard provides a neat entry point into the substance of the play, which shows various parallel scenarios for how WS and HW may have known each other: these range from Shakespeare being hired to help HW brand himself as a cultivated aristocrat among his circle (for my money, the least sexy and most likely option), across a spectrum of intimacy to the two men being passionate lovers (not impossible). The alternative scenarios reminded me of Nick Payne's Constellations, which I also saw at the Nuffield, and Kurosawa's film Rashomon, where the same event is narrated differently by those involved in it. This approach to playmaking is certainly licensed by Shakespeare's own use of  invention in his historical dramas, and his assertion, as a character in Dedication, that history is largely a matter of imagination anyway. And we have an instinct to fill in the gaps which, in this instance, are many. Memory, as WS says at one point in the piece, dies with us. If you don't record what happened, it's gone forever.

I found Dedication an intriguing play. It presents Shakespeare as rather a low-key figure, in his lack of dazzle not unlike the portrait given in Edward Bond's Bingo. It is as if the exuberant wordsmith has been left on the pages of his writings, leaving behind an enigmatic cipher, who could be anyone and anything. HW is of course a spoiled Riot Club sort of brat, at his most compelling when he recounts the horrors of the Irish expedition, which, in real history, he undertook under Essex. The production is directed in the round by Sam Hodges, on a simple rotating set with a central platform (which goes up and down). With no furniture and minimal props, this simple space turned from court to chamber to a street in Shoreditch to a prison cell - a nod to Shakespeare's own theatrical world. Music was provided by four cowled singers (recalling the recent RSC Richard II), but to speak over these the actors were amplified, which shouldn't really have been necessary in a small space. I'd have liked to see a real actor as the Star Chamber judge, whose voice was recorded. Perhaps it was felt this would blur the focus on the duologue. The two actors, Tom McKay (WS) and Tom Rhys-Harries (HW) covered with great skill the script's emotional range, from light-hearted banter to the intensities of love and anger (there is even a swordfight!). A strong work by Nick Dear, and another evening well spent in the Nuffield leaving one with a memorable theatrical meditation on history, memory and art. Looking among the blank spaces of historical record, we ask, what do we know, after all, even of ourselves and one another?

Friday, 8 July 2016

Romeo and Juliet

Before the live streaming of the Kenneth Branagh production of Romeo and Juliet there were some brief video interviews with teenagers. The interviewees were asked what was best and worst about being a teen, and - moving into the Shakesperean zone - whether they believed in love at first sight. They weren't asked whether they thought it would ever be a cool idea to fake death through drugs in order to meet their exiled beloved in a tomb, though. And the question of arranged / forced marriage was not brought up, either. Anyway, this warm-up was a refreshing change from the somewhat gushing interviews we sometimes get at the start of live theatre screenings.

The production itself was strikingly broadcast in black and white. It can't have been much different in the theatre: the whole white-grey-black chromatic design was inspired by the films like La Dolce Vita, with sharp suits and slick or laid back movement styles to match. In the Capulet ball there seemed to be a nod to the amazing protracted party sequence of The Great Beauty, with its short electro score and angular choreography. There was the architecture of Fellini, too. A simple set of stone walls and columns was used to suggest a flow of scenes from piazza to café to sepulchre, in dramatic mediterranean light. Some jazzy numbers were added, with well-chosen moments of ambient soundtrack at key moments. Lily James and Richard Madden shone as the lovers, finding a seductive playfulness in the verse. This is the first production I can remember where comedy was discovered in the balcony scene, and it made their joyous discovery of love all the more affecting. Given the poster, the erotic aspect was played down here.  Senior actor Derek Jacobi was cast as Mercutio, which seemed a peculiar choice as this part is normally seen as a hot-blooded, even manic, natural stand-up and hell-raiser; but it all made sense when in the preamble Branagh explained his inspiration in reading of the ravaged Oscar Wilde haunting cafés in Paris: and so we got Mercutio the faded playboy, hanging out with the young bloods, not manic but mellow, dreaming of past conquests. His brief song was charming, and the death that followed soon after was very touching, making a lot of the idea of a 'scratch', of the pointless contingent nature of it all. Overall the production did what it should do, allowing the emotional realities behind the narrative to unfold, so we could see that the play is also the tragedy of the Nurse, of Paris, of the now childless Capulets, of a culture in the chiaroscuro of love and death.  

Of course there is always the oddity of the Friar. What the hell does he think he is doing? Would it have been possible - or prudent, anyway - for a priest simply to marry off the children of seriously powerful families in the city just like that, without, you know, checking it was OK? And you don't need to be obsessed with risk assessments to see that the whole precision-timed escape through drugs business is a non-starter. It did look in this production that the herb-dealing Friar wasn't going to be allowed to scamper back to his breaking bad lab any time soon, at any rate. But, hey, Shakespeare is allowed creaky plots. The production was powerful, balancing quick passages of movement with stillness. Star of the evening was Lily James, who balanced passion with clarity, conveying a girl at once in command and hopelessly out of her depth. The 50s look worked to good effect (though the Prince looked more like a traffic warden than an absolute ruler), and for me it was a night at Okehampton Carlton well spent, even if I did have to move grumpily away from a row of people who felt the need to chomp on crisps through the whole thing. Seeing a London show on the edge of Dartmoor, many a mile from London, brought home the value of live streaming. With one cavil, though. A superb touring company in Winchester not so long ago had undeservedly small houses. If there's any evidence that streaming shows with big names is impacting on live theatre in this way then I hope something could be done - some share of profits recycled back through the relevant funding body, perhaps? It was something to ponder, on a memorable drive back in the dark and rain through winding, deer-haunted country roads.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit Referendum: First Reaction

The extremists were quick to respond. 'We did it! Today is our 'Independence Day', a day that will live forever as the day that we asserted our sovereignty, freedom and democracy'. That is the reaction of Britain First, the gang loyally served by the murderer of MP Jo Cox, and it is clearly a sentiment shared by a mass of the British people. Across Britain and Europe the far right are punching the air with joy. 'Job done' tweets the British National Party. The maverick tories who have used the referendum to launch a power grab from the right are congratulated for their good work by Marine le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland. Meanwhile the civilised world looks on in disbelief.
Why disbelief? Because this was not a difficult debate, finely balanced with strong arguments on both sides. It was OBVIOUS from the facts that Britain is / was much better off as part of the world's strongest trading bloc and had some claim to greatness by being part of something greater than itself. But the large numbers who are fed up after years of global economic stagnation have been convinced by the crudest Trump-modelled propaganda that the source of their suffering lies in Brussels and in the immigration resulting from the free movement of labour in a free market. Invent an enemy to disguise the real one: lesson one. Add to that the Little Englanders of Telegraph-land and the alternative universe conjured up by the Brexit lobby was strong enough to deflect attention from reality for long enough to secure the result now being toasted by Britain First et al.

What will happen now? Nobody knows, of course, and the instigators of this act of national self-harm had to admit they have no plan at all. None of the alternative scenarios, from Norway to Canada, are viable or even attractive for this country. But if you are a Leaver and are reading this, I think you can be certain that you have NOT 'taken back control' from Brussels or anyone else. If anything, you have GIVEN power to Brussels, who can now dictate punitive terms to allow Britain to carry on trading with them and with an eye on deterring fellow travellers. It's a fact, not an opinion, that the UK needs the EU much more than the EU needs the UK. We now have to negotiate with - I repeat - the most powerful trading bloc in the world - which outnumbers us 27-1 and has no reason at all to grant us any special terms. One of the conditions insisted on, incidentally, will be the free movement of EU workers. Migration was always a red herring in this discussion. Leavers have also given control to some very dangerous people on the far right of politics, who have never hidden their contempt for the vulnerable and the provisions created for them by the post-war social welfare consensus. It's a reasonable prediction on the evidence available that time will not be lost in repealing the raft of EU legislation that protects workers from exploitation and provides them with some dignity, with asset-stripping of the NHS to follow swiftly. So, yes, migration may go down a bit, but only because the UK will be such a horrible place to work in. Cheap and easily expendable labour will continue, of course, only it will be provided by the British people themselves, before they are cast off with miserable pensions or no pension at all by masters who have never set foot in the country. Did I say the UK? Scotland's separation is only a matter of time, and while the mechanisms for Northern Ireland are less clear, as beneficiaries of the EU who actually acknowledge that fact, they would clearly be better off separating from their vain and deluded former governors once and for all. Leavers will certainly not see any 'savings' or enjoy the slightest degree of extra control over their country's destiny, now more exposed than ever to the rapacious behaviour of unfettered global capital.

Personal disclosure. The markets have opened and I fully expect the savings I have put aside in stocks and shares ISAs to lose massively in value. The money I have in the bank is already worth far less than it was yesterday. Soon I may well be paying more for my house than it is worth. My Spanish wife, besides being numbed by the arrogance and ingratitude of her adoptive country, is wondering for how much longer the country she has paid taxes to for years will afford her any NHS provision or a state pension. What will anyone's pension even be worth in a few years, anyway? Pension funds depend on share values, which are in meltdown. Across the whole country similar stories will be unfolding. I consider myself a patriot, if that term retains any decent meaning. I love my country, its landscape, its culture, and the humour and gentle spirit of the natural-queue-forming British people. But that culture and spirit have been coarsened beyond recognition by forces that have nothing to do with Brussels or Polish builders or Syrian refugees. On this beautiful morning, it looks like the fractured and shrinking UK will revert to the island that Virgil described, 'et penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos': the Britons, cut off by the whole width of the world. Which is what the nation's Brexit-Dignitas dreamers wanted, I suppose. And so we go back to those glorious island days, and take our rightful place among the nations of the earth as an offshore tax haven for oligarchs, a playground for media moguls, the closing-down-sale store of the western world. I hope I am wrong - how could I not hope? - but in the immediate aftershock of the event, and using the best judgement I have, that, Leavers, is the control you have got and the freedom you have voted for.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Les Blancs

Les Blancs / The WhitesThe big new show at NT's Olivier is Les Blancs, by Lorraine Hansberry, the brilliant American playwright who died aged just 34. I'd been gripped by A Raisin in the Sun a few weeks ago, so was easily tempted by a preview offer to see this production of her last, unfinished, work. Both plays are issue-driven: A Raisin throws a spotlight on the life a black family in Chicago in the 1950s, while Les Blancs explores the topic of African independence at the same period. There is not quite the same sense of going inside a family and its complicated internal relations here, though we do get to know the 'family' of The Mission compound and the African characters around whom the action develops: Tshembe Matoseh, who has returned home from extended travels in Europe and America to bury his father, an emblematic patriarchal figure in a country in the first stages of violent uprising against the oppressor; there is Tshembe's elder brother Abioseh, who has integrated with the colonisers to the extent of becoming a Catholic priest; and there is his half-brother Eric, literally a product of the West's possession of the dark continent. Tshembe seems quite unacculturated to the world of the whites, which he has seen quite extensively and even married into. Indeed, his sojourns abroad have thrown him back into a passionate reclaiming of his African identity. He angrily rejects overtures from the journalist Charlie Morris to find common ground, believing that the ills suffered by Africa are simply too great to be dissolved in civilised conversation over whisky and cigarettes. He implies, but does not quite state, the inevitability of some kind of violent cleansing expiation. By contrast, his brother Abioseh follows a pacific path - 'Christ has given me no choice' - and reminds Tschembe of the atrocities of the rebels who are attacking families at night and killing children. In a mood of complete despair at finding any kind of entente, things march to an apparently destined disaster.

The script is the final text adapted by Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry's husband. From the script alone, it must be said it is in several passages thuddingly didactic, with scenes that would be handy in a textbook of colonial history and international politics. Characters fall neatly into types that illuminate positions in the conflict: the bad English Major, the good doctor at the Mission who nonetheless sees that in the wider scheme of things he is part-healer, part agent of a genocide brought about by making Africans live a particular kind of life. Other characters have the same typological recognisability: the wise Cassandra-like English woman, the African dealing with his own identity crisis, the onlooking journalist trying to understand it all on behalf of the audience. Their various attitudes are delivered with the subtlety of a megaphone. This is quite different from, say, Friel's Translations, another play about history, colonialism and independence (or, say, Elizabeth Bowen's novel The Last September). One feels this Brechtian epic would be an improving read, and indeed I feel I should read it as I don't imagine I took in on a single viewing all of the ideas being energetically exchanged. At least the arguments do not go all one way, and there is a genuine sense of difficulty, as we are reminded of the suffering of innocents on all sides. The points one can immediately think of for and against taking up arms are all stated by some character or other, though I think it is significant that while we see before us the murderous conduct of the Major we only hear about the slaughters committed by rebels. Weirdly, the wise old white woman appears to give permission for Tshembe to join his brothers in their fight for liberation, one which begins with fratricide. So if you wanted to find colonial arguments that the natives are not up to the job of self-government, you wouldn't have to look very hard here. Hansberry did not have a chance to visit Africa, and there is a feeling of intellectualising distance in the character typology here. Playwrights 'on the ground' like Athol Fugard and Wole Soyinka can take us closer - I am imagining, of course - to the idiom and domestic circumstances of African life. Having said all that, the cast, led by Danny Sapani as Tshembe, work wonders in bringing emotional colour and nuance to a text that could easily come across as clunky and predictable.

The production, directed by Yael Farber, makes the most of the Olivier stage to bring out the epic sweep of the play. The Mission compound is surrounded by great dark spaces which suggest the vast territory of the state and continent beyond. A Ngqoko Cultural Group act as a Chorus, providing African language and music between and during scenes; and there is much excitingly choreographed movement to balance the wordy script, with the speechless emaciated female figure representing the spirit of Africa providing a visual anchor to the whole production. As is common these days, there is a constant ambient score and soundscape. Live theatre moves inexorably in the direction of film. The revolving stage is kept very busy and seemed to me to be over-used. It can be very effective at suggesting the passage of time or breaking up the scenes, but I don't see why it has to keep going during scenes themselves. One passage of dialogue between the journalist and the older lady Madame Neilsen turned into a kind of game of hide and seek as they clambered around the mission building as it span around. Why? That doesn't help me follow what is being said, instead it distracts my attention from it. Towards the end it looked like the stage would whack into a character's legs, but of course he moved at the right time. (Apparently on the first preview the revolve stopped working altogether and some of the audience begged to see the rest of the play without it. Request denied.) The production team of 28 (that's twenty-eight) created a gallery of effects - especially spectacular at the conclusion - that lengthened the play to three hours, which I imagine is longer than the author had in mind

Towards the end there is a  rousing speech by a rebel leader urging his people to 'Kill them all'. This conveys a sense of the Greek-like ineluctability of tragedy when a people feel driven to extreme measures (it has been carefully spelled out to us that all peaceful intents at negotiation have been rebuffed; I wonder if real historical cases are quite so clear). It was disquieting to see this a day after the bombing of Brussels airport by a group with presumably the same mindset. Curious, too, to see a play with so much dialogue that in the end despairs of dialogue altogether, either between cultures or within families. I got the feeling that this is a work which was still finding its final form at the author's death, and the 'final text' can only be an approximation to something more subtle and poised that might have resulted. Or not. Subtlety and poise might be responses altogether too comfortable for the issues under scrutiny here.  It is not a bad thing to be returned to a Brechtian idea that drama can teach and provoke.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Watts Gallery: Marie Spartali Stillman, G F Watts, Evelyn de Morgan

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Arnaldo
On Sunday we made one of our occasional pilgrimages to the Watts Gallery, Compton - home to a permanent collection of works by the Victorian painter G F Watts, and a short walk from the remarkable Arts and Crafts Chapel designed by his wife Mary. G F and Mary Watts lived in Compton at a house called Limnerslease, which has been recently converted to a new space for exhibitions, conservation and educational events, and is now called The Studios. This superb space allows us to see examples of Mary's designs across a range of media. The whole complex is now known as The Artists' Village: a community of late nineteenth century artists used to gather there around the sage figure of GFW, and the project today is to recreate that spirit with rooms for an artist-in-residence, a conservation workshop and opportunities for hands-on making that the Wattses would surely have blessed. In the spirit of community, the wonderful Chapel was made by local people under Mary's direction.

The main temporary exhibition there at the time of writing is the female Pre-Raphaelite painter Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) - the memorable name is formed by her Greek parentage (her father was the Greek Consul-General in London) and marriage to the American journalist William Stillman. Marie was by all accounts remarkably beautiful - when Swinburne met her, he wanted to "sit down and cry", which I suppose one should take as a compliment. We get a glimpse of her here in some photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, posing as 'Memory, Mother of the Muses' and so forth, which I admit left me dry-eyed if somewhat intimidated by her lustrous and regal presence. Marie entered the art world as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites but also practised as a painter. Under the tutelage of Ford Madox Brown she worked in watercolour and gouache, creating rather dense-looking images which instantly say 'Pre-Raph': pallid beauties with waterfalls of hair stand before thick groves and rills depicted in loving detail. The subjects are generally still, contemplative scenes, often drawing on Italian sources: the Stillmans lived for some years in Florence and Rome, when William was stationed there as foreign correspondent. I particularly liked The Enchanted Garden of Messer Arnaldo, the climactic scene from Boccaccio's story of a lover performing an impossible task, analogous to Chaucer's Franklin's Tale. Here the contrast of Winter and Spring gardens has an undeniable charm and, while luxuriating in the historical costume and rich floral detail, we can also appreciate the rather skilful range of expressions, from the wondering guests to Arnaldo hiding a grin of smug satisfaction. Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni captures Dante's stone-hearted lady holding a globe in which Love is imprisoned. Daringly alluding to the Mona Lisa, this image distils a Victorian sense of the poetic, characterised by sheer profusion of beautiful objects. A photo of the Wattses at home has the same aesthetic - every available surface seems to be ornamented, and the spaces are crammed with fine furniture and objects of every kind. It all seems quite suffocating to a modern sensibility, or mine at any rate, though at the time it must have felt like a  fortress against modern industrial ugliness.

Evelyn De Morgan, The Gilded Cage
Elsewhere in the main Museum is a selection of G F Watts landscapes, ranging from Egypt to the Surrey hills. These are different from the Pre-Raphaelite amassing of detail, building large sculptural blocks of colour. They do connect with his great symbolic and allegorical canvases in some respects: one late landscape, apparently inspired by a dream, gives us a pregnantly symbolic easy path down and steep one up amid some mountainous pass. I was taken by the paintings of Evelyn de Morgan, saluted by GFW as perhaps the greatest female artist ever: lingering memories of a sensuous Ariadne in Naxos, a lady trapped with a scholarly spouse in The Gilded Cage, and some satisfyingly weird later pieces, such as a group of benighted souls going through a transformative passage of redemption that has to be read from the bottom up.

The Chapel remains the crowning glory - a palace of brick and terracotta and an assembly of figures amid Celtic interlace in some esoteric symbolic scheme which one day I shall get around to studying.  The Artists' Village is one of the best days out in the south. It enshrines a deep Victorian faith in the positive powers of art and beauty, a mindset which seems light years away from modern cool, hip, ironic and sensationalist attitudes on offer today. In the Aesthetic / Symbolic / Arts and Crafts / Pre-Raphaelite world of late Victorianism a religious passion is turned towards art and art production. I liked the anecdote in the film shown in The Studio. A painting came back from some gallery damaged. A furious Mary told G F he shouldn't exhibit there again. Ah, he said, but we must not let our emotions get the better of us. Let us remember that all our pictures are merely meant to serve. Which might in its way be cooler than anything our century has come up with yet.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Durham Cathedral

The Beginnings

The story of Durham Cathedral really begins further up on the East coast of England, on the little island of Lindisfarne. This site is important in the history of art, for it was here that the Benedictine community produced the Lindisfarne Gospels (before 721), one of the great illuminated manuscripts of the world. Less happily, Lindisfarne was also the first part of England to be attacked by Vikings (793) and in 875 further attacks led them to leave the island. Carrying with them the remains of their venerated Saint Cuthbert (died 687), the monks led a peripatetic existence until they settled in Durham in 995. There they built a church of some kind, the ‘white church’ of the tenth century, of which no trace remains.

The next significant date is 1066, the year of the Norman invasion led by William the Conqueror. Under the Normans, the Church in England was reconstructed: dioceses were redrawn, and bishoprics and other top jobs were, in many cases, given to Norman nobles. This colonial occupation also put Saxon England in close touch with international currents of thought and culture. And so churches and castles based on Norman models were constructed, and earlier Saxon constructions were destroyed to make way for them. The style of architecture the invader-occupiers brought with them was Romanesque (known as Norman in England), characterised by massive, heavy constructions, monumental and grave. The churches had much in common with fortresses, prompting the art historian Ernst Gombrich to call the style ‘Church Militant’. For churches were indeed conceived as fortresses, from which religious communities fought against the forces of evil.


Durham now fell under the control of the new bishop Walcher (1071-80), a Lotharingian appointed by William I.  The first great building was the Bishop’s castle (which survives; Rochester in Kent is another example of castle and cathedral close together, and in both cases the castle looks over a river). The church was at this time run by secular canons, and Walcher planned to replace them with Benedictine monks from the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow.

In 1080 Bishop Walcher was killed by native Northumbrians, apparently angered with him and his entourage at their ineffective response to invasions by Scots. The next Bishop was William of Calais (1080-96; also known as William of St Carilef), who installed Benedictines to run the church and set about the construction of communal buildings for them around a cloister (these were on the south side of the present Cathedral and very little remains). In 1092 the Saxon church was demolished and in 1093 work began on what was to become one of the great Romanesque cathedrals of Christendom, the Cathedral we see today. Bishops in those days were expected to raise the funds for such projects themselves, and often ended funding them personally. William – who was exiled for political reasons for some years – was succeeded as Bishop by Ranulph Flambard (1099-1128), who oversaw building to its completion ‘usque testudinem’, up to the roof. The entire building, then, took forty years, a timespan comparable to Cluny (1088-1130, 42 years) and Santiago de Compostela (1078-1122, 44 years).


Like any other cathedral, Durham served several purposes. It was the seat, or cathedra of the Bishop, the church where the monks sang their offices, and the shrine of the relics of St Cuthbert, whose great reliquary-coffin was placed behind the high altar upon nine columns, tall enough to allow prayers to be conducted below. Unlike churches on the pilgrim route, like St Sernin of Toulouse, pilgrim-tourists do not seem to have been encouraged: there was no ambulatory to allow easy access to the relics, and no crypt to accommodate popular devotion. Vistors and congregants found themselves shut off from the choir, the space reserved for the monks, by a great screen and would have seen very little of the hours of the day celebrated by the community.


Durham’s design was based on the great churches known to the conquerors, like Jumièges and St Etienne at Caen. But it is significantly larger than these, and the same length as Old St Peter’s in Rome, which was clearly used as a distant model. Its plan is typical of the period: a West End, flanked by two towers, leads to a nave and two aisles. There are eight bays, marked by a stately rhythm of alternating compound piers and simpler cylindrical columns. These lead us to the Crossing, the central space where the nave meets the choir, marked by a central tower. To either side of the Crossing are the arms of the Latin Cross, the north and south transepts.  Beyond the Crossing the choir stretched for four bays, leading to the Eastern apse. The aisles on either side of the choir also led to eastern apses.  The Elevation is in three parts: an arcade, a gallery over the aisles (also sometimes called triforium or tribune), and an upper clerestory, to let in the light. Characteristic of the Norman style (as the Romanesque is called in England) is the absolute clarity with which all the modules, stories and sections are articulated. That is to say, it is immediately clear where one section ends and another begins, and how they are related to each other.

Main Features

There is much to marvel at in Durham Cathedral, which, seen on its rocky promontory  from the river Wear below, has the most stunning exterior of any of England’s cathedrals. Inside, building work extending over four decades leaves its trace, and it is possible to see where builders altered their plans as they went along: the design of the vaulting, for example, changes as it extends from the choir aisles to the transepts and then the naves. The wall passage in the clerestory seems to have been a later thought, and the decoration increased dramatically after 1099: by this time the building, which customarily started at the East so the monks could hold their services as soon as possible, had reached the nave. But to follow the intricacies of the design as it proceeded a more detailed guide is necessary.

Two central features in Durham stand out: the ribbed vaulting and the carved decoration. Of these, the first has received most attention in histories of architecture as it is a groundbreaking structural development.  It also holds the onlooker’s gaze, which can follow an engaged shaft up a composite pier, ascending theough gallery and clerestory and continuing in an unbroken line across the ceiling and down again, a thrilling drama in stone. From the point of view of materials, ribbed vaulting is lighter than barrel or groin vaults, and so a good solution to the great problem of all stone vaulting – how to carry the immense weight, with its downward and lateral thrust, and yet have some wallspace available for windows?  In a ribbed vault, instead of a solid mass of stone, a frame of ribs stretching diagonally between piers carries an infill of light masonry. There is some reason to believe that initially this vaulting was only intended for the Choir, to mark it as a space of unusual sanctity (again, Old St Peter’s in Rome could have been the model, with its stone ciborium over the altar; Kilpeck in Herefordshire is an example of a Romaesque church where ribs are used only in the sanctuary). Then at some point, the argument goes (though nothing is certain), it was decided to extend tibbed vaulting into the transepts and then into the nave. As the work went westwards, changes were made to the angle of the arches and the size of the columns. There were other arguments for this project besides the practical ones. Aesthetically, the ribbed vaulting suits the design of the rest of the building, with its bold geometrical shapes and criss-crossing lines. And the stone vault would have increased the value of the Cathedral as a status symbol for diocese, Church and Crown. The ribbed vaults and pointed arches of Durham look ahead to the Gothic style of the next century. Yet oddly builders of the time appeared to be less excited by them than architectural historians today, since churches with fully ribbed vaulting do not appear in England until the late twelfth century.

The ribbed vaulting is also part of the second notable feature of Durham, its decoration. It is a wonderful example of the Norman style, with its emphasis on repeated geometrical designs, simple, bold and clear. The engaged shafts, running from the floor to the vault, have already been mentioned: these add to the vertical thrust of the building, in counterpoint to the horizontal march from West to East. This horizontal movement is made more interesting by the alternation of great composite piers, where a central column has shafts and internal half-columns attached, acting as internal buttresses, and smaller cylindrical piers. This creates what are called double bays, with two sets of diagonal rib vaults between each set of composite piers, which are joined by transverse pointed arches.  Decoration renders the great stretches of stone interesting to the eye, presenting intricacy amidst the vast scale of the building: the arches have undulating patterns carved on their underside, called soffit rolls. Columns are carved with spirals, chevrons, lozenges and flutes. Elsewhere such decoration would have been common in painted walls, but in Durham it is carved into the local sandstone itself.  If this geometrical design hints at an Eastern or Arabic source, that sense becomes stronger in the interlocking arches on the inner walls of the aisle, which are echoed on the exterior. We can see these in Islamic architecture, and in English gospel books of the period.

Later changes

Durham today is still largely the Norman Cathedral of the late eleventh century. But there have been some changes. In c.1175-80 the Galillee Chapel was added at the Western end, a five-aisled building in a more Gothic style, which served as porch and Lady Chapel. Here is deposited another relic, the remains of the great Anglo-Saxon monk and historian the Venerable Bede.  In the thirteenth century, the eastern end of three apses was replaced with a long arm, like a second smaller transept, known as the Chapel of nine altars. This allowed several monks to say divine office simultaneously, and would have made it easier for pilgrims to circulate. The great central tower was not completed until 1500, only 40 years before Henry VIII dissolved all English monastic communities in the Reformation. Over time the wooden furnishings of the Norman church have disappeared, along with the rood screen and pulpitum which would have blocked the laity off from the clergy. Yet it is still possible to imagine standing in the great nave, with less light than today, and candles flickering across wood, textile, stone, paint and metal. The total effect of architecture goes well beyond the forms laid down in stone.

The Encounter

Years ago I listened, mesmerised, to a radio drama called Mnemonic, about the frozen body of Otzi the Iceman, who died some 5,000 years ago. Scientists speculated, other voices added a poetic commentary, and the story was spliced with a parallel love story from the director / narrator's experience. The theme was memory, and how imagination works with and recreates memory in our excavations from the near and distant past. Excavating this listening experience, I can't remember if then I would have recognised the voice of actor Simon McBurney (as I certainly would now), or how much if anything I knew of his company Théâtre de Complicité, makers of works which weave stories from found materials - what is now called devised drama - and bringing in techniques from the latest stage technology to traditional mime to make the stories ring. I'm pretty sure I had no idea that what I was listening to was a stage work, as it seemed to speak so directly through sound.

The latest Complicité production is The Encounter, a one-man show performed by McBurney. It's based on a book about the experiences of photojournalist Loren McIntyre in the Amazon in 1969. An experienced traveller, McIntyre didn't mark a path back to his plane and ended up as a kind of prisoner-guest of the Mayoruba tribe, deep in the jungle. In his time with them, he finds the tribe on a journey, erasing their settlements and destroying their belongings, as they follow the river in an attempt to go back to the beginning, to remove themselves from time. Only out of time will they be safe from the invasions of the white man and modernity. Even more remarkably, McIntyre finds he can communicate with the headman, whom he calls Barnacle, without speaking. This telepathic channel is referred to by one Indian (the only one he can communicate with verbally, through the mutual language of Portuguese) as 'the old language'. McIntyre called it 'Amazon beaming', the title of a book by his friend Petru Popescu which is the main source for the production.  He never experienced it again, and never made a big deal out of it. In fact, it only came to light in a discussion, years later, about the problems of communicating with Indians when there is no mutual tongue. Nothing in the recounting suggests it was a boast or an exaggeration or a fabrication. McIntyre was a highly successful and by all accounts rather retiring explorer and had no need to embellish his real-life experiences.

The Encounter stages this story with no pretence at realism. McBurney plays himself, McIntyre and other parts including the likeable Portuguese-speaking Cambio and uses simple mime techniques: a long pole becomes an aeroplane, an arrow, a thorn bush, and plastic water bottles are enough to evoke the tools and accessories of a whole tribe. Less simple is the remarkable 'binaural' sound technology which sends different sound channels into each ear: the audience is required to wear headphones throughout the performance. There is a mixture between live, recorded and looped sound, often overlaid with music. Walking through a mound of tape is recorded to represent the sound of walking or dancing in the jungle, simple vocal sounds are relayed and superimposed to create an aural tapestry of the Amazon at night. Sidelight throws deep shadow which is enough to suggest the depths of the jungle, and there are some vivid light effects on the giant canvas at the back. But the techniques and technology are not sitting up to be admired in this show. They serve themes of communication, rapacious modernity against the primeval world of the Indians, and take in the voices of anthropologists, mathematicians and the actor's invisible daughter who can't get to sleep.

I couldn't get to see it in London, but thankfully caught it on the final day of the live stream. I watched it in the late afternoon and then almost immediately in the evening (using up all the data allowance of my phone). It was simply a spell-binding experience, stimulating, moving, thought-provoking. It seemed to me that whether I 'believed' the mythology of the tribe, or the strange phenomenon of beaming, was beside the point. What matters is what is being said through the material about connections across individuals and cultures, about time, and the need to get lost and find home again, and find it changed. McBurney's performance is a wonder. The Chieftain's's words outlived the broadcast. They are holding us still in time...  Some of us are friends ...

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Andy Warhol

A brief but enjoyable visit to the exhibition of Warhol pieces from the Hall collection at the Ashmolean. Brevity of attention seems appropriate to work that is about - to the extent that it is 'about' anything -  a world of flashy celeb sensation, ephemeral fame, the replacement of the gaze with the glance. From my own porous memory, a few days later, what clings? Early silkscreen flowers which convey, beneath the deadpan cool of the Warhol image, an actual sense of beauty and excitement in making; a minute or two watching the various films on simultaneous display in Room 2, and being held by the scratches in the film and wavering light in Empire (1964); a huge screen print portrait of Joseph Beuys - another master of the self-image, and solemn prophetic critic of Western materialism - gazing gloomily across at the array of portraits of the once famous on the opposite wall; aleatoric creations in oxidized urine and a Rorsach image, made in some kind of nervous satirical dialogue with the Abstract Expressionism which represented a completely opposite aesthetic. Where Pollock & co. proclaimed the heroic and isolated soul of the artist taking form in unconsciously guided  paint, Warhol's works give us the deliberately vacuous maker, absorbed into the shallow anonymity of a superficial world of easy fun and brash sensation.

One might, on an astringent day, feel moved to criticise a lack of individual draughtsmanship, a reliance on facile technique, but that seems to be the point: the easily captured and reproducible image is the image of a world based on commerce and populist rhetoric, visual and verbal. Warhol could draw quite well - and did, in his fledgling days as an illustrator - but preferred to make drawn portraits by tracing photos with a thick carpenter's pencil, denying the possibilities of nuance and subtlety. In the last room, copies of kitsch religious imagery, ads and slogans (Heaven and Hell are Just one Breath Away) add up to a kind of commentary on last things, following Warhol's near-death experience when he was shot in 1968. Warhol heralded the infinite inanities of social media, self-branding, and fashion - our versions of the icons which fascinated him in the churches of his youth. The show is disconcertingly honest in holding up a mirror to our nature, turning pop images into a new iconography. It's all fun to look at, and very cool - but also one senses that coolness and facility leaves out almost everything that gives the human story any interest and dignity. It's beguilingly difficult to tell whether Warhol is providing some kind of critique of modernity or simply embodying its vulgarity. He was obsessed with money, fame and attention. Perhaps in a clever ironic way, perhaps not.  But he was certainly a voyeur (in a very literal sense, as one panel reminds us) and a valuable recorder of his age. The record that he leaves here is like a room where a party has taken place, bearing the acrid after-party taste of futility. The melancholy of the glossy polaroid snap.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Raisin in the Sun

At the centre of Western theatre is the family. The tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus are essentially family dramas, and the same is true of most of Shakespeare, the Jacobean canon and the twentieth century too: Shaw, Rattigan, Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Miller... Again and again a family, with is tensions, fractures and subterranean bonds, serves as a distillation of wider issues. Great reckonings in small rooms. In Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, it is the black family of the Youngers whose journey we share for the two hours traffic of the stage; and, through them, we come to learn something of the situation of black people at that point in history, relegated by reason of their colour to an inferior status, on the margins of respectable white society in late fifties America: " Never before, in the entire history of theatre, has so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage" said writer James Baldwin. The Youngers live in a cramped rented apartment in Chicago in 1959: matriarch Lena, son Walter, his sister Beneatha, wife Ruth and son Travis, who has to sleep on the couch. Walter is a chauffeur with dreams of going into business, Ruth does occasional household work while Beneatha has aspirations to train as a doctor, but appears to be drifting from one hobby to another and is in the grip of an identity crisis. A life insurance policy on Lena's husband comes through, and the action of the play is concerned with the family's decisions on what to do with this money.

Over the evening, I felt a growing awareness of the nature of the Youngers' condition. Beneatha's boyfriends represent - perhaps a little obviously - the avenues available to her: return to Africa and the adoption of a clear ancestral identity; or assimilation into modern American life. Her intellectual questioning attitude leads her into trouble with her mother and her men. The dangers of free-thinking youth is not a race-restricted problem, needless to say. Meanwhile Walter is driven to distraction by his condition of servitude but lacks the savviness and education needed to make a go of business. His lack of preparation and tendency to fantasise make him dangerously vulnerable to exploitation. When Lena spends a portion of the insurance money on a down payment for a house, it looks as though a door has been opened for the Youngers. But the house is in a white neighbourhood, and the purchase leads to a visit from a representative of the 'Clayborne Park' community attempting to buy them out. 'Racial prejudice doesn't come into it,' of course.

It was a delight to see a traditional well-made play, introducing the characters then setting the spinning wheel going and leading us through their purgatory to a fateful decision, which takes them into a future full of risk - including, it is broadly hinted, actual physical risk. Hansberry wrote Raisin at the young age of 28 and it was, apparently, the first play by a black writer on Broadway, where it was produced in 1959. At that point, the question of what would happen to the Youngers after the final curtain was a question to the audience. Not that it has gone away, of course. Eclipse Theatre Company, who are taking their fine production on tour, is committed to drama and theatre-based projects which raise awareness of inequality and other race-related issues. Uneasily, I recalled I had been at a rather grand establishment dinner the evening before and I don't remember seeing a single black face there. And then there is the furore over this year's Oscars... So the work of Eclipse Company and other similar outfits is as necessary as ever.

This production was satisfyingly true to the work's origins: a drab single-room set, simple lighting plot, clear characterisation and full-blooded attack on the climactic speeches which may seem a little melodramatic now, but were part of the dramatic rhetoric of the time. It was entirely respectful to the aesthetics of the work, as conceived by the author. No production razzmatazz or modernising was needed to help us understand or feel the ideas and passions of the play. I must say it came as a refreshing relief after the National's ostentatiously lavish As You Like It to be reminded what can be done with a standard fourth wall set-up without a battery of special effects.  The play itself is a tremendous work of social theatre: Walter Younger should be as well-known to English audiences as Willy Loman. Indeed they are similar in several ways: dreamers, victims of society but with enough flaws to make us edgy and stop the flow of easy sentiment. The whole ensemble worked beautifully together to create a gripping and moving evening of theatre. Fine work from the smaller parts along with the leads. This was another great night at the Nuffield, Southampton. We feel so lucky to be within easy distance of this venue, showing some of the best work currently being done on the British stage. It brought back memories of Jacobs-Jenkins Neighbors, another remarkable play about the black experience in America, which I also saw at the Nuffield. If you happen to come on this post and are considering getting a ticket to A Raisin in the Sun, don't hesitate!

Saturday, 27 February 2016

As You Like It, National Theatre

The National Theatre's new production (the first in over 30 years, forsooth) of As You Like It opens in a modern office space, where Orlando is employed in the lowly capacity of plant-sprayer. During the day, the office fills with workers doing things at PCs and having choreographed snacks and, as is common in office life these days, enjoying breaks for wrestling matches featuring the Duke's Champion, staged with all the bling and zing of the WWF. When the scene moves to Arden the chairs and desks are hauled up in an ingenious whoosh and dangle mid-air, forming an expressionist forest, like a gigantic installation sculpture - visually suggesting, perhaps, that Arden is the world of court / office turned inside out and topsy-turvy.  Backlight is splintered through this remarkable creation, shadows flicker, and there is an accompanying sculpture of sounds from animal noises to (beautiful, in Orlando Gough's score) a capella humming. As couples couple and the wafer-thin 'plot' resolves we are released from dimness into primary colours, dancing and happiness.

I start with Lizzie Clachan's set because this is what really lodges in the memory. The Olivier certainly invites such huge design-led productions, and the NT economics presumably make it possible. Perhaps West End expectations make it necessary. Every play I have seen in this space recently has had a staging hugely in excess of what the text actually requires. You start to wonder how the price of a ticket is divided: how much of a £40 seat goes to superfluous non-speaking actors who, in this case, sit first at a desk, then among the trees or pad around as sheep? (Or how about the policemen in Man and Superman who appeared for 1 minute of a 3-hour play?) How much then goes to the machinery which makes such a colossal mechanism work? Or to the creative team of 13 (what does an 'Artistic Collaborator' do?)?  We are getting close to the point where the directors outnumber the speaking actors, like the physios and psychs on a test cricket tour.

Well, all this extravagance could have overwhelmed the play itself, but the acting was thankfully strong enough to distract us from the set and its population of extras. Actually, this was a particularly clearly delivered production: every sentence was doing some work and made sense of. Joe Bannister was a likeable Orlando, Rosalie Craig a feisty Rosalind. The complicated stage business around the wrestling smothered their initial meeting, and this Rosalind was always more in control than she was giddy with Cupid's dart. Orlando's 'I can no longer live by thinking' rang out with a pathos I had not felt in it before. Celia (Patsy Ferran) and Oliver (Phillip Arditti) were miraculously convincing in their love-at-first-sight moment and generally a delight to behold. Touchstone (Mark Benton) wasn't funny, but I defy anyone to find this character funny, whoever plays him. Sixteenth-century logic-chopping wit is as dead as a Monty Python parrot. But I'm glad this rather unpleasant fool got a clonk on the nose from William at the end of that horrid little scene. Jaques (Paul Chahidi) was done interestingly, with the seven ages speech delivered as a kind of improvisation upon an idea, bringing refreshing spontaneity to this tired set piece. Much facial expression suggested some kind of condition explaining the character's melancholy. The production ended by working its charms, with no attempt to disguise the preposterous ending, and a full-scale all-singing-all-dancing finale in gorgeous costumes.

Briefly mentioned among the padding with which NT surrounds its live screenings was the fact that this was a 1599 play - that astonishing year which saw this, Julius Caesar and most likely the beginning of work on Hamlet, as Shak and Co. moved across the river and into the Globe. A feature on the history of performance in the NT was really nothing more than a few reminiscences of how awesome it is to play that space by whoever they could round up. More on 1599 would have been instructive. Mighty things were on hand at this point in Will Shak's life - meta-theatre (we need to see a production where boys are playing girls playing boys seducing men to see what got Puritans hot under the collar), fluidity of character - you are who you decide to be in the given moment - and forays across and around the frontiers of serious and comic. As for stunning sets, if we have clever people to make them and the London crowd are happy to pay pretty prices to be wowed by them, then I suppose they will continue. You can always go the Globe or Sam Wanamaker for something barer.  As you like it, indeed. But I remember warmly a recent workshop at the National itself on 'simple, effective' design and I would like to see something there soon in the Olivier or Lyttleton using a couple of tables and a chair or two. Go on, NT creatives, I dare you.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Sarah Kane, Cleansed

'Either love me or kill me, Graham' is one of the longer sentences in Cleansed, echoing Roland Barthes' assertion that 'being in love is like being in Auschwitz', the somewhat tasteless variation on the Petrarchan agonised lover that is said to have inspired playwright Sarah Kane. Cleansed recreates Auschwitz in the form of some kind of hospital-turned-detention camp, in which the commandant figure Tinker and his goons deal with homosexuals and drug addicts by torturing and eventually killing them - presumably cleansing a  society of its deviants, though there is no picture of any wider political or social context. Into this arena comes Grace (the name is a hint) in search of her twin brother Graham, who is killed at the start of the play. Their ghostly sibling affection survives, sort of, though it is apparently all a hallucination; and so in a way does the love of two gays and a romantic attachment which another prisoner forms for Grace herself. Tinker has a stripper in a box onto whom he projects the feelings he has repressed and which Grace arouses. The stripper professes to love Tinker near the end, though that comes over as some kind of hysteria or conditioning. Indeed the whole play is an enactment of various aspects of hysterical psychology. The moments of love, if that is what they are, are rather crudely symbolised by flowers prodding up through the floor. At the end, the flowers, shafts of light and the descent of rain seem to promise a new beginning, humanity having momentarily crawled out from under the Orwellian boot stamping on its face forever.

Like Grace, the play too seems to want to be either loved or killed. It amounts essentially to almost non-stop torture for 105 minutes. Within a couple of minutes Graham's eyeball is injected, and this is followed by acts including a tongue being cut out, limbs chewed up in a torture machine, regular beating up of prisoners, rape, suicide, throat-cutting and shooting. There is also an endless scene involving a box of chocolates. Physical violence is complemented by other items from the vocabulary of shock such as onstage sex, masturbation, book burning and a graft of male genitalia onto our understandably traumatised protagonist. Those who love Cleansed and Kane's work in general admire the lack of compromise, the deconstruction of existing theatrical form, the challenge to theatre's own limits in terms of believable spectacle and the link it gave British theatre to middle European designer-led dramatic aesthetics. Kane handily takes elements of Buchner, Bond, Beckett (the Beckett of What Where, for example, although that places all violence, Greek-style, offstage), Howard Barker, and Pinter, and follows them to a point of extreme visceral violence that could not really be surpassed. Having seem a minor walkout by Hampshire gentry from our own mild production of The Revenger's Tragedy I think I can see the motive for such an enterprise. Sock it to the ghastly comfortable middle classes! Kane must have been following a vision of some kind. There was no guarantee anyone would hail this work, or even go to see it, when it was first put on. It can't just be a matter of épater la bourgeoisie. A nineties play, Cleansed undoubtedly picks up in its imagery on the atrocities of the Bosnian war and refuses even the consolation of intellectual examination of what it is showing, for authorial commentary is nowhere in the stabbing dialogue or periods of wordless cruelty. Perhaps we do need reminding - where we least expect it, in the plush comfort of the stalls - of our darker nature. There is nothing here that is worse than Bartolomé de las Casas on the Europeans' treatment of the unfortunate natives of Hispaniola in 1492, for example, or Goya's Disasters of War. There is an interesting essay by Dan Rebellato in the programme praising Kane's unyielding vision, and I read a warm appreciation of her talents by Mark Ravenhill later.

While such supporters love her, others will kill Cleansed and its creator for much the same reasons: the destruction of form means the removal of character development and plot, with their associated arcs, and leaves us with unchanging tone, exhaustion of compassion and ultimately disinterest in the barely formed characters, repetitive rhythms and a spectacle that continually doubles back and plays variations on its own motifs rather than taking us anywhere. Like punk, it represents an energising nihilism, another kind of cleansing; yet nihilistic language cannot of itself say anything especially interesting or involving. There is no suspense, no shift of perspective, no interesting dialogue, only the thudding predictability of something disgusting about to happen as a piece of apparatus or a chair or gurney are wheeled out yet again. Is there anything transcendent or enriching in such a vision? Goya and de las Casas believed in a concept of humanity that this work appears to dismiss. Maybe we could place Cleansed in a genealogy stretching from Oedipus through, well, The Revenger's Tragedy to Artaud and absurdism, theatre as a quasi-religious expiatory ritual. But another lineage is the gladiators, bear-baiting and snuff movies, an indulgence of the instinct that makes people slow down at car crashes. In renouncing the legacy of humanism and enlightenment, revolutionary art can end up becoming an emblem of the sensation-seeking postmodern consumerism that is busy replacing that intellectual heritage with various kinds of exploitative commodification. In the history of theatre, Cleansed is radical in its formal adventure and piercing pitch. But in the context of the wider entertainment culture, it is worrying close to horror porn.

Beyond such adulation and deprecation, there is another, and sadder, way of regarding Cleansed, which is as the product of a desperately troubled mind. Sarah Kane suffered from severe depression and took her own life at the hideously young age of 28. Of course it is dangerously reductive to read an output of five plays merely in terms of the author's tragic death. Yet while conceding that important point, I admit I find it impossible not to see such work as the expression of a mind working through its own nightmares - cleansing itself, perhaps - by giving them palpable form. The same association of life and art suggests itself in the lyrics and performance of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (much admired by Kane), however much one tries to dissociate the person who suffers and the mind that creates, or whatever it was exactly Eliot said. If this play had been witten by someone I knew, I would certainly be seriously concerned for their health. (I had a similar sensation when pondering Agnes Martin's grids at Tate Modern.)

I didn't love Cleansed, nor do I want, criticially, to kill it. The actors working with director Katie Mitchell certainly pulled off a committed and intense production. Drab design and relentless electro underscoring heightened the Bosch-like visionary feel of the work. It is certainly a young person's creation, bold in ambition, grindingly unsubtle in technique (those flowers!), an unsubtlety matched by the various clangs and beeps and buzzers of the production soundscape. The play is part of the creative career of a particular writer, and if the universe were just it would be seen as an early work. It wasn't her last play. I saw the later Crave a couple of years ago, which is strikingly different, simply four voices speaking across each other (and owing a good deal to Beckett's Play).  It is clear that Kane was setting herself interesting challenges and finding different shapes for the expressionist aesthetic. What could it have led to? Telly, is a likely guess. It's odd how some of this material now seems absorbed into the mainstream in grand guignol series like Luther and Whitechapel. Aficionados of brutality turn to film and television now: Lars von Trier's Nymphomania, Dennis Kelly's Utopia. Kane's theatre, inyerface, brutalist, whatever you want to call it, had to happen, perhaps, just as black canvases and 4'33" had to happen, following lines of enquiry to their natural terminus. But it seems quite a period piece now. It's the art of the dead end, and the problem of dead ends is that they don't go anywhere. There are no doubt special websites for those who like this sort of thing.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Botticelli, Dante's Inferno

The Courtauld is presently exhibiting thirty of Dante's drawings illustrating scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante wrote his vision of hell, purgatory and heaven when in exile from Florence, between (approximately) 1308 and 1320. Botticelli's drawings are dated to c.1480-1495, by which time the poem was a national Florentine treasure. It is thought that Botticelli's drawings were made for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, who is also thought to have received, variously by gift or direct commission, the same artist's Pallas Athene Training a Centaur, Primavera and Birth of Venus. Fortunate fellow, though as a Medici I suppose you felt entitled to such reminders of your magnificence. In time, the Dante drawings wound up in the collection of the 12th Duke of Hamilton, who was obliged by financial distress to sell them - along with other manuscripts - to a national collection in Berlin in 1882. The Courtauld exhibition brings together drawings and manuscripts, including the sumptuous 'Hamilton Bible', in a show entitled 'Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection'.

It is believed that Botticelli originally planned to colour the Dante illustrations, but that at an early stage in the project this scheme was abandoned. Certainly one does not regret the absence of colour in these designs, where the formal qualities of line and composition convey an overwhelmingly vivid impression of Dante's visionary experience and its moral lessons. Often multiple events crowd the same page, as in Inferno 8 (5th Circle of Hell), where Phlegyas rows souls to the underworld, Dante berates one forlorn figure clinging onto the boat, and is subsequently embraced by Virgil, who congratulates him for his virtuous outrage. Around the poet and his guide contorted souls writhe, howl and moan. In the bottom corner, the pair arrive at the city of Dis (Abandon Hope ...), to be met by a group of grinning, winged and horned devils. There is a splendid Disney-like demon smiling straight out at us from another tower. It's hard not to smile back, and to a modern eye the whole infernal scenario has a certain amusing charm. Everywhere, hands and gestures sketch emotional states like members of  the Pina Bausch dance troupe. The Inferno drawings are so crowded with detail that one can only list some of the most memorable figures: the monster Geryon, with a man's head, dragon's body and scorpion's tale; or the terrific drawing of the simonists (Inferno 19) disappearing headfirst into holes in the ground, giving us the bizarre sight of Dante lecturing the splayed legs of Pope Nicholas III. Dante does quite a lot of berating and altogether comes over as quite a bruiser, not the gentle poetic soul of romantic representations. Presiding over this theatre of cruelty - and the Inferno is an intensely mean and cruel book - is the full-page Lucifer, whose three heads crunch up the bodies of Judas and, startlingly for those who come to the story via Shakespeare, Caesar's assassins Brutus and Cassius. These conspirators annoyed Dante and other medievals for getting in the way of a stable empire under a strong ruler.

In the Purgatory drawings, souls take on more individual characteristics. The devils drift away and there is generally more space on the page. We see the proud weighed down by stones (thus they can't stand proud, another attraction of the drawings is that with a bit of help from the label they are easy to read), and the envious with their eyes sewn shut, among whom Dante receives the metaphysical light of revelation from an angel. Punishments are mirror opposites of the sins committed: thus, the slothful in life become whirling, frenzied mobs stampeding around (Purgatory 18), and gluttons are reborn as emaciated figures resisting the temptations of water and the fruit of an upside-down tree. The Divine Comedy reads as a  legal compendium, covering all possible cases: even in heaven, we meet those who broke their vows, though through no fault of their own, a strange little lawyerly subclause one feels. As Dante enters Paradise, he is accompanied by Beatrice, and the more realized worlds of Inferno and Purgatorio fade out to leave abstract designs of cosmic spheres through which the happy couple glide. There's a lovely fade-out as we leave them, tiny couples on a cloud, disappearing from mortal view.

It's funny how things overlap. I caught this exhibition in a break from the excellent National Theatre Drama Teachers Conference over the river. On the same evening, we were given tickets to Sarah Kane's Cleansed - an updated Inferno, though here the torments and cruelty are unexplained, not drawn into any comprehensible modern scheme; nor was there anything really to recreate the tension between the delicacy of the drawing and the roughness of the content that we find in Botticelli. From faith in art and God to the modern loss of these, je suppose. And the next day, I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation by 1927 theatre company. Their work seemed in the tradition of the drawings, too: 1927 combine music, actors and animation in productions which look back to silent film and early cartoons. The expressive, opened out bodies, the eyes, and the interaction between animated and real figures of their works (Golem, for example) are pure Botticelli, pure Dante. A replacement bus service from Basingstoke made the journey through various underworlds complete.

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art

'Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art' is, as its title implies, a show with a thesis. Delacroix, Old Master of Romanticism, was also a revolutionary artist whose stylistic verve makes him a forefather of the modern movement. At the National Gallery exhibition, we see Delacroix canvases next to works by contemporaries and later artists who picked up on some aspect of the Master's work. Colour, for instance. Delacroix immersed himself in the collours of Rubens and transported this Flemish world to France, where the dominant language was the high finish and sobre harmonies enjoined by the Academy. In this context, a work like 'The Death of Sardanapalus' (1827-8, seen here in a reduced replica made by the artist himself for his own purposes) was truly revolutionary in its energetic swirls of colour, and duly reviled when it was shown at the Salon, making Delacroix, in his own rueful words, 'the abomination of painting'. Yet to a later generation, the array of sensual tones and daring decentred composition were sources of inspiration. A genealogy can be traced from Delacroix to the Impressionists to the Post-Impressionists, at each stage colour detaching itself from realistic depiction on its way to becoming a pure expressive element, the beating heart of the image, while classical composition breaks into a million fragments. As an example of this family tree, the third room argues that Delacroix revived the genre of the floral painting, which had descended into limp decorative prettiness. From his full-blooded delight in fruit and flowers 'tis but a step to the inner world figured in van Gogh's sunflowers or the dream visions of Odilon Redon. Elsewhere we can see how van Gogh recaptured from memory the colouristic schemes of the Master in a glowing Pietà. Links are made to even later artists like Kandinsky, whose formal experiments belong to a narrative in which Delacroix's journals, concerned among many other things with the theory of optics, are a central document.

I learned a great deal from this exhibition. Delacroix looks so much like the summation of old-style grand history painting that it is refreshing to consider  him as a forerunner of later schools, his freedom from tradition underpinned by tributes from Baudelaire, Cézanne and other admirers. The paintings from Africa make a sumptuous mini-display in the second room, where whirling sufis, senatorial menfolk and the lustrous 'Women of Algiers in their Apartment' display a Moroccan experience transmuted through memory into a blazing oriental world, half real half enhanced by imagination. Here was the alternative the artist sought to biblical and ancient historical scenes. Memory, indeed, is a major theme in this exhibition: like Wordsworth, Delacroix insisted on the importance of experience re-collected, and many of the paintings from Africa were executed many years after his brief trip to Morocco in 1832.
There were art-historical detective stories to remind us of the scholarly precision end of the discipline:  A might have seen this painting by B in the private collection of C when he visited X. Such links are a reminder, too, of a now vanished world of transmission and influence. When van Gogh had only a lithograph to copy, he recaptured from memory the arrangement of complementary colours he had seen in Delacroix's other works. This kind of memory must surely be rarer in the age of mechanical reproduction.
I found the argument - Delacroix as the grandfather of modernity - pretty persuasive, although the organisers themselves say that Delacroix's journals are so complex and compendious that you can use them to prove pretty much whatever you like. Put him next to Veronese and other earlier narrative painters and you'd get another story. But both can be true, of course. The visual evidence for moderns doffing their cap to Delacroix is the most compelling, the textual is rather weaker. Despite Cézanne's flamboyant remarks about the nineteenth-century master, his work does seem to be in a very different register, although his rather dotty oil sketch of D being assumed into the heavens while contemporary artists peer up at him is saying something, however wryly, about the handover of revolutionary daring. Over the show Delacroix himself almost disappears, effaced by the storm he helped to create: there is just one painting by him in the flowers room, and in the final room a single tiny copy of a ceiling mural is overwhelmed by the cultural progeny it allegedly helped to spawn. Then there is the question of quality. The great works in the Louvre cannot be lent, and so Delacroix is not represented by many of his his masterpieces here; so the fantastic array of works by the likes of Courbet, Renoir, van Gogh, Gauguin et al. are in may cases more emphatic works than the Master's and take over our attention. The van Gogh painting of olive groves is a simply stunning piece, and doesn't gain much in interest if we consider its somewhat elusive debt to Delacroix's landscape oil sketches from England.
The exhibition is continually interesting, though I confess I didn't spend much time at the film of mural projects. My favourite picture of all was a Kandinsky, on the cusp of abstraction, where the figures and horses gradually revealed themselves after a minute or two of puzzled looking (and profitable listening to the genial audioguide). The exhibition itself also revealed its value over the two hours it took to look round. After being treated to amazing representations of Rembrandt and Goya in the Sainsbury Wing there was perhaps an initial disappointment in not seeing more Delacroix here. But that would be to miss the point of this thought-provoking and stimulating exercise in comparative looking. Baudelaire described Delacroix as a volcano concealed beneath a bouquet of flowers. In this inventive and thoughtful display, we were able to trace the range and direction of that ongoing eruption.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Through the mysteries of corporate theatredom, a Donmar Warehouse production is broadcast as part of National Theatre Live. Confusing, but no matter. Whoever produced and digitally beamed it, this was strong production of Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Laclos's epistolary novel. I remembered some lines of the script vividly from the 1988 film with John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer. Tonight's Valmont was Dominic West, opposite Jane Mcteer's Marquise de Merteuil. Two voices one certainly did not tire of over the two and a half hours of this production. They were as silkily smooth as any executives planning a takeover, as they planned a young girl's destruction merely as a petty act of vengeance (her prospective husband had dumped Madame de M) and a sexy teasing game. West's Valmont was all genial charm at the outset, in the second half increasingly out of his depth as he found himself in a new emotional universe. The scene when the single word 'unprecedented' triggers the fatal chain of events that leads the characters into hell was briliantly played, the smallest tilt of McTeer's regal head communicating the most violent feelings. Hampton's script offers marvellous female parts, and both Morfydd Clark (Cécilie) and Elaine Cassidy (Madame de Tourvel) charted affecting journeys from demure propriety to what another era would have called debauchery. Ed Holcroft was the naive Chevalier Danceny, drawn into a battle he could not understand. The play did not take in Merteuil's smallpox or the public humiliation at the opera, but the production communicated an air of pre-revolutionary doom in the flickering, shadowy light cast by chandeliers and Tom Scutt's set of steadily denuded, fading walls, stripped of paintings and revealing stonework beneath. I loved the stylish scene changes, balletic movement over gorgeous vocal music.
Tragedy is meant to be inevitable, but in this one one had an aching sense of how things might have played out therwise. It was clear that beneath the cynicism love's embers still glowed between the lead characters. With just a modicum of moral decency Valmont and Madame de Merteuil could even have found a warm gossipy happiness together. How self-destructive vanity and social sophistication can be. I suppose that is what Laclos intended us to think. In the interval tallk we learned the interesting fact that Josie Rourke first directed this when she was nineteen, by which age she had had sex about four times. And Christopher Hampton observed that to feel the play's modernity you actually have to do it in period eighteenth-century dress and interiors. When you take the historical period away, the contemporary buzz is lost. A terrific evening and I'm grateful to my French friend C, who invited me to take up a spare ticket.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Ashmolean, Titian to Canaletto

The Ashmolean's latest exhibition follows their recent Great British Drawings, and can be seen as a continuation of the British Museum's Italian Renaissance Drawings (2010). All serve as reminders of the fundamental importance of drawing in art, and of drawing's many purposes - drawings may be executed as studies of light, texture and form; or as experiments, or educational tools for a workshop; they may be intended as finished works to be bought by collectors, or made as studies for paintings (we see several squared up for transfer onto a larger surface). In this exhibition, the Ashmolean seeks to refute the assertion of Vasari in his Lives (1568) that the Venetians neglected drawing and started work directly with paint on canvas. This opinion was followed by other Florentine writers (despite the fact that the Uffizi housed an important collection of Venetian works on paper) and by later authorities, including Sir Joshua Reynolds. The notion perhaps has a particular attractiveness: while Vasari had an interest in contrasting the undisciplined Venetians - as he saw them - with the Florentines and their meticulous attention to disegno, there is also an undeniable appeal in the idea of Titian, Bellini and Tintoretto spontaneously creating work without painstaking mathematical preparation - it fits the picture of instinctive art, such as we associate with Shakespeare and Mozart.

Yet, as this exhibition make clear, the Venetian masters produced wonderful drawings, generally using chalk and charcoal rather than silverpoint. The first masters on display are Giovanni Bellini (active 1459 - d.1516) and Vittore Carpaccio (1460/6 - c.1525/6). Bellini's 'Portrait of a Man' (on loan from Christ Church) uses subtle tonal effects to create a finely modelled head with a real sense of character: the creases and folds in the face give it a 'lived-in' look, and the textures of hair and soft cap are superbly rendered. Carpaccio's studies of female heads are more ethereal - as befits sketches for angels in the altarpiece of the Glory of St Ursula - and use shimmering white highlights to convey the sense of streaming light. I was particualrly taken by the sadly vulnerable-looking dragon in the centre of Carpaccio's townscape with figures, 'The Triumph of St George'. This work also made clear the Venetians' profound sense of drama, with a variety of expressive and theatrical attitudes among the bystanders. Titian picked up on the sculptural and luminous qualities of these artists, using drawing to explore contour, volume, and the effects of transient light. Above all is the idea of public theatre. Everything, from the knotted muscles of an executioner's legs to the fall of cloth, is a source of drama: the 'Drapery study for the figure of St Bernardino' is a study in the expressive qualities of a garment's folds, as we look at the saint from behind. There is a free and creative use of materials: charcoal is dampened and rubbed to create subtle shading, blurring the transitions beneath a chiaroscuro effect and creating a hypnotic, flowing pattern. We see Bellini, Carpaccio and Titian using blue paper to bring out the range of tones in their subjects. Alongside these premier league names, it is instructive to learn about other Venetian artists, such as Domenico Campagnola, a specialist in Veneto landscapes where rustic fortifications and pastoral figures appear against distant hills; or Andrea Meldolla (Schiavone, c.1510-63), whose sinuous figures and sense of vivid composition are illustrated by 'Presentation in the Temple' and an unidentified female figure. Lorenzo Lotto (c.480-1556/7) creates in 'Head of a bearded man' one of the most memorable pictures in the show - a mass of soft, refined touches coalesce into a wonderfully characterful face, the textures of beard and skin immediately registering on our imagination.

In the second room, the Master is Jacopo Tintoretto (1518/19-1594), for whose practice figure drawing was of great importance. He drew from models, wax sculptures (some small models as would have existed in a workshop have been specially created), statues and as many copies of Michelangelo as he could acquire. Twisting and rippling torsos are displayed alongside vigorous copies of busts, where the emphasis is on volume and dramatic tension of light and shade. But these are not simply figurative exercises. There is, too, a strong feeling for character: the study of a bust of Vitellius evokes a stern and gloomy Roman personality.

After the brilliance of the earlier masters, the third room feels relatively flat. Later generations worked under the influence of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Bellini, and the Baroque drawings do not seem to add much to the vocabulary, apart from taking it to even more spectacular operatic heights.  Yet it is valuable to learn about the teaching practice of Palma Giovane and to come upon artists such as Bernardo Strozzi and Francesco Maffei. Moving into the eighteenth century, two of the most striking images were the 'Head of a Youth' (used as the poster for the exhibition) and 'Standing Youth Seen from Behind' , both by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682-1754), where the broad touches, melting forms, psychological acuity and delight in light are applied to real-life figures. Giambattista Tiepolo's 'Study of a foreshortened head' achieves an intense drama through the orientation and lighting of the subject that we saw earlier in Tintoretto. One senses in these later artists the tools of the Old Masters being exploited with delight and fresh vision.

The exhibition ends with drawings by Canaletto among other scenes of Venice, as the fading republic becomes a consumable tourist experience. It is followed by a room of visual responses by Jenny Saville, an important contemporary artist who I last saw in Oxford's Museum of Modern Art a few years ago. I found I didn't have much energy left to take in this room, though a quick survey made clear how Saville had responded to the free and confident handling of Titian, the array of postures and the dramatic potentalities of the figure on display in the Venetian works. There's an improvisatory quality, too - palimpsests of forms and lines - that convey an energy and attack which connects Saville with the rest of the show. These days we are perhaps happier to see drawing as an end in itself, and prefer the sense of being in front of a performance on paper than a polished masterpiece in paint. A drawing does not call for the same reverence as an altarpiece does; looking at a sketch with various subject, or several goes at the same subject, is rather like listening to a pianist practise before a concert - in some ways, a more intimate and rewarding experience than the final performance. I found 'Studies for the Coronation of the Virgin' by Paolo Veronese (1528-88) particularly engaging in this respect, as you see him work his way down the paper, varying the configurations of the central group and trying out gestures and attitudes of the surrounding figures. This work, too, was lent by Christ Church; many other works were lent by the Uffizi. With the Ashmolean's own holdings, this allowed an exhibition which triumphantly disproved Vasari's assertion and allowed us to enjoy, in a different light, the achievement of Venetian art. a footnote: the descriptive panels for each work were extremely well written, and an object lesson in how the terms of art, when accurately applied, can enhance our appreciation of an image.