Sunday, December 31, 2006

Book Review : The Cradle King : A Life of James VI & I by Alan Stewart (Chatto & Windus 2003)

It is difficult to know what to make of James VI. He was "the wisest fool in Christendom", a would-be intellectual who forced his unreadable tracts and doggerel poetry on his subjects. He was a dribbling drunkard who let his pretty favorites rule whilst he spent most of his time out hunting. He was a lavish spendthrift who never managed to balance his household budget, and who sowed the seeds of the English Civil War though his negligence and the subsequent necessity to increase taxation. And, worst of all, he wasn't Elizabeth...

And yet, this was the King who managed to successfully overcome the disadvantage of his mother's execution for Treason, his disqualification from the succession under the terms of the Will of Henry VIII which passed over the Stuart line, and his ineligibility for kingship as a foreigner under English Common Law. He set out to become the King of England, and he succeeded.

As King of England and Scotland, however, his reign was characterised by peace whilst most of Europe was racked by religious turmoil; by a certain degree of religious tolerance in an intolerant age (although James tried unsuccessfully to push an Episcopalian settlement on an unwilling Church of Scotland) and by economic growth which followed the stagnation of the final years of Elizabeth's reign. When he died, the uneasy consensus he had achieved didn't last and the country descended into Civil War, since the one skill of James that Charles lacked was the ability to compromise.

It is true that James' intellectual faculties declined in the latter part of his reign. Yet in his early years he was both learned and a lively debater who could hold his own with the finest minds of his age. His writings, much derided after his death, were actually very successful - his book of advice on Kingship addressed to his son, the Basilikon Doron, sold 16,000 copies, an astonishing number of books in the 17th Century. And in his "Counter-blast to Tobacco" he wrote that smoking is "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless" - proving that he - or Maitland, who was certainly responsible for some of James' poems - was capable of turning a phrase.

Alan Stewart has written a balanced, sympathetic account of the life of James, looking upon him more favourably than many have done, but recognising his faults as well. James is presented as a faintly ridiculous figure, fawning over favourites, having poems written in his name, a tremendous windbag, frequently drunk. In 1621, his horse stumbled and he was cast through the ice into the New River at Theobalds, so that "nothing but his boots were seen". Once rescued, the French Ambassador commented that the only ill-effect was that it had "put so much water into his wine".

Yet he takes care to point out the harsh reality of his childhood - his father murdered before he was born, his mother cast off her throne and imprisoned, James himself frequently at risk from the turbulent Scots lords and incarcerated for his first eleven years whilst being beaten by George Buchanan his tutor. No wonder there were emotional scars. His relationship with both his own son Charles, and with his final favourite, Buckingham, was both close and touching yet also faintly ridiculous.

One can't help feeling that what James lacked most of all was the aura of majestas which Elizabeth had and which Henry VIII had had before her. Despite his spending, he just couldn't cut a kingly character - he was too shy, too uncouth, too Scottish. Yet when one reviews his legacy - the successful union of the crowns and the maintenance of a legitimate, peaceful monarchy whilst at the same time the religious issue was contained, one must reflect that perhaps he wasn't such a fool after all.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Art Review : Velazquez - National Gallery (29/12/06)

The National Gallery's Spring and Autumn Blockbuster exhibitions have become a staple feature of British cultural life - Vermeer, Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio all seem to tumble one after the other, each one vying with the others for the critics' superlatives. And rightly so - the National Gallery's exhibitions curators should be congratulated on the extraordinary array of masterpieces they have enticed to these shores.

Not least this time round as Velazquez gets the full treatment - short of tempting the Prado to part with Las Meninas (which isn't going to happen) it is difficult to think of a finer, more balanced selection of Velazquez' oeuvre, highlighting in detail his development as an artist and the variety of his work. Surprisingly, the National Gallery is home to more of Velazquez' work than anywhere other than the Prado, partly due to the thanks of the Spanish nation to the Duke of Wellington for ridding Spain of Napoleonic troops. This, plus some generous loans from the Prado, has allowed such an exceptional collection to be brought together.

It is extraordinary to think that "An Old Woman Cooking Eggs" was painted by a 19-year old. The draughtsmanship is exquisite, the coalescing egg white in the frying pan extraordinary. The only hint at the inexperience of the artist is the spatial arrangement of the characters - the boy appears to be on a slightly different plane to the old woman, he is not fully integrated with the picture as a whole. Yet the cooking implements are certainly recognisable, and it is one of the joys of this exhibition that one can recognise the same implements reappear from picture to picture in Velazquez' early bodegones. The same boy reappears as well in "The Water-Seller of Seville", a slightly later work. It is rightly described as the high-point of Velazquez' early work, the rendition of the light glinting in the glass of water and the wetness on the surface of the pitcher being nothing short of remarkable.

With such an extraordinary talent, it is only natural that Velazquez gets invited to the Spanish court under the protection of the chief minister, fellow-native of Seville Gaspar de Guzman, Count-Duke of Olivares, and it is as a painter of the Spanish court of Philip IV that Velazquez spent the rest of his life, barring two trips to Italy. Like many great artists, his style becomes looser with age as his confidence in his understanding of how the eye relates to the paint develops. When one looks at "Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver", it is only when you examine up close that you realise that his richly-patterned suit is decorated with the loosest of floral motifs. However, compare that with "Infanta Maria Teresa" and you will see the most delicate lacework and satin ribboning described in a few bold strokes of the brush. The result is, of course, exquisite.

Court portraiture is not always the most spontaneous of genres, but Velazquez transcends through sheer virtuosity. His paintings of the Royal children are both beautiful and moving, as these little dolls, largely doomed through their Habsburg genetic inheritance, are displayed in their finery for the international marriage market. You can sense the fragility of the Infante Felipe Prospero, or of Baltasar Carlos on horseback as he executes an improbable levade. The final portrait of Philip IV, painted in 1656-7, makes no secret of the sorrows of Philip's reign in the pain and weariness of his eyes.

And in addition to the court paintings, there are Velazquez' religious and mythic paintings largely influenced by his trips to Italy. Visitors to the National Gallery are familiar with the callipygian charms of the Rokeby Venus, but not so with Mars with handlebar moustache, oversized helmet and sagging flesh - a ridiculous warmonger - or with a priggish Apollo informing Vulcan - eyes flashing fire - that his wife has been caught in flagrante.

All in all, an extraordinary exhibition, supplemented by a superb audioguide and informative and well-written catalogue. The only challenge for the National Gallery now is to somehow try to beat it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book Review : David Rizzio & Mary Queen of Scots : Murder at Holyrood by David Tweedie (Sutton Publishing 2006)

The scriptwriter who presented a Hollywood boss with a synopsis of the life of Mary Queen of Scots would be told to tone it down a bit - parts just stretch credibility too far. The most climactic scene would be that of the pregnant Mary playing cards with her maid and David Rizzio, her trusted confidant, court musician and Privy Counsellor, when her estranged husband Darnley bursts in with some men who hold a knife against Mary's unborn child and pull away Rizzio in order to stab him to death in a frenzied attack.

There haven't been many books focusing on Rizzio - there is not much information available about him, especially about his early life - and David Tweedie has carried out an excellent job in collating what information exists and and presenting it in a lively format.

Rizzio is presented as a talented adventurer, who cam to Scotland by chance on a diplomatic mission and who stayed on. His singing voice and his charm made him a favorite of Mary, especially as her short marriage to Darnley was falling apart. She became more and more reliant on him, finally contemplating making him Lord Chancellor, before the jealousy of the Scottish Lords, a tempestuous crew, and of Darnley in particular, led to his murder.

Tweedie is not afraid to address controversy. He considers the claim that Rizzio was the father of James VI before rejecting it. If James had been full-term, then he would have been conceived just after Mary's honeymoon, when Mary was anxious to secure the succession as quickly as possible and was still in love with Darnley. And Rizzio himself was possibly homosexual, a reason why Mary did not perceive him as a threat.

However, whilst the story of Rizzio is fascinating and the facts well gathered, I found the book to be at the same time quite irritating. What this book lacked is a strong editor. Facts are repeated over and over to no end, and the prose style...

"Fully to understand the special place of David Rizzio in Mary's story, we must look back a little into her early life."...

"But Mary's child husband, by now Francois II, was frail and sickly, and in consequence it may very well be that he was insufficiently mature to consummate their marriage. Whether this was so or not, his sudden death on 6 December 1560 made her person available for yet another dynastic marriage. The marriage of a ruling prince was always of concern in the politics of Renaissance Europe, and her fate was no different."

...strange locutions, superfluous words and cliches all vie for position. Perhaps I have been spoiled by reading too much of the beautiful flowing prose of Jane Dunn or Anne Somerset recently, perhaps I am being harsh on an amateur historian and a small publishing house. However, it did get wearing after a while, and detracted from an otherwise interesting account of a strange shadowy figure in Scottish history.

Book Review : Paris - The Secret History by Andrew Hussey (Viking 2006)

History is, of course, written by the victors, and it also tends to be written by the moderately well-off and educated. Which means that as one goes back in time, there is an imbalance as historical record focuses on the educated and wealthy at the expense of the poor and the marginalised.

Andrew Hussey seeks to overcome this handicap in his excellent book about the Parisian underclasses - he doesn't always succeed, and there are probably more Kings in his medieval chapters than he would like, but that doesn't detract in any way from a book which is a pleasure from start to finish.

For those who like their history eclectic, his introduction is a joy. In it, he ranges from Walter Benjamin's Arcades through Baudelaire's flaneur to the poems of Villon, actresses Arletty and Frehel, Edith Piaf and Princess Diana. This gives a flavour of the book, and whilst he never manages to maintain this level of diversity, he certainly maintains the the same level of interest throughout.

Paris of old strikes one as being a thoroughly dangerous, unpleasant, smelly place. It wasn't sufficiently far up the Seine to protect it from Viking raids - or from Celts, Romans, English, Germans, bands of criminals and students, all of whom have caused upset at various times in the Parisian history.

Hussey seems to revel in the underclasses more than the working classes - one perhaps gets the impression that he has lived on the edge a bit himself - and he takes great pleasure in relating the tales of the sorcery of Jacques de Molay, last head of the Knights Templar, or of the poems of Francois Villon, poet and murderer, in all their obscene and scatological glory.

And finally, he puts the case for modern Paris. Yes, it has changed compared with the past, it has lost some of its edge, some of its sense of danger. But it is still a city where people riot in the streets, where the whores can be found behind its poshest shops, where dangerous ideas flourish, and where, as recently as the 1960s, hundreds of Algerian protesters can be murdered by the Security Forces. And yet it is the most beautiful, most loved city in the world. This is a revealing glimpse behind the Hausmann facades.

Theatre Review : Don Juan in Soho by Patrick Marber after Moliere - Donmar Warehouse (dir Michael Grandage 18/12/06)

Most people are aware of the myth of Don Juan, either from Moliere's play or from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Therefore, when updating a text the familiarity of the audience can be either a barrier to innovation or a safety-net, which allows scope for knowing puns and references. Patrick Marber uses this safety-net to the full in this sparkling new version, updated to contemporary Soho, which is suffused with contemporary references whilst staying faithful - well, more faithful than the hero - to Moliere's original.

Moliere's Sganarelle has become Stan, who, as the play commences, is waiting for his master to finish with a Croatian Supermodel. When Rhys Ifans as DJ finally does emerge, his reputation nicely burnished by Stan, his presence rushes through the theatre in a magnificent torrent of words. If your main character needs to have seduced three women a day for the last ten years, he needs to be credible. Rhys Ifans is that man - "the Kofi Annan of Copulation".

Unfortunately, DJ has needed to marry Elvira, a nice Irish Catholic girl, in order to bed her. As modern symbols of purity go, an Irish UN aid worker in Darfur is pretty hard to beat. Now that he has had his way, and has cast her off as soon as the honeymoon was over, he has her brothers to look out for - including Vicious Aloysius who is not known for his tolerance.

It is difficult to summarise the fast-flowing stream of drug- and testosterone fuelled self indulgence, except to say that DJ's stamina is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as his attempt to seduce some posh-totty whilst simultaneously being fellated by a girl he has met ten minutes earlier. Extremely funny.

Inevitably, this being based on a 17th Century work, morality will assert itself in the end. At this point, inevitably, the pace of the play slackens and loses some of its energy. I won't betray the ending, which is marvellous and features a coup de theatre which those familiar with the story may possibly guess at the start, but is impressively carried out nonetheless.

Whilst all the cast is good, especially Stephen Wight as Stan, it is Rhys Ifans' show. His performance is a Tour de Force - as it was when I last saw him at the Donmar in Accidental Death of an Anarchist - and I would rate him as the most unmissable stage presence we have today, Dame Judy and Simon Russell Beale notwithstanding.

Theatre Review : Much Ado About Nothing - RSC - Novello Theatre (dir Marianne Elliot 11/12/06)

Much Ado is best described as a Tragicomedy. Certainly, it follows classical comedic lines, with all the couples successfully married off at the end - but it has an exceptionally dark centre. Hero is accused by the prospective bridegroom Claudio of infidelity, and as a result it is believed that she has died. The ongoing battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedict suddenly becomes deadly serious when she asks him to "kill Claudio".

Yet the dark centre is surrounded by a light fondant. Beatrice and Benedict secretly love each other yet fail to realise it. Instead, they joust verbally. In the end, they are tricked by their colleagues into realising their love for each other in a pair of wonderful "overhearing" set-pieces. As Jonathan Bates notes in the program, the title becomes "much ado about noting" in the sense of overhearing.

The challenge for a director of this play is always to reconcile light and dark, to maintain the drama of the play whilst not missing out on the comedy - and at the same time overlooking some of the more ludicrous plotting devices.

Marianne Elliot, rising star in the theatrical firmament, handles this beautifully by playing it straight. The action is transposed to 1950s Cuba, which adds little except an excuse for dressing up in uniform, smoking cigars and sexy Latin-American dance numbers. Nevertheless, it worked - it looked and sounded great. Yet the play itself was strictly as the Bard intended, carried along by two superb performances in the lead roles.

Tamsin Greig is not a conventional beauty, but she radiates a strong, sensuous presence which is perfect for Beatrice. Her timing is razor-sharp, her lines delivered with withering precision. She is an actor who can dominate a stage by moving across it. Joseph Millson, on the other hand, deals in light and dark. He has a great range of tones, when shouting or when sentimental, and a tremendous presence. They complemented each other brilliantly, like few Beatrices and Benedicts do as usually one actor overpowers the other.

They were supported by an excellent cast. Noteworthy were Nicholas Day as a powerful Leonato, Morven Christie as a particularly chaste and beautiful Hero and Adam Rayner as a powerful Claudio.

Personally, I seldom find the clowns in this play funny, but Bette Bourne as Dogberry and Stephen Beard as Verges were particularly good. Dogberry underplayed all his malapropisms whilst Verges was quite brilliant - a camp characterisation from a different age. Couple all the performances with a great cigar-smoke-swathed set, fantastic music and even some OK dance numbers, you have the recipe for a great production.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Art Review : Sargent / Sorolla (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid 22/11/06)

John Singer Sargent I know well, mainly as a result of the monograph exhibition at the Tate several years ago. Joaquim Sorolla I don't know at all. Despite their different backgrounds, the artists knew each other well and the parallels between them, brought out in this interesting exhibition (of which, due to the time constraints of the day job, I only saw the first part, missing the continuation at the Fundacion Caja Madrid nearby).

Sargent was heavily influenced by Velasquez, and it was whilst travelling to Spain in 1879 to study him that Sargent first met Sorolla. At that time, Sargent was still experimenting with light and form and heavily influenced by the Impressionists that he had met in Paris. This can be seen in "The Court of Myrtles in the Alhambra". The brushwork is rapid and indistinct as Sargent tries to capture the intensity of light through the fall of sunshine and shadow on the sand-yellow palace.

Soralla chronicled the lives of the Spanish poor living around the coasts. I don't know of another artist who has so accurately caught the difference in blue of the sky and sea of the Mediterranean and of the Atlantic. He catches the lives of fishermen, of fishwives, of prostitutes on a train with a keen eye and with sympathy, and whilst the plein-air composition and loose brushwork are reminiscent of Impressionism, his biggest influences are Courbet and the Barbizon school. This style and subject matter matures, so that by the turn of the century Sorolla is producing the startling beach paintings for which he is best known. The interplay of sea, shadow and the cotton of the loose bathing robes awash with blues and pinks and whites make a wonderfully vibrant, vivid snapshot of a bygone era.

Yet Sorolla was also a portraitist of stature, and it is informative to compare his technique with Sargent. In portraits of men they are both fluid, perceptive. However, no-one can compete with Sargent when it comes to painting beautiful society women (except perhaps Tissot). One would think that such a keen perceptive eye must come from a dedicated ladies' man, but Sargent was probably homosexual.

Undoubtedly the high point of the exhibition is his portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochawe. All concentration is on the face; she is gazing directly at the viewer, her eyes languid. One eyebrow arches not so much quizzically, but ironically. She is used to being the centre of attention, to be gazed upon. Her black hair is piled up over over a long, pale face with just the faintest suggestion of down above generous but restrained red lips. Her dress of white chiffon and silk with a lilac bow is painted much more freely, allowing all focus to fall on the face. It is truly an exquisite work.

It was a pity that time didn't allow for a visit to the continuation or a purchase of the Catalogue (or indeed for more than a quick sprint round the splendid Museo-Thyssen) as this was a well-designed thoughtful exhibition. Double- or triple-headed exhibitions are in vogue currently, and they are a particularly effective way to develop perspectives on Artists which may have never come to the fore otherwise. This intelligent selection contributes to our appreciation of both.

Theatre Review : Romeo & Juliet - Mokhwa Repertory Company - Barbican Pit (dir Oh Tae-Suk 28/11/06)

Oh Tae-Suk, or Master Oh as he is known to Korean audiences, is the man who revolutionised Korean theatre both by modernising it through the influence of Brecht, and returning it to its roots through the utilisation of traditional Korean forms of drama and culture.

Oh takes Shakespeare's text and strips it to its essentials, leaving (in translation) simple but stark and beautiful phrases that propel the drama forward. Yet at the same time the play is given time to breathe, and there are frequent long scenes where the drama is slowly allowed to develop.

In the opening scene, the actors dressed in orange and green come onto a bare stage and perform a slow-motion Kendo-like dance with sticks. Slowly one realises that this is the Monagues and Capulets fighting. Everything is a riot of colour, slowed-down and stylised, with all dialogue directed at the audience, not at fellow characters.

Some set pieces are a special joy. The balcony scene is like no other, with the stage draped in a giant white silk sheet. Juliet coyly escapes Romeo's advances under the sheet, then Romeo rolls himself up in the sheet like a giant Caterpillar weaving his cocoon - a brilliant image and a bravura act of rolling.

Finally, death overcomes the star-crossed lovers, and they kill themselves on a blood-red silk sheet. Now, Shakespeare's happy-ever-after resolution between the families after their deaths has always seemed a bit trite to me. Oh however brings the tragedy to its proper conclusion in an epic wind-swept martial-arts finale.

It is difficult to evaluate performances when the acting is so stylised; however Kim Byung Cheol as Romeo radiated energy, whilst Kim Mun Jung as Juliet a simply beautiful, captivating stage presence.

Oh Tae-Suk says "Like the sky clears after rain, I hope that that seeing this play will make your insides glow." My insides are not just glowing - they are positively radiant. This was a stylish, satisfying, different production which genuinely succeeded in reshaping one's understanding of Shakespeare's drama.

Art Review : Rubens & Brueghel - A Working Friendship (Mauritshuis, The Hague 25/10/06)

The Mauritshuis in The Hague is a gem. The former town house of Count Johan-Morits of Nassau-Siegen, he had it built by Jacob van Campen whilst Governor of Brazil from 1636-44. It is one of the finest examples of Dutch Classicism. In the 18th Century, the Dutch Statholder, William V of Orange-Nassau, started to host his personal collection there, and in 1815 this was given to the Dutch State, forming the basis of the collection we see in the Mauritshuis today.

It is not a big collection, based almost entirely around representatives from the Dutch Golden Age, but its quality is extraordinary. Vermeer must take pride of place. Potboiler novels and dodgy film adaptations cannot detract from the beauty of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, whilst the View of Delft just shimmers. The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp is one of Rembrandt's most recognisable compositions, but The Mauritshuis does small paintings better - Jan Stein kitchens, the winter scenes of Avercamp, the landscapes of the Ruisdaels.

It is much more intimate than the Rijksmuseum, and space constraints dictate that its exhibitions are small, specialised and tightly-focused. "Rubens & Brueghel - A Working Friendship" meets these criteria perfectly. It focuses on the process of collaboration between these two friends between 1598 and 1625, during which they jointly executed two dozen works. It then contrasts other collaborative ventures that each artist participated in - Rubens with Frans Snyders and Brueghel with Hans Rotterhammer, Hendrick de Clerck and Hendrick van Balen.

Perhaps surprisingly, the thesis is made that Brueghel was more often the dominant partner. The reputation of Rubens and his workshop, and the facility with which they produced masterpieces on demand, would naturally make one assume that the opposite was the case. Yet Brueghel was originally the older, more established artist, and evidence shows that in the majority of cases he set out the original framework for collaboration.

Only 29 paintings are presented, of varying quality. To my taste, the most successful compositions are those where Rubens dynamic compositional form predominates. His vision invests characters with a movement and dynamism which is lacking from the more constrained but detailed cabinet pieces constructed by Brueghel. "Mars Disarmed by Venus" and "Pan and Syrinx" are dominated by Rubensian architectonics, whereas Brueghel is the master of exquisitely-painted small-scale intimate detail.

The collaboration was born out of artistic rather than practical or commercial imperatives. Rubens' smooth brushwork contrasts sharply with the precise detailed strokes of the "Velvet" Brueghel, and so by combining both styles an effective and appealing contrast is made. Detailed inspection of the works through x-ray and infrared spectrogram has uncovered a large part of the process of collaboration - from the initial outlining of themes to the respective roles each artist took, in which order different parts were painted, how reserves were left for figures and the details, such as leaves of grass over figures, which were painted at the end of the process in order to integrate the composition.

The result is a fascinating insight into the working methods of artists in the 17th Century - of interest beyond that of simply the paintings themselves, but as an insight into life in a Flemish city in this period. The exhibition is meticulously catalogued, and if you visit the Mauritshuis simply to look at the paintings themselves then you are missing an important dimension. The way in which technology has been used to put together such a detailed picture of collaboration of individuals who lived 400 years ago is as fascinating as the paintings themselves are beautiful.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Theatre Review : Orestes by Helen Edmundson based on Euripedes - Shared Experience Theatre Co - Tricycle Theatre (dir Nancy Meckler 15/11/06)

Orestes and Electra have been instructed by Apollo to kill their mother Clytemnestra and her lover for their adultery and the murder of their father Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan wars. This they have duly done, and now, soaked in blood and wracked with guilt, they await their fate. Apollo is nowhere to be seen.

Visitors drop by to berate them for what they have done - first Helen, then their grandfather Tyndareos, and finally Agamemnon's brother Menelaos, who promises to help them but fails to do anything. Abandoning hope, they decide to kill themselves. They wash the blood off their bodies and change into golden robes. But, as their farewell embrace becomes distinctly amorous, Orestes, to the amusement of the audience, decides he doesn't want to die. Instead he wishes to kill Menelaos for his treachery, and Helen. He rushes off and comes back with the baby of Menelaos, but just as everything is closing in, Apollo intervenes and Orestes is transformed into a star.

Personally, I find Euripides' Orestes poor fare when compared with the Oresteia of Aeschylus. It is episodic, implausible and in many ways dramatically flawed. Electra and Orestes come over as blood-crazed, their decision to try to kill Menelaos and Helen lacking justification. This adaptation doesn't change the implausibility, but it does compensate through beautiful language and a tightening of the plot through excising the chorus and superfluous characters. The result is a tight piece of theatre.

My problem is with the some of the directorial choices. Should Orestes and Electra indulge in incestuous embraces? Well, not if they don't want to offend Apollo. When Orestes declares that he doesn't want to die, its a real laugh-out loud moment which cuts the tension when it should be maintained. Yet the acting throughout was excellent (especially Mairead McKinley as Electra and Jeffrey Kissoon as Tyndareos, spitting out his words in rage) and the staging of the final scene excellent - a pity I had a seat at the side of the Tricycle, which offers a very poor view of the stage.

Greek drama has a particular resonance for modern staging, its austerity and poetry fitting well with contemporary theatre. Whilst this production didn't scale the heights, it was a brave and audacious attempt to rework a difficult ancient play in a way that is both poetic and tightly-constructed. It came very close to succeeding.

Theatre Review : Zerbombt (Blasted) by Sarah Kane - Schaubuene am Lehniner Platz, Berlin - Barbican (dir Thomas Ostermeier 8/11/06)

Why does one go to the Theatre? Is it to be entertained? Is it to appreciate the beauty of the language, the acting and the staging? Is it to be thrilled by the tightness of the plot or the coups de theatre that the director offers us? Or is it to get a unique insight into the nature of the human condition?

One thing is for sure - a Sarah Kane play is not a feel-good experience. In the dystopian vision of the near future that is Blasted, Ian, a man of no redeeming qualities, meets Cate, his former girlfriend, in a Leeds hotel room. Ian is dying, but is after only one thing. He rapes the girl. Soldiers are invading the city, and Cate escapes just before one bursts into the Hotel room. The room however is destroyed in a huge explosion (magnificently done), but Ian and the soldier survive. The soldier rapes Ian, then, in a terrible parody of the binding of Gloucester, sucks out his eyes and chews them. Then the soldier shoots himself, leaving Ian to starve. Cate returns with a dead baby, and then leaves to prostitute herself with the soldiers in order to get some provisions - in desperation, Ian eats the flesh of the baby. Cate returns, with some food and a bottle of Gin. The play ends as she cradles his sightless head in her arms an feeds him drops of gin, and he says "Thank you".

This nightmare vision is unredeemed by anything except for the occasional flash of black humour, the language at all times harsh, stark and brutal. Yet it works powerfully as theatre - one's initial sympathy for Cate is finally shared with the contemptible Ian for all the horrors that he must endure, and even the soldier, whose grossness and barbarity is all-encompassing, has himself in turn lost a woman he loved to a brutal murder. But it is a harsh, unremitting vision.

This was an excellent production using a revolving stage to signify the passage of time, and to offer different perspectives on the hotel room. The totally unexpected bomb explosion is a transforming moment, the hotel furniture rising ceilingward, debris falling to the stage in a torrent of light and sound. Apocalyptic, spectacular, but still true to the bleak vision of the play.

The acting was magnificent throughout. Katharina Schuettler as Cate managed to convey both vulnerability and toughness. She will survive. Ulrich Muehe as Ian managed to convey the transformation from a deeply offensive, unattractive character, to one who will engage our sympathies before the end. And the massive, immovable Thomas Thieme as the Soldier simply oozed amoral brutality.

It is difficult to describe the pleasure one gets from watching such an uncompromising piece of work. Appreciation of fine acting and staging for sure. Yet throughout the bleakness there is always a tiny ray of hope that, in some way, the characters may find peace. Maybe not for long, maybe in death - but in Ian's final acknowledgement of Cate as he says "Thank you" for the gin he has discovered a part of his humanity which had previously been missing and thus achieves some form of redemption.

Theatre Review : Faust - Punchdrunk Theatre Co - 21 Wapping Lane (dir Felix Barrett & Maxine Doyle 18/10/06)

All audience members are given a mask to wear, then you enter a lift and choose which floor of five you wish to stop at. You get out into a darkened space and wonder what exactly is happening, what you are supposed to do. Then you see a movement, and you realise that those people without masks are actors, and you start to watch them, to follow them. You have been told at the outset that the play takes place on five floors of the building - you have been given a brief plan. It is up to you to work out how to move from floor to floor, how to engage with the action. You pick up snippets as actors pass you, then, finally, you discover a floor where the narrative is beginning to make sense. Slowly, you begin to recognise characters - Faust, Mephistopheles and Gretchen, and you are gradually drawn into their maelstrom and down, down into Hell. The end. Audience, shellshocked, not quite sure if they should applaud as there is no conventional signs for a curtain-call.

But then the clever bit...the play starts immediately all over again! The pointillist picture that you have built up in the first performance can now be reinforced by following whatever narrative thread you want - follow a character, a plot line or keep it random. You have the opportunity to explore areas you missed first time round - but you still won't see it all.

What this production does is not just entertain (which it does, magnificently). It completely turns on its head the relationship between performers and the audience, so that one feels almost complicit, voyeuristic, in the destruction of Gretchen and Faust.

All performers were excellent: all dance, no words, not letting the audience get in their way. Sarah Labigne (Gretchen) and Fernanda Prata (Martha) oozed sexuality, whilst Vinicus Salles as Mephistopheles was suitably threatening.

The only reasonable reaction to such a production is to want to see more of the same type. This should be the hottest ticket in London this autumn, and Punchdrunk can only go on to greater things in the future.

Theatre Review : A Midsummer Night's Dream - Tight Fit Theatre Company - Wycombe Town Hall (dir Mark Oldenow 14/10/06)

This production is by a tiny company of professional actors with a minuscule budget, hardly any props and a highly restricted staging area. So it is only befitting that we are generous and recognise the constraints within which they are operating. Yet, they have the material. Shakespeare's funniest and best-loved play - impossible to get wrong?

Puck comes onto a stage which is bare except for a large mattress. He drags six young ladies seemingly protesting and at random from the audience, who immediately transform into Theseus and his court. Thus by this Brechtian device is the doubling with no change of costume explained.

The actors proceed to give it everything, but for me there were two main problems. Firstly, their speed of delivery. No lingering over lines here - the words tumbled out, upsetting the comprehension of the audience (already stretched by the minimalism of the staging) and the pacing of the play. Secondly, the physical humour failed. I felt that the female actors in male roles were trying to compensate for their lack of masculinity by being more physically cruel and sexually predatory than the text merited. The slapstick was harsh, and whilst the two sets of lovers fought in the woods, the audience barely laughed once.

Bethany Turner played Bottom as a somewhat-fey oddball, with the most bizarre set of hand gestures. Now, Bottom has many odd characteristics, but feyness isn't one of them. The characterisation to my mind simply didn't work. However, this was dropped for the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, where, thankfully, everything finally came right. Comic timing was perfect, a Spanish Flute as Thisbe was inspired and the audience went home happy and smiling, feeling good and hopefully forgetting that what had gone before had been, frankly, quite forgettable.

Theatre Review : King Lear - Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg - Barbican (dir Lev Dodin 11/10/06)

I have written elsewhere of the liberating effect of performing Shakespeare in translation. In this production, Lear is not so much liberated as turned inside out, the play being reduced to the stark essentials of Shakespeare's bleak vision.

This is Lear as tyrant and abusive father, whose relationship with his daughters is full of sexual as well as political tension, and who spells out his sexual frustration in a torrent of orotund abuse at Goneril after first drawing his finger lingeringly round her nipple and caressing her womb. His response to dead Cordelia is to kiss her passionately on the lips with his hand up her skirt. This is no cheap sensationalism, but a coherent reinterpretation of the text which in part explains why both Regan and Goneril are drawn to the dangerous energy of Edmund.

Visually the production was superb, the death of set and costume designer David Borovsky being rightly mourned by Lev Dodin in the programme. The stark stage, the dramatic white crinolines and partlets of the daughters will dwell in the imagination.

Inspirationally, the Fool is a pianist who plays Lear's haunting theme with restraint or gusto according to mood. Yet after the Fool disappears after the storm scene, the piano reveals itself to be a pianola, repeating the same themes.

Not everything worked. Blinding Gloucester in darkness lessened its impact. The four main protagonists standing naked in the storm tended to silliness. But it was still a striking and provocative piece of theatre.

Theatre Review : The Alchemist by Ben Jonson - Olivier (dir Nicholas Hytner 02/10/06)

This had all the pieces in place - a text by Ben Jonson, one of the best directors of our time in Nicholas Hytner, and Alex Jennings and the sainted Simon Russell Beale (not to mention the excellent Lesley Manville) in the lead roles. So why didn't it quite work?

It certainly wasn't a failure. Jonson is an amusing writer, and the play lends itself well to high farce. Jennings and Russell Beale worked hard and produced some highly amusing moments. Hytner used the Olivier's revolving stage to full advantage (although to have the actors come onstage in vision of the audience to go up an external fire-escape to make an entrance from the upstairs of the Alchemist's house was clumsy).

The fault is that of Jonson. His prose is more knotted and convoluted than that of Shakespeare so it is less easy to slip into its rhythms. And the plot is overtly satirical, taking potshots at many 17th Century targets such as London's swindlers, whores, foreigners and puritans. Whilst good knockabout fun, satire doesn't travel well and the play has little profound to say beyond some cheap topical gags - which leaves one who is more used to the richly-leavened Shakespearean fare feeling as if one wants some more.

You certainly couldn't fault the acting. Alex Jennings is a master of this high camp, and Simon Russell Beale, amongst his many other attributes, shows fine comedy timing. Lesley Manville is also a fine comic actor, and by no means out of place in this august company. But this array of talent onstage merely adds to the disappointment that the whole piece simply never catches fire and leaves the audience with a sense of anticlimax.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Theatre Review : Titus Andronicus - Shakespeare's Globe (dir Lucy Bailey 06/09/06)

On a hot, still evening, with the black velarium slung over the hole in the roof intensifying the the sense of claustrophobia and stillness, the Groundlings fell like flies in this electrifying blood-soaked production of Titus Andronicus.

Never have I seen the space of the Globe used so effectively. Romans declaimed from atop mobile platforms pushed through the Groundlings by willing slaves. Goths rushed through the audience from the side-entrances. The Groundlings themselves formed the wall of the pit into which Titus' sons were cast.

And on the stage the bodies mounted in a blood-soaked parody of a teen-horror flick. As Lavinia is brought onstage post-mutilation, her hand-stumps soaked in rags and blood flowing from her mouth, and falls twitching to the ground in post-traumatic shock, that's when the blood, heat and intensity starts to get too much for the Groundlings and they start to keel over - at least four fainting by my count, a remarkable testimony to the intensity of Lucy Bailey's vision.

All performances were immense. Douglas Hodge dominated as a grieving, maddened Titus, spitting his hatred with precision. Shaun Parkes as Aaron has all the best lines, which he declaimed with such clarity and intensity - even as being carried bodily through the audience - that he must be considered an up-and-coming star on the Shakespearean scene. And Laura Rees radiated such stillness as Lavinia - both pre- and post-mutilation - that her twitchings and writhings were so much more shocking.

Titus is a difficult play. Its original conception is uneven, its excesses are such that it comes at times close to parody. Yet this remarkable production eschews such problems. The audience, brought up on Halloween and Reservoir Dogs, respond knowingly to the ultra-violence. In this respect Titus Andronicus is the coming play of the 21st Century, and performances, unheard of until the 1950s and rare thereafter, are likely to become more common. But any subsequent productions will find this remarkable evening difficult to emulate. Tonight, The Globe has truly come of age as a cutting-edge dramatic space.

Theatre Review : The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht - Olivier (dir Howard Davies 04/09/06)

Galileo's life is undoubtedly endowed with moments of great drama, yet Brecht and David Hare, his adaptor, do not shirk away from didactic exposition - not that this is a fault when the exposition is in the hands of Simon Russell Beale. In the first act, the intellectual foundations of Galileo's thought are set out with clarity and great skill, so that a child (such as his son and collaborator, but not his daughter) might understand.

In Act 2, Galileo is summoned to Rome, an incense-filled sink of decadence. There the opposition is spelt out - although hope is extended in the form of the imminent election to the papal crown of Cardinal Barberini, a scientist (in reality the appalling Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope).

In the third Act, this being Brecht (although Hare has stripped the play of most of its Brechtian superstructure) we start with a song-and-dance routine summarising the trial of Galileo before diving headlong into the intellectual heart of the play. Has Galileo betrayed science by his recantation? Does science - and humanity - take precedence over the intellectual reaction - and instruments of torture - of the Church?

Simon Russell Beale is immense, giving Galileo a humanity which never wavers. The temptation to play Galileo as an eccentric scientist is resisted. He ages visibly before us, yet never loses the sharpness of his tongue or of his wit. It is one of the finest portraits of ageing I have seen.

Oliver Ford Davies exudes menace as the Cardinal Inquisitor, yet there is something about his character that is never quite convinced about the veracity of the beliefs he is trying to protect. For in Brecht's analysis, the power of the Church is inextricably linked with that of the ruling classes. If Galileo's beliefs were upheld, the peasants would start to doubt the truth of the Church and hence the divine order which mandates their subjugation. By extolling the light of Rationalism, Brecht's Galileo is an unwitting political revolutionary.

In this play of many scenes and locations, the Olivier's revolving stage is fully utilised. Clever protean wood panelling moves backwards and forwards, the depth of the stage reflecting the emotional intensity of the scene. Above the stage stretched the steel skeleton of a quadrant of Galileo's globe, behind it stretched the Cosmos with Galileo's celestial bodies moving across it.

Yet this is not a flashy production - at its core are ideas, and the relationship between science and humanity. In the end, despite his recantation, Galileo remains true to his science, to his being. It is a brilliant denouement. We know that science must win, as we are living in an age of scientific enlightenment today. But yet...but yet, as Sarti points out, what would happen if the scientists made a discovery which excited the scientists but put fear into everyone else. Brecht was writing his play as the Hiroshima bomb was being dropped.

There are no easy answers in this complex mixture of epistemology and ethics, as the nature of knowledge, of good and evil, is dissected before you. And yet the sense of drama is never lost, the pace never slackens for a second. It is a sublime piece of theatre.

Theatre Review : A Comedy of Errors - Shakespeare's Globe (dir Christopher Luscombe 22/08/06)

Critics sometimes look down on A Comedy of Errors : it is seen as a trivial work; the themes it deals with are insufficiently exalted for the Bard; or the slapstick is inappropriate when Egeon's life is at stake. This is partly fair - the subject is no weightier than mistaken identity; however, Egeon's fate is no more than a nice framing device.

Christopher Luscombe's Globe production is set in Roman times, yet it references music hall slapstick, silent movies and the Carry On films. This is very much a fast-paced, visual comedy, played purely - and played very well - for laughs. As Antipholus beats Dromio, each punch and kick is met with the beat of a drum, each tweak with the toot of a horn. As the confusion increases the pace gets faster, culminating with the cast running around the stage a la Benny Hill, scantily-clad girl and all. Subtle - no. Funny - extremely!

Standout amongst a generally excellent cast was Andrew Havill - or was it Simon Wilson? - as two genuinely indistinguishable Antipholi. Slapstick takes great timing and this was spot-on throughout. The two previous productions of Comedy I have seen - RSC 2001 and 2006 - were both noteworthy for exceptional Dromios. Sam Alexander and Eliot Giaralarocca were not quite up to this mark, but good nonetheless.

Sarah Woodward, however, as Adriana was exceptional. Her part is often overlooked in the all-male mayhem going on around her, but she displayed a fine comic touch, some towering rages and forced her presence on the audience.

In comedy, it is often the audience that makes the evening. Laughter breeds laughter, and the fickle Globe audience tonight was superb, being both as uproarious - but also as still - a Globe audience as I have seen. A fitting tribute to an excellent production.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Theatre Review : A Midsummer Night's Dream - Open Air Theatre Regent's Park (dir Ian Talbot 15/08/06)

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Regent's Park is always one of the highlights of the summer. As dusk falls, the tree-lined bowl is transformed (translated?) into a place of magic and wonder. Ian Talbot's production revisits that of 2004, itself no bad thing, as it is a magical production perfectly suited to the venue. As Oberon casts his spells, the trees quiver. The lovers fight their way through the trees at the sides of the stage.

The fairies were like street urchins, bald and a trifle threatening, gathering and scattering like a flock of sparrows at a clap of Titania's hand. Puck, however, looked too menacing for a "mischievous sprite" and that took the edge off the way he came over.

The physicality of the lovers as they fought was noteworthy, choreographed beautifully. Summer Strallen as Helena was particularly striking in the slapstick scenes, her mannerisms perfect, her timing spot on. It is rare to find a female actor who can do physical comedy so well, and it was intriguing to note in the programme that her background was in musicals not classical acting. The timing taught in dance routines has served her very well.

As always, the Rude Mechanicals stole the show, John Hodgkinson being a strong, demanding Bottom - ideally suited to a full-blown Ass's head. Whist Pyramus and Thisbe did not reduce the audience to paroxysms of laughter as they have done in the past - it was quite a flat audience - it was still played with wit and invention.

Yet, audience notwithstanding, as darkness drew in, the magic spell was once again cast. The weather was fair, the stars were in the sky, the trees were rustling and the Dream had once again come alive at Regent's Park. It really doesn't get much better than this.

Theatre Review : Exiles by James Joyce - Cottesloe (dir James McDonald 14/08/06)

Richard Rowan is married to Bertha, but conducting an intense intellectual correspondence with Beatrice Justice. Meanwhile her cousin, Robert Hand, Richard's best friend, is trying to seduce Bertha. After each attempt, Bertha tells Richard what Robert said and did, and if they kissed, and how they kissed. Robert invites Bertha to an assignation at his cottage, but she tells Richard beforehand, who turns up and confronts Robert - hut he still doesn't want to deny Bertha the autonomy to decide if she should sleep with Robert. The following day, the question of did she / didn't she sleep with Robert remains unresolved.

Joyce was a follower of Ibsen, yet this eschews Ibsen's melodrama. The principle characters dance a stately pavanne around each other in a series of dialogues. Voices are seldom raised. Richard is a cold character, masochistically intellectualising the relationship between Robert and Bertha. Robert is a shallow womaniser for whom friendship means trying to advance Richard's career as a writer whilst trying to sleep with his wife. Bertha is more complex - is she trying to please her husband by going along with her husband's advances, or does she respond to Robert's passion compared to Richard's cold intellectualism.

This is a masterly production, which builds a spirit of quiet intensity over a quickly passing three hours. All the characters are cast and played to perfection - Peter McDonald betraying only his inner turmoil as Richard, Adrian Dunbar a convincingly facile Robert, but Dervla Kirwin quite outstanding as Bertha. The intensity of the production grows slowly, quietly but resolution is not quite attained, the ambiguities never fully resolved, leaving the audience hungry for more.

It is a great disappointment that Joyce didn't write more for the theatre, as this unjustly overlooked work is a post-Ibsenite masterpiece, and amply shows that Joyce could easily have been as great a playwright as he is a novelist.

Theatre Review : Antony & Cleopatra - Shakespeare's Globe (dir Dominic Drumgoole 10/08/06)

Shakespeare's text of Antony and Cleopatra is, in my opinion, a mixed affair. The play comes alive when the main protagonists are on the stage, and some of the set pieces - especially the finale - are dramatically superb. But there is also a lot of business which completes the historical narrative but doesn't add much to the play as a whole. The task for the director is to transcend the stasis of these scenes.

Dominic Drumgoole's production at the Globe failed to rise to this challenge. The Globe is a difficult venue, lacking the benefits of lighting, scene changes and strong acoustics. It has an audience which is largely standing and whose attention easily wanders. For too much of this play, the stage-movement - performed in an austere 17th Century style - was non-existant, the business merely businesslike.

The set-pieces, however, were performed well - the drinking scene is always a crowd-pleaser, the finale exceptionally well-done. Frances Barber as Cleopatra was superb, her rages towering, her somewhat faded seductive charms utterly convincing. The final scene where she is robed in a diaphanous gown and clasps the asp to her breast is both erotic and moving. Nicholas Jones was a somewhat wooden Antony - in busy scenes you often didn't notice he was on the stage, which is not the presence required of one of the three most powerful men in the world. Jack Laskey, however, was a stand-out as Caesar, brooding and temperamental, as was John Bett doubling as the drunken Lepidus and an eccentric Scottish asp-bringer full of wit and gusto.

Within the constraints of a traditional staging it was a good production (but not as good as that of Mark Rylance in 1999). But in terms of a 21st Century night at the theatre, it needed just a little more verve and imagination to speed it up and keep the audience engaged.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Book Review : Elizabeth & Mary - Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn (HarperCollins 2003)

Many fine biographies have been written about both Elizabeth and Mary in recent years - those which spring to mind include those of Alison Plowden and Anne Somerset about Elizabeth; Antonia Fraser, John Guy and Jenny Wormald about Mary; and separate bigraphies of Elizabeth and Mary by Alison Weir.

This is not a dual biography. Instead, it is an analysis of a relationship of two cousins who never met, yet whose fates were deeply intertwined. At the same time, it compares and contrasts the queens, and seeks to undestand why the reign of Mary, which had started out so promisingly, turned out so badly, whilst that of Elizabeth, faced at first with insuperable challenges, transcended them all.

The parallels are striking. Both were women who came to the throne in male-dominated societies where the queen regnant was expected to take a husband in order to help her govern. Both became enmired in sexual scandal and murder. Both had great intelligence and strong, charismatic personalities which marked them out as natural leaders and inspired intense loyalty in their followers.

Yet Jane Dunn gets beneath the surface and draws surprising, often breathtaking contrasts. Elizabeth's childhood was characterised by the "transience and powerlessness" of women such as her mother Anne Boleyn, her various stepmothers and especially Catherine Parr to whom she was closely attached and who died in childbirth. On the other hand, Mary was surrounded in childhood by powerful women such as her own mother, the Regent of Scotland Mary of Guise, Catherine de Medici and the mistress of Henri II Diane de Poitiers.

Mary's first adolescent relationship was her secure and loving betrothal and marriage to childhood sweetheart Francis II of France. Elizabeth, on the other hand, attracted the attentions of Thomas Seymour, husband of Catherine Parr, in a dangerously flirtacious relationship which resulted in Elizabeth's expulsion from Catherine's household, and ultimately his marital advances resulted in his execution. From an early age, Elizabeth realised that relationships were loaded with danger.

How did this affect them in later life? Essentially, Elizabeth's mastery of her emotions enabled her to rule successfully as the Virgin Queen. Mary, however, married for love twice - both terrible mistakes. When scandal struck at the court of Elizabeth through the death of Amy Robsart, wife of her favourite Robert Dudley, Elizabeth stood firm, banished Dudley from court and ordered an enquiry. However, when Mary's husband Darnley was murdered in the Kirk o'Fields, there was no inquest, no punishment of the guilty - indeed, Mary married prime suspect Bothwell shortly afterwards, the single act which had the greatest bearing on her losing the trust of the Scottish people and ultimately her throne.

One other significant contrast stands out. Elizabeth was fortunate - shrewd one might say - in her choice of advisors. Despite occassional lapses, the Cecils, Dudley, Walsingham and the others were loyal, constant and highly skilled. The contribution of the Cecils especially in turning England into a modern Nation State is incalculable. Mary, however, was not so fortunate. She looked for allies at the treacherous Scottish court, and found her dubious half-brother Moray, the unstable Darnley, the power-crazed Bothwell. There were people of talent and integrity at the court, such as Maitland whom Mary sent as Ambassador to Elizabeth, but they were few.

However, these superficial comparisons do not do justice to the depth and perception of this excellent book. Dunn constantly uncovers small but telling comparisons and contrasts, often unexpected. On top of this is overlaid their relationship carried out exclusively through letters and ambassadors, as outside the pages of Schiller, they never met. Together, they cast startling illumination on the contrasting fortunes of this island's most romantic female monarchs.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Art Review : Rebels and Martyrs - The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century (National Gallery 23/08/06)

The initial premise of this thoughtful, low-key summer exhibition is to show how the self-image of the artist evolved over the course of the 19th Century from that of the highly-skilled artisan in the days before Sir Joshua Reynolds to that of the Romantic hero, the tortured genius and rebel against society, as demonstrated through the self-portraits of the artists themselves.

The title is a slight misnomer - whilst the main focus of the exhibition is of the Artist as Outsider, cut off from decent society by his genius, his poverty or his Bohemian way of living, there is also a section on the artist as Dandy or Flaneur as typified by Fantin-Latour's exquisite portrait of Manet in top-hat and tails. Yet even this was a conscious statement, reflecting the "cult of self" written about by Baudelaire in "The Painter of Modern Life". This self-conscious pose was exemplified by artists such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Whistler.

The exhibition rescues the struggling artst from the realms of cliche, and embeds him firmly within the philosophical movements of the 19th Century. For the first time - possibly with the exception of Rembrandt - the artist is representing himself as an individual rather than as an artisan-producer of works on demand for clients. The emergence of this Romantic sense of the Individual is a key theme of the exhibition.

Whilst the works on display are seldom of the highest order, they have been selected for what they show, not how they show it. The result is often unfamiliar, and, in the case of Victor Emil Janssen's "Self-Portrait with Easel", or Paula Modersohn-Becker's "Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Anniversary", exceptionally striking. Overall, they contribute to a low-key but intelligent, well-constructed exhibition.

Art Review : Modigliani and his Models (Royal Academy 30/08/06)

It is difficult to separate Modigliani the Artist from the Modigliani the Man and the myths surrounding him - the drink, the drugs and the womanising, the early death and the tragic suicide of his mistress - although in this exhibition there is no attempt to rebut the myths, as apparently it all was true.

In bringing together this collection of portraits and nudes from across Modigliani's career, one can see both his greatness and his limitations as an artist. The first work exhibited, a Brancusiesque sculpted head, redolent in overtones of African tribal art with its elongated form, pursed mouth and blank eyes, is key to understanding Modigliani's creation. To a certain extent, all his portraits were based on this archetype.

Yet on top of this mask, Modigliani overlays a personality. The portrait of Paul Guillaume reeks of an arrogant, difficult personality, whereas those of Jeanne Hebuterne, his lover, are soft and tender. A Modigliani portrait brings one closer to the subject, despite the flatness and stylisation of form.

One cannot deny the power of Modigliani's nudes. "Declining Nude on Red Couch", with the hooded eyes, her arms thrust back, her heavy breasts and her thighs twisted towards the viewer, all mean one thing - sex. These are provocative works where one cannot simply objectify the model as an art form, but must address a living, breathing, sexually-desirous being. Yet despite these works being banned as pornography in 1917, they reference earlier nudes of Titian, Corregio and Botticelli, whilst redefining the relationship between the viewer and the picture and connoisseur / voyeur, a relationship explored throughout the 20th Century by successive artists.

Modigliani's life was famously turbulent, his genius fuelled by drink and drugs, his charm and impossible good looks leading to numerous romantic entanglements. One cannot appreciate his portraits of Beatrice Hastings or Jeanne Hebuterne without realising that they were lovers - it is noteworthy that his nudes were not lovers, although whether he slept with them is a different matter. Overall this exhibition provides an excellent overview of the work of an underappreciated and much-misunderstood artist.

Art Review : Kandinsky - The Path to Abstraction (Tate Modern 18/08/06)

It is one thing to be able to enjoy an abstract work of art on its own terms - an appreciation of the interrelationship of colour, line and form which comes together to make the aesthetic whole. It is another thing entirely to be able to peel away the layers of complexity in order to understand both the theoretical and representational basis of the work - these are two separate views: perhaps those of the Art Critic and the Art Historian?

From the point of view of Art Criticism this exhibition was revelatory in two ways - firstly, and this is entirely a matter of personal taste, Kandinsky's early gouaches of scenes from Russian folklore were an eye-opener, displaying a draughtsmanship both skilled and unique. Secondly, the richness of colour and form of the Compositions and Improvisations in the period 1912-1916 was remarkable - vast explosions of colour and shape which constantly morphs before the viewer. Kandinsky was synaesthetic, visualising sounds as patches of colour. The exhibition explores the relationship between colour, music and form in the works of the Blaue Reiter period and his relationship with Schoenberg. Later works became more austere in their use of colour, and more circumscribed in form as geographical shapes increasingly predominated, losing that early vitality.

From an Art Historical perspective, the dominant theme is, as the exhibition' subtitle suggests, the path from Representationalism to Abstraction. Kandinsky was always motivated by colour - his earliest influence was Monet's Haystacks, through which he started to break down the relationship between representation, colour and form.

Once settled in Murnau in Germany, Kandinsky's dominant influences were the Fauves and Matisse, with the relationship between bold patches of colour dominating his work. As he deconstructed the representational images within his work, certain key motifs - Leitmotifs, literally, as Kandinsky was a lover of Wagner's music - emerged which recur repeatedly throughout his more abstract work.

Kandinsky had studied law in Russia with Sergei Bulgakov, joint founder in 1905 with Nikolai Berdeyev the journal Novye Puti (New Paths) which advocated a distinctly Russian approach to art, music, literature, law and which rejected materialism. This "Russian Resurrection" attracted many intellectuals, including the likes of Diaghilev and Malevich. After becoming an artist and moving to Germany, Kandinsky's art included many motifs from old Russian fairytales, songs and stories. The exhibition picks up this point and develops it both in the gallery and in the excellent catalogue. Even in his most abstract works, motifs developed years earlier can be discovered - the Blaue Reiter, for instance, is based on an icon of St George, and the horseman slaying the dragon appears in many of his works.

It is through understanding the role of colour, music and iconography in Kandinsky's work that we can open a new set of doors on our appreciation of his art. Kandinsky was a complex, intellectual figure and this intelligent, thoughtful exhibition significantly enhances our understanding of what drove him on his road to abstraction, and our appreciation of the startling images he made along the way.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Book Review : Elizabeth's Spy Master : Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England by Robert Hutchinson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2006)

The life of Walsingham, and of his network of spies in the reign of Elizabeth, should be fundamentally interesting. The subject matter excites. Walsingham, Elizabeth's "Moor" for his dark looks, is a shadowy character, his fundamentalist Protestantism at odds with his ruthlessness as a spymaster. Yet this was a time when Elizabeth's Protestant ascendancy was at threat from enemies without and within - and Walsingham was the primary bulwark against this threat.

So why does this book so singularly fail to excite? For one thing, its material is pooly arranged. It has been editted, rearranged, but badly: the structure has no form. Probably a straightforward chronological narrative would have sufficed. But the information here has no coherent organisational principle that I could discern. Its inconsistency irritated as well - context was added seemingly at random, but often excluded when needed, and sometimes this context was wrong (an argosy is a ship which takes its name from Ragusa which is the former name for Dubrovnik, not the port in Sicily - see

For another thing, it lacks substance. By the nature of Walsingham's business detail is difficult to come by. Spies don't advertise themselves and document their activities. Yet Walsingham was, compared even to Burleigh, an avid documenter. This is never used to make Walsingham anything other than a shadowy one-dimensional character.

Then there's the prose style, which is flat at best and incoherent at worst. It has no grace, no elan. All one gets is a matter-of-fact repetition of detail, free of any serious attempt at embellishment.

And finally, there is an overwhelming sense that the whole exercise has been padded out to please the publisher. Never trust books with well-spaced footnotes in full-size text, especially when they run to 50 pages in a book of only 300 pages of text. To this one can add the 17 pages of pen-portraits of all the spys in Walsingham's network, most of it summarising information already given in the main text. For example

"Boucher, Friar. Provided information about English Catholics in Paris". That's it - he hardly leaps off the page!

This book only succeeds in giving a most superficial picture of Walsingham and of his spy-network's activities. He was a hero in the defence of England from tyrrany, and he deserves better.

Book Review : The Elizabethan Quartet by Alison Plowden (Various publishers 1971, 1973, 1977, 1999)

The life of Elizabeth is examined by Alison Plowden in four books written over a 28 year period between 1971 and 1999. In "The Young Elizabeth" she takes a look at the difficult early life of Elizabeth from her birth to Ann Boleyn, who was already falling from favour with Henry VIII, until her accession to the throne. In the second volume, "Danger to Elizabeth", Plowden examines the Catholic threat to Elizabeth's throne - primarily through William Allen and his academy at Douai, and though his protegees, Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons.

The third volume, "Marriage with my Kingdom", looks in detail at the various courtships of Elizabeth, from Thomas Seymour's pursuit of her as a young teenager, to her final, most serious courtship with her "frog", the Duc d'Alencon, and of course her long-running relationship with Robert Dudley. The final book, "Elizabeth Regina" looks at the final years of her reign, starting with the glory of the defeat of the Armad, through the self-immolation of Essex, to her death in 1603.

Plowden writes fine, balanced prose - admirably clear, with the occassional well-turned metaphor adding light. Her sentences flow with rhythm and images of great, haunting beauty, as demonstrated below

"Elizabeth has said repeatedly that she had no desire to live longer than would be for her subjects' good, and now it seemed as if she felt her task was done. She had outlived her century, outlived nearly all her friends, outlived her usefulness to her beloved country and she was very tired... She lay speechless and semi-conscious, her eyes open, one finger in her mouth, the power flowing out of her, the great golden dangerous world in which she had played so valiant a part fading into darkness"

Plowden obviously admires Elizabeth, but is not uncritical. An argument with Essex reflects little merit on either side. Her vaccillations and tergiversations frustrate. Yet the overarching theme is how Elizabeth, through her manipulation her courtiers, her suitors and of Parliament, managed to avoid seemingly inevitable religious conflict and international strife. Her reign was 44 years of domestic peace and only limited involvement in overseas military adventures. The legacy she left to James was a stable - if not prosperous - realm.

Plowden's books are beautifully written, factually precise and critically acute. They are a fitting testimony to the life of England's greatest monarch.

Book Review : Elizabeth the Great by Elizabeth Jenkins (Victor Gollancz 1958)

It is quite an achievement to summarise the life of Elizabeth in 300 pages, but Elizabeth Jenkins succeeds by sacrificing the politics - great events are passed over in a sentence or two - but focussing on Elizabeth the woman, her foibles, her weaknesses, her favourites, but above all on what made Elizabeth great.

The portrait is not always flattering. Elizabeth was highly strung, living on her nerves almost to the point of hysteria. Her mood swings were violent and unpredictable, her vaccillations over the making of difficult decisions were interminable. However, despite that, the love she bore her subjects and which they largely reciprocated shines through, and this is what made Elizabeth "the Great".

One gets the impression that in places in Jenkins' book the editorial knife has been wielded too freely - references are unexplained, temporal coherence not always maintained. Jenkins herself writes with an ornate prose verging on the archaic, but with passages of beauty befitting a novelist. This she brings to bear in her description of how a woman became England's greatest monarch.

Book Review : Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1991)

Historians are sometimes dazzled by the brilliance of the reign of Astrea, the Virgin Queen, and produce works which tend to hagiography. Others, on the other hand, seek to avoid this trap by emphasising Elizabeth's many faults and shortcomings as a human being. Anne Somerset has successfully steered a course betwixt the Scylla and Charibdis of Elizabethan biography and produced a work that is startling both in its clarity and balance.

She fully recognises Elizabeth's achievement in transforming a realm that was financially destitute and riven with turmoil at the death of Mary into a stable, well-run modern nation-state. She acknowledges that Elizabeth was astute in her choice of the Cecils as her chief advisors, and lucky to be surrounded by so many courtiers of ability. Yet she also does not fail to emphasise her overdependence on favourites such as Leicester and the appalling Essex, or the ambiguity of her marriage negotiations, or the decline of her realm in her latter years when taxation caused by wars in Iterland and the Netherlands cut deep. As a person, Elizabeth comes alive as intelligent, imperious, shrewd yet also devious, bad-tempered, vacillating and unreliable.

All of this is set out in a clear and limpid style which transports the reader through the complexities of the period with consumate ease. Without doubt, this book is a stand-out amongst the many biographies of England's greatest monarch.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dipping one's toe in...

So, why create a Blog? - Well, everybody else seems to be doing it, although as everyone else seems to be drinking alcopops, reading the Daily Mail and watching Strictly Come Dancing this is hardly a convincing justification.

To see how it is done? Well, yes, there is a certain amount of existential curiousity about this new cultural phenomenon. Will the prospect of sharing my thoughts with the whole of hyperspace make me reappraise my place within modern society? Probably not. Will the cut and thrust of cultural debate give substance to my currently-somewhat-etioliated intellectual life? Well, maybe - although the probability of anyone else stumbling across my ramblings and then having something worthwhile to say about them is one in a number that is very large and growing.

To sharpen my writing skills? Well, possibly. Having left tertiary education 20 years ago with a degree that was almost entirely due to essay-writing skills, I have spent the years since then in an office composing emails and technical documentation. When I have cast a finely-spun sentence with a well-judged bon-mot within, my audience has been, shall we say, unappreciative. But at least I had an audience. In cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream.

To share my thoughts with the world? - Well, yes, as if the world is sitting there holding its breath. But I do read books and go to the theatre and have thoughts and jot them down in a little book that no-one has read and no-one is likely to read, and at least to share these thoughts with the vast audience out there - even if no-one ever reads them - is slightly less onanistic.

So welcome to my world. Herein you shall find my thoughts on books and theatre and the latest exhibitions, with occasional digressions into politics and social issues things which seemed to me to be worth saying. It may be the case that in 20 years time, I will find that my blog is the Omphalos of my existence, my lodestone, my compass. It could also be the case that after the first flush of enthusiasm, I will never write another word and the site will become yet another microscopic piece of flotsam cluttering up the Information Superhighway. We shall see.

Now, does this thing have a spell-checker...? Or a cliche-remover!