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.