Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Theatre Review : The Tempest - RSC - Novello Theatre (dir Rupert Goold 27/02/07)

The stage is covered by a screen with a close-up of a ship's radio. The lights dim, and the master mariner and other characters appear in the radio dial, buffeted by the approaching storm -a magnificent coup de theatre. Such visual trickery characterised this unusual, mesmerising and utterly wonderful production.

Prospero and Miranda have been abandoned, not in a lush tropical island, but in the frozen north. Sealskins and snowstorms deck the stage, and Prospero's cell is sensibly indoors, warmed by a brazier from which the whitened, ghostly features of Ariel first appear. Yet this is Ariel like none other - Ariel as Nosferatu in long black coat and ethereal cackle, although outside the snowbound shipwreck iconography is Frankenstein not Dracula.

The shipwrecked Duke of Naples and his entourage shiver in the snow. Spirits bring them a dead seal to feast upon, from which springs a bloodcovered Ariel as a terrifying giant prawn, which may sound silly but it works. Expect the unexpected tonight.

Meanwhile, Trinculo and Stephano have encountered an athletic Caliban and are plying him with alcohol. As ever, they get the best laughs, Trinculo especially with his Northern Whine, but this was the one part of the play which had scope for improvement. I've seen the sight-gags done better, the slapstick more outrageous, and Caliban both more threatening and more sympathetic.

As the play comes towards its conclusion, Prospero, played by Patrick Stewart, takes centre stage. His is an astonishing performance, at turns angry, amused, sympathetic, indignant. Stewart shows the full range of his talents, capturing the audience with sheer presence. Like all of the cast, he dwells on his words, allowing the audience time to fully appreciate the richness of Late Shakespearean language.

He is the crowning glory of a magnificent production. Compared to the RSC's previous outing at the Novello, the slick but dull Antony & Cleopatra http://http://roderick-random.blogspot.com/2007/01/theatre-review-antony-cleopatra-rsc.html, this is adventurous, audacious, visually striking with for once a big-name star showing exactly why he has such a reputation. That's why we have the RSC - so that they have the budget to be bold enough to produce exciting nights at the theatre like these.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Review : The Power of Art by Simon Schama (BBC Books 2006)

Simon Schama is the finest writer and broadcaster on Art in the 21st Century, a true successor to Sir Kenneth Clark and Schama's hero, Robert Hughes. And whilst there are fine broadcasters on Art on British television such as Andrew Graham-Dixon, Tim Marlow and Waldemar Januscek, none has the ability to turn a phrase like Schama. He writes like an angel - witty, informative, never pretentious; he puts himself into a piece yet never overshadows the subject; and the choice of words... no-one else could describe the magic of a Rothko so well: -
"Instead of dense blocks of thick colour, his are diaphanous gauzes that drift together, closing and separating, hovering above or gliding beneath each other, building their numen, tremendously sexy."

This books describes eight artists whose work changed lives; whose compositions are living testimony to Art's enduring power. Schama describes how, after the Atocha railway station atrocity in 2003 when 192 people were killed, the people of Madrid made their way to Picasso's Guernica which hangs nearby. Whilst the painting was a response to the barbarity of Fascism, its evocation of a pointless waste of innocent human lives once again resonated as this time Spain faced up to a more insidious enemy within.

The Power of Art remains undimmed throughout the centuries. Caravaggio is an appropriate starting point. Whilst the early Renaissance produced some astonishing works, nothing quite twists the viscera like Caravaggio's full-on naturalism. Mad, bad and decidedly dangerous to know, he nevertheless brought art back to earth after the excesses of Mannerism. When Thomas puts his finger in the wound in Christ's side, "the truth being in the probing" as Schama puts it, you can feel the finger poking and pushing around the flesh as Thomas peers in, incredulously. You strain with the labourers as they try to raise Peter on his inverted cross whilst Peter himself stares at the nail in his hand, hurt and somehow uncomprehending. Schama takes as his keynote piece "The Beheading of John the Baptist" in St John's Cathedral in Valetta. To my mind its not his best, the flesh tones of the dead prophet not realistic, the executioner not convincing. But I haven't seen it for real, and Schama describes the power of seeing it in its proper context, and how his Malta sojourn fitted into Caravaggio's increasingly disturbed life.

But it doesn't take a genius to bring Caravaggio to life, or Rembrandt or Picasso. But the likes of Jaques-Louis David is more elusive. I think he underplays the location of the "Death of Marat", tucked away in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The Musee has a fine collection amongst which this masterpiece is not out of place. Yet it is an iconic image, instantly recognisable worldwide. How it came to end up in Brussels, tied to the fortunes of the Artist as Revolutionary, is a fascinating story.

And that is what Simon Schama is about, whether writing or broadcasting about Art. He is a storyteller par excellence, whose facility with words and fine sense of balance brings alive the great works of the past and the painters who painted them. The BBC is fortunate to have secured the services of such a superlative broadcaster, so adept at cutting through the mystique of fine art, and this finely produced and handsomely illustrated accompaniment to the television series, in which Schama has more space to develop his storytelling, can only help this process of high quality popularisation without the slightest hint of dumbing down.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Book Review : Sickly Stuarts - The Medical Downfall of a Dynasty by Frederick Holmes (Sutton Publishing 2003)

Frederick Holmes is a practicing Doctor of Medicine with an interest in history, which is probably why this unusual book appears so fresh and interesting. His thesis is that the Stuart dynasty was brought down by the medical disorders of successive monarchs, his evidence the medical notes and autopsies carried out on the six Stuart monarchs who ruled Scotland and England from 1603 to 1714.

It must be said that his thesis is overplayed. Like most families, the Stuarts succumbed to a variety of diseases and mishaps and unlike, for instance, the Spanish Habsburgs, constant intermarrying did not contribute to a weakened genetic inheritance. Prior to their accession to the English throne, the Scottish Stewart monarchs can best be described as unlucky - after the first Stewart Robert II, not one died of old age. Battle, murder, execution or grief finished them all off prematurely - life in medieval Scotland was certainly nasty, brutish and short.

But the British Stuarts died from a variety of causes. Ironically, the only one to die violently was Charles I, who, despite his size and his stammer was very healthy - Holmes ventures a tentative diagnosis of delusional disorder which contributed to his death. Charles' father James I had been a vigorous ruler until his later years, when vascular dementia started to cloud his significant intellect. He finally died from a series of strokes.

Holmes makes a more radical diagnosis in the case of Charles II, who died prematurely at the age of 55 from a kidney infection. Holmes notes that Charles was a keen alchemist, who spent many hours in his private laboratory with mercury compounds. He puts forward the theory that Charles died as a result of acute mercury poisoning, backed up by clinical diagnosis and an analysis of hair purporting to come from the head of Charles which shows it to contain 10 times the normal level of mercury.

Had he lived, Holmes notes, then it is less likely that his brother James would have succeeded him and tried to force the country unwillingly towards Catholicism. As it was, his ability to resist the army of William III was hampered by a 3-day long nosebleed. Despite not being a Stuart, Holmes notes how the velvet-suited gentleman caused the downfall of William III, several years after his wife Mary had succumbed to a virulent strain of Smallpox. Finally, the chequered obstetric history and progressive disablement of Queen Anne is explained by systemic lupus erythematosus.

Not having a medical background, I am unable to comment on the validity of the claims of Professor Holmes. But the book is a fascinating insight into, not only the clinical methods of the 17th - 18th Century and the forms of royal autopsy, but how modern medical knowledge can be brought to bear on our understanding of events which happened hundreds of years ago. And all this is written in fluent style that is perfectly accessible for a complete layman such as myself, with all complex medical terms fully explained. It is a very fascinating book.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Theatre Review : Blasted by Sarah Kane - Graeae Theatre Company - Soho Theatre (dir Jenny Seeley 1/2/07)

"Blasted" is a play about vulnerability - the vulnerable Cate is abused and raped by Ian, who is in turn sodomised and blinded by Soldier, who is, emotionally, through what he has experienced, the most scarred and vulnerable of them all. Therefore, to enact the play with a part able-bodied, part-disabled cast made compelling sense as new layers of vulnerability were brought to bear on all the characters.

There is little doubt that Cate (Jennifer-Jay Ellison) is vulnerable on many levels - physically, mentally and emotionally - and totally at the mercy of Ian, whose casual racism and sexual predation mark him out as an exceptionally unsympathetic character. Yet, when the presence of a gun means that the power-balance is altered and Ian is at the mercy of the soldier, it is a mark of the subtlety of Sarah Kane's writing that Ian (Gerard McDermott) becomes sympathetic for the first time in the play.

When I saw a German production of Blasted last year (http://roderick-random.blogspot.com/2006/11/theatre-review-zerbombt-blasted-by.html), the soldier was played by Thomas Thieme - a slow-moving giant of a man, totally overpowering in his physicality. In this production, the Soldier is played by David Toole - an amputee who has lost both his legs, moving with remarkable agility across the stage on his hands. His is a baleful, unsettling presence without the same physical threat but somehow tapping into the fear of the malign dwarf in European folk literature from Alberich in the Ring to Rumpelstiltskin. It is an extraordinary performance of power, emotion and versatility.

Part of the ethos of Graeae Theatre Company is equal access for all. Therefore it is consistent that they choose to speak all stage directions, and that the performance is simultaneously projected on the backdrop with subtitles and signs. However, the speaking of stage directions detracts from the raw physicality of Kane's text. There can be no comparison between the horrifying sight of the soldier sucking out Ian's eyes and slowly crunching them between his teeth, and a spoken line saying simply that the soldier sucks out Ian's eyes and eats them. The physical act is one of horror, the spoken description could almost be a cause for a nervous laugh in the audience.

And that, in the end, was where this brave and imaginative production fell down. Too much of the physical horror of Kane's descent into hell was spoken, not enough was enacted. Ian's final, redemptive "Thank you" is completely adrift in a sea of description. On the other hand, Kane's marginal poetry - such as the descriptions of rain changing through the seasons - is usually lost on stage but brought to the fore in this performance. No matter how it is presented, there can be no doubt that Blasted is still an extraordinarily powerful piece of theatre, and this production successfully opens up new avenues for exploration.