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.