Saturday, March 31, 2007

Book Review : Hogarth : A Life and a World by Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber 1997)

One cannot dissociate Hogarth from 18th Century London - he was its quintessential chronicler, his paintings and prints encapsulating the teeming bustle, the filth and grime, the political chicanery, the lies, hypocrisy and sexual adventure that made up this brash and busy age. Therefore it is appropriate that Jenny Uglow, in this splendid, compendious biography, should choose to focus on the historical context as much as on Hogarth's life, since, fascinating though it is, without an understanding of the politics, of Walpole and Fox, Bute and Pitt, and of the characters, such as Mother Douglas the Bawd, or Jenny Tofts who gave birth to rabbits, one cannot fully appreciate the true depths of Hogarth's wonderful "progresses" and other satirical paintings and prints.

London itself looms large as a character, Hogarth's Smithfield with its fair and sidestreets being readily recognisable today. Covent Garden was largely disreputable, but Leicester Fields was a prestigious address for a young artist and engraver to set up shop. Further afield, the leafy villages of Chiswick and Islington provide respite for Hogarth and his characters.

Hogarth himself was proud and prickly, yet at the same time a tireless worker for the public good. He never had any children in his close and loving marriage with his wife Jane, and much of his paternal instincts were channelled towards Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital. He painted for it, was a committee member and took an active interest in the children. At the same time, he founded Britain's first Academy of Fine Art and was involved in the Society of Artists.

Yet it is as a private individual that Uglow's portrait is most vivid. Hogarth appears as a kind man who loved his wife and cared for animals, yet popular and clubbable, with a keen sense of humour and an appreciation for life. The description of the "peregrination" around North Kent that he and some friends undertook is delightful, full of drinking, practical jokes, singing and general foolery - immediately recognisable to any young man who has gone on a short holiday with friends today. As he aged and his health diminished, however, he became more and more temperamental. The last years of his life was overshadowed by his disappointment with the reception of his painting Sigismunda which he couldn't move on from, and by his vicious feud with Wilkes and Churchill. This decline is sensitively documented by Uglow.

However, the greatest part of this book is given over to discussion of Hogarth's work - his portraits, his history paintings but especially his progresses and satirical engravings. All his published engravings are reproduced (albeit in a format which could have been larger) and described in detail. It is this detail which is telling. When looking at the first print of "The Harlot's Progress" a 21st c. viewer can see the fresh young Moll Hackabout arriving in London to be greeted by the bawd Mother Needham and overseen by a somewhat lascivious-looking character with his hand thrust deep into his pockets. But when one understands that this gentlemen is Colonel Francis Charteris - convicted rapist, fraudster, libertine and political associate of Walpole - the character takes on new dimensions.

Hogarth did not waste strokes of his burin. Virtually all the detail in his prints has some significance - some lost in the mists of time but much of it decodable by Hogarth's contemporaries and by the Art Historians of today. It is Jenny Uglow's ability to bring this detail alive that makes this such a good book. Hogarth's London is brimming with life and controversy, with political debate and satire, and with friendships and feuds. It really is an exceptionally good book.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Theatre Review : Attempts on her Life by Martin Crimp - Lyttleton (dir Katie Mitchell 29/03/07)

A line of scriptwriters - or film executives - toss around the elements of a plot. A middle European city - a river - a cluster of angled rooftops - a balcony, high-windowed, Art Nouveau maybe, perhaps it is the Ringstrasse in Vienna. And a woman, Ann, beautiful, smoking, with her lover...They describe a mood as much as a film - black and white, grainy, intense. Maybe subtitled, almost certainly low-budget.

BRRR. Cameras are moved centre-stage, lights are shone and screens descend. The cast busily film and light and act the images that are being projected above, in real time - scenes from the life and death of Ann. But nothing is quite as it seems - the windblown hair is billowed by a sheet of card, the woman in the mirror is not a reflection but a lookalike and clever lighting.

And the lighting and camerawork is very clever considering it is being shot in real time, referencing freely. Peter Greenaway stripped bare, Kyslowsky's there too, and a brilliant Abba video. Meanwhile, Tom Paulin and the Newsnight review team (audience laugh of recognition) discuss pretentiously the significance of it all.

And the significance is...? Like the Abba video, the Anny car and the "porno", the film being made is empty and vacuous. For all its expressionist lighting and referentiality it is an empty shell with no coherence, no heart - a movie by committee, which is why Ann is a cipher.

The talking heads discuss who discuss their work at the end are not so idealistic, yet the image still triumphs over substance. As they postulate, the stage descends taking them away to join Don Giovanni in that circle of Hell reserved for those whose lives are without meaning.

The ensemble cast are uniformly good, the lighting and video design utterly breathtaking. "I didn't have a clue what it was about" said a voice overheard as I was leaving. But that is missing the point. The film wasn't about anything really, just a grainy - but stylish - collage of images. Peter Greenaway exposed.

But it had zip, humour, energy, ideas, despite being at the same time difficult and intense. Who said that Post-Modern theatre cannot be fun?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Aside - The Picasso Museum in Malaga

To Marbella for a Management Conference, with, as a cultural interlude, a visit to the Picasso Museum in Malaga. Now, I'm not a great fan of being herded round museums en masse - I prefer to take my time. But I do remember similar events where the knowledge and perception of the tour guide has transformed the experience.

However, this was not one of these occasions. Our guide was correct in stating that everyone can see something personal in Picasso's work; however, to ask everyone whenever they gathered around a painting what they can see whilst not sharing any enlightenment on the contextual significance of the work is simply not doing one's job. When we were led to a picture of "Susanna and the Old Men", for example, he had no awareness of the fact that this was a biblical reference, or a reference to any Old Master, but simply an example of Picasso's love of women.

The museum itself was set in a pretty 17th Century mansion house, and its collection - based mainly around that of Picasso's family, was interesting without being inspired. If I visit it again at length I may write about it, if I have anything I can add to the Tour Guide.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Theatre Review : A Midsummer Night's Dream - Roundhouse (dir Tim Supple 16/03/07)

When the British Council decided that it wanted to present a multilingual production of a Shakespearean play using many of the languages of India and Sri Lanka, A Midsummer Night's Dream was a logical choice. For one thing, it is so familiar that the lines spoken in unfamiliar languages wash over the audience without interrupting their comprehension of the story line. In addition, the storyline is so magical and strange that the transmutation to the subcontinent seems entirely reasonable.

It very nearly succeeded.

Right from the start, the fusion of Indian music and stunning visuals meant that this was going to be a feast for the senses. Puck squats by an Indian musical instrument which he rubs with water and it emits a strange harmony.

But the visual pyrotechnics begin when we venture into the woods. Fairies burst through the 5m high paper backdrop revealing a frame of bamboo which all the cast clambers nimbly around. Ropes drop from on high which Puck and Titania's little Indian boy nimbly clamber. And red silks provide a convenient cocoon for Titania's slumbers. The athleticism and daring of the cast was breathtaking, as the heavily choreographed scenes unravel.

The visual Tour de Force was the fight-scene between Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetius where Puck swathed the stage in elastic, causing an extra layer of chaos as the characters rushed to and forth.

The adaptation was done with great skill, so that one did not have any feeling of loss when certain lines were transposed to Hindi, Urdu or even Sanskrit. It makes one think about how closely one normally listens to Shakespeare's words, and how often one lets them wash over you, risng and falling with the rhythms but not the sense.

Bottom was played by Joy Fernandes, a massive lugubrious presence. He is a man of the soil, earthy and visceral, and, when translated, a phallic squash dangles between his legs, his animal sexuality more overt than usual. This production plays hard, the grappling, groping and scrapping in the woods being done for real.

P R Jijoy and Archana Ramaswamy as Oberon and Titania are sexy and athletic, and the little Indian boy adds to the cuteness factor, but the standout character is Ajay Kumar as Puck - a constant mischevous presence in red loincloth, shinning up ropes and across silk drapes.

And yet, two cavils. I should struggle to deliver blank verse with the multilingual versatitly of the cast, but I felt that the English lines were difficult to follow because of thick accents, rushed delivery and the Roundhouse's appalling acoustics. And the venue itself. This play should have the audience in its hand with its constant invention. I don't know if I just went on a night with a bad audience, but for me, all the atmosphere disappeared into the Roundhouse's cavernous roof. There was little sustained laughter, even as the Rude Mechanicals go through their paces.

Which was a shame, as the sheer exuberance, invention and spectacle of the production deserved better. Perhaps the audience was too much struck by the visuals to absorb the humour; perhaps I simply had a bad seat on a bad night - as other reviews have verged on the ecstatic. But it is certainly worth seeing as a fresh and original take on an old favourite.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Theatre Review : Platonov by Anton Chekhov - Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg - Barbican (dir Lev Dodin 16/03/07)

Ever so rarely one is fortunate enough to experience that union of text, action and music which elevates a night at the theatre into the realms of the extraordinary. This was one such night: three and a half hours of constant, captivating brilliance, of the finest acting and astonishing staging, which swept the naturally reticent London audience into a breathless standing ovation.

Not that I was expecting anything better than an extraorinary crick in the neck when I settled into my seat at the Barbican and realised that the surtitles were almost directly above me, necassitating a constant movement between the text and the action. Whilst Chekhov's Russian has some beautiful rhythmic sonorities, my unfamiliarity with the text necessitated constant reference above my head.

The stage itself was split in three levels, the upper two like a wooden Russian Dacha (plus piano an drumkit), the lowest covered in sand. It was quite a surprise when Sergey Pavlovich pulled off his shirt and executed a perfect swallow-dive into the pool of water which ran the length of the stage beyond the sand just out of my sight. The pool is integral to the staging, and characters dive in and out as they dive into and out of situations - but water is a constant recurring theme throughout the play and adds to the typically Chekhovian steamy claustrophobia of the Country estate.

Platonov is a schoolteacher, a would-be intellectual and cynic with a gift of the gab that makes him irrestistable to the ladies. His is a life of promise which has dissipated into failure - he never passed his exams at university, to everyone's surprise, and isn't even qualified to be a schoolteacher. His friend Voinitsev has returned to his estate with his beautiful new bride, a former lover of Platonov's. Meanwhile Voinitsev's predatory stepmother has also set her sights on Platonov, to the consternation of his allsuffering wife.

Chekhov's original text was sprawling, and it is remarkable that Lev Dodin removed 9 characters and many subplots in order to make the production manageable for the stage. Maybe that accounts for the pace of the staging, which, whilst dwelling langourously over certain scenes, never slackens. As ever with the Maly Drama Theatre, the characters play their own instruments, and raucous, joyous, anarchic ragtime frames the action - even playing whilst marching through the pool, all adding to this barrage on the senses.

Whilst all the cast was brilliant, Sergey Kuryshev in the title role was extraordinary. He is a tall, rough, untidy character, not a looker, but whose presence is magnetic whenever he is on stage. As he drawls out his clever, cynical words one can see the effect that he has on those around him. Platonov's tragedy is his weakness, that he can resist everything except temptation, and Kuryshev captures that weakness perfectly. He is a totally different type of womanizer to Rhys Ifans in the recent Don Juan in Soho - whereas Don Juan is utterly selfindulgent and doesn't care about anyone, Platonov does but can't help himself. Maybe he is a Russian type? - think of Dmitry in the Brothers Karamazov. He is well-complemented by Ksenia Rappaport as the young wife of Voinitsev who realises her mistake when she sees Platonov again. Sexual energy crackles through the air as they embrace in the pool.

Inevitably everything resolves itself into tragedy, the pool's presence becoming increasingly more malign. The cast pick up their instruments and play a final haunting theme that lasts all the way home along with the many remarkable images of this wonderful production.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Book Review : Hang-Ups : Essays on Painting (Mostly) by Simon Schama (BBC Books 2004)

There must have been a point in Simon Schama's life when he stopped being a good writer and became a great one. His voice is now so familiar, his vision of Art so personal with that characteristic touch of informality which is necessary to prick the pomposity of the art critic's puff. Yet it was not always so. In this collection of essays from throughout Schama's writing career, one notices that, whilst the early writing is good, his voice has developed with growing fame and confidence.

Schama writes passionately, and his tastes are diverse. He seems equally at home speaking of the Masters of the Dutch Golden period or of modern abstract artists. But some stand out. His lecture at the New York Metropolitan Museum 0f Art in 1999 demonstrates a deep love of Keifer and Schama's unfailing ability to bring difficult, complex art to life.

Keifer can be a difficult artist for the layman to penetrate - his constant re-explorations of his roots, his Germanness and his relationship to German soil and forests and history. Schama acknowledges this. "For Keifer, the Holzweg is, as it is often understood in vernacular German, a dead-end, and instead of the slaughter being aesthetically euphemized in truncated trees and the inevitable raven, the dead-end is defiled by drops of blood dripped onto the begrimed snow". However, in rebutting a fellow critic who refers Keifer's "humour", Schama notes that "I don't exactly see him as the stand-up comedian of late 20th century art, a Teutonic Seinfeld."

This is the essence of Schama, his ability to puncture the pretentiousness that surrounds the Art world whilst simultaneously respecting and writing lucidly and vibrantly on it. He can penetrate the seriousness with which art tries to respond to the society around it, comprehend and summarise it, throw in the most perfectly balanced phrase - "the dead-end is defiled by drops of blood dripped onto the begrimed snow" is close to perfection - then puncture the seriousness by a reference to a "Teutonic Seinfeld."

It is difficult to summarise this diverse collection of journalism and lectures, there is no unifying theme, except to note that Schama's enthusiasm for fine art shines through consistently. There are no negative pieces included until the final article - a review of the 1492 exhibition in Washington. This commemoration of the discovery of America by Columbus manages to do so with only one exhibit out of 569 directly relating to the explorer - the rest cover 1492 in a multitude of cultures throughout the world, but excluding all unpleasantness such as the expulsion of the Moors from Spain which happened in the same year. Schama deplores this pusillanimous revisionism, a year cast adrift from its cultural moorings in a desperate desire to be all things to all men whilst offending no-one.

It is all that Schama is not - vague, generalist, unopinionated. For, as he is primarily a historian, Schama has rooted his art criticism directly into the culture of the painter. His vision is almost that of a gifted amateur, enthusiastic but learned of the context. And with that one great advantage - he can write.

Art Review : Hogarth (Tate Britain 16/02/07)

It is a pity that Hogarth did not anticipate the 21st Century blockbuster exhibition (and if he had, he would have probably captured the peering, jostling crowds to perfection). The pleasure in Hogarth's magnificent satirical paintings and prints lies in the detail, and, judging by the numbers thronging this magnificently-collated overview of Hogarth's work, he strikes a chord with many people. Unfortunately, such is their enthusiasm to see the original prints in detail that it can be difficult to get close to the works themselves without resorting to some elbow-work.

All the great series are here - The Rake's Progress, Marriage a la Mode, the Four Stages of Cruelty, alongside, in certain cases, the paintings upon which the engravings were based. Hogarth has a busy style, cramming the frames with colour and detail. Yet the revelation for me in this exhibition was his other paintings, the Conversation Pieces, the Historical works and especially the Portraits. I hadn't realised to what an extent that he was one of the great portraitists of the 18th Century, a worthy precursor to Reynolds, Gainsborough and Ramsey.

Take his portrait of George Arnold, for example. He is a solid man, radiating straightforwardness and honesty. His eyes are acute, with a trace of a smile around a set mouth. He seems an approachable man, someone with whom you can do business. Most of Hogarth's sitters were of a similar background: the successful middle classes rather than the aristocracy.

Justifiably famous as well is his portrait of apothecary Daniel Graham's children. Not only do the children come alive as lively individuals, the portrait itself is full of entrancing detail - notably the eager-faced tabby poised to pounce on the caged goldfinch (not a bullfinch as it erroneously states in the otherwise splendid catalogue. Neither is the young lady on stage in "The Indian Emperor" Lady Catherine Lennox (cat pg 108), but Lady Caroline Lennox, future wife of Henry Fox). Maybe this is a portent of the tenuousness of our hold on life, since, as the winged-figure of a golden, scythe-wielding Death above the baby Thomas symbolises, Thomas was dead before the painting was finished.
But above all, Hogarth was a connoisseur of London life in all its varieties. His great series depict the decline and fall of the gullible and foolish, drawn in by the cheats and charlatans of 18th Century London. Innocent and fair Moll Hackabout arrives in London looking for her cousin. She cannot find her, but Mother Needham is ready to offer assistance. Moll has brought a goose for her cousin, but she is the goose herself - as the notorious rake and rapist Colonel Charteris looks on, hand jigging in pocket.

One of Hogarth's great gifts is his accessibility. His prints are rich in symbolism, but one doesn't have to be an Art Historian or to read the detailed notes by each painting to see by the merchant peering at the marriage contract whilst the noblemen points to his family tree that the Marriage a la Mode was not made in heaven. The young couple look on disengagedly - he takes a pinch of snuff whilst admiring himself in the mirror, she glumly plays with her ring whilst their dogs (always a good signifier for Hogarth) show no interest in each other. Soon, she is having an affair with the Lawyer Silvertongue, he has succumbed to the pox - all described in minutest of detail. As the Countess stretches contentedly in the second scene, the dog has sniffed out the ladies undergarment in the pocket of the Viscount.
The teeming, dirty, hypocritical energy of 18th Century London - the Gin craze, the South-Sea Bubble, the threat from the Jacobites and from the French, the fall of Walpole and the rise of Pitt - all is captured by Hogarth and translated into deadly satire with the finest execution. In a way, for a man whose success was founded upon his ability to describe the London crowd in all its variegated glory, it is entirely appropriate that the modern crowds should now be paying their respects in turn to Hogarth.

Theatre Review : John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, translated by David Eldridge - Donmar Warehouse (dir Michael Grandage 5/3/07)

John Gabriel Borkman is a banker who has served 5 years in prison for defrauding his customers. Since his release 8 years ago, he has paced his upstairs bedroom like a caged wolf, his wife Gunhild ignoring him for the disgrace brought upon the family. In Norway, revenge is a dish served very cold indeed. His wife's twin sister, Ella, was his lover before his fall, and still has some warmth in her heart for him. Meanwhile, his son, Erhart, has fallen in love with the smouldering widow down the road.

Borkman harbours Raskolnikov-like fantasies of the good that he could have done with the money he had stolen. If he had more time he could have paid it back, and benefited the people of Norway. He thinks that Erhart can help him recover his position. Meanwhile, Gunhild sees Erhard as the means of salvation of the family name whilst Ella sees him as an emotional substitute - in a maternal way - for Borkman. Erhart isn't up for this - he runs off with his widow and the promise of easy pleasure, taking the pathetic Foldal's daughter along for good measure, the widow's suggestion to tide him bye when the widow has lost her looks.

Not that one blames him, with the prospect of living with a mother whose heart has turned to ice despite the stultifying claustrophobia of the Borkman household. Emotions stretch, as Ella reveals that she is dying, and seeks the affection that she has foregone for so many years. Peter McIntosh's wood-panelled stage captures both the stifling intensity of the household but also the sparseness of the world outside, echoed in the spare beauty of Ibsen's late prose and the largely static staging.

Ian McDiarmid as Borkman displayed the fastidiousness of someone who is totally absorbed in themselves. Cynicism dripped off his finely enunciated phrases. Meanwhile Deborah Findlay and Penelope Wilton displayed the proper range of emotions, Rafe Spall's Erhart was suitably shallow and Lolita Chakrabarti heaved her decolletage as smouldering widows do.

But something was missing - I didn't feel at the end that I had experienced true tragedy. Borkman is an unpleasant human being, but his cynicism made him quite likable. Some lines were quite amusing. One sympathises with anyone living for years with Gunhild, but wonders why he didn't leave earlier. Meanwhile, the scene where Ella, Gunhild and even Borkman himself vie for the affections of the departing Erhart is silly, frankly.

In the end, I didn't care enough for the characters to feel much sympathy at the denouement. They all deserved the portion of misery they have been assigned. All except Erhart, whose prospect of sexual adventure - though no doubt transient and unfulfilling in the end - definitely seemed a better option to suffocation at home.

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://, 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 (, 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.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Theatre Review : Antony & Cleopatra - RSC - Novello Theatre (dir Gregory Doran 22/01/07)

One of the reasons given for the RSC's move from the Barbican - in my opinion, a disastrous mistake in losing access to one of the best theatrical spaces in London - was supposedly to attract more big stars to RSC productions in the West End. Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter are two of the brightest stars in the theatrical firmament, but why they wouldn't have been able to travel that extra mile to the other side of St Paul's, I will never know.

That being said, one cannot doubt the stature of their performances or consummate professionalism in this current production. This isn't my favorite Shakespeare play - I find it bland in too many places (see ) but Stewart and Walter oozed gravitas, bringing clarity and resonance to their declamation as only great actors can, and, in Stewart's case, an engaging twinkle to the eye of Antony entirely in keeping with his character.

The production was classic RSC - stage mainly bare but with imaginative use of trapdoors and descending platforms; the abstract backdrops transforming through clever lighting at every change of scene; the music loud and exciting; the dance vigorous and unusual (and not too much of it!).

All the famous set pieces were done well - the drinking scene featured unstable characters on an unstable platform suspended from the ceiling, and hearty carousing from all. Cleopatra railed at the messenger, but without the fury of Frances Barbour at the Globe. Cleopatra's death scene with Harriet Walter in full Egyptian array was effective and moving.

And yet...if this production was a car, it might be an Audi! One cannot deny its power and pace, its sleek design and precision engineering. One cannot deny the consummate performances of the two stars in the leads, or the clarity of Greg Doran's vision. One cannot deny that this slick production was everything one should expect from the leading exponents of Shakespeare's work in the world today. And yet, despite these qualities, despite the rave reviews from the critics and the tumultuous applause from the audience, despite every box being ticked for what makes great theatre, I cannot, simply cannot avoid feeling that the end product was glossy, slick, safe, conservative, and, in the final analysis, just that little bit dull.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Theatre Review : The Taming of the Shrew - Propeller Theatre Company - Old Vic (dir Edward Hall - 15/01/07)

Shakespeare was not a 21st Century liberal. His attitudes to women (or to Jews for that matter) were those of the 17th Century, and thus can be disturbing to a modern audience. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in The Taming of the Shrew. No amount of justification (such as the supposition that Shakespeare's marriage to Ann Hathaway was an unhappy one, forced upon him after a youthful indiscretion) can hide the fact that this is a brutally misogynistic play.

Modern productions seek to soften this aspect by playing Petruchio with a smile behind his antics, as he and Kate gain mutual respect through enacting a complex game. Not so here. Petruchio is a bully. A strutting screaming, hair-pulling, arm-twisting physical and psychological bully. The fact that is a play performed within the Christopher Sly framing device cannot soften it. This is the story of one man's total subjugation of a woman. It is quite brutal, and the fact that Kate is played by a man only just about makes the violence bearable. When Katherine gives her speech about the duty of a wife towards the end, her eyes are dead: she has been cowed. She kisses Petruchio, not through love but through duty.

This sounds quite grim, but in fact it isn't. The first half especially is exceptionally funny, the wedding scene in particular. Drunks are always amusing until one can see what they are capable of. Even in the second half, there is sufficient good humour and, this being Propeller, inspired stagework to keep a leavening element of comedy - Jason Baughan slipping out of his role of Gremio for a magnificent cameo as drunken pedant being particularly amusing.

The cast excels as an ensemble, but the two leads are particularly powerful. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Petruchio struts and preens like Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer, flicking in an instant from genial bonhomie to manic forcefulness. One thinks of a supercharismatic character with a powerful, engaging personality that one is drawn to despite knowing that he is a brute. Simon Scardifield as Kate, on the other hand, transforms from a sullen, sparky renegade to a dead-eyed zombie.

This is brilliant theatre - funny, engaging yet thought-provoking and deeply, deeply disturbing. Edward Hall has resisted the temptation to soften his Shrew for a modern audience. Instead he has stripped Shakespeare bare, looked domestic violence squarely in the face and delivered an entirely uncompromising play for the 21st Century.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Double Book Review : After Elizabeth by Leanda de Lisle (HarperCollins 2005) / 1603 by Christopher Lee (Hodder Headline 2003)

Two books - After Elizabeth - How James King of Scots Won the Crown of England in 1603 by Leanda de Lisle and 1603 - A Turning Point in British History by Christopher Lee - have recently studied the transition from the Tudor to the Stuart Age upon the death of Elizabeth. It is a story that befits retelling, as James, a normally maligned figure, was by no means a foregone conclusion as successor. Yet, despite nearly destroying everything by supporting Essex and his doomed rebellion, James was the one who played the devious but powerful Robert Cecil the best and finally gained the prize above all others - the throne of England.

These books chart the last days of the aging Elizabeth and her played-out regime. The glory had passed - her latter years were marked by famine, a corrupt court and a monarch who had lost the will to continue after her betrayal by Essex. All political regimes have a natural lifespan, and most go on beyond what is good for the leaders or their countrymen - however, with the unusual exception of the Emperor Charles V, voluntary resignation is seldom an option.

Cecil had the regime change sewn up - James was a Protestant, an experienced monarch, but most importantly for Cecil, likely to keep him in power. His dalliance with Cecil's enemy Essex was overlooked. As soon as Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace, all courtiers and staff were confined to the palace whilst Cecil and the Privy Council managed the flow of news. Soldiers were posted to all the ports for fear of invasion. Yet despite best laid plans, Robert Carey beat the embargo and rode furiously to Edinburgh to be the first person to bring the news to James. He was asked what he wanted as his reward - a post in the King's Bedchamber replied Carey, so that he could have easy access to the King's Ear and the flow of patronage which flowed from him.

As soon as James began his Progress to London, the flow of those seeking favour and patronage became a flood, such that a proclamation forbidding those uninvited to seek the Kings presence had to be issued. This did not prevent Sir Walter Raleigh, fearful at losing Durham House in London and his monopoly on tin, from seeking an audience with the King. Yet the King had already been turned against Raleigh. "I think of thee very Rawly mon" said James on their first introduction. Soon, Raleigh was in the Tower, pleading for his life for his supposed involvement in the the Main and Bye plots against the King - it paid to keep on the right side of Cecil.

After Elizabeth by Leanda de Lisle follows in detail the events of 1603 from the death of Elizabeth to the Coronation of James. Her particular focus is the events at court in England and Scotland, and in James progress to take the throne of England. She uses in particular the writings of Elizabeth's Godson Sir John Harington to reflect the reality of regime change and its uncertainty for a courtier, contrasting Harington's fortunes in particular with those of Raleigh.

1603 has a broader focus, looking at life in general in Britain in 1603, and also, for reasons best known to the author, in Japan. The book offers some interesting perspectives on the historical movements at work - the rise of the mercantile classes and their control of the Piracy trade, for instance - but he writes with an irritating style which is prone to facile comparisons with the present day and far too much reliance on long quotations. The book has an air of padding about it.

Together, however, they convey that this was simultaneously a time of change but also of continuity. That the regime change went smoothly was testament to the skill of Cecil; as was the fact that he and his Privy Counsellors on the whole managed to retain their positions despite the appearance of many Scotsmen on the make. Yet the Tudor era had passed, and one of James first act was to review the various Monopolies held by courtiers. The last vestiges of medieval patronage were being removed, capitalism was nascent and the reformation had already made individual consciousness a political issue. Unbeknownst to James, and entirely outwith his control, the seeds of the English Civil War had been sown.

Theatre Review : Twelfth Night - Propeller - Old Vic (dir Edward Hall 05/01/07)

The stage is draped in shrouds, like Miss Havisham's Wedding Feast. Slowly, as, the drapes are removed, we discover that Duke Orsino has been there motionless all the time. He calls for music - strange ethereal music wells up, using voice and violin, guitar and tibetan bowls. Meanwhile, masked apparitions appear around the characters like a dumb chorus.

This startling opening scene exemplifies the production, visually and musically stunning throughout, although at times one cannot help but think that Shakespeare's play has been left behind by the invention.

Propeller is famously an all-male company, which means that all Shakespeare's themes of gender subversion are given a twist - an old twist, as it is true to the staging conventions of Shakespeare's time. This necessarily means that Orsino's relationship with Viola necessarily has strong homoerotic overtones, and it is interesting to note that the dynamics of this relationship is necessarily different in conventional modern production, where the Duke falls in love with the Viola underneath the guise of Cesario, not with Cesario himself.

But whereas Tam Williams plays Viola / Cesario as a gentle, somewhat fey young girl / boy (the fight with Sir Andrew Aguecheek is superb), Dugald Bruce-Lockhart reinvents the usually somewhat pompous and self-absorbed Olivia as something a little short of a sexy pantomime dame, and does it magnificently.

As ever the humour and energy is imparted by Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste exacting their terrible revenge on Mavolio. The garden scene where Malvolio finds the notes supposedly from Olivia is magnificent, different sized trees imparting a sense of perspective whilst the characters act as improbable statues - very funny. Equally amusing is the sight of the somewhat lugubrious Bob Barrett, who played Malvolio, in formal jacket and yellow tights with fishnets and studded-leather jockstrap.

Yet Shakespeare treats Malvolio harshly. Olivia imprisons him as he appears mad, and there he is taunted by Feste dressed as a priest. This scene is often played offstage or with Malvolio largely invisible, as its darkness disturbs the comedy. No hiding place here: Malvolio is thrust centre stage, naked and begrimed but for the by-now ragged yellow tights, his humiliation complete. One knows that when he says he will be revenged, he means it.

This excellent, striking, funny yet dark production ends on a haunting note. The music throughout has been superb, aided by a cast who are largely musicians themselves. As the final scene closes, Feste (Tony Bell) sings "When that I was and a little tiny boy" to the traditional tune but with haunting acapella accompaniment. The effect sticks in the mind, and stays with you on the Underground, as should the rest of this splendid production.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Art Review : Holbein in England (Tate Britain 5/01/07)

To all intents and purposes, English Art began with Holbein. What preceded him may not have been without merit, but the names of the artists are seldom recorded. The renaissance of painting in Italy and Northern Europe had left these shores surprisingly untouched. And neither did Holbein kickstart British Art - with the exception of the sublime Nicolas Hilliard, there is scarcely an English-born painter of note until Hogarth in the 18th Century.

Holbein was born in Augsburg in 1497/8, the son of a talented portraitist, but developed his art in Basel where he had moved in 1515. He first travelled to England in 1526, where he stayed for two years. He returned to Basel, but was driven out by religious unrest in 1531, and came back to England where he stayed until his death in 1543.

Holbein's reputation today is largely based on his portraiture, for which he was firmly-bedded within the Northern European tradition. His archetypes were Jan van Eyck and Memling, his peers Durer, Cranach and Matsys. He shares with them the ability to capture an uncanny likeness in oils - he is less a caricaturist than Cranach or Matsys, his goal is a perfectly idealised likeness for his patrons.

His portrait of Henry VIII c1537 is iconic. Henry's high forehead and narrow eyes indicate intelligence and cunning, his tight-set lips denote determination and Henry's broad frame and thick neck radiate power. He looks every inch the Renaissance monarch. The head doesn't quite fit the body. It was probably the result of a single preparatory sketch - Henry was not a good sitter, which makes the final result all the more remarkable.

Yet the paintings of the monarch and his spouses do not show Holbein at his best - they are too formal, too constrained by the ever-present threat of Henry's ire. The portrait of Sir Richard Southwell, however, describes a very real person. Southwell was one of Cromwell's functionaries involved in the administration of the proceeds from the dissolution of the monasteries - the silken sheen of his coat suggests that his was a lucrative position. Southwell's face, however, is recognisable as that of a distinct personality. The eyes are somewhat dead, but beneath the broad nose is a lively, expressive mouth surrounded by a stubbly, dimpled, slightly receding chin. His neck is disfigured by tubercular marks. This is not an engaging or flattering portrait - but one cannot help feeling that it is uncannily true to life.

Contrast this with the portrait of the elderly Dr John Chambers, aged (according to the portrait) 88. Holbein has somehow managed to capture the texture of his aged flesh: it is dry and papery, its youthful sheen gone. His eyes are looking towards a final goal, his mouth set and resigned. It is a wonderful depiction of ageing, and the contemplation of death.

This is a compendious exhibition, displaying not only the well-known portraits by Holbein, but also many of his preparatory sketches, and also the portraits by his school. It is a pity that the catalogue is light on background and heavy on somewhat arid detail, as the exhibition itself manages to be consistently illuminating and fascinating about someone of whom the available documentary evidence is limited. It is unlikely that such a collection of Holbein's works will be seen together again (The Ambassadors is too frail to travel across London), so enjoy it - if it is not too late - while you can.