The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery

You can’t fail to notice that it’s almost a hundred years since the First World War began and already this year we’ve seen several exhibitions and TV shows examining this significant event. Niall Ferguson played devil’s advocate with some of our leading historians, while Jeremy Paxman tried to tell us about the effects of the war on modern Britain…except he forgot that bit and chucked in two minutes at the end. The excellent 37 Days screened over three nights on BBC2 dramatised the political build-up to the war in the UK, Germany and Russia, and many hundreds of hours of television are yet to be screened. The upshot is that there’s a danger of feeling exhausted by the end of the commemorative period in 2018, you may even feel it already and a hundred years ago the war hadn’t even started yet.

That’s not to say that the things being produced are unwelcome, and have so far been of great quality and balance. The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition is an excellent example of this, walking you through the events of those years using many of the paintings and images already in its collection. You begin with the pomp of regal portraits celebrating the monarchical houses that dominated Europe in 1914 including Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas. They represent the old order, of formal oil portraits celebrating the power and grandeur of royal courts, illustrious histories and military might that seemed, from these pictures, that they would endure forever. On the next wall is an unassuming black and white photograph of Gavrilo Princip the man who assassinated the Austrian Archduke, and, in some sense triggered the downfall of that way of life. There’s something quite chilling about seeing photos of Franz Ferdinand and his wife not long before their deaths. But, as this exhibition shows, their deaths were just the beginning.

Once war has begun, we’re shown two types of picture. First the formal portraits of military leaders like Haigh and Hindenbugh painted by official war artists. Although they lack the grandeur of kings in the previous room, they are intended to convey a sense of the sitter’s authority and leadership role. William Orpen painted Haigh in 1918 and I couldn’t help but think had he sat a few years earlier, it would have been a different image. The styling is as you’d expect, but whatever your opinion of Haig, look at his eyes, there’s a sadness in them that hints at the terrible toll of the last four years. Whether that’s Orpen’s addition is for you to decide.

Alongside these images we see representations of the ordinary serviceman presented both as formal glory portraits to celebrate their victories, and as the dead or disfigured on the battlefield and hospitals. These include the incredibly striking Dead Stretcher Bearer which is simultaneously a moving and somehow beautiful image, casting a stark contrast with the formal portraits of war leaders. Changes in artistic styles are represented through pictures including the angular forms of Nevison’s La Mitrailleuse (The Machine Guns), emphasising the mechanisation and fierceness of war. One of the things I enjoyed most about this exhibition is the inclusion not just of these many styles and consequences of war, but of all kinds of protagonists; it’s not just monarchs and Generals, but ordinary men; not just soldiers but pilots, sailors and men from across the Commonwealth. Apart from Chruchill and a couple of photographs, the naval experience doesn’t really feature which is a shame, but NPG is saving them for a naval exhibition in May.

Before you become desensitised to the plethora of First World War activities, go and see this free exhibition. Not only is it a great opportunity to see a really diverse collection of art styles, but it will give you a surprisingly broad perspective of all the people who fought in the conflict as well as mix of bravery and horror that created. If you want to understand anything about the lasting effects of the Great War, then all you have to do is look in Haigh’s eyes.

The Great War in Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June and is free to enter.

Other Desert Cities – Old Vic

How well do you know your family, and do you think they’d have the same perspective on key events that you do? The way that you remember your childhood or how you dealt with tough times, do you think your parents and siblings think of it the same way? Do they know more or less about it that you do, or perhaps their perspective is just different? These are some of the questions that Other Desert Cities considers when it brings the Wyeth family back together for a pool-side Christmas in Palm Springs.

Devastated by the suicide of her elder brother Henry a few years earlier, Brooke has suffered a period of hospitalising depression and returns home for the first time in 6 years to spend Christmas with her parents, brother and aunt. To deal with her issues, and aided by her recovering alcoholic aunt, Brooke has written a literary memoir about the family and, as she sees it, their cold responsibility for Henry’s political radicalisation and subsequent death. Then comes the snag; the book is due to be reviewed in the New Year and Brooke has not only to reveal her secret to the family, but give them time to read the manuscript and digest its accusatory tone. As events play out and family tensions escalate, Brooke’s blindness is revealed through the alternative perspectives of her relations, and she learns how far parental love has extended.

This is a fascinating production that effectively builds tension by enhancing a number of contrasting factors, most notably in the various personalities on display. Brooke, played by Martha Plimpton, is somewhat earnest, seemingly grounded but also determined to ‘defeat’ her overbearing mother by publishing come-what-may. Meanwhile her surviving brother Trip (who was too young to remember the events at hand) is a producer making mindless TV for the masses, living a shallow existence in LA and wanting an easy life. But it’s their parents Polly and Lyman – the ever brilliant Sinead Cusack and Peter Egan – who are in every sense the real stars of this show. It is their characters and behaviour which drive the actions of the play forward, and trying to understand their motivation is at the heart of Brooke’s memoir.

Lyman is a former actor, Regan-esquely famous for tough guy roles, who moved into politics and local society. On the surface at least, he’s calm and constrained, essential a peaceable man which he maintains by refusing to engage with these tragic memories. Some of the best and most moving moments come when Lyman is forced, by his daughter’s actions, to confront what happened to his family and the part he played in bringing it about. Peter Egan is simply wonderful in this role, first belligerently blocking his ears to his daughter’s betrayal and then dissolving as he’s forced to finally reveal the truth. Sinead Cusack’s Polly is quite a different creature; outwardly made of stone, Polly found limited fame writing a series of films in 70s before becoming a society wife. But make no mistake, she is in charge of this family and her abhorrence of any human weakness has shaped the lives of her children. The scenes between Brooke and Polly are some of the most intense and Cusack maintains a glacial pose whilst still creating a sense of depth and supressed emotion in the character, an inkling of which we see towards the end. This is really great stuff.

The intimacy of this play is aided by the Old Vic’s new ‘round-space’ which, as in 2008 with the Norman Conquests, has reconfigured the traditional proscenium arch stage and stalls, meaning the audience now sees the action from every angle and there’s no way for the characters to escape our insight. It’s a pretty impressive idea and an imaginative use of the space, so I’m glad to see it reinstalled this year. Other Desert Cities is a perfect season opener, full of great performances and plenty to think about next time you embark on a fraught family Christmas.

Other Desert Cities is at the Old Vic until 24 May. Tickets start at £16.

Bailey’s Stardust – National Portrait Gallery

Has there ever been a bad picture of Michael Caine? There must be – perhaps they’re all hidden under his bed – but the only ones you ever see, whether he’s 35 or 75, he is the epitome of cool – and no more so than in the giant Bailey photo that greets you in the ticket hall of the Portrait Gallery. Stardust celebrates more than 50 years of eclectic David Bailey photographs, from his early work in 1960s east London, through the crowd-pleasing celebrity and fashion shots, to documentary-style images of east Africa, India and Australia.

Bailey has photographed anyone who’s anyone and is perhaps most famous for the black and white shots of celebrities and artists which first greet you. U2, Kate Moss, Cecil Beaton, The Rolling Stones, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Hall, Paul McCartney, Jonny Depp, the list goes on. Like most portrait painters, Bailey largely presents a glamorised view of his subjects which make some of these photos feel like empty publicity shots. His trademark white background gets a bit repetitive at first, especially as it masks rather than enhances the personality of whichever celebrity is featured. But it’s in the more playful shots where you begin to appreciate Bailey’s skill; Ralph Fiennes shown against an entirely black background resting his head on a skull, or Marianne Faithful laying on the grass pictured at a twisted angle against a diagonal horizon, are particularly striking.

Another room deals with his fashion images, not just showcasing models like Marie Helvin, Jerry Hall and Jean Shrimpton, but also designers, editors and stylists. Bailey’s fascination with the personalities behind particular art forms is actually one of the most interesting elements of this exhibition, so there are photos of artists like Dali, Warhol, Bacon and Hockney, as well as other photographers like Cecil Beaton who appears repeatedly. These are people who are, to some extent, are usually obscured by their work but here become the art itself.

Bailey has also experimented with different techniques over the years, playing with colours, focus and exposure which give a nice variety to the many images on display here. And, surprisingly, some of the most effective are large camera-phone shots of clubs and theatres taken in 2013 which are bursting with colour and drama. These provide the perfect book-end to the fabulous images of people and decaying street life in the 1960s east end where Bailey grew up.  Large-scale prints of people happily drinking in old-school boozers sit next to bomb-damaged shops in a time before regeneration. What’s interesting about this collection is the mix of the glamorous and the ordinary; for every celebrity shot there’s a corresponding collection of images from community life around the world, of people who couldn’t be further from the pages of Vogue.

This is Bailey’s Stardust because you leave knowing more about him and the life he’s led than you do about any of the people you see on the walls. Not only is every picture personally selected and arranged by Bailey, but all around you is a visual biography of where he’s been, who he knew and what he believed in. That in itself is quite a fascinating approach, indicating that far from being the anonymous man behind the lens recording the lives of others, Bailey has been at the heart of popular culture for more than 50 years, which, like that enormous picture of Michael Caine, is pretty cool.

Bailey’s Stardust is at the National Portrait Gallery until 1st June. Tickets start at £16 with concessions available.

Martin Creed: What is the Point of it? – Hayward Gallery

Prepare to be overwhelmed. As soon as you enter the gallery, pushing past the leather sofa angled across the door, your senses are assaulted by a riot of noise, colour and movement. The first thing you’ll see is a central pedestal supporting the word ‘mother’ written in giant neon letters and stretching almost the entire length of the room. If that’s not sinister enough, the sign is rotating at varying speeds, creating giant swooping circles around the room, which at times feel like it’ll hit you. Then you notice the constant clack clack clack of 39 metronomes placed equi-distantly around the floor’s edge, each beating a different rhythm. It’s immediately clear that this exhibition will be lots of fun!

Martin Creed won the Turner Prize for lights turning on and off at set intervals – which is featured here – and whatever value you feel this has as art, this retrospective delivers an unexpected insight; on the surface, Creed’s work appears to embrace chaos, whereas in fact there is considerable interest in order and regularity of form. Several of the prints and sculptures are of perfectly stacked items that decrease in size as the overall work gets higher. So we see a series of tables placed on top of each other, from a large dining table to a small side-table, balanced perfectly. A similar arrangement of chairs is also on show, as well as arrangements with boxes, iron girders and a pyramid of toilet paper, each item perfectly aligned with those above and below it.

The 1000 potato-style prints of different broccoli stems in variously coloured and textured paint appear random, but each is consistently framed and precisely arranged across an entire wall. Even a line of cacti are arranged in height order, and whilst each one is very different to the rest, the overall effect is of control and pristine order. But it’s Creed’s choice of material which adds the fun element and you get an idea of him coming across things and wondering what he can do with them, exploring form and shape as well as the notion of what can be considered beautiful or artistic.

Creed has taken over every inch of the Haywood Gallery, controlling the sounds you hear and the even the amount of light you experience. The walls too in each room are each designed with a colourful but regular pattern. From the enormous zebra stripes painted on the wall of the first room, to patterned tape arranged in vertical stripes adjacent to a wall covered in a red diamonds, Creed plays with the traditional notions of where art ends and the gallery begins, to interesting effect.

I didn’t bother with the balloon room, the queue was too long to be worth it, but I really enjoyed the lightness of this exhibition. One word of warning – there are three very different pieces outside on separate terraces which you can only see by going through its specific door. Two of these may well surprise you, for very different reasons, depending how easily shocked you are. Nothing is explained and all the pieces merely have numbers – although perhaps a few more would have been nice. The programme only gives you an alphabetical list of the materials Creed uses, leaving you to decide for yourself what, if anything, is the point?

Martin Creed: What is the Point of It? Is at the Haywood Gallery until 27 April. Tickets are £11 and concessions are available.

Blithe Spirit – Gielgud Theatre

So spring has definitely arrived in London. How can you tell, well theatreland transitions from major heavyweight plays to a greater spattering of light and witty comedies. There’s invariably at least one Alan Ayckbourne (step up National Theatre from April) and this year we are blessed with two, that’s two, Noel Cowards. After the storming success of last year’s Private Lives, the West End is hosting star-packed comedy revivals Relative Values (reviewed shortly) and this hotly anticipated Blithe Spirit staring acting legend Angela Lansbury.

I’ve always had a real affection for this play, ever since performing in a school production as the maid. Not only is it set in a part of Kent I know well, but I used one of the duologues for my Theatre Studies A-level exam. Fortunately for the world that was my last acting experience, but I developed an enduring love of Noel Coward. Charming middle-aged couple Charles and Ruth Condomine invite their friends to a dinner party and séance, so sceptical novelist Charles can gather material for a character based on local clairvoyant Madame Arcarti, supposing her to be a charlatan.  Somehow the ghost of Elvira, Charles’s sassy first wife, is manifested – visible only to him. Much hilarity ensues as people first think he’s mad and then plot to send Elvira back to the ‘other side’. But Elvira is back for a reason and will the living Condomines be rid of her before her plans succeed?

One of the mistakes actors make with Coward is trying too hard to make the lines funny rather than playing it fairly straight and letting the brilliant writing do the work. Fortunately everyone here does just that and this is an absolutely wonderful production. Angela Lansbury is, of course, a glorious Madame Arcati, perfectly balancing the physical humour with an entirely convincing jolly eccentricity. Imagine somewhere between her incompetent trainee-witch in Bedknobs and Broomsticks crossed with the free-spirited and unconventional novelist she played in the 1978 film of Death on the Nile. The moment she walked on stage she got a huge cheer and round of applause, as though she were making a guest appearance in an American sitcom, but it was fully deserved even though she had yet to utter a line!

But the Dame is not the only thing to enjoy; Charles Edwards as ‘astral bigamist’ Charles Condomine is hilarious, bringing an interesting dimension to the role. In the opening scene he’s a seemingly mature, cultured and sensible, although slightly superior, man, but the appearance of Elvira releases a more childish and sarcastic element, showing us more of the playboy he used to be. Interesting to see the effect his very different wives have on his personality. Edwards’s comic timing is fantastic especially in the conversations with Elvira and Ruth, where Ruth cannot see or hear her predecessor. Janie Dee plays Ruth with eyebrows raised in exasperation throughout; first at having to deal with the strange old woman invited to dinner, and then with her husband’s ludicrous claims to have seen his first wife’s ghost. Again she’s great as the veneer of their civilised and grown-up marriage begins to crumble. Jemima Roper is suitably petulant and wheedling as the returned Elvira, craving attention but capable of enacting her dark plans to get her own way.

There’s lots of lovely detail in this production including the living room set of a 1930s countryside home with touches of modern art in the furnishings – the combined result of the two Mrs Condomine’s. This contest between tradition and modernity is fairly typical as Coward’s characters often find conventional marriage rather tiresome, revelling instead in alternative means of living; Elyot and Amanda happily abandon their dull spouses in Private Lives to enjoy a confrontational existence together, whilst Design for Living has Gilda living with two men. Here too we see the duplicity of Charles and Elvira’s marriage, beset by affairs and betrayals from the start, whilst Charles’s marriage to Ruth, he claims, left him domineered and restricted. There are subtle hints to these darker themes in this production amongst the overall whimsy, adding a nice depth to the action, without detracting from the laughs. This is a joyous evening at the theatre, performed with considerable charm by an excellent cast who, along with the audience, end up having a whale of a time.

Blithe Spirit is at the Gielgud Theatre until 7th June. Tickets start at £12.

A Taste of Honey – National Theatre

Unusual for its time, this is a kitchen-sink drama that’s almost exclusively about women; Helen and Jo, an unaffectionate, and seemingly contrasting, mother and daughter. With Britain recently released from the strictures of rationing, the effects of the Second World War hang heavy over their lives. Not only do they live in a shabby one-bedroom flat in a 1950s terraced street in Salford, but as we engage in their story, we learn more the about the social and moral expectations they struggle against.

Helen, played wonderfully by Lesley Sharp, is a forty-year old single mother, frequently abandoned by men with whom she’s had numerous affairs. Initially she seems brassy, loud and uncaring, casually leaving her daughter for the chance to escape. It is easy to suppose she enjoyed relative freedom during the war when she was in her twenties, but struggles with the stricter morality expected in peace time. Jo, meanwhile, is an eighteen year-old schoolgirl, presumably born around 1940, and has only ever known national restriction and austerity.  Her mother’s caprices have created a sense of self-sufficiency which Jo, mistakenly, views as an ability to cope alone with very adult problems.

Despite their avowed differences, these women are more similar than they think. Helen is looking for a better life and craves respectability to avert neighbourhood gossip. When the play opens, they’ve moved to a new flat and you can only assume it’s to escape a recent scandal. Her daughter represents a past Helen wants to forget, and, as she believes, ‘bearing a child doesn’t place one under an obligation to it.’ Helen marries her latest beaux and leaves. Jo, meanwhile, has become secretly engaged to a sailor, who returns to duty leaving her pregnant. Like her mother, Jo clings to dreams of a better life where her lover returns to take care of her, which she masks with an air of casual indifference. She knows he’s never coming back and invites her homosexual friend to move in instead. Both women are looking for someone to take care of them, but know ultimately all they have is each other. And when their various men leave them, as they all inevitably do, they return to each other.

But it’s not a depressing play by any means. There’s something of the survivor about both women, and their wilful defiance of societal ‘rules’, played out in Helen’s affairs and in Jo’s inter-racial relationship and unmarried pregnancy. Although unsurprising to modern audiences, in the 1950s it would have been shocking. The poignant moments are accentuated by a melancholic jazz score and music offers them a periodic escape from everyday life. Both women sing, quote lyrics and dance joyously to the more light-hearted tunes that link scenes. The choice of jazz too reiterates the women’s commonality and rebellious elements of their characters. In some ways it reminded of the spirit of Alfie, the good one with Michael Caine (I’m pretending the other one was never made!) – that sense of episodic working class life, pervaded by unflagging optimism and opportunity in a changing world.

The set design was pretty impressive, the centrepiece being a rotating house filling half the stage; on one side the exterior walls, and the other, the living room of the flat – similar to An Inspector Calls. I really enjoyed this play and all the performances offered a nice balance of comedy and tragedy throughout, even the male roles which are considerably smaller.  The female characters, though, are at the heart of this story and you leave with a sense of their strength and stoical acceptance of inevitability. Whatever happens to them and the child, they will survive. As Helen insightfully concludes, ‘you fell down, you get up . . . nobody else is going to carry you about.’

A Taste of Honey is at the National Theatre until 11 May. Tickets start at £28.

Discoveries – Two Temple Place

It’s not often that you step back and think about the process of curating an exhibition – be it a permanent collection or temporary assemblage of objects. How do museum staff decide which items, from their vaults to include and how would selecting different combinations alter the messages they transmit? This fascinating exhibition at Two Temple Place combines diverse pieces from the University of Cambridge’s eight departmental museums joining very individual objects under the banner of scientific discovery. The curators have taken items that normally exist in a different context within their ‘home’ museum and united them to tell a different story about the nature of science and the role of the university in the development of the modern world.

Naturally, then pieces are diverse – these a spectacular dodo skeleton from the museum of Zoology, a stunning Indian snakes and ladders board from the nineteenth-century normally housed in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Greek sculpture and an oil painting of Newton from the Fitzwilliam Museum, prints from Japan, and a telescope from the Polar Institute that not only travelled to the North Pole on the Discovery, but went to the South Pole with Captain Scott, before orbiting the earth in the Space Shuttle Discovery in the 80s.

This works really well and there’s no doubt that every object in this eclectic collection is well worth seeing, especially in a rare visit to London. I was quite intrigued by the almost existential idea of an exhibition about exhibitions, and it was partially successful in making me think about how acquisition, collection and display decisions are made. Although each piece is given a detailed placard, what is missing is that very explanation of why the museums donated these pieces and not any of the others in their care, and what, together, they think it means.

I would also have liked perhaps a stronger emphasis on the ‘discoveries’ theme. For example, a lot of these objects are clearly linked by the Royal Navy and its role in the mechanics of world-wide scientific exploration – many leading explorers were naval officers or helped to transport these stories back to the UK and to Cambridge museums. The Empire too has a huge role in bringing this exhibition to London, and it would have been interesting to place them in this broader context. Questions of how the navy and/or Empire affected and facilitated their discovery, transportation and interpretation within a British context, could have added an extra, more interesting dimension.

That aside, this is a great exhibition and Two Temple place is an attractive Victorian Mansion on the Embankment, open a couple of times a year to the public. The beautiful wood panelled and stained glassed rooms are a fabulous backdrop to this quirky and fascinating ramble through hundreds of years of Cambridge science. And how often do you actually get to see a genuine dodo skeleton!

Discoveries is at Two Temple Place until 27th April and is free to enter.


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