Twelfth Night – National Theatre

twelfth-night-national-theatre

The National Theatre had a pretty impressive year in 2016 resuming its position as one of London’s most consistent and forward-thinking theatres, mixing reimagined classics with new writing. Under Rufus Norris’s artistic directorship its output has felt fresh, diverse and above all innovative, with Annie Baker’s The Flick, Robert Icke’s cinematic The Red Barn and Ivo van Hove’s eviscerating take on Hedda Gabler standing out in a year of hits. And the future is already full of promise with tickets to the revival of Angels in America selling like a rock concert, and new works like Consent to come in 2017, not to mention a 2018 announcement of Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as apparently Ralph Fiennes in Anthony and Cleopatra (announced a year ago but no further details), it’s fair to say you now go to the National expecting to be wowed.

But first up for 2017 is a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a perennial Christmas favourite that has nothing to do with the festive season, hence a February opening.  It is clear from the promotional photography that this tale of disguise and unrequited love will largely focus on its comedy characters with Tamsin Greig taking the starring role as the re-gendered Malvolia. And the recasting allows the company to add freshness to an often performed play by playing with notions of sexuality – ideas hinted at in Shakespeare’s text through the frisson between Orsino and Viola when she is disguised as Cesario.

So the plot is an intricate one, starting with a shipwreck that parts twins Viola and Sebastian who both arrive in Illyria thinking the other had perished. Disguised as a boy called Cesario, Viola enters the employ of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him, but Orsino is in love with local noblewoman Olivia, who has foresworn all men. Orsino sends Cesario as messenger but Olivia falls in love with him, not realising its Viola in disguise. Running in parallel, Olivia’s drunken relative Sir Toby Belch and her servants decide to teach the arrogant steward Malvolia a lesson by letting her think Olivia loves her and orchestrate Malvolia’s public humiliation. People are disguised, hearts ache, wires are crossed and hilarity ensues, but Sebastian is still on the island and soon becomes involved in the mix-ups.

The National’s production, which has its press night on Wednesday, is primarily focused on the comedy aspects of the tale which downplays the central romantic stories and partially side-lines the play’s main character Viola. Director Simon Godwin who previously oversaw the brilliantly riotously The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National in 2015 which was a perfectly pitched farce, brings that knowledge to bear on this production of Twelfth Night helping his fine cast to find the levity in Shakespeare’s text while adding plenty of humorous physical and visual comedy touches. The result hasn’t yet meshed into a finely tuned show but, only a few performances in, there are a series of nicely realised comic scenarios which should link more seamlessly as the cast settle into the rhythm.

Aside from the cast, the real star of this version is the ever inventive Soutra Gilmour’s rotating fold-out pyramid set which simply transports the players to various settings relatively smoothly, while offering a slightly dreamlike feel. It starts as the bow of Viola and Sebastian’s ship steered into the rocks that set the story on its way, before triangular segments fold out into Olivia’s glass panelled villa, bricked street scenes, Olivia’s garden and even a gay bar with singing drag Queen – crooning Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. There’s also a large staircase leading to the top which gives the actors something to run around on but also a place to overhear or spy on the action. There were a couple of sticky moments when bits of the set malfunctioned forcing the actor’s to improvise, and the various flaps need to be walked into place by visible technicians, but Gilmour’s 30s meets 70s meets modern interpretation is fascinating, and she has amassed an eclectic body of work.

Gender-swapping within the cast is seamlessly done and makes perfect sense in the context of Godwin’s production. Leading them is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia who initially puts you in mind of Shakespeare’s other great verbose and fussy attendant, Polonius from Hamlet. Grieg’s first appearance is as a severe and dark presence, clean black bob, and starkly dressed in plain shirt and culottes. The overall appearance is of an ogerish governess, humourless and unimpressed with those around her but certain that her own thoughts and actions are perfect behaviour. That all changes brilliantly on receipt of the faked letter from Olivia and the big reveal of Malvolia in the yellow stockings in part two, which has to be seen rather than spoiled, is a brilliantly timed piece of comedy which Greig relishes superbly. It’s a fun and wide-ranging performance that pins the show together really well.

Equally entertaining is Phoebe Fox’s almost entirely comic Olivia whose over-eager declarations of love and single-minded pursuit of Cesario are a real highlight. Fox brings initial restraint to Olivia, who is in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother, and is clearly a determined, strong young woman who bats away Orsino’s attentions and is admirably unwavering. Yet with the arrival of Cesario Fox utilises these character traits to great effect in trying to capture the object of her affection, as well as making the most of any opportunity to show a giggly or more suggestive aspect of the character.

Completing the comic set is the excellent Tim McMullen as Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Augecheek, Doon Mackichan as a gender-swapped fool Feste and Niki Wardley as Maria Olivia’s chambermaid who masterminds the plan against Malvolia. It’s a nicely delineated group but together love revelry and drive much of the comedy forward, with McMullen –sartorially channelling Laurence Llewelyn Bowen – and Wardley in particularly making an excellent team as the partying nobleman and the cheeky maid who takes control of him.

The lovers do get pretty short shrift in this version of the play and Orsino’s appearances which bookend the play make it difficult to understand how quickly he transfers his affection from Olivia to Viola. Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a bit of a playboy at the start, driving his sports car on stage to overtly attract Olivia with generic flowers but he genuinely seems devoted as he later mopes through a party-scene. With the emphasis on the comic, we get less chance to see the relationship with Cesario / Viola tip over into something more romantic.

Tamara Lawrance’s Viola is satisfyingly tomboyish making her male disguise convincing and, a difficult thing in modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays, almost believable. And while she hasn’t quite captured the depth of the romance, it’s still early days and that will come. Finally Daniel Ezra is an excellent Sebastian, suitably perplexed by the mistaken identity dramas and with plenty of swagger to give the fight scenes credibility. But there is a hint at Sebastian’s homosexuality in scenes with ship’s captain Antonio and at the gay bar which aren’t followed though when he becomes embroiled in the story with Olivia.

It’s still early in the run and with a couple of previews left before press night there is time to smooth the flow and link more consistently between the high comic moments and the rest of the play which will make its long three hour run time skip more quickly. There are lots of lovely comic performances which carry it along very nicely and, Gilmour’s spectacular set aside, while the show may not have the wow of recent National Theatre productions or build to the farcical pitch it aspires to, this version of Twelfth Night is an entertaining and well-staged evening with plenty of fun moments that keep the audience laughing.

Twelfth Night is at The National Theatre until 13 May and tickets start at £15.  It will be broadcast live to cinemas on 6 April, and is also part of the Friday Rush scheme, offering tickets for the following week at £20 – available from 1pm on Fridays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


David Hockney – Tate Britain

hawthorn-blossom-near-rudston-2008

With so many exhibitions running in London all the time, it can be difficult to choose between them, especially when everyone is now asking you to pay the best part of £20 for the privilege. But good news for the culturally overwhelmed because there is only one exhibition you need to see this year – David Hockney’s retrospective at Tate Britain. It is 2017’s must-see show and one that will undoubtedly last you all year, allowing you to impress your friends with your knowledge of nearly 60 years of Hockney’s spectacular work.

There are several things that have long made Hockney’s work particularly distinctive, his vibrant use of colour, the way he captures light whether it be the cloudier tones of Yorkshire or the startling clarity of the LA sun, and the deeply personal representation of everything that appears in his work. Of course all artists show us their view of the world, but Hockney at nearly 80, has spent a lifetime painting, drawing and photographing his friends, family and partners, as well as the places he lives or spent time. As you wander through the rooms at Tate Britain – much like the David Bailey show at the Portrait Gallery 2 years ago – it becomes clear that you’re seeing Hockney’s story unfold. This is art as biography.

Most of the exhibition is in chronological order, which is a sensible approach from curators and means you can observe the clear evolution of his style and technique from his days as a student at the Royal College of Art to his most recent work made with iphone and ipads.  And while the early work looks quite different, everything here is distinctively Hockney and this approach means that the consistency of his style can be observed. The early work is quite abstract and may surprise those who have only seen his later creations, but this laid the foundations for the way he would represent reality and the interaction of objects and people. And of course these early works feel like a young man trying to understand himself, particularly in a place where homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and the repeated inclusion of sentences in the pictures feels like you’re in Hockney’s head.

His painting We Two Boys Cling Together from 1961 has the simplicity of a child’s drawing but it evokes quite mixed emotions in the viewer; there’s love clearly, anger too in the frantic brush strokes, but also this sense of incongruity as the heads float away from the bodies suggesting thought and reality are not yet in tune. Turning the corner into the second room and Hockney’s focus on people, which will run through his entire career, shows how that illusion became concrete with depictions of couples in everyday harmony including Domestic Scene [1963] in which one man helps his partner to shower. This may not be the famous work you’ve come to see but its inclusion tells us important things about Hockney’s development as an artist, as well as his personal experiences, so don’t hurry past it too quickly.

When Hockney arrived in LA in 1964 something in his work shifted, and a fascination with linear form, colour and light would dominate his work for years to come. In Room 4 you finally get to see that transition in some of his most famous pieces, including A Bigger Splash from 1967 which contrasts the roller-painted water and endless turquoise sky with the time-consuming construction of the white splash of water created supposedly by a figure we cannot see from a diving board that also isn’t moving. It’s an incredible piece that seems to create stillness and movement effortlessly, but the secret is the way Hockney uses different lines of varying lengths to give his work dynamism, and something that you will notice for the rest of the exhibition.

A Lawn Being Sprinkled, David Hockney [1967]

A Lawn Being Sprinkled [1967]

Next to it, is A Lawn Being Sprinkled comprised of hundreds of individually created blades of grass, where Hockney uses length to show depth and distance in the picture. It’s impossible to see on digital recreations or even that well on postcards, but its effect is remarkable, especially against the white sprinkler sprays dotted evenly across the lawn and the flat smoothness of the house and sky. The diagonal white lines of the window denoting reflected light in Peter Getting Out of the Pool [1966] also sit purposefully alongside the crosshatching of the garden chair, the geometric perfection of the window itself and the pool tiles, while being challenged by the swirling pink and white tangles of the pool. There is a real sense of ease and warmth in these works which accounts for their continued popularity especially on a cold dank February day in very troubled times.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures), David Hockney [1972]

Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) [1972]

But Hockney’s fascination with the relationship between people, displayed so well in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1972 as his ex-boyfriend appears to jealously observe Hockney’s assistant, leads neatly into his late 1960s and 1970s works on couples. The famous Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark picture that you can normally see in the Tate for free is here, as is a fascinating image of Hockney’s own parents from 1977 that shows a separate togetherness. In almost every image in this room, one person is clearly the master in the relationship, and while Hockney’s mother looks sweetly at the viewer, his father is hunched over and engrossed in a book as if he has better things to do than pose for paintings. We see the same power dynamic in American Collectors [1968] depicting Marcia Weisman in shocking pink as her thin, brown-suited husband stands limply by, mirrored in Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott [1969] as the Met Museum curator dominates the canvas on a plush pink sofa, while his painter boyfriend looks on as if unsure whether he’s coming or going.

One of the most fascinating elements of this exhibition is the chance to see work you don’t normally associate with Hockney’s exuberant coloured paintings. The delicacy of his drawings is almost astonishing after the scale and hit of the work before and Hockney’s light touch in images of Auden or his own self-portrait is really surprising. As I mentioned above it is Hockney’s use of the line that makes these images so interesting, using only a few skilled representative dashes to create personality and in some places it puts you in mind of the later work of Quentin Blake and Raymond Briggs.

Hockney also experimented with collage photography and a room filled with layered photographs which he uses to instil liveliness in the static image, leads neatly into my favourite part of the exhibition, the images of the Grand Canyon and Yorkshire which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2012 and took ideas of scale to a new level. The winding mountains and roads you see in his early student work take form here as pathways and valleys sweep through abundant countryside, often in startling luminous colours. Seeing two contrasting landscapes side by side, the red and orange desert of southern America with the lush greens and bursting pale yellow flowers of Yorkshire, is an almost overwhelming immersive experience. Composed of nine individually painted canvases, Grand Canyon is a collision of purples, reds and oranges that suggest the heat and aridity of Arizona, while a related image takes the colour saturation to almost fluorescent levels which again digital or paper copies just cannot replicate, you have to see it.

may-blossom-on-the-roman-road-2009

May Blossom on the Roman Road [2009]

The Yorkshire work from 2006 onwards, when Hockney came home, is for me some of the best of his career and a culmination of everything this exhibition has shown you. Best of all is the two panel Hawthorn Blossom Near Rudston [2008] which shows a red painted road with lines of blue depth that intersects the picture, framed by luscious grass verges and hedges filled with wild flowers and bursting yellow blossom moving in the breeze. The individual lines of grass and dots of flowers and leaves are romantic and calming in equal measure. Nearby, May Blossom on the Roman Road [2009] shows Hockney continuing to play with technique as a van Gogh inspired blue swirling sky meets abstract-formed hedges and abundant foliage. The scale and effect of this work is just glorious.

Some stunning pencil sketches of Yorkshire follow plotting particular spots through the seasons as well as the immersive video of The Four Seasons which mimics the layering of photograph from earlier with a sensitivity to the opportunities of modern technology. Finishing the show are the ipad and iphone creations that Hockney has more recently embraced and despite being an entirely different way of creating art still have his distinct style and voice.

The Tate’s exhibition was always going to be a hit, but even on this opening weekend, it’s clear that it’s been carefully planned to enhance the viewer experience rather than just packing people in. Despite the panic and two days with no online booking, tickets are still readily available and entry, even for those with timed tickets, is controlled in waves to ensure there’s no overcrowding. And it works because you can get close to every piece with very little jostling, and while most people are rushing through to the major works, taking your time means not only do you get the full story but by room 7 of 12 you have plenty of space.

The chronological approach allows you to see Hockney’s life story develop, while observing his experiments with technology and the development of his technique. Not just light, colour and personality but his skilled use of lines throughout his career. So take you time – you can easily spend 90 minutes or more in here – and enjoy it all because this is a spectacular experience that people will be talking about for a long time to come.

David Hockney is at Tate Britain until 29th May, before transferring to Paris and then New York later this year. Entrance is £19.50 or £17.70 without donation and concessions are available.


The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

glass-menagerie

Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.

The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.

Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.

Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.

In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.

Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.

Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.

In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.

Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.

John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.

The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.

Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Jackie and the New Art of the Biopic

jackie-film

The biopic remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring genres. Fitted with expected ideas of heroism and triumph over adversity, the chance to play one of history’s most important figures is often irresistible for an actor and whether dressed-up in period costume or shedding light on more recent times the biopic reinforces the centrality of individuals in shaping particular events. In the last few years, however, several directors have sought a fresh approach, moving away from the traditional biopic model of birth > hardship > greatness > death > immortality, to something considerably more complex and time-limited, exploring the fallibility of their subject and the cost of their determination.

In Jackie Pablo Larrain joins this new wave of biopic directors with his multi-Oscar nominated tale of America’s most famous First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy which examines the week following the assassination of her husband. Cutting back and forth between various days, we’re shown the fractured and uncertain period that led to President Kennedy’s funeral, watching as Jackie sees her husband murdered next to her – an act that in a second took her from most important woman in America to powerless private citizen – making plans to leave the White House with her children and taking control of the Kennedy legacy with an elaborate funeral procession and an interview with a leading journalist, though none of this takes place in order.

Watching Jackie as a concept, there are striking similarities with Danny Boyle’s 2015 Steve Jobs which, although not a major hit at the box office, was highly critically acclaimed and will come to be regarded as something of a modern masterpiece so adept was its shake-up of the genre. Biopics have long been about the lead actor having an opportunity to bid for award glory, and while the setting can be period-perfect, there’s not always that much meat on the secondary characters or exciting directorial elements to distract from the leading role.

But Steve Jobs was very different, not just in limiting its focus to three product launches but utilising a more theatrical approach to character and inserting the lead into a series of semi-recurring duologues with the fully-fleshed out people he had been close to. Character flaws were writ large, not swept under the carpet, as he bombarded and bulldozed his way through people’s objections and needs, and at no point do you think the character of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) presented in this film was any kind of hero as a traditional biopic would try to paint him. But what you do understand is that unpleasant though that was these particular traits were a fundamental precursor to his business success that came with a personal cost. You could hate him, most of the people he interacts with in the film don’t like him very much, but they admired him nonetheless.

Larrain has achieved a similar dynamic with Jackie as Natalie Portman’s character strives to create and defend a mythology in the hours and days after the assassination. It’s a film that also has much in common with Peter Landesman’s 2013 film Parkland which used a number of similar techniques to cover exactly the same period but followed the doctors, Secret Service agents and ordinary people of Dallas, including the man that captured the famous footage of the shooting, in the week after the assassination. A companion piece to Parkland then, we first see Jackie as the nervous but sweet Mrs Kennedy hosting a documentary tour around the White House on television, introducing the American people to the furnishings and historic artefacts she has taken some trouble, and great expense, to restore. Beneath the sugary resolve there is steel however and Portman excels at portraying a woman shocked and overcome by grief but still able to take the necessary steps to preserve their three year image as fairy-tale leaders. This is not the sweet fashion horse we’ve come to know but someone who is aware she has a tiny window of opportunity to create the Camelot myth and preserve her husband’s legacy amidst the White House treasures, before she and her family are unceremoniously turfed out.

As with the presentation of Steve Jobs, Jackie herself is highly imperfect and while there are tender moments as she breaks the news to her children, washes blood from her hair, is comforted by her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) or discusses her two lost children with her priest (a brilliant John Hurt in one of his final performances), she is also capable of incredible calculation at the most surprising moments. In one key scene, arriving back in Washington, her attendees offer to help her change but Jackie insists on stepping off the plane to meet the journalists and crowds, as well as walking back into the White House still wearing the splattered Chanel suit from Dallas, with her husband’s blood thickly smeared across the skirt from holding his dying head in her lap.

In her scenes with The Journalist, an excellent Billy Crudup, a week later she is the epitome of rehearsed calm and poise, but still slightly deadened from the shock. Yet she’s still playing-the-game, giving him morsels of juicy gossip and then refusing to let him use them; she wants him to know she knows the truth about her husband’s adultery and dodgy friends, but she chose to be somebody important and his philandering was just the cost of that. Portman and Larrain have cleverly detached Jackie from the years and layers of JFK’s own personality, death and conspiracy theories, to give her life and purpose of her own, not just the politician’s wife, but a woman who eventually breaks down in private, drinking, smoking (which The Journalist is not allowed to report) and saying goodbye to all the dresses and occasions she’d known as First Lady. Like Steve Jobs, Jackie was creating something that would exist beyond herself and the way character is revealed to the audience in both these movies is an important new direction for the biopic genre.

Central performances aside, what also separates these films from the pack is the way in which Boyle and Larrain avoid twee period-drama to give their characters a dynamic and richly detailed thematic setting. One of the joys of Steve Jobs as a film was the integration of visual elements of theatre and design that give insight into Jobs’s aesthetic concerns with beauty and simplicity, alongside the technological images that made aspects of the film seems as though they were taking place inside a computer. For example, backstage at the Opera House in the second launch, Jobs talks to his daughter on a gantry above a sea of cables and coloured lights, while at other times Boyle shows light reflecting from acoustic diffusors and through screens which feel like an operating system. Every image, every single detail has been carefully crafted to shape our perceptions of character, to see a fusion of art, culture and technology that was important to Jobs and his success. This attempt to couch the themes of the film in something other than the central character’s dialogue, allowing us to see the hand of the director, is an important shift in biopic production.

Larrain achieves the same effect in Jackie creating a visual world around her that aptly reflects and reinforces the semi-fictional image of her marriage she wants to present. In the vast maze-like grandeur of the White House, historic and beautifully appointed, Jackie must be worthy of it and make herself part of its history. But it’s a rather austere home, almost clinically clean and preserved, yet it reflects who Jackie becomes by the end, beautiful and perfect on the surface but home to a collection of painful experiences, of deaths and constant endings. Here, as with the borrowed home she meets The Journalist in, everything is remote, not quite relaxed. “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep” Jackie explains at one point, and you see that in the house too, no one ever stays for long, there’s always someone else to come, and Larrain gives that same sense of transitory ownership, of the White House dwarfing Jackie as she wanders around its corridors alone. For the new biopic then, setting is carefully created as character study, not just a factually accurate creation, but intrinsically part of what the film has to say and how it reflects the personalities and themes under discussion.

The new biopic is then all about scrutiny, not allowing its complicatedly human subjects to escape the critical glare of the viewer. Heroism isn’t the point anymore and while we may still appreciate an individual’s value and importance at the end of the movie, it is balanced by ideas of their frailty, darkness and blindness as well. These dynamically-directed, time-limited complex character-studies are far more than blanket tributes to the achievements of the famous, instead their newly fractured form, tells us that people are difficult, that they achieve great things but they lie or behave badly to cement their place in history. Steve Jobs and Jackie are important markers of a new wave of biopic production that not only examines the power of the individual life, but in the combination of various artistic and story-telling techniques, become a skilled and insightful piece of film-making as well.

Jackie is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1      


Making Nature: How We See Animals – Wellcome Collection

making-nature

Beatrix Potter stories, a trio of stuffed foxes frolicking in a faux wood, London Zoo and vial of mouse DNA all have one thing in common, they are projections of the way we see, interact and categorise animals. The Wellcome Collections latest exhibition considers how humans have imposed constructed categorisation on the natural world and, more recently, storified the role of other creatures in our lives. Making Nature: How We See Animals is the first part of a year-long programme on how humans interact with nature. And on the basis of this exhibition the Wellcome is opening up some fascinating debates.

Being top of the food chain and having the ability to consciously reason and control our behaviour is something humans have long seen as separating themselves from and assuring their superiority over other creatures. And despite growing research on the more varied communicative responses and learned behaviours in the animal kingdom, we have long categorised, defined and controlled the world around us. All of this began in earnest, this exhibition argues, in the eighteenth-century when scientists began to classify and rank creatures as international exploration considerably expanded our knowledge of the natural world.

The first section, then, looks at ‘Ordering’, centred around Carl Linneaus’s Systema Naturea published in 1735 which gave the two part Latin descriptions to all creatures that is still in use, and it is his idea of self-realisation that is the focus for this room. As ever with the Wellcome, the exhibition cleverly unites scientific and medical artefacts with art and culture pieces relevant to the period. Pictures borrowed from the V&A include a coloured photograph of the flower Linnaea Borealis from 1864 named after the scientist, and a poster for a ‘bearded-lady’ described as ‘half-human, half-animal’ who became famous for straddling the boundaries of classification.

In terms of scientific pieces, the Wellcome has Linneaus’s 1758 pressed fish specimen which he used in his species description that has been remarkably well preserved for its 250 years. Interestingly, the Wellcome explains that original pieces like this became known as the ‘type’ specimen against which future discoveries are compared and differentiated, so it’s quite interesting to see such a defining piece. And to add further to the idea of classification, Linneaus’s system is put into the context of other forms of ordering the animal kingdom including Charles Bonnet’s 1783 hierarchy that considered the idea of creatures moving up the system as they evolve and become more intelligent.

One curious aspect is how simply these apparently scientific systems sit alongside religious imagery and ideas, so while in the nineteenth-century evolution largely pushed aside the notion of one overall creator, somehow 100 years before the two sat easily side-by-side. So while Linneaus believed in natural theology, in Bonnet’s system, he sees humans progressing into angels, while Gérard Jean Baptiste Scotin II’s etching from Genesis shows Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden.

All of this is nicely mixed in with ideas of assumed ‘fake’ creatures like the duckbilled platypus which leads neatly into the second room on how ‘Displaying’ animals adds to the kinds of fiction we have created around the idea of their homes and habitats. This will certainly be an important room for taxidermy fans and as the idea of the diorama took off in the nineteenth-century museums of natural history sought to offer more ‘realistic’ presentations of their specimens in the wild.

As well as a curled-up badger on the floor which you should try not to step on, there is a family of playful foxes in a woodland scene in one of the cases, again mixing the notion of scientific depiction with the artistic and cultural transmission of knowledge to the public which the Wellcome does so well. But while such displays acted as a substitute for seeing the real thing, the exhibition argues that these images have created ‘stereotypes’ based on the ‘qualities and behaviours’ imposed on these animals by their creation which have affected and partially fictionalised our idea of these creatures.

From plans for the original Natural History Museum layout prepared by its first director Richard Owen to its cathedral-like architecture captured by watercolourist Alfred Waterhouse, the Wellcome forces the viewer to think about how the presentation and display of animals has been “designed”. The NHM building itself plays up associations with an overall creator, while Owen specifically rated the creatures by importance and ‘complexity’ from the centre of the museum, and later the dioramas on display in this room attempted to “teach by the eye” whether visitors were looking at a giant dinosaur park at Crystal Palace in the 1860s or humorous presentations of squirrels playing cards.

This bleeds seamlessly in to the next section on zoos and the fame accorded to individual creatures. In ‘Observing’ animals, zoos during the period the exhibition covers have veered between creating pseudo-natural habitats for their creatures to roam around in, and responding to the changing architectural interests of the day. London Zoo’s famous elephant house designed by Hugh Casson in 1964 was created to showcase the animals to the public rather than replicate their “normal” environment. And Casson’s now listed enclosure was in keeping with the brutalist designs of now equally famous culture centres like The National Theatre and the Barbican.

As a extension of this, the exhibition shows how humans project stories onto the existence of particular creatures developing ‘celebrities’ in the animal kingdom and ascribing a meaning and agency to their lives that animals do not experience. There are music sheets for a London Zoo elephant called Jumbo who eventually joined the circus and toys and merchandise celebrating the 1950s chimps tea parties which are the antecedents of ZSL’s popular animal adoption programmes and late night visiting opportunities, encouraging visitors to engage with its inhabitants more closely.

Part of this storification is usefully employed to aid conservation. There are images of bison taken by William Temple Hornaday in the late 1800s who hunted them in order to preserve these endangered creatures in the Smithsonian Institute – clearly not entirely understanding that by killing them, he was adding to their scarcity – while in the final room this idea of preservation has led to scientific experimentation with animal DNA to improve breeds or to solve human problems.

More than anything, this last section forces you to think about the varied and unconstrained power we have over the animal kingdom. From selective dog breeding to overriding natural birdsong by teaching them human tunes, to genetic engineering, redesigning, repurposing and adapting other creatures for human requirements is a fascinating and scary business. Focusing on the collection of the Pittsburg Center for Postnatural History, dedicated to organisms deliberately altered by humans, there are vials containing a ribless mouse embryo, photosensitive E.coli and a frog that can tell if you’re pregnant, sitting alongside selectively bred examples of King Charles spaniels, budgies and pigeons. The Wellcome makes no judgement on whether you think this is right or not, but while we all know it happens, seeing it so starkly gives you a lot to think about on the way home.

Arguable then, we don’t see animals clearly and in their own right, but as part of a socially constructed system of classification that for at least 300 years has influenced our mastery and dominance of nature. Seeing them as something less than us means we have cutesified their lives adding rationality and purpose they do not experience, and our continual dominance on the planet rests in modifying and adapting their genetic make-up to improve our own lifespan. The Wellcome’s new exhibition is a fascinating insight into our relationship with nature, beginning what promises to be an important year of complex debates.

Making Nature: How We See Animals is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 May 2017 and entrance is free. Galleries are closed on Mondays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: