Dreamgirls – Savoy Theatre

dreamgirls

Growing up, my house was always full of music, predominantly Motown, which even now always takes me back to being eight years old listening to my mum play her records. Stevie Wonder, Billy Ocean, Marvin Gaye all featured regularly but the artist I most remember hearing is Diana Ross, her silky, hauntingly romantic voice pleading with some unknown man to keep loving her while she looked unbelievably glamorous on the record covers. But most of this music came from Ross’s solo career, long after she left The Supremes to go it alone, as so many former band members seem to do, and it’s easy to forget how she got there.

The last couple of years in London have been a fantastic time for lovers of the origins of soul and RnB music, and the fight for equality with several plays and musicals that chart their development. From the Royal Court’s Father Comes Home from the Wars to The National Theatre’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Shepherd Bush Theatre’s The Royale, to all singing all dancing productions like Memphis, Motown The Musical and now Dreamgirls, these productions have shown us greater diversity by telling stories about the (largely American) experience of segregation, slavery and the role of music in breaking down racial divides. All of which have been reinforced by the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, as well as perfectly timed Black Star season of films currently at the BFI.

The shamefully late arrival of Dreamgirls in the UK may seem astonishing seeing as it premiered on Broadway 35 years ago, but actually it is, in many ways, perfectly timed to coincide with this growing momentum. The show, still in preview at the Savoy Theatre, will be a sensation combining an engaging semi-real story that utilises its songs to advance the characters emotions, with sequin-bedecked visuals – including sets and costume – that look as though they have stepped right out of one of Shirley Bassey’s dreams.

Ettie White is the leader of three-piece girl group The Dreamettes in 1960s America who enter a local talent competition in front of big record producers. But spotting the girls, manger Curtis has other ideas and wants them to sing backing vocals for established singer Jimmy Early rather than have their own career. As relationships form and tempers fray the group begins to separate and when they finally get the chance to go it alone, someone is left behind. The consequences are played out in the 1970s-set Act Two as we see what happens to the characters and whether any of them can ever really break free to pursue their dreams.

Perhaps unexpectedly, one of the most striking elements of the show is just how much it deals with the experience of the men surrounding the group and as many of the scenes are about them and their struggle for political and musical acceptance as about the development of the group. Central to the changing dynamics of the plot is the character of Curtis Taylor loosely modelled on Berry Gordy, the former manager of The Supremes, who is both the key to the success of the Dreamgirls and eventually the one holding them back.

The 60s and 70s were still a period when men ruled the world and certainly the music industry, and as this show suggests the same was still true in the black community. Curtis’s world is entirely about fulfilling his dream to merge soul music into something with a pop focus that will make it more tenable to the Hit Parade – gaining radio play and traction among a white-dominated industry. Joe Aaron Reid’s performance makes the character ambiguous enough that you hate his methods but admire his attempt to pioneer musical cross-over, as well as having a degree of sympathy for his motives. Boxing drama The Royale recently asked whether a few casualties are worth it if you start to chip away at the wall and create heroes, and I think Dreamgirls, perhaps unexpectedly, has some of that political edge in places.

While many will be here for Amber Riley, the finest and most intriguing performances of the night comes from Adam J Bernard as Jimmy Early, the soul singer whose backing group begins to outstrip him. Already nominated for a Whats On Stage award, despite the show still being in preview which only started a week before nominations were announced, Bernard’s scene stealing performance as the confident diva becomes increasingly sympathetic and multi-layered. His character is a metaphor for the treadmill nature of fame, where stars strive for years to “make-it”, shine briefly before being unceremoniously spat-out by the industry and left struggling for an audience. Bernard’s Jimmy has an Elvis-like sex-appeal which gives his songs considerable dynamism, but he struggles to contain his personality and soul-roots to conform to white ideas of music which add a valuable contrast to the success of the Dreamettes.

The story of the female characters is two-fold, seen both as an issue of race – forcing them to change their look, set-up and style of music – and ideas of gender relations being played out in their narratives, as the men in their lives control and direct them, regardless of their burgeoning fame.  Ettie (Amber Riley) may be the original lead but her sass and overconfidence are ultimately her undoing. There is a lot of talk of dreams being stolen throughout the production, with Curtis reminding Diana Ross-based Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) repeatedly that she is fulfilling his dream to produce the kind of music he wants, while Ettie sees Deena living the life she aspired to, yet Deena’s plans to act remain unfulfilled. Likewise third member Lorell (Ibinabo Jack) embarks on an eight-year affair with the married Jimmy when all she wants is to settle down with him. So, based on the decision made by men in the more restrictive society of the 60s and 70s, for much of the production the women are hampered by things outside of their control.

With another week of previews much can change but the production is already a gratifying one for audiences with Riley’s performance as Ettie enthusiastically received. Each Dreamette gets a few solos and Riley’s character has a number of emotional belters that have the audience clapping and whooping from the start. In fairness to the production, Riley’s star power doesn’t overwhelm it and Casey Nicholaw’s direction blends scenes smoothly to ensure the action resumes rapidly, so it really is a team effort telling a story rather than a concert for Riley which it could have become. And pleasingly as the narrative continues the audience begins to show equal appreciation for all the leads because there are some genuinely superb vocal performances particularly from LaFrontaine and Bernard as well as Riley.

With any musical you always want a spectacle and visually Dreamgirls more than delivers the goods. Set designer Tim Hately has created two contrasting worlds with a simple, pared-down set, largely in black for the pre-fame storylines, while his staging of the big concert numbers are full of colour and sparkle. Gregg Barnes’s stunning costumes and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting combine well with Hately’s vision to emphasis the shows core themes, while being practical enough to allow for speedy changes and rapid removal of podia and glitter-curtains.

All of that clearly costs a lot to run, and ticket prices are the big concern with this one. Even in preview, a restricted view seat at the back of the stalls costs the best part of £45 including ATG’s exorbitant booking fees, while those nearer the stage will have parted with £60 to £80 for a single seat. It’s pretty much sold out through December when after press nights the best seats will be £145 while even Grand Circle seats at the very back are £40, all plus booking fee. There is a ticket lottery however and a lucky few may get front row seats for £15 but this will be an expensive night for everyone else.

Dreamgirls is predominately a plot-focused piece so there isn’t always enough time to linger on emotional depth and consequences of events, but the songs and performances give enough of a hint to make the characters more rounded. Yet the overall effect is impressive and at times dazzling. In just over a week’s time the critics will have their say, but audiences are already on their feet about this one. It may have taken 35 years to reach the West End but its central messages are as relevant now as they were in 1981. It may be a bubbly musical, but it has plenty to say about inequality and not letting others stand in your way – and with the year we’ve had, that’s something we all need to hear.

Dreamgirls is at the Savoy Theatre until 6 May and tickets start at £20, although deals are available from other vendors, and a ticket lottery is in operation. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Cymbeline – RSC at the Barbican

cymbeline-royal-shakespeare-company

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most derided plays, coming quite late in his career (1609) and offering a top-heavy mish-mash of subplots that are never satisfactorily resolved. In some ways it’s like a greatest hits album of his most recognisable plots and techniques cherry-picked from his earlier successes, but thrown together in a bag and shaken about to form another story entirely, one that unfortunately is far less than the sum of its parts.

There’s some star-crossed lovers right out of Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), a maligned female reputation which questions her virtue like Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9), a warrior King who struggles to trust his children (King Lear, 1605-6), some lost siblings and a chance for some female-to-male disguise like Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and people escaping into the magical woods where they meet some common folk as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6). By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare clearly knew what his audience enjoyed but the jumbling-up of stories with very little poetry is one of his more lacklustre and dense efforts.

Although rarely performed, London has welcomed two major productions in a matter of months; The Globe’s modern reinterpretation which has set the seal on Emma Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director, and the RSC dystopian production which arrived in London at the end of October for a two month run and recasts the titular King as a Queen. Cymbeline is the not-so-straightforward story of an ancient British princess called Innogen who has married her lover Posthumus against the wishes of her mother Cymbeline who then banishes Posthumus to Rome. Here, he enters into a bet with Roman, Iachimo ,who tricks him into believing Innogen has betrayed him.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline is guarding the throne from internal plotters while facing a possible Roman invasion. Meanwhile out in the woods, her two lost children are being raised by a woodsman unaware of their royal status. As Innogen is accused by her husband, she decides to dress as a man and sets off in search him, leaving the three sets of characters to mix at a volatile time for Britain.

The RSC’s production is a pretty mixed affair and in many ways it makes a fairly decent job of envisaging what is a poorly constructed play with relatively little character depth. It starts off really well and the first half rattles along quite efficiently and with a decent amount of tension as the drama of Iachimo’s attempts to upset Innogen’s marriage creates plenty of intrigue and villainy. If you’ve seen enough of the Shakespeare plays listed above then you’ll pretty much know where all of this is going but its credit to Melly Still’s direction that you remain engaged and entertained nonetheless.

Much of this is due to Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Iachimo who manages to avoid becoming a finger-drumming panto villain as he develops and executes his plan to smear Innogen’s reputation. When he meets Posthumus in Rome he is every bit the swarve Italian, impeccably dressed and coiffured, and casually bantering with his attendants. Confident he can seduce Innogen before he meets her, he is pleasantly surprised to find her beautiful but also intellectually his equal, and you sense in Johnstone’s performance that Iachimo begins to fall for her, eager to fulfil the bet and keep her for himself. It adds unusual depth to the scenes between them and like Kinnear’s Iago at the National a few years back you might will him to succeed.

One reason for this is the less successful relationship between Innogen and Posthumus upon which much of the play hinges, and here the company fail to really sell this at the start so the audience never quite believes in their passion for one another. Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumus is an underwhelming presence, never seemingly a physical or intellectual match for Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen, and so easily led during his exile that it’s difficult for an audience to generate any sympathy for the lovers which fatally undermines the dynamic and drive of the play.

By contrast Cullinane makes for a modern and intriguing heroine, determinedly knowing her own mind and, despite being heir, she is happy to go against her parent’s wishes. The teasing relationship Cullinane’s Innogen develops with Johnstone has considerably more depth than the flatter romance with her husband which adds considerably to the tension in the attempted seduction scene giving it a ‘will they, won’t they’ momentum. But throughout Cullinane balances the emotional introspection as Innogen contemplates life without her lover, with the anger and frustration created by being wrongly accused.

Among the rest of the cast there is a mixture of ability, ranging from those who speak the verse very naturally to those who struggle to find its rhythm, and none of this is helped by the characterisation which often lacks depth – although this is Shakespeare’s own fault. And there are some problems with projection which make it difficult to hear even at the back of the stalls so it’s probably considerably worse in the balcony.

To say it’s difficult to care is an understatement, and even a fair amount of gender-switching which works perfectly well, isn’t used to any particularly effect. Gillian Bevan makes a good fist as warrior queen Cymbeline but spends most of the production stomping around in Ugg boots and a dressing gown, while her second husband, the evil Duke, is given a nice platform by James Clyde but somehow the machinations to overthrow the monarch are never clearly articulated in this production, especially in the first half where the romance takes precedence.

Even Anna Fleischle’s visuals are a little inconsistent which adds to the confusion; The British court seems somewhere between a post-revolution dystopia and a steampunk fantasy world. The walls are covered in graffiti and the place looks quite beaten up, and the costumes suggest a court fallen from its previous glory, including a ragged denim outfit worn by Innogen whose ruffles and puffs are tattered and torn, while the Queen struts around in her nightie. Simultaneous scenes in the woods borrow from the Lost Boys while Rome is firmly set in the 1980s with a Miami Vice look that celebrates slicked back hair and blazers.

It’s actually all a bit confused which makes it much harder to place, raising considerably more questions than it answers – why is Britain in a post-holocaust state and not Rome, what possible major even could have decimated one country without affecting a reasonably near neighbour? It would be perfectly sensible if Britain was pre-civilisation and Rome was on its way as a conqueror but it’s clearly meant to be after some kind of war-like disaster so the reason for this difference is a little vague.

And towards the end as much of the action decamps to the forest the whole things gets a bit Peter Pan with vine trails and hideaways that undermine the danger of a fragile community fending off attempted regicide and succession issues, and starts to feel more like a cheery frolic as families are reunited and political issues resolved. Towards the end, after nearly 3½ hours the whole thing starts to feel very laboured as all the threats dry up and the tension created by Iachimo’s villainous plans splutters to a weak conclusion.

Again much of this is Shakespeare’s fault because Cymbeline is a hotchpotch of half realised plots and poorly delineated characters. Initially the RSC’s production manages to paper over some of the cracks with a show that starts strong, with some very good performances that add layers to the characters, as well as an intriguing vision of a society in decline. Yet, this production feels sluggish and unconvincing in the second half as the plot becomes rather flabby and the tone shifts from political intrigue to fantasy adventure romp which all feels rather thinly conceived. A decent effort by the RSC but it’s not going to salvage Cymbeline’s reputation as a play or have you hurrying to see the play again in the future.

Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17th December. Tickets start at £10 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined – The Barbican

vulgar

Taste is a very personal thing, something we use to assess our attitudes to the outside world, to determine whether something is decent, appropriate or aesthetically pleasing. But, our tastes can also be used against us, to define what we kind of person we are and the effectiveness of our judgement. To have good taste is not just about individual satisfaction but it sends an outward signal to the world about who we are – one key element of taste is a sense of collective agreement, having others to reinforce your ideas. With this in mind the Barbican has opened an exhibition it claims celebrates the antithesis of taste, vulgarity.

Having now seen the exhibition, I have to admit to being to being rather perplexed by the use of the word “vulgar” in association with the exhibits and arguments on display here. It opens with a determination to reclaim the word and return it to its earlier associations where it meant commonplace or vernacular, and a determination to show how fashion ‘revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste.’ There is very little here that, to my mind, fits our notion of the word vulgar which, aside from its original meaning, now has a prevailing association with the coarse, crass and crude.

While I see what the Barbican is trying to do, it seems the word vulgar was chosen more for its intriguing appeal on a poster than for its actual and clearly defined application to the exhibits and themes of this exhibition. It may get people through the door but the concept feels over-intellectualised which for all its reasoning and the explanatory text by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, just doesn’t make sense in the context of what you see. Instead, what this show is about are the perhaps less attention grabbing concepts of populism and fashionability, exploring the line between societal changes and clothing, and whether fashion creates or reflects new modes of living, particularly when dealing with the outrageous or unconventional.

A centrepiece on the Ground Floor is a large collection of dresses from or inspired by the eighteenth-century fashion for large hooped skirts, ruffles and shaped bodices that transformed the female form by extending the hips, flattening the bosom and slimming the waist to almost unnatural proportions. The argument here is that etiquette books offered young women a modest and genteel guide to dressing appropriately suggesting that extravagance in size and adornment of dress was the antithesis of good breeding and elegance. Yet, these are quotes from the late nineteenth-century guides while the pieces on display are clearly eighteenth-century, more than 100 years before when the way taste and fortune were displayed was quite different.

Those considered to be leaders of ‘polite society’ such as the famous Duchess of Devonshire and the Whig crowd, certainly took fashionable interpretation to excess with enormous expensive dresses and unmanageably tall wigs that often represented their political allegiances, and what this exhibition doesn’t tell you is the fame and recognition that excess created was used to promote interests in politics, science and patronise the arts. By the definitions of this exhibition and guides from a century later, these people were ‘vulgar’. But the historical record doesn’t really back this up. In fact while the extravagance of “The Ton” – the nickname for the Duchess and her cronies – was gently mocked in the press, their influence on fashion, concepts of taste and modes of living among those considered ‘well-bred’ was more celebrated than derided. And the purpose of such styles was to display their wealth and influence.

It created a trickle-down effect through society that only suggests vulgarity in the old-fashioned sense – the popularisation of something that was once the preserve of an elite. And as this room goes on to show, the effect of that influence continues to resonate in fashion today with stunning modern pieces by John Galliano, Gucci and Vivienne Westwood who have frequently drawn on the eighteenth-century shapes and fabrics for inspiration. Sitting alongside some beautifully embellished wide-hipped ‘Mantua’ originals, Westwood created a spectacular jade green full-skirted Watteau dress with black trim inspired by the era. You can’t wear it to Tesco but it’s hardly vulgar in either sense, haute couture is certainly not populist nor can the artistry, detail and beauty of it be considered coarse or crude.

Rather than shoe-horning these clothes into a pre-set definition of vulgarity and taste – labels which of themselves change over time – adding more historical context can explain a great deal about why particular fashions and preferences for excess or simplicity emerged, based on the social, political, economic and cultural experience of the era as well as how they were used by individuals to create personal influence. And that is something clearly missing from this show.

One of the issues here is that most of the clothes on display are specifically avant-garde or haute couture where there is an argument that they are created as pieces of art, not intended to be widely worn, self-selected for this exhibition by virtue of their outrageousness, and thus not representative of “fashion” in the sense of a ready-to-wear designer collection or a high-street off-the-peg offering. And while some exhibits represent those categories, the distinction (ie. the purpose of creating that specific item), is not made clear enough, never mind whether it can be classed as vulgar or not (in whatever sense).

If you take away the entire structure of this exhibition, you’re left with a collection of interesting and eclectic items which are actually nice to see. Borrowing from Pop Art influences there is a Moschino evening gown that looks like it’s made from sweet wrappers, while sitting next to it a short yellow number is also printed with packaging images, while a paper dress from the 60s has a pattern of Campbell’s soup adverts (which you can also see in the V&A’s Records and Rebels show). These, as I suggest above, showcase the intersection of design and populist influences from the fun movements of the times, but are arguably not created to be widely worn.

Similarly the show opens with some beautiful Grecian inspired dresses which the blurb rather pretentiously interprets as ‘the imitation of classical culture… reimagined in a vernacular tongue’, as well as later displaying some puritan lace collars and seventeenth-century stomachers that defy the label of vulgarity. Like the eighteenth century clothes this suggest an ongoing interest in the way in which draping, cut and shape can create a fluidity around the body that again reflects the political attitudes to femininity in the era they were created rather than a mere vulgarisation of ancient styles.

And then there’s the outfits that are truly avant-garde, created as part of a wider collection and never seriously intended to be worn. In a section on royalty entitled ‘impossible ambition’ there are Dior outfits inspired by the short-like pantaloons and ermine trimmed jacket worn by Henry VIII in his famous Holbein portrait, as well as a Viktor and Rolf flared red dress with accompanying wheat and flowers headpiece inspired by Van Gogh in a section on ‘Too Big’, while a Walter van Beirendonck elephant skirt is reminiscent of those emu costumes with fake legs that 70s comedians used to wear at the Royal Variety Performance. Yet, none of this is vulgar; silly yes, playful certainly, but vulgar not really.

For the most part, the Barbican delivers excellent value with its art and photography exhibitions which are usually smart and informative without being pompous, and I think that is the problem here – the intellectualising in the written descriptions is just a bit too pleased with itself, a tad smug. This attempt to unpack the concepts of taste and vulgarity could have been achieved more simply and in a way that matched the outfits chosen with the historical, social and cultural context of their creation. So go for the clothes, enjoy the chance to see detailed craftsmanship, artistry and glamour of designer work, but don’t worry about the concept – it doesn’t make any sense anyway.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican until 5 February 2017. Tickets cost £14.50 and there are concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   


Paul Nash – Tate Britain

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Paul Nash was one of the most revered and influential war artists of the twentieth-century, producing work across the two world wars that deliberately painted a “truthful” picture of the nature of the conflicts he served in. And it has been a very long time since he was given a proper retrospective in the UK which Tate Britain has rectified with their new show that unites his war art with a considerable number of pieces which flirt with ideas of surrealism and mysticism.

The Tate claims that this show will ‘reveal Nash’s important to modern art’ – which is something I think we already knew – and in its thematic layout charts Nash’s changing interests in landscapes, still life, surrealism and his involvement in particular exhibitions and artistic movements. For some reason, modern galleries seem particularly afraid of showing work in chronological order, and the Tate’s themed approach implies separation between all these elements of Nash’s work, whereas if you look at the dates these pieces reveal he was trying out several different approaches simultaneously. And with varying degrees of success; an artist who, I would argue, needed the drive of war to shape the emotional impact and style of his work.

Launched at the end of this summer’s Somme commemorations and to coincide with Remembrance Day, this exhibition will largely attract those interested in Nash’s superb images of conflict, which surprisingly are few and far between. It opens with some pre-First World War mysticism images influenced by William Blake and Gabriel Rossetti which are a charming introduction to the exhibition and reiterate the notion that the V&A suggested in their fantastic Constable show two years ago, that artists initially learn by copying the style of their forebears, something you can see in Nash’s approach.

But for many the second room ‘We are Making a New World’ will be a key draw and here Nash’s experience in the First World War led to some of the most important and extraordinary paintings of the era. By Nash’s own admission, he saw himself as a “messenger who will bring back word… to those who want the war to last forever”, and in his fantastic oil paintings, full of drama, suffering and devastation he does exactly that. On display, and dominating the room, is ‘The Menin Road’ which he painted on commission from the Ministry of Information to feature in an exhibition of remembrance which was never created. It shows two soldiers running between craters filled with water and shell-damaged trees, with two beams of light shining through the clouds – either referencing God or canons depending on your interpretation. Also in the room is the painting that gives this section its title, depicting ravaged trees on an undulating red landscape as the sun beams through the clouds – no people, just nature, one of Nash’s core themes. There’s also a nicely executed, and rarely seen, image of stretcher bearers carrying soldiers in Passchendale, entitled ‘Wounded’ which contrasts the smoky lightness of the sky and its reflections in the water – often a feature of Nash’s work – with the brown ravaged landscape and people.

Yet from here it all starts to go a bit wrong and what follows are several rooms that zig zag across the 1920s and 30s taking in a large amount of Nash’s work that covers several types of expression… the trouble is, on the whole most of it is just not very good and the space the Tate has given to it is rather unnecessary. In Room 3, ‘Places’ the focus is on Nash’s post-war obsession with particular locations, views of the countryside and places like Dymchurch by the sea. Strangely in the same picture you can see a clash of highly skilled work and elements that are mediocre at best if not bordering on amateur. In one scene Nash paints the edge of a barn with clusters of trees around it, and while the trees are distinctively Nash, going right back to his pre-war styles of lollipop foliage and cutting the tops in straight-ish lines, the building itself has an off perspective, crudely drawn and sitting uncomfortably in the foreground. Similarly a particular poor image of Dymchurch promenade gets the straight lines of the walk all wrong, while the sea is full and vivid.

While the Tate is trying to make the case that Nash’s work in these new avenues is important and varied, by contrast – if you defy the layout and take the work chronologically – you see an artist who is experimenting with style and form alongside his more recognisable landscapes and natural subjects, managing to produce work which is highly variable in quality. By ramming it together thematically, the Tate makes Nash look like a poorer artists than maybe he is, whereas he was just doing lots of things but found his core purpose and focus in times of war.

There are still some accomplished pieces in these rooms including a series of plant paintings which have a delicate simplicity reminiscent of early twentieth-century French styles, which are more naturalistic and display Nash’s ability to compose nature in more angular forms. One series shows a vase of flowers set against a window which are particularly good, while another sets the same vase on a table which angles against a bookcase and is extremely effective. Take these alongside the 1930 picture ‘Wood on the Downs’, an almost sculpted copse, against flowing hillsides, this reiterates the idea that Nash hadn’t abandoned his First World War style but continued it alongside rather than instead of other approaches.

There’s a whole section devoted to Unit One, a group of artists who exhibited everything from painting to photography at an exhibition in the mid-1930s, which contains more work by other people than by Nash himself which only delays your progress to the Second World War where once again the Nash we know and admire finally comes to the fore. His obsession with aircraft by this time results in a number of important and beautifully constructed works of British and German planes crashing into the tree-filled landscape including ‘Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park’.

While the Tate doesn’t seem to have gotten hold of ‘The Battle of Britain’ it does have what could be considered Nash’s finest picture ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’, an image he took from a real life graveyard for broken Allied and enemy planes. In this picture the angular wings and edges of the planes, peak and wave across the picture, their ruined grey-blue exteriors glinting in the moonlight as they seem to crash against the sandy bank. Although the curators argue that this picture has come from Nash’s surrealist work in the 1930s, on the contrary it sits consistently among his fascination with landscape, water and movement that go back beyond the First World War.

It ends with a bit of whimper unfortunately, some more surrealist stuff that explores the sun and moon, some of which is produced before the stunning war work in the previous room. Nothing here really catches the eye and seems a shame to send people home with this as a final image. The work here – including ‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’ which looks like a mug and a sun, as well as ‘Flight of the Magnolia’ which has an unfolding flower and an egg-shaped structure – is a little underwhelming, but again shows that Nash was doing this work as well as producing his stunning Second World War pictures, which frankly should have ended this show.

Paul Nash was a very fine war artist but on the basis of this exhibition, it’s hard to consider the effect of his work on anything else. Possibly just the curation is at fault here, but Nash was clearly a man who found his greatest expression in wartime when the emotional and physical consequences of his experiences gave rise to some of the greatest work of the last century. Yet while he continued to experiment with other forms, I’m not convinced the Tate full backs-up its claim that his influence is equally felt in these areas. With a lot of not that interesting work given a lot of space, this is not the Nash show it could have been. This show is going on tour to Salisbury and Newcastle in 2017, but rather than pay £16.50 to see his brilliant war work, just wait till they’re back in the Imperial War Museum when you can see them for free.

Paul Nash is at Tate Britain until 5 March 2017. Tickets cost £16.50 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: Arrival

Arrival

Many of the biggest blockbusters of recent years have been about life beyond the stars and since the first space expeditions of the mid-twentieth century popular culture has continually celebrated ideas of space travel, whether larking through time and space with Dr Who or fighting the forces of good and evil in Star Wars. Yet while we may think that these are all about our desire to encounter alien life, space films are actually all about humanity. Wondering what’s out there focuses our fears of loneliness and isolation while imagined encounters with other beings helps to clarify what it means to be human.

Nowhere is this more true than the latest space blockbuster, Arrival, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival and considers how the use of language and science contributes to our way of interpreting the world. Now a film about linguistics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Arrival neatly integrates existential chat about the meaning and expression of life with the very human story of two academics bringing a restraining hand to the world’s trigger-happy military leaders.

In Denis Villeneuve’s film 12 mysterious spaceships arrive one day at seemingly random locations across the world. These tall cylindrical objects imply a mass alien invasion and a threat to the population of the world’s largest countries. Each contains two enormous squid-like aliens who have a message for the earth, yet, in order to understand their demands, scientists in each country must learn to interpret their language, and for that America, at least, calls on Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a leading academic linguist who must work with mathematician Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to develop a relationship with their two invaders in order to decode their purpose and save the world.

The most notable thing about Arrival is seeing not just a female lead, who takes precedence over the numerous male military figures and experts, but one who is both intelligent and entirely credible – nicely written by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story. Adams plays Louise as a normal woman, albeit one who appears to be suffering from some kind of painful memory intrusion, who is excellent at her job, authoritative in her advice, increasingly brave and always appropriately dressed for her life. Thankfully, as is the wont of many of these kinds of film,  we don’t see her tottering around in tight skirts and high heels, but she looks and feels the part in comfortable combat trousers and checked shirts, minimal make-up and tied back hair – in short a breath of much needed air in the presentation of women in action films.

Louise is there and respected entirely for the professional experience she brings to the team and when her theories prove sound again and again, the surrounding men, for the most part, accept her superior knowledge and do as she asks. Now none of this is shoe-horned in, and it’s not a film specifically designed to present a female lead in this light – the movie is telling a reasonably straight-forward story of an alien landing and the subsequent interaction – but in plethora of Hollywood films, Louise stands out as one of the very few realistic and thoughtfully created characters whose gender is entirely irrelevant to her ability to do her job as well as anyone else in the room.

And all of this is in no small way down to Adams’s interpretation of the character, and, given she largely carries the film, brings a sensitivity to the role that adds considerably to the audience’s engagement. We see things from her perspective so from the early confusion created at the university to the slow process of gaining the alien’s trust and gently probing their understanding and use of language, we experience her wonder, frustration and sense of achievement as time passes.

By contrast Jeremy Renner has very little to do as the military mathematician side-kick and his character is rather less well fleshed out. Naturally he bumbles around at first emitting masculine certainty about the importance of science but as time and experience with the aliens begins to prove, Banks’s way is the right one, Donnelly softens considerably towards her. Renner does what he does well and as the relationship between the leads becomes increasingly involved you begin to root for their success, but other than a providing a contrast to Louise’s easier style, the role is a reasonably thankless one.

Similarly Forest Whitaker and the rest of the military crowd are expectedly bolshie and self-important. The contrast between the force of military might and insistence that the aliens must only have dastardly intent, with Louise’s softly-softly approach is well drawn, but as ever in these films the homogeneity of military force feels as faceless and instant as usual. This is equally played out across the world as the affected nations initially share data via video conference but soon begin to fracture as their own scientists make discoveries that scare them into potentially dangerous action. How this evolves is one of the key messages of the film and again reiterates the central importance of Louise’s approach in resolving the confusion presented by the random appearance of alien craft.

Villeneuve’s direction is most valuable and subtle in the encounters between the humans and the aliens, which takes place within their ship, separated (or protected) by an impenetrable barrier that keeps them for doing each other harm. These become surprisingly affecting moments as Louise and Ian’s initial fear of the alien form becomes a more scientific fascination with unearthing the root of their language and developing an unexpected bond with them.

Arguably they cut too frequently and too sharply between these interactions and life back at base, so the prolonged contact with the visitors is sacrificed to a need to show the rapid passing of time, but Marc Reichel’s special effects are incredibly atmospheric. The physical shape of the aliens in their form of part-squid part-tree-trunk with long spindly roots will invariably disappoint some but it’s a good decision to cloud them in a smoky fog which should allow the special effects to last longer without looking too dated, while adding to the sense of mystery that propels this film.

Far from being a film about the appearance of aliens, Arrival is more about the human approach to solving a particularly important and complex riddle. Part of that is about science and knowledge, painstakingly constructing all the information you need to make an informed decision while constantly rethinking your approach. Yet what this film really wants to emphasise is the importance of working together and sharing more unusual ideas in order to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems. And whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change, poverty, financial crises or any other world-level problem, Arrival is a space film that’s full of heart about the world we know.

Arrival received its European premiere at the London Film Festival. It opens in the US and the UK on 10 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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