History is Now – Hayward Gallery

This year a few London Galleries are mostly interested in the stories behind works of art and particularly what drives or influences the artists to create the pieces they do. The Barbican’s ‘Magnificent Obsessions’ exhibition exploring the personal collections of individual artists will be reviewed here soon, but first the Hayward has, with varying success, asked 7 artists to curate a section on Britain in the last 70 years, bringing together other pieces or collections that have inspired them.

Somehow the intention is to show us both more about work that influences the curator-artist and about our long-standing debate over the meaning of Britishness since the Second World War. And just looking at the array of works on display here in the six sections it is no wonder that it is such a difficult concept to pin down when themes include consumerism, science, poverty and conflict. Given the range of topics, each section seems like its own mini-exhibition and there as many ideas or definitions of Britain as you could imagine. Although it’s not clear what the overall message of the exhibition is, nor is the idea of impasse in our concept of nationality a particularly new or surprising conclusion, but that doesn’t mean that the individual voices aren’t worth hearing.

It begins with some of the more successfully curated areas – first Simon Fujiwara brings together a seemingly random collection of pieces that fit with his own work on modernity, technology and celebrity culture all arranged in methodical rows of white box-like plinths – although look closely and you’ll see that one of these is actually a pop-art style chest freezer. Two of the biggest draws will be a costume worn by Meryl Streep when she played Margaret Thatcher which interestingly is folded-up rather than displayed on a dummy, and Sam Taylor-Wood’s video of David Beckham asleep which is as unremarkable as it sounds – I understand it’s a comment on our celebrity-obsessed culture and increasing invasion of privacy but meh! The artist has also included a scale model of the ArcelorMittal Orbit technically a sculpture in the former Olympic Park (also worth a visit) and a home video of himself as a child performing in a school production of Mary Poppins which is slightly creepy as the child voices fill this part of gallery infecting your perspective on other works.

Next up Jane and Louise Wilson presents some very different pieces on architecture and conflict including photographs and diaries from Greenham Common Peace Camp showing protestors cutting down fences. There’s also interesting photographs of inscriptions on walls in Northern Ireland – although if we’re being really pedantic, this is technically part of the United Kingdom and not Britain, emphasising a wider problem with the use of “British” as a catch-all term often synonymised with ‘English’ to incorrectly refer to other parts of the UK. It’s no wonder we don’t know who we are if we can’t even use the right labels. The most interesting piece here is a large cage containing a number of filled gloves suspended from its bars, commenting on the number of unemployed people in the 1980s prevented from using those hands to work. I really liked this, seemingly random at first glance but actually making a bold social statement. I also liked the next section curated by Hannah Starkey mixing commercial advertising with Arts Council pictures with similar themes.

Upstairs Richard Wentworth has the most tightly curated section focusing on militarism and the consequences of warfare since 1945, including things as diverse as The Art of War and missile launch plans – including a large decommissioned surface-to-air missile on the outside terrace seemingly trained on the City.  Wentworth is also fascinated by the seaside and the lives of ordinary people in the aftermath of conflict and there are lots of beach scenes including two stunning Paul Nash paintings, the first a triumphant Battle of Britain with curls of smoke above the sea, and the second even better picture of scrapped German planes where the outlines of the grey/blue wings together look like waves against sand. There are also a number of interesting Henry Moore pieces, a very nice Lowry as well as a “mood-wall” of images, art works, book covers and diagrams printed on pieces of paper showing the various influences on the post-war world. It’s a fascinating comment on the evolution of a militaristic society and the politics of fear that governed decision-making in the cold-war era and arguably even now.

The least successful part of this collection focuses on BSE and brings together pictures of livestock with scientific reports and newspaper articles. This is the pet project of artist Roger Hiorns whose detailed research is rather too evident in this overwhelming space, crowded with signs, documents and information. He’s clearly trying to make a strong point but there’s so much going on, a mix-between a laboratory and ‘science museum’ feel that rather than read and engage with everything, you just want to walk through it to the real art. I felt the same about John Akomfrah’s video collection upstairs. I’ve never been one for video art I’m afraid (as you may tell from my meh shrug at David Beckham sleeping) and while I’m sure this is all very important from the descriptions I wasn’t sure what the collection was saying.  I’m sure others will feel differently, but these sections were just not for me.

The Hayward is a gallery I always like, which combines a lot of interesting work with innovative approaches to displaying it, and thankfully a relatively quiet place to see them. There’s a lot of interesting pieces here which are worth a visit, but I have to admit on the whole I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of their earlier displays. Part of it is perhaps a coherence problem and while it’s interesting to have multiple curators, I didn’t leave feeling I learnt anything overarching about artistic response to Britishness in the past 70 years (other than its diversity) or having discovered that much about the artist-curators or even why those 7 people were chosen. As reasonably priced exhibitions go, this is ok, lots of interesting things to see but given the considerable literature on British identity post-Empire, perhaps not as coordinated as I had hoped.

History is Now is at the Hayward Gallery until 26 April 2015. Tickets cost £10.90 without donation and concessions are available.

A View from the Bridge – Wyndhams Theatre

Independently The Young Vic and the Wyndhams have been having quite a run of form with back-to-back critically acclaimed productions, so it was only a matter of time before they joined forces. Last year the Wyndhams played host to Cary Mulligan’s West End debut alongside Bill Nighy in the impressive Skylight, followed by the Charles III transferring from the Almeida, and will soon welcome Damien Lewis and Jon Goodman in American Buffalo. The Young Vic too had hit after hit, notably a pulsating Streetcar Named Desire and this remarkable version of A View from the Bridge, undoubtedly the best production of last year, transferring to the Wyndhams for a brief and welcome reprise.

It’s pretty rare for me to give an unequivocal five stars to any production and to do so twice in less than a year is unheard of, which should give you some indication of how very special this production is. Some give out five star reviews quite readily, but honestly I can think of only four productions I’ve ever seen that I would say were genuinely five star. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of really great shows and some of our finest actors which I’ve really enjoyed, but a truly five star production is something more than good acting/script/production values or the frisson of seeing a famous star, it has something I can only describe as an added ‘magic’. It means you don’t just empathise with the characters you live it with them – at the risk of sounding even more pretentious, the play becomes transcendental and nothing else exists except what’s happening on that stage.

It’s interesting then having been fulsome in my praise of this production last year to have the chance to watch it again. How could it possibly live up to that expectation, surely I couldn’t feel the same about it now I’d seen all the tricks? But in all honesty, this is every bit as incredible as it was last May, gripping, emotionally wrought and utterly mesmerising. It’s the story of Eddie Carbone, a dock worker living happily in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge with his wife and teenage niece. As the play opens the niece Catherine has a new job and Eddie’s dilemma begins; he wants to protect her and has in mind a glorious future she deserves, perhaps in Manhattan – a future that a woman in her position is unlikely to attain. Their situation is further muddied when Catherine falls in love with Rodolpho who is working illegally in the US and living with the Carbones. What follows is an epic struggle where Eddie, a man who ‘never knew he had a destiny’ finds he cannot escape it.

So much about Ivo van Hove’s interpretation is so simple, just the actors and the words in a confined space to emphasise the inevitability of what is happening to them, as well as the limitations of their community. Where innovations are used, they enhance the storytelling rather than distract, and it’s great to see the design transfer so successfully from the Young Vic. There, this was performed on a three-sided thrust stage and the Wyndhams only has a proscenium arch, but the giant black-box remains with the lid rising up instead of a curtain to reveal the players caught inside. And this does mean that incredibly ending is retained– I’m not going to spoil this for you, but it’s every bit as bold and electrifying as last year. And the Wyndhams have cleverly added four rows of stage seating in the wings which means you get right up close to the action and I recommend booking these if you can for that all-involving experience as well as a bit of potential celebrity spotting- Rupert Everett was nearby when I went.

Seeing this for the second time gave me a better chance to see the various layers of performance and although I referenced the themes of masculinity and honour in my previous review, these elements came across even more strongly this time, through Eddie’s competitive boxing with the young Rodolpho and mocking his looks and singing, designed to show Catherine he’s somehow less of a man. Even a small scene when Eddie and Marco (Rodolpho’s brother) undergo a test of strength is a glimpse into their need for manly display and the battle between the generations – challenging the dominant male in the pack.

The acting is perfect and seeing it again showed how all the characters are complicit in events, from Nicola Walker’s resigned Beatrice (Eddie’s wife), quietly trying to separate her husband from her niece, to Phoebe Fox’s stifled Catherine struggling to attain the life she wants rather than the one Eddie wants her to have. Mark Strong’s performance as Eddie is sublime; a mass of contradictions utterly unaware of the fatal flaw that drives him to destruction – completely believable, blind and heart-breaking. Towards the end when the tension is at its highest point and you don’t think your emotions can take any more, Strong powers to a new level as Eddie demands respect for his name, it’s amazing.

I said earlier that you live a five star production with the characters, and this is the most compelling aspect of this show. You feel every emotional flicker, every change of tone and as the doom plays out you will want to run up to them and beg the characters to stop. You’ll want to shake Eddie until he sees what he’s doing because you just know it’s going to end very very badly and there’s no way to stop it. By the way, talking to the actors and generally involving yourself in the production is frowned upon, so you’ll just have to sit there and watch it all happen as powerless to stop it as the characters themselves.

Last year I wrote that ‘the drama in this breath-taking production thumps into you and when you’re down kicks you a few more times’ and the force of it is something that stayed with me in between. This was certainly true the second time as well and I left the theatre feeling shaken by what I’d seen. So this production has thoroughly earned its collective ten stars from me, and if you never see another piece of theatre for the rest of your life, make sure you see this. You’ll never forget it.

A View from the Bridge is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 11 April and tickets start at £19.50 for the balcony and on-stage seating, and a range of prices for the rest of the auditorium. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

The Nether – Duke of York’s Theatre

We can be anything we want to be these days, we are told. But what if the thing you want to be is socially and morally unacceptable? The internet has created a vast realm where almost anything is possible and allied with video games the development of increasingly sophisticated virtual worlds where users can be represented by maquettes with any combination of physical features. Here either resembling themselves or looking like another person entirely they can interact with others, join communities, create their fantasy home and live a life free of consequence.

The Nether has one of the most intriguing theatrical trailers you’ll ever see and well worth a look before you book tickets. Transferring from the Royal Court the play is set in the not too distant future where the internet has become so sophisticated that whole lives can be lived there and anyone deciding to transition from real-life will be able to experience not just actions but also sensation through their character. But within this new world of free-choice The Hideaway has been created, a place where men can go to enjoy the company of a child named Iris, a place that encourages paedophilia and murder without consequence. Internet detective Morris needs to find the server location and shut it down, and tries to extract information from the site owner and a user leading to some disturbing revelations, a couple of quite remarkable twists and some extremely dark food for thought.

This is an impressively realised piece of theatre that combines extraordinary design with a truly challenging issue, and one that you will change your mind about repeatedly as the story unfolds. Essentially it poses an impossible dilemma, is it better to allow paedophiles to have a safe place on line to satiate their wants and prevent their engagement with real children or by shutting down The Hideaway and its depravities, set them back into real life and a risk to society. It’s a classic Royal Court production which takes a current issue, particularly in the light of Operation Yewtree and its high profile convictions, and tries to show it to you from all somewhat uncomfortable angles – at no point is this an easy watch, so if you’re expecting a jolly night at the theatre, think again!

Luke Hall’s video design is as innovative as I have ever seen and brilliantly segues between the projected digital imagery and Es Devlin’s beautiful Hideaway set which initially you see in a computer-screen shaped box emphasising the projection around it, but is later revealed in its entirety as the audience and characters become complicit in the action. The Hideaway itself is a style mixture of modern and Edwardian, surrounded by poplar trees, encased on three sides by image distorting mirrors that created an illusory depth in this virtual world – a very nice metaphor for the play’s content.

The real-world shown to us in the interview room is drably grey and black in comparison with cameras and monitors observing these men from every angle. Seemingly so unappealing in comparison to the light and joy of the virtual world but no less voyeuristic in its Big Brother-like association, and this only serves to make us think more carefully about the way image is used to confuse us, and how beauty can often be used to mask a much darker meaning. In this case the faux paradise may seem enticing but what is happening there is heinous, and while our real world may sparkle less, it is still governed by enforceable morality that protects and helps us.

Jennifer Haley’s script is written with considerable economy – an eighty minute show with not a single piece of fat. Every word spoken by the actors is carefully chosen to either move the plot along or to contribute to the almost philosophical debate unfolding on stage. The four actors are very good; Stanley Townsend as the aptly named Sims is the creator of The Hideaway who rationally defends his work as a public duty, and in Townsend’s chilling performance you are forced to recognise the arguments he’s making however violently you disagree with them. It is also fascinating to see his absolute belief in himself shift as we learn more about his purpose and interaction with other characters.

Amanda Hale as Morris also begins on firm ground as someone who is certain of the legality of her role and her approach to the case. Yet in questioning the suspects, she too begins to reveal more about her methods and the audience is forced to question whether doing something terrible is worth it if the end result is a wider good. David Calder meanwhile is Doyle a member of the site who is willing to give up his real life to live there permanently. Calder gives us a broken man, struggling with his real-self with a fairy-tale-like desire to run away to a place where he’s happy. That desire to feel part of something and loved by someone comes across in his tender performance.

The Nether will send you home with more questions than answers. Is the internet a safe place, should it be better regulated, who should make those decisions and how should they be enforced? But it will also force you to consider much darker themes about identity, and how we present ourselves to the world. We may make jokes about who’s really behind internet dating profiles and fan-sites and it may seem harmless now, but will assuming alternative names, faces and personalities lead to greater danger for everyone, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. Will being whatever you want online have ramifications for people’s behaviour and moral codes in everyday life? Should those who want to commit unimaginable crimes be given a virtual space in which to do, if it will spare them being acted out in reality? I came out of The Nether not knowing the answers to any of these questions and you probably won’t have them either but as a provocative and challenging piece of theatre it is well worth having your mind and your conscience tested. So the question is, who do you want to be and are you sure there are no consequences?

The Nether is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 25 April. Tickets start from £10. Watch the trailer at http://www.anetherrealm.co.uk/. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

120 Years of Tower Bridge – Guildhall Art Gallery

London has a number of monuments that are so bound-up with our idea of the city that’s it’s easy to think they’ve always been there. Tower Bridge, for example, is only 120 years old, barely making a dent in the capitals two thousand year history. It may have since become one of our most potent emblems, but it wasn’t there when Henry VIII beheaded multiple wives in the Tower, it wasn’t there when England and Scotland formed a political union in 1707 and it wasn’t there when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, or indeed for the majority of her reign.

One of the most fascinating things about these cultural landmarks then is the way in which they fit seamlessly into the London that existed before them and the one yet to come – timeless elements of a city that’s always changing. Even the London Eye, opened for the Millennium, has become an important symbol of London, with the New Year fireworks as its international showcase. Doesn’t it feel like it was always there; but really it’s been just 15 years. Similarly, the Tower Bridge of 1894 sits between the thousand-year-old Tower of London and the 13-year-old City Hall a perfect example of London’s evolving landscape. And this new exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery considers the artistic depiction of Tower Bridge, the river and its industrial purpose in the last 120 years.

It begins with two portraits – Sir Horace Jones the architect who didn’t live to see it finished and its Engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry, sitting alongside William Lionel Wyllie’s beautiful painting of the Bridge’s opening in 1894. It’s a jubilant and bustling scene full of flag-waving Victorians eating celebratory picnics on the banks of the Thames while the central bascules of the bridge are raised to allow a tall-masted boat through the centre. Contemporaries remarked on the glistening nature of the picture, and it really does glisten – particularly the pearlescent sky which glitters as the light moves across the paint.

From here the main exhibition room takes a chronological look at the way the Bridge has been depicted in art, focusing primarily on its part in the functioning industrial life of the river, rather than as a tourist attraction, seeing it as an intricate part of the docks and the flow of cargo. Most striking is Charles Pears’s red and black picture of the Tower called Blitz: Our London Dock which is incredibly dynamic and has an almost 3-D quality as the boats sail toward you and spotlights cut through the burnt red sky. Painted in 1940 it is an incredibly vivid depiction of the city at war and shows how Tower Bridge had already earned its iconic status.

Moving through the exhibition we see the river at work with Tower Bridge incorporated into the functioning aspect of London’s industrial performance, and several artists have focused on this rather than using the bridge’s tourist allure. These include Marcus Ford’s smoke covered Tower Bridge London and Mentor Chico’s gaudily coloured modern city. These are among the most interesting elements of the exhibition and one which many Londoners will hardly recognise. In the second room the focus is more on the bridge’s construction including its plans and several alternative designs that were also considered – always fascinating to see what might have been. The exhibition ends with photographs of the bridge’s construction, 1950s families enjoying the old beach beside it and the 2012 firework display around the 5 interconnected Olympic rings in the centre, that symbolically represent its journey from industrial necessity to internationally recognised symbol of Britain.

One of the most successful elements of this nicely arranged exhibition is celebrating not just our postcard idea of Tower Bridge but all the other quite practical things that it has been in the past 120 years. It’s only a couple of rooms but you can easily spend 45 minutes just in here and The Guildhall Art Gallery has one of the best collections of Victorian art in London. Even better, there’s hardly anyone there at the weekends; located in a sides street close to the higher profile St Paul’s, Museum of London and the Barbican means it is often overlooked and therefore relatively empty!

The advocated purpose of this little show was to celebrate Tower Bridge’s 120th birthday, emphasising its multi-faceted role in identity-forming – being at once a symbol of modernity, progress, industry, technological innovation, national pride, fashion and tourism, which it successfully demonstrates in its diverse collection, while emphasising its historical importance as a functioning industrial bridge and navigational tool, as well as its incorporation into national events such as the 2012 Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. It may not have been around as long as you think it has but, as this lovely exhibition shows, Tower Bridge is synonymous with London.

120 Years of Tower Bridge is at the The Guildhall Art Gallery until 26 April. Entrance is free to the exhibition and the entire gallery. Follow this blog on Twitter: @cultualcap1

Walk London: Guided Tours

Paris is a city for strolling we are told, but you’d be hard pressed to find a city more interesting than London to walk around. Any given part of it is teeming with thousands of years of history and an hour in any direction will take you through several completely distinct areas; my walk to work alone takes me through literary Bloomsbury, seedy Soho, austere Mayfair and the changing greenery of Hyde Park; each bit is totally different and amazing in its own way. London also gives you so many walk-options – urban, residential, riverside, park, canal-side, historic, modern or some combination of all the above. But how much do we really know about our fair city… probably not as much as you think you do, as Walk London’s wonderful guided tours have pointed out.

Tour companies run fee-paying guided walks all year round but three times a year (January, May and September) Transport for London sponsors a weekend of 40 or so free blue-badge guided walks as part of Walk 4 Life to encourage us off the over-strained public transport system. This has been running for about 5 years apparently, but I’ve lived in London for 10 and this is the first time I’d heard about it, and thanks again to 4 Kids One Mom Guide to London for promoting this in advance.

During the weekend, I decided to try out two of these walks, one in an area I thought I knew pretty well and the second in a new part of town. So Day One I pitch up to ‘Hidden Alleyways and Courtyards: Printing, Priories and Prisons’ which takes you through the backstreets of St Paul’s and Chancery Lane taking in Fleet Street, the supposed site of Shakespeare’s house, a former Royal palace and more places of incarceration than you’d imagine one city could need. While some of this is tucked away, most if it is right there in front of us, turned into offices, pubs and faceless buildings that we walk past every day.

The tour guide was excellent, incredibly well informed and managed the hugely oversubscribed group really well. It may have taken me 5 years to work out these were going on, but clearly everyone else knew given the numbers, and anything free and high quality is bound to appeal. It’s an interesting route from the front of St Paul’s Cathedral to Dr Johnson’s house, which direct would be a 10 minute walk but is a two hour tour packed with fascinating sites and information.

The second tour took me from Pimlico to Westminster, examining the architecture of South Belgravia (now Pimlico) and how the area developed alongside the industry of the river. This time the guide had a folder of historic photographs, showing the group how places used to look including Millbank Prison beside Tate Britain and the businesses based on the river front. It was a brilliant way to vividly show us how much London is changing all the time. This tour also took in Vauxhall Cross (MI6) and Thames House (MI5) – can’t go wrong with a bit of spy chat – Lambeth High Street and Palace and stunning views of Parliament from the Victoria Embankment. Again, our guide was excellent and bursting with anecdotes about every aspect of this fascinating area.

Although the free guided tours aren’t running again until May, there are a variety of walks to download from the TFL website for you to do yourself or you could pay around £10 for one of the various two-hour guided tours from other companies. One tip it is still winter so it’s pretty cold in London especially when you’re standing still to listen to the information, so at least 2 pairs of socks, gloves and hat are essential. Also don’t make the mistake of thinking a cup of tea will keep you warm – I ended up carrying my cup for 2 hours because we didn’t pass any bins on the St Paul’s tour and my gloved hand got very cold! Tour 2, no tea and toasty warm gloved hands in pockets – lesson learned!

Overall this is a fantastic opportunity to get to know London, even the bits you thought you were familiar with. The TFL sponsored tours run three times a year – in January, May and September – but I definitely recommend planning your own routes especially along the river from the Embankment to the Tower of London (roughly 45 minutes) or around the parks. Now Doctor Johnson famously said when a man is tired of London he’s tired of life, and that couldn’t be truer. With plenty of walks on offer there’s clearly so much still to learn and to discover. London is a fascinating, ever-changing place and every time you think you know it, you learn a hundred new things in a weekend – how can you ever be tired of that?

Walk London is sponsored by TFL and free self-guided tour routes are downloadable from the  website and the Walk 4 life website. Sign up for news on the next free walking guide weekend in May.


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