Romeo and Juliet – Garrick Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - Branagh Theatre

Perfectly timed to open at the tail-end of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, the penultimate production in Kenneth Branagh’s year of theatre is Romeo and Juliet – probably the greatest tragic romance of all time and arguable the most well-known of his plays. Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in your life, chances are you’ll know the plot of Romeo and Juliet, potentially a couple of quotes and the fact it has a balcony scene (which was never actually specified in the text). As much as scholars and theatre-lovers may argue that Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III or any other has had a greater impact on the nature of theatre and on the acting profession, Romeo and Juliet has become an intrinsic and recognisable part of the pop culture landscape

Appropriate then, that Branagh’s two leads are most famous for their TV roles – Richard Madden as Game of Thrones Robb Stark and Lily James as Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose – bringing with them a sizeable young fan base that will have some familiarity with at least the story of this play. Yet it is a very difficult play to do well, largely because our tolerance for highly romantic language and the arduous innocence of the young lovers is, these days, tinged with considerable cynicism. As world-weary adults we condemn their teenage crush and feel sure that had they lived they probably would’ve been sick of each other within 6 months. So, the modern audience poses a considerable problem for a director who has to navigate the original language with shifting attitudes to this lovelorn tale.

Many of the critics assumed that Branagh’s stumbling block would be the comedies, most especially The Painkiller which instead proved a triumphant hit, not least with audiences who loved it. Of all the plays in the season, however, it was Romeo and Juliet that I had most doubts about for the reasons above and the relatively untested power of the leads. Yet, Branagh has again proven his mettle as a director by creating an imaginative and compelling piece of theatre that somehow perfectly navigates the pitfalls of this play.

Set in sleek 1950s Italy, it opens in the middle of a stone piazza, with café tables and idle young men in shirt sleeves enjoying the heat. Immediately you think of West Side Story (itself a version of this play) and we get a sense of a world in which the young feel oppressed by the authority of the old, desperate to fight each other but not daring to. It bristles with masculine energy as the warring Montagues and Capulets circle each other trading insults. The palette is entirely black, white and grey, implying a realm of respectability and power invested in ageing men, but one that offers glamorous women and fancy parties. And Branagh, with co-director and choreographer Rob Ashford, have introduced a number of innovations including a nice dance piece at the Capulet’s ball and having three sung speeches, including Juliet taking to the microphone at the party and spotting Romeo for the first time. It’s subtly done but adds a nice touch of variety and modernity to the delivery.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how funny it is in the first half, and clearly drawing on his recent productions, Branagh has repurposed some of the more sentimental speechifying and given it a comedy edge, not least in the (in)famous balcony scene. Usually this is played as an earnest confession of love, but here the 14 year old Juliet is drunk from the party and Romeo is still playing the charming lothario, and only towards the end of the scene do they both begin to express sincere emotion for one another. It’s done with restraint so the comedy is never overt and brings fresh interpretation to one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes which will appeal to more current attitudes. Instead of laughing at the high-language we’re being shown the humour in the gaucheness and embarrassment of the characters as they try to express their feelings for each other. It works.

The second half is quite a different beast and here the full danger of inter-family rivalry and the tangled plot in which the lovers find themselves is realised. The atmosphere is permanently charged with emotion – be it grief, anger or love – and the more leisurely pace quickly increases as things converge. It is a marked change of tone which finally allows the actors to intensify their performances and love no longer has a comedic role, instead it is now driving events and becomes completely compelling.

Richard Madden and Lily James have real chemistry as the ‘star-crossed’ pair, and their desire for one another is entirely believable throughout. They nicely navigate their way from love at first sight, through their first nervous exchanges to a physical passion for one another that ultimately consumes them. Madden’s Romeo is initially harder to get to grips with as he rushes some lines and seems to be charming Juliet without entirely devoting himself, but it’s soon clear that this almost rehearsed smoothness is intentional, and it is only mid-way through the balcony scene that you see him realise she is more than another conquest to him and that he begins to feel deeply. Madden grows in the role as events play out and later he equates the violence of Romeo’s love with the more brutal side of his manliness which results in a number of deaths – so as his feelings for Juliet become more firmly established so to do his violent tendencies. Much later in the play as he discovers Juliet’s fate, Madden is excellent at conveying his devastation, making his final scenes quite moving and he will find greater depths of emotion as he gets more performances under his belt.

Lily James is also a great Juliet, capturing the girlish innocence of the 14 year old – an interesting decision to retain that element of the play – experiencing her first feelings of love, lust and rebellion. Of the two it’s the harder role to convince in because Juliet is all emotion so in the wrong hands can seem unvarying and mawkish. Unlike Romeo she has no other developed subplots and speaks almost entirely of love and marriage throughout the play (whether about Romeo or Paris), so in James’s performance it’s fascinating to see greater variety particularly adding texture to the changing relationship with her parents and a steeliness in her final act. And although the balcony scene emphasises the comedy it’s clear throughout that James has a feel for the verse which make Juliet’s declarations of love entirely convincing and heartfelt.

There has been much conjecture about Derek Jacobi’s casting as much older Mercutio than usual but in the context of this production it seems to work well, evidence of another Branagh / Ashford innovation in the way the text has been interpreted. Jacobi gives us a rather camp and effeminate Mercutio, who loves parties and makes a grand first entrance with a silky sway to the music at the Capulet’s ball. We see him then as a peacemaker, far removed from the family turf war and a bit of an old roué. And while it does make his final scene with Tybalt a little ridiculous – how on earth he thought he was going to beat a 20-something in a sword fight – it makes him the first innocent destroyed by the feud. Jacobi is part of the comic charm of the first act that makes his demise all the more shocking and a clear catalyst for the more serious business to come.

There’s a good supporting cast including Myra Syal extracting as much comedy as she can from the role of the Nurse, while Michael Rouse has a standout scene as Lord Capulet tearing into his undutiful daughter and emphasising the dangerous power of these senior men that can easily erupt into violence when crossed. A shame then that the war between the two families feels a little anaemic – and having Mercutio in a comedy role does take away from Romeo’s gang of young thugs –  so you don’t get that feeling of danger all the time or that peace is teetering on a knife’s edge. We see that potential in Rouse’s explosive scene but a little more of that early on would help to heighten the tension and make it clear what’s at stake.

Credit also to James, Syal and Marisa Berenson (playing Lady Capulet) for not allowing an audience member’s inexplicable screaming fit to derail their final scene. She was escorted out in less than 15 seconds and the actors resumed unphased. Overall then, Romeo and Juliet is a fine addition to the Branagh series and should garner positive reviews in a couple of days (the disadvantage of buying tickets a year ahead is never knowing when press night will be). It feels contemporary, has taken innovative approaches to some of the tricky aspects of performing this romantic tragedy and delivers a range of interesting performances, not least from its two star leads who will find more meaning as the run extends. And if the tragic ending (beautifully played incidentally) is not sad enough, this is the last Shakespeare of the inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and it means we only have one production left. With four wonderful shows under its belt, hopes are high for The Entertainer in August.

Romeo and Juliet is at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August. Tickets start at £15 for the daily front-row lottery and the show will be broadcast to cinemas on 7 July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Shakespeare in Ten Acts – British Library

Shakespeare in Ten Acts - British Library

You may have noticed that it’s 400 years since Shakespeare died and over the last few weeks there has been a festival of activities across the country and on television, from the Globe’s lovely but technically challenged Complete Walk showing scenes from every play with some of our finest actors, to the somewhat less successful RSC Shakespeare Live variety show beamed from Stratford to your living rooms and cinemas. With a new series of The Hollow Crown in mid-flow as well, interest in Shakespeare and how his work is performed is riding high. The British Library’s new exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts looks at the history of the plays and the ways in which they’ve been performed in the last four centuries, considering how changing theatrical fashions and political contexts have shaped the staging of Shakespeare’s of major works.

This exhibition purports to tell the story of Shakespeare in performance, focusing on ten key moments from the first Hamlet in around 1600 to the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in the early twenty-first century. But it doesn’t do this in quite the way you expect and often becomes side-tracked by the wider context of the landmark eras it chooses. While these digressions are often interesting and supported by a wealth of valuable original material largely from the Library’s own collection, it makes for a less focused tour of Shakespearean performances than anticipated. Largely it seems this is driven by the material the BL could obtain rather than the argument the curators are trying to make that Shakespeare ‘holds up a mirror to the era in which it was performed’.

Understandably, this is a very bookish exhibition and you can expect to see a number of important tomes, not least a speech for a play about Thomas Moore in Shakespeare’s own hand which was recently read by Sir Ian McKellen for Shakespeare Live and at a BFI talk about Shakespeare on Screen. Here too is the important first folio as well as personal items like Shakespeare’s mortgage deed with accompanying seals. The exhibition then opens with the first Hamlet which we learn was written with specific actors in mind, most particularly for Richard Burbage who was the first to play what is arguably the most sought after role in all the plays.  It has since come to represent a high watermark in a young actor’s career, a significant hurdle for those wishing to be known as a great classical performer.

This section on Hamlet is one of the best, digitally comparing the differences between the versions of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech and giving wider context about the establishment and workings of Shakespeare’s theatre. The notion that he was specifically writing for individuals among the Lord Chamberlaine’s Men is a valuable one and brings the process of creation, performance and redrafting to life in a way that’s sometimes missing from the rest of the exhibition. The section on the first black actor to play Othello also feels particularly well thought through with portraits of Ira Aldridge from the 1820s alongside playbills advertising his performances. Although some of these were criticised Aldridge had a long career on the stage and in the course of more than 40 years played several roles, including somewhat surprisingly using white make-up to play other leading parts including Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. The BL then diversifies this section to include photos of Laurence Olivier playing Othello and modern black actors in performance including David Oyelowo in tribute to the modern practice of colour-blind casting.

Some elements of this exhibition feel like padding rather than integral to the argument and occasionally they try to cover too much material. One milestone was the first female performance in 1660 when an unknown actress was allowed to take to the stage as Desdemona, which prompts a brief history of people playing Shakespeare’s heroines since, including Vivien Leigh’s costume for Lady Macbeth and details of Ned Kynaston who had a career playing a woman onstage, but what it doesn’t do so well is focus on the mechanics of that original performance, or any of the ones it later shows. Time and again in this exhibition the focus seems to be on examining a play as a piece of English Literature rather than as a drama performance, so what you really want here is more focus on that original flood of actresses onto the stage and the practicalities of putting on a play in Restoration England. Even more important, given the overall purpose of this exhibition, is how it changed perceptions of Shakespeare’s work and what role women had to play in perpetuating it.

Some of the weaker sections don’t always feel like landmark moments as the BL implies, and while there is interesting material in the ‘Wider World’ section as Shakespeare’s plays are performed abroad for the first time, not least onboard an East India Company ship off Sierra Leon – an early incarnation of the theatre ships of the First World War navy – this section is an odd assortment of stuff including a Shakespeare in Love poster and some international editions of Shakespeare plays. Similarly the sections on a forged play doing the rounds in 1796 and the reintroduction of the tragic ending to King Lear in 1838 feel more like footnotes than major turning points in our understanding of Shakespeare’s popularity. Nice stories perhaps but not worthy of entire sections devoted to them, or if they are, the BL is not making a convincing case.

It’s not until you get into the twentieth century that we get a greater focus on physical performance with Peter Brook’s influential 1970s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a whole room made up to look like the white box that Brook used as his stage, and featuring props and costumes – if only more of it were like this. Also interesting is the section on Twelfth Night and Mark Rylance’s all male production at the Globe in 2002 which leaps right back to the way Shakespeare was originally performed, supported here by costumes and scenes from the production. The Globe appears a few times in this exhibition actually, suggesting a partnership that prevents mention of any other modern purveyors of Shakespeare plays – the RSC and National Theatre for example remain entirely unmentioned, though arguably the formation of the RSC is a landmark in itself.

It concludes, rather oddly, with emphasis on film and digital media using a production of Hamlet by The Wooster Group in 2013 – something I confess I’d not heard of – which though innovative seems to end this show with a whimper. There are scenes from twentieth-century films including early silent movies, right through to Branagh’s 1996 Henry V and Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth. Seems a shame not to have had the final section consider the modernisation of Shakespeare on film, its limitations and scope for interpretation as a way to bring new audiences and new actors to the fore – especially as there are box office riots as people clamour for tickets to see a favourite celebrity actor take on a major role such as Cumberbatch’s Hamlet or Tennant’s Richard II, meaning the NT Live business model has expanded beyond the National Theatre linking up with competitors to broadcast any major performance far and wide. Again, I suspect this a lack of material but this an important marker for the future of Shakespeare in performance and one that would have provided a fitting end to this exhibition.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts has a lot of interesting material but the central argument and focus is not always clear enough. As a chance to see a number of important documents and to learn a bit more about the documentary history of selected performances this is fine, but you don’t leave feeling as though you have an entirely new slant on Shakespeare’s plays or enthused by the endless interpretation of his works – which you really should. It’s academic, broad in topic and respects the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, but in his BFI talk recently Sir Ian McKellen argued that to get a new audience enthused about Shakespeare they need to see it, so what this really needs is more performance.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts is at the British Library until 6 September. Tickets are £12 for adults (without Gift Aid) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Quentin Blake Gallery & Comic Creatrix – House of Illustration

Quentin Blake Gallery and Comic Creatrix, House of Illustration

If you were asked to name an illustrator almost certainly the first name to pop into your head would be Quentin Blake whose distinctive and deceptively simple style is instantly recognisable. And his work will almost certainly be the first image you think of when someone mentions the author’s he’s worked with. In particular, think of any book by Roald Dahl – be it The Witches, George’s Marvellous Medicine or Matilda – and almost guaranteed you’re thinking of Blake’s ink figures, embodying Dahl’s work so completely that they’re still in your mind decades later.

So, when the House of Illustration announced it would open a permanent Blake Gallery, the first of its kind in the world, it made perfect sense. Blake is closely associated with the space above King’s Cross, a Trustee and subject of its inaugural exhibition back in 2014 – Inside Stories. The Quentin Blake Gallery is a tiny L-shaped room behind the shop which is currently hosting Seven Kinds of Magic, an exhibition of Blake’s magic-related drawings for seven different authors since the 1960s. This runs until August where it will be replaced by another themed collection, this time all devoted to the BFG – the pieces will change, but it will always be Blake.

Seven Kinds of Magic is as minimalist as Blake’s own style with just a handful of pieces labelled only with a book title, author and year. So there will be something for everyone, parent or child, a work familiar from your own childhood to enjoy in this show. For me, of course the original depiction of Dahl’s Grand High Witch’s swirling eyes as she destroys some poor creature is a treat but others will enjoy Rosie’s Magic Horse, Patrick, Angelica Sprocket’s Pockets, Angel Pavement, My Friend Mr Leakey and Magical Tales. There are no signs explaining each story and nothing telling you which page of the book the displayed illustrations belongs to… but you don’t really need it. Not only are Blake’s drawings so vivid that you can see immediately what is happening in the story, but this is deliberately an exhibition about the art and not how accurately Blake told the story. So marvel at the skills, the inventiveness, the use of colour and energy in each of these works, and more than anything the power of Blake to give life to the work of so many authors for so long,

The House of Illustration (HoI) is probably the best value gallery in London, charging you just £7.70 (£7 without donation) to enjoy all three of its current shows. There’s a tiny exhibition of Shojo Manga cartoons in the lovely sunlit gallery besides Quentin Blake until 12 June, drawn by female artists with some borrowing from Western traditions and associations including a strangely fascinating Edwardian-based series by Akiko Hatsu. We also see an evolution of character in these works which take in changing attitudes to homosexuality and romance in incredibly detailed flourishes by Keiko Takemiya.

The centrepiece show until Sunday 15 May looks at the work of female comic creators, which takes over its larger four room exhibition space. One of the most impressive things about HoI is the well-researched and carefully curated nature of its exhibitions that always manage to speak to its audience intellectually without dumbing-down the material or making ridiculous associative leaps. From the illustrations of Ladybird books to the First World War sketches of E.H. Shepard, it’s clear that considerable thought and care has gone into these shows resulting in a high quality experience – and Comic Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics is no exception.

Starting with examples from the eighteenth-century caricaturists like Mary Darly, it takes in the role of female comic artists through a variety of thematic contributions including graphic novels, comic strips, erotic cartoons, and in a completely new genre of health-based graphic novels. The latter acts like a diary, charting the diagnoses and progress of treatment for various diseases. Its easily digestible form is both a cathartic outlet for the writer and an accessible guide for other sufferers. Similarly, the works of Una look at sexual violence against women in the hope that transferring them to another medium may make it easier to confront and discuss.

It is abundantly clear from this exhibition that comics now take multiple forms, not just entertainment but a flexible medium for telling stories no matter how light-hearted or grave, and women are at the forefront of some of these developments. Looking for something a little more frivolous, and there’s some wonderful examples of Nicola Lane’s work in which a grown-up Beryl the Peril from the Dandy ends up married to the Beano’s Dennis the Menace – which she also discusses in the video interviews at the end of the exhibition – as well plenty of superheroes, space adventurers and bizarre creatures to delight any traditional comic-book fan.

Cartoons are also included from around the world demonstrating the role that women from as far afield as India and Africa are playing in making sense of their own cultures and proffering it in a digestible way. In addition we’re told about the Japanese artists using manga to create accessible introductions to the work of Shakespeare, whose plays take on new meaning and association in this stylised illustrated form, helping to ease new audiences into appreciating the timelessness of these stories. We also see work from Jackie Omes who developed the first syndicated comic strip representing African-American women, while Rutu Modan’s 2007 comic strip is set in Tel Aviv and tells the story of romance between a young woman and an Israeli soldier.

Comic Creatrix is a fascinating insight into the work of a diverse range of female artists covering an even more diverse range of subjects. Evidently, using cartoons has become a valuable medium to represent serious topics in an engaging and non-threatening way that is allowing the voices and experiences of more people to be heard and understood. This exhibition is only running for one more week so make time in your schedules to visit the House of Illustration to see if before it closes, and for just £7 you’ll see three of the most fascinating and well-curated shows in London.

The House of Illustration is currently hosting Comic Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics until 15 May, Shojo Manga: The World of Japanese Girls’ Comics until 12 June and Quentin Blake: Seven Kinds of Magic until 24 August. Entrance to HoI costs £7.70 (with donation) and concessions are available.

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My Mother Said I Never Should – St James’s Theatre

My Mother Said I Never Should - St James's Theatre

London goes to the polls this week to elect a new mayor and on the ballot only a quarter of the 12 candidates are female from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and the newly formed Women’s Equality Party which seeks to capitalise on a cultural wave of discussion and debates about the position of women in modern society. Interesting then, that the St James’s Theatre has revived Charlotte Keatley’s play My Mother Said I Never Should charting changing expectations of women’s lives in the twentieth century. Amazingly this play hasn’t been performed in London for 25 years – an extraordinary revelation given the four substantial roles it offers to actors – so this was my first encounter with the complete text, having only been given the abstract childhood scenes to perform in GCSE Drama.

The story is considerably more impactful than my 16-year old self was allowed to discover and follows four generations of one family from the early 1900s to the 1980s, examining how the relationships between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters altered as society became more permissive and women began to find a life beyond the kitchen. Doris is the family’s matriarch, born in 1900 and expected to relinquish her teaching career when she marries. A woman of her time, Doris is seemingly aloof, restrained and strict with her own daughter Margaret who goes on to marry a GI much to her mother’s disgust. The result is Jackie, a child of the 60s, who goes to art college and becomes a successful gallery owner in the 80s, running her own business and enjoying all the newly won freedoms of the age. But Jackie secretly gave up her own baby allowing Margaret to raise Rosie as her own, an emotional decision that continues to plague her as she watches her daughter grow and thinking of someone else as her mother.

Keatley mixes all these stories together so we continuously flit between the decades, allowing the consequences of their decisions and those different approaches to motherhood to become really stark, emphasising what an important period of change this was in women’s lives. This production at the St James’s doesn’t make any judgements either about who was right or wrong, but sees choice as a product of its time. None of these women do anything lightly and though they may make heartbreaking (or depending on your perspective selfish) decisions – as Jackie in particular does to give up her child – these are not without life-affecting consequence. What is clear is that the modern right to work and to choose have been hard won, but women continue to feel torn between what’s best for themselves and what’s best for their families.

Paul Robinson’s production may deal with (now) historic projections of motherhood but the pared down vision feels as fresh and relevant as the original production must have done at the Royal Court in 1989. Signe Beckmann’s set is sparse and whitewashed littered with the odd TV screen which is used to reinforce what era we’re in between scenes – and the ongoing media pressure to live a certain way – which allows the performances to take centre stage. There are a few props including a hint of a piano (four legs only) but this serves as a reflection of the plot in which societal suggestions of how women ought to be are replicated in the suggested world they inhabit, a world that is incomplete. It is possible to see this as an insight into the half-lives the characters seem to live, choosing family or a career but never able to successfully have both – a dilemma modern woman can empathise with.

In a production of this nature, so much relies on the performances and this play offers opportunities for actors to showcase their range, something which the cast take full advantage of. My Mother Said I Never Should has a non-linear structure so as well as playing themselves at various ages the performers are required to become considerably older or younger within moments as the scene changes. Most challenging of all, and the hardest element to depict, are the waste-ground scenes that punctuate the story in which all four women as children aged from 5-9 years old play games together as classmates, despite continuing to represent their original time period and location. By stepping out of the play momentarily we see how similar yet different their childhoods had been, from the wide-eyed innocence of Doris in frilly knickers growing up in around 1905, to the tomboyish Rosie in dungarees talking about boys. The games are the same but the attitudes and freedoms change.

Best among the performances is an absolute gut-wrencher from Katie Brayben as modern mother Jackie. We first see her careering around the stage as her nine year old self performing faux voodoo and scaring the other children, a perfect set-up for what is to come because Jackie does scare her family by being the first to put her career before her child. Brayben makes this an excruciating decision for Jackie, one her mother Margaret cannot see or understand, and the scene in which she hands over the baby is incredibly poignant – she’s knows it’s for the best but is devastated all the same. Even better, having played Rosie’s sister for so long, is the moment the truth is discovered and Brayben uses all her skills to display years of pain, regret and anguish that may have you reaching for the tissues.

Equally brilliant is Maureen Lipman with a quite different performance as the initially formal and buttoned-up Doris, raised to be a lady, seeking only home and family, but almost lamenting the era in which she was raised because the opportunities afforded to later generations were denied her. While we see her as a sweet and innocent 5 year old in the wasteland scenes, this again reflects the engagement her adult self will have with the world. Doris is a prim and often stern mother to Margaret, but actually a cosy and warm great-grandmother to Rosie, and as the story unfolds we see her shift with the decades becoming a wise and ultimately more relaxed figure than the other women because she has seen so much.

My Mother Said I Never Should is a modern classic and its return to London after so long makes this a rare chance to see piece of writing about the demands made on women’s lives that still resonates. The pressure to have a successful career but still be a perfect 50s-style parent continues to exist and while young women are told they can be anything, if they chose not to be mothers at all – as Jackie does – a social stigma still remains. The production at the St James’s feels fresh and innovative, with strong performances from its four leads. Whether or not you choose a female candidate for London’s mayor this week, a wider interest in women’s roles in society, sparked by last year’s Suffragette film, means that this timely production of Keatley’s play will continue the debate, and is a wonderful evening at the theatre.

My Mother Said I Never Should is at the St James’s Theatre until 21 May. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Vogue 100: A Century of Style – National Portrait Gallery

The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty by Cecil Beaton

The National Portrait Gallery has had a very nice line in fashion photography over the years including an impressively insightful David Bailey retrospective in 2014. To celebrate the centenary of Vogue Britain, established in the midst of the First World War, the NPG presents a glamorous walk through the decades of a magazine that has reflected a changing taste in clothing as well as the political, economic and cultural influences of the day. Last year’s Alexander McQueen show at the V&A – arguably the greatest fashion exhibition ever to hit London – has changed how the history of fashion is presented and, although there are no clothes on display here, its influence can be felt in the in both the curation and more dynamic design of this exhibition.

London’s art scene is doing a roaring trade in photography exhibitions at the moment; some such as the Imperial War Museum’s Lee Miller: A Women’s War, can be seen viewed as a companion piece to the Vogue show, covering some of the same images including those of Miller in her early days as a model as well as her military work during the Second World War. Other shows such as the brilliant Strange and Familiar at the Barbican cover much of the same period but offer two very different interpretations of the world. Haute couture fashion is often seen as ‘aspirational’ and much of the material on display at the NPG reflects how women wanted to look in particular decades and the pages of Vogue can be interpreted as a history of how Britain wanted to be seen – whereas Strange and Familiar shows us who we really were – and seeing both in quick succession is an eye-opening insight into the last 70 years.

Vogue 100 actually starts in the here and now with modern covers and unexpectedly a film showing models in close up, playing in a mirrored alcove so everywhere you look are reflections upon reflections (one of the elements surely inspired by the McQueen show). Then you can trace a path back through the decades of celebrities and approaches, ending up where it all began in 1916. Trendy as it may be, it wasn’t clear what this backward-looking approach was supposed to give us, so instead you can defy the crowds as I did and march yourself all the way back to the 1920s (there’s no exit here you will still have to walk back anyway) and start from there, seeing the developments in fashion, photography and in the magazine’s approach to the cultural world it represents unfolding before your eyes.

Whichever way you chose to go this is clearly an exhibition about the artists that have made Vogue what it is today rather than the story of its production, editorship or backroom dramas. Instead we see how popular culture was presented and influenced by the pages of this magazine through the choices of models, designers, photographers, celebrities and actual artists who drew works for the early spreads or, like Picasso, were featured in the magazine itself. In the unique world of Vogue this walk through the twentieth century sees hemlines rise and fall as quickly as empires, and economic shifts in the aftermath of war and depression that affect fabrics choices and shoot locations.

The 1920s and 30s show a selection of early prints in decorated glass cases which is a nice touch reflecting the particular style of each era and the major players of the day. From a dancing Fred Astaire to stylish swimsuits for men and women (an image recently used as the cover for a novel about Hemingway), from society “it girls” to Horst’s famous corset images – which you may have seen in Horst’s own retrospective at the V&A last year – this decades represent a stagey look to the images with models in formal, often classical poses against pillars or architecture that infer the silhouette of the outfit. Often ‘moody’, the use of lighting creates contrasts of light and shadow that add considerable atmosphere to the black and white prints, as well as an elegance that colour photos just never seem to emulate.

On to the 40s and the décor becomes a bold striking red as the NPG contrasts its war coverage of pilots and military workers with the New Look that Dior introduced after the conflict. It’s an interesting approach that offers both sides of the magazine’s work, although the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition on Lee Miller has all the best images actually. On the fashion side the increased use of sites of destruction to contrast the outfits is apparent particularly in Norman Hartnell’s work where elegantly dressed ladies stand in front of bomb sites as though to suggesting ‘fashion is indestructible’. Here also there is a greater saturation of bold colour advocated by those like Cecil Beaton who was a major influence on Vogue’s unfolding style. His 1946 image of a model dressed entirely in shades of red with red accessories against a red background entitled ‘The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty’ is a memorable example of this dynamic approach.

The full-skirted elegance of the 50s gives way to a much more relaxed approach to modelling in the 1960s as formal poses are replaced with ‘action’ shots of fashion in everyday lives. Twiggy of course will be familiar, careering along on a scooter or Jean Shrimpton relaxing in a series of coats for one shoot. New photographers were also part of this freer style with David Bailey in particular starting to document the more liberal times on location and with more experimental images.  By the time we reach the 70s and 80s it’s those experiments with colour and composition that seem to take precedence, and some of the more memorable images here are Claudia Schiffer on the back of a motorbike which in colour is a study in monochrome, and a model in a 20s-esque red bathing suite leaning on a swing which we learn was fashioned ad hoc on location, and harks back to that early image of the bathers on the platform.

Onto the 90s and the rise of the supermodel with that famous cover, and in more recent images you should get used to seeing that darling of British Vogue, Kate Moss who is everywhere. From the ‘heroin chic’ pictures that launched her more simple ‘every-girl’ look to the African Queen image of her in a desert, there’s no doubting her influence. As more and more magazines sought to challenge Vogue’s dominance, the photoessays become increasingly outlandish and surreal including a 40s bomber shown coming through a chintzy living room wall to advertise a khaki inspired trend and a stunning pink powder-puff shot of Lily Cole. Colour also continues to dominate as digital images allow even greater opportunities to retouch the pictures in pre-production, enhancing their fantasy-like suggestion and getting to the heart of that aspirational life Vogue has always wanted to present.

Vogue 100 doesn’t claim the magazine has profoundly changed the world, but for 100 years it has reflected society’s changing values while offering entertainment and escapism to its readers. While this show doesn’t tackle the story of Vogue itself or any of the controversies its pages unleash such as the size zero model and the doctoring of images by airbrushing to extremes it’s an interesting version of a history the magazine wishes to present. It has attracted important photographers including Horst, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier who have forwarded an artistic aesthetic that lifts what could have been a catalogue for expensive clothing to something more meaningful and inventive. And yes, it is all glossy photos of a world that doesn’t exist, but view it as an expression of a changing fantasy life and see it in partnership with the coincidentally contrasting show Strange and Familiar at the Barbican and both shows take on an added resonance that only adds to our understanding of the Britain we live in.

Vogue 100 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 May. Tickets are £17 without donation and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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