Monthly Archives: August 2013

Historic Greenwich

I went on a primary school trip to the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and I remember thinking it was amazing. Either my 10-year old self was completely deluded or something has gone very wrong in the meantime. I intended to see their Visions of the Universe exhibition showcasing the history of solar system imagery which their publicity implies is pretty much the best exhibition ever seen. It was broken! So I thought I’d look round the rest of the museum instead – and what a disappointment. Apparently, the whole history of Britain’s seafaring heritage can be distilled into the Atlantic Slave Trade, East India Company, Nelson and the Battle of the Atlantic. Even within these galleries, which have some fantastic objects, the brief information gives a stilted picture of their history. The Traders gallery, for example, has simplified 250 years of British interaction with India and China so that you bounce between pepper, cloth, tea and opium trading, through the India Rebellion and Opium Wars leaving you slightly breathless and with no better understanding of the complex and altering effects this had on the nations involved. As often with museums now, there’s no overarching chronology that shows you how Britain’s maritime history evolved from the seeding of the Royal Navy under Henry VIII to its role in the modern armoury. Where is the sense of naval innovation and development – including the crucial movement from sail to steam; where are the multiple roles of the Royal Navy as fighting force, transporter of goods and men, scientific explorers and pioneers, and where are the distinctions between different elements of naval warfare including submarines, seaplanes and decoy boats such as Q-ships? There’s not even anything dedicated to life on-board naval vessels – the social and cultural history of sailors which is still quite poorly understood. The NMM needs a rethink and to takes lessons from its own past –  I definitely learned more on that School trip than I did all these years later.

There’s so much to do in Greenwich, however, that it needn’t be a wasted journey. The Painted Hall is part of the Old Royal Naval College (in front of the NMM) and was built as a hospital dining room for naval veterans. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and painted over almost 20 years by Sir James Thornhill, it was eventually thought to grand for the patients and opened to the public instead. Celebrating the glories of British naval power, it really is a spectacular place incorporating members of the contemporary royal family, with Christian imagery and Greek mythological symbols, as well sections celebrating the (then) four continents of the world. Much like the Reuben’s ceiling in the Banqueting House on Whitehall, this is a remarkable artwork and an interesting piece of propaganda on naval history.

The Queen’s House next door to the NMM is most famous for the often photographed spiral staircase and chequered marble floor, but it also holds one of the most interesting collections of paintings in London. Largely it contains naval portraitures, battles and seascapes, with a few royal figures as well, by everyone from Holbein to Lowry. The house itself, designed by Inigo Jones, was commissioned for James I’s wife, Queen Anne but first lived in by her daughter-in-law Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. It was also the first classically designed building in England and is a quiet refuge after the bustle of the NMM. In fact skip the more famous NMM, Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory, and visit these two places instead – both free and far more enlightening.

The Painted Hall and the Queen’s House are open daily from 10am-5pm and are free to enter.

Macbeth – NT Live

It’s been more than a decade since Kenneth Branagh appeared in a Shakespearean role, and the entire run of Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival sold out in nine minutes. This is probably the theatrical event of the year, but one I expected to miss out on. Again, the National Theatre has come to my rescue with its season of live cinema screenings. Although I wasn’t prepared to go to Manchester, I did have to go to East Finchley. The Phoenix Cinema has a very nice art deco auditorium with seats that you can just about manage for 2 1/2 hours and by the time the NT Live preamble began, excitement and expectation were running high.

This play is all about evil. Set in a disused church, the atmosphere is dark, menacing and violent. It begins on a rainy battlefield with real mud, which as the play progresses begins to stain everything, representing Macbeth’s guilt. Actions normally occurring off-stage such as the opening battle and Duncan’s murder are shown, giving insights into his character – he is the protagonist but not the hero. Unlike Hamlet or Othello who are wronged by others, Macbeth cold-bloodedly murders his King and steals a throne he has no legitimate claim to because of the witches’ premonition. Unlike Hamlet, he doesn’t agonise about the legitimacy of what he’s told, but unquestioningly accepts it as his destiny.  As we cleverly see here, Macbeth looks into the trusting face of his friend and still murders him, a chilling moment and somehow a crucial insight into the man who becomes a tyrant. Branagh portrays this metamorphosis from loyal subject, to murderer and usurper brilliantly. You can see how clearly he understands the character, not looking to evoke sympathy from the audience but revealing in unsettling detail the conflict between his guilt and the depths of his ambition. His own demise, curiously, happens off stage, but doesn’t detract from a very special performance from Branagh.

Around him is more of a mixed bag. The setting works really well and helps to reinforce Macbeth’s irreligious actions, and most of the cast performances are excellent – John Shrapnel as Duncan, Jimmy Yuill as Banquo and particularly Ray Fearon as McDuff whose devastation at the murder of his family is heartbreaking. Not quite sure what happened with the witches and Lady Macbeth however. The witches are shrill and practically inaudible – it’s a wonder Macbeth heard their predictions because I certainly didn’t catch most of it! I’m not a fan of Alex Kingston and this performance did nothing to persuade me; she began slightly hysterical and lacked any convincing sense of the cunning or ambition necessary to support her husband in his crimes. As for the hand wringing scene, it was almost embarrassing to watch, full of strange mechanical movements – a bizarre decision.

Undoubtedly though, this is Branagh’s play and it will be remembered as a significant interpretation. Thanks to NT Live you can now see this and a number of other great productions at the cinema, without the high West End seat prices! The screening in East Finchley was a sell-out at 1.30pm on a Monday afternoon, with an average audience age of 70. Lots of people will want to see these so please NT, let’s have more cinemas and evening / weekend showings so we don’t have to take an afternoon off! Although, for this Macbeth, it was worth it!

For more information on NT Live forthcoming screenings including Macbeth, The Audience, Othello, Frankenstein and Coriolanus, visit their website.

Strange Interlude – National Theatre

I remember the exact moment I realised the National Theatre was brilliant. I was on my way to the BFI next door to watch The Spy Who Loved Me during their Bond season and I’d stopped at EAT just along the Southbank for a cup of tea to take with me, but when I finally got to the counter they’d run out! It was 4pm on a Saturday afternoon in Britain how could anyone have possibly run out of tea! I was about to abjectly enter the cinema when I remembered the NT café where I was promptly sold one cup of English breakfast and I tootled off to enjoy Roger Moore’s finest hour. That day the NT rescued me.

Of course I already knew the NT was great and over the years I’ve enjoyed all it has to offer. I’ve seen great actors in the making, including a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch in Rattigan’s After the Dance and the hugely underrated Alex Jennings in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. I’ve been to new plays by Alan Bennett, I’ve listen to Sunday jazz, seen exhibitions and used the open space to meet friends. And now there’s the chance to sit in the front few rows and enjoy its summer plays for just £12.

Strange Interlude is set in early twentieth-century America and is the story of Nina, who at the start of the play has lost the man she wanted to marry in the First World War. In her grief and self-destruction she is persuaded to marry someone else and the play examines her relationship with five men across the years – her father, her husband, her lover, her son and a faithful admirer – all substitutes for the lost pilot, Gordon. Initially this was a hard play to like, the characters voice their inner thoughts in asides to the audience before resuming conversation, which seeemed very mannered and the first scene felt like a clunky melodrama. But after a while you begin to get caught up in the drama and the, mostly, fantastic performances. The always excellent Anne Marie Duff was equally vulnerable and beguiling as Nina clearly able to hold these men in her thrall. Good stuff too from Darren Pettie as her lover Darrell and Charles Edwards as the admirer Marsden. The only duff note is Jason Watkins as Nina’s husband, a bizarrely zany take which lacked any dimension – especially noticeable when everyone else is acting their socks off.

The most impressive thing here though is the amazing set design that rotated to become a stuffy nineteenth-century-inspired study, a breezy 20s beach house and an austere 40s Art Deco Park Avenue flat, reflecting Nina’s changing moods. Then you will be stunned as the houses turn into the deck of a ship, and for the final scene a jetty. Not enough prominence is given to set designers but there are some amazing things being done in the West End at the moment and Soutra Gilmour for the NT deserves some recognition for this one. This isn’t an easy play but bear with it and there are great rewards – and as part of the £12 Travelex season, you can afford to risk it. 

Strange Interlude is part of the National Theatre’s £12 Travelex Season and runs at the Lyttelton Theatre until 1st September.

Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me – Somerset House

Close-up on the profile of woman. She’s wearing a hat with a veil that covers her nose. Smoke billows from her thickly painted lips, and the whole scene is washed in shade of violet blue. A few meters away a woman stands on a chequered kitchen floor. All you see is her ankles and feet in Wizard-of-Oz-like shoes, and between them a bottle of Heinz ketchup has smashed splattering blood red sauce on the ground. These are just two of Miles Aldridge’s photographs at a Somerset House retrospective celebrating his hyper-coloured and intriguing fashion shoots.

This is a small exhibition but there’s plenty to see as you view one doll-like woman after another, emphasising the tension between the ‘high fashion style and sense of hopelessness’. Each image is taken from a longer fashion spread, but has an individual story – at the centre of which, Aldridge explained, are ‘close-ups of a woman’s face thinking, and she’s realised that her whole world is wrong’. And this effect is very cleverly achieved. Each picture is vibrantly coloured but drained by the plasticity or deadness of the model’s expression – she’s there but not there, creating instead a sense of sadness and emptiness.

Aldridge is influenced by film noir, Hitchcock and David Lynch, portraying troubling scenes in glamorous ways. When planning a shoot, he hand-draws a storyboard to ensure the final images will almost exactly match his imagined version. There are good examples of this and copies of the final spreads. Some of the best are First Impressions, shot in a supermarket, where Stepford-Wife-like woman with trolleys are posed in front of mundane but highly colourful displays of margarine or washing powder.

There’s not much explanation of the images, presumably so you’ll buy the expensive accompanying book, but you don’t need it to enjoy the photos. The gallery walls were painted in different bright and pastel colours to enhance the image they displayed which was a nice touch. If you’re going to Somerset House, there are also some free exhibitions as well as the Courtauld collection, so you can make an afternoon of it.

Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me is at Somerset House until 29 September and costs £6. The Courtauld is also £6, but there are also several free exhibitions in other galleries.

Cover Story: Radio Times at 90 – Museum of London

As a massive TV-listings snob the only magazine allowed on the coffee table is the Radio Times, purchased every week for as long as I can remember. Even as a student it was my one luxury, read from cover to cover with tea and toast after Tuesday morning lectures. Lots of people only buy the famous Christmas issue and spend the rest of the year with an inferior publication, and you certainly get what you pay for. If you only spend 45p, then you get 45p-worth of value – soap spoilers and articles about dreary Sunday night hospital dramas. Instead in last week’s RT you could have read about child slavery in the industrial revolution, the consequence of removing bees from the natural world, Caligula’s reputation, successful female sports presenters and news reporting in war zones – and that’s not even half the content.

Understandably then, the Museum of London is celebrating 90 years of the Radio Times with a small exhibition of key covers from across the period, showing how the RT has explored and reflected national life as it happened – from the first ever TV broadcast to key historical moments including Second World War air raids, coronations, royal weddings and births, wars and changing Prime Ministers. There’s a 1920s Marconi radio on display, a Luftwaffe map, covers from the 60s and 70s announcing the birth of Radio 1 and interviews with Mick Jagger,  responding to shifts in music tastes, and an unpublished article on secret dealings in 80s politics.

There’s not much detail about the processes involved in producing the weekly RT and how decisions are made on controversial topics, but it is interesting to see how leading artists and photographers, as well as renowned writers have contributed to its relevance. There’s also a display dedicated to Dr Who with some selected covers and art work, plus a recreation of the award-winning Dalek on Westminster Bridge cover – photo opportunity for fans celebrating 50 years of the show.

The exhibition is probably a bit too small for a special trip, but the Museum of London is great so it won’t be a wasted journey. And on the way home, trade in your lesser TV mag for the Radio Times – and you’ll never look back!

The free Radio Times exhibition is at the Museum of London until 3 November.

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