Monthly Archives: September 2013

Scenes from a Marriage – St James’s Theatre

This play asks many questions about souring relationships, especially whether you can pin point the exact moment it went wrong. For this couple the answer is clearly yes – never go to see A Doll’s House! I suffered it for 2 years at A-Level, both in English Literature and Theatre Studies; forced to repeatedly endure Juliette Stephenson playing the obnoxious Nora and her immensely tedious life. And yes, I know there is a highly acclaimed version in the West End at the moment but nothing on earth will drag me there! Going to see this play is absolutely grounds for divorce, so it was no surprise that this was the final straw for Marianne and Johan.

Scenes from a Marriage begins with an immensely smug middle-class couple being interviewed for a woman’s magazine on how they’ve made their 10-year marriage work. He’s an academic scientist, she’s a divorce lawyer and they’re convinced they will always be together. Over the next few hours, we see their relationship unravel, with ‘scenes’ occurring hours to years apart, as the marriage crumbles under the weight of familiarity, contempt, boredom and infidelity.  In many ways this is an unfortunately clichéd affair, Marianne is highly emotional, nagging and constantly wanting to unpick the fabric of their relationship, whilst Johan is laid back, repressed and never thinks about his life too deeply. Some of the plot devices are hopelessly predictable too – of course he has a mid-life crisis affair with a younger woman, starts wearing leather jackets etc etc. And it seems a little unlikely that they lived perfectly for 10 years before the cracks start to show.

However, that aside, this is by no means a bad play to watch; the acting from Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley, which takes up about 95% of the dialogue, is really superb and you are drawn into their life, almost fascinated  as they begin to destroy each other and re-emerge as somewhat altered people. It’s not easy to watch, it’s intense, depressing and discomforting at times, and there is one very violent scene which seemed as though it would spill off the stage.  I sat in the very front row (a bargain at only £15) which puts you almost frighteningly close to the action, and able to see up the actors noses at the front of the stage. It also has the hardest working stage hands in London, with around 15 scene changes – the stage has no mechanics or fly system so the audience are distracted by projected home videos of the couple while the people in black lug furniture about. There are, of course, similarities with Private Lives which I previously reviewed, and if you missed the excellent Stephens / Chancellor version which has just closed, then this is in the same sphere. Although this Ingmar Bergman play, directed by Trevor Nunn, has none of the whimsy of Coward, Marianne and Johan are, in some ways, a version of Elyot and Amanda with more ordinary lives.  It’s not a perfect play, but the acting makes up for it – and my God it’s better than A Doll’s House.

Scenes from a Marriage is at the St James’s Theatre until 9 November.

Houses of Parliament Tour

Do you remember that 80s advert where King Kong climbs up the Houses of Parliament only for it to splinter like matchsticks in his grasp? He’s eventually lured away by some giant chewy sweets, but the genius of that concept always stuck in my head because on the thousands of occasions when I’ve walked by, it really does look like it’s made from matchsticks. It’s probably the most famous British building in the world –the often-seen shot from across the bridge instantly places any film or TV drama in London, and arguably some of the most important events in British (and world) history have occurred in its chambers; yet how often do you ever really look at it? It’s long been my favourite London building, designed by Charles Barry who won an architectural competition in the 1830s, after a fire destroyed the original medieval building, and there are clear similarities with his other famous work, Highclere Castle, used in the TV version of Brideshead Revisited and now Downton Abbey.

It was only this summer that I realised public tours were available; I’d always assumed that entry was only via your MP. Having tried and failed on a couple of Saturdays to get in – clearly everyone else in London knew about the tours – I pre-booked and made my way through the un-intrusive security procedures to Westminster Hall, a remaining vestige of the medieval structure, built just shy of a thousand years ago. From here, we headed through the building to the Queen’s Robing Room in order to follow the route she takes when opening session. Perhaps it’s easiest to imagine the interiors in two distinct styles; anywhere the Queen or Lords go is heavily decorated in gilt, covered in heraldic symbols and is among the grandest you’ll see anywhere. There are some very interesting frescos to remind the monarch of the chivalric characteristics they should embody. But most impressive, in the Royal Gallery, through which the Queen walks to the House of Lords, are some incredible 13 meter-long depictions of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. The muted colour scheme and presence of numerous contorted figures give a more realistic impression of the horrors of war than many nineteenth century glory paintings.

The most striking thing about the House of Lords is the monarch’s throne, which is probably the goldest thing I have ever seen; even from across the room it’s blindingly shiny. Along the way, our guide was giving numerous insights into the history of the building and into the parliamentary process, explaining the strange rituals and ceremonies, which, as she interestingly pointed out, serve as a reminder that our current level of democracy has been hard won over hundreds of years and is not something to ever be complacent about. When you move through to the House of Commons, the architectural style changes to something considerably less exciting, almost drab by comparison – no wonder the Queen doesn’t go there. No painted ceilings or coats of arms, and the quality of the art is definitely mediocre. Then the 1.5 hour tour ends back where it started.

I have to complain about something so first a minor one; with three or four tours leaving every 15 minutes you’re often running into other groups and in places it’s hard to hear your own guide. My second gripe is that there is a high reverence for the places you see on the tour, but Westminster Hall itself is treated as little more than a stable, people waiting for tours to begin, a half-hearted gift shop and a couple of information desks. Yet so many extraordinary things have happened there – the trials of William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Sir Thomas Moore to name a few. Even more vitally, this room is the location of the trial and sentencing of King Charles I on the charge of treason, which set Britain on the road  to regicide, republic and eventually to the much reduced monarchy we now have. So it’s actually a bit sad to see the Hall reduced to peddling parliamentary-themed tat. It is a bit expensive, but nevertheless the tour is worth doing, whether you go for the design, the art or because everyone should see the place where our laws have and continue to be shaped.

Tours of Parliament run every Saturday throughout the year and cost £16.50, as well as Tuesday-Friday during the summer recess. 

Victoriana: The Art of Revival – Guildhall Art Gallery

I loved this exhibition! From the minute I walked through the door and saw a display made entirely of peacock feathers and a bust wearing some strange mechanical goggles, I knew there was something special about it. It celebrates artworks produced in the last two decades inspired by the themes and materials of Victorian England, from re-imagined classic literature to taxidermy and nods to the machine-age. It’s dark, morbid, inspired, sweet, fun, disgusting and brilliant.

Several pieces have been selected by the promoters and critics as the key talking points – the tweed armchair with two dead foxes wrapped into the back; two ceramic dogs, and the tiered wedding cake made of human hair, that looks like one of Marie Antoinette’s wigs – the icing is made of plated and woven blonde hair, with a piece cut away from the base showing its stuffing of curly brown hair that looks like sponge. But all the other pieces deserve equal billing. In the largest room is a statute of a girl surrounded by a swarm of bees, ants crawling over her skirts, with spiders and other insects around her feet. By her head are two structures covered in butterflies and a dead mouse. And yes, every creature is real, suspended on strings from the ceiling. Standing under it, I was certainly wasn’t alone in hoping that none of them would fall on me! Nearby, the same artist had produced a large golden birdcage that references the Crystal Palace (home of the Great Exhibition of 1851) and filled it with fake flowers, which looks much nicer live than this picture suggests.

In the same room are eight giant photographs that re-imagine key moments from The Picture of Dorian Grey with the artist playing the lead role. The atmosphere Yinka Shonibare creates and the detail of these pictures made them one of my favourite parts of the exhibition. In the next room I loved the ‘stylish’ space helmet which included a massive domed head with space inside for a very British safari hat and binoculars. Also here a suspended Miss Havisham-style dress, with a shredded skirt turned into a swarm of butterflies, simultaneously beautiful and tragic. Through a mysterious curtain is a dark room containing a machine with a light at the centre and three circles of moths which spin around it. When the light is strobbed, the moths look as though their flying towards the lamp and back again – that was really stunning!

But my favourite piece was a short animated film called Damaged Goods by Barnaby Barford, about two figurines that fall in love on the forgotten shelves of an old shop. The girl is held captive by an evil Charles II look-a-like with two vicious poodles, so the hero meets her in secret, but they’re discovered and something breaks! It’s a tragic and tender little film which was lovely to watch and reminiscent of a less commercial form of animation. So I’ll say it again, I loved this exhibition; every piece has been brilliantly selected, but prepared to be equally sickened and enchanted. And happily, the Guildhall is so tucked away that it wasn’t very busy at all!

Victoriana: The Art of Revival is at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 8th December and costs £7

Othello – National Theatre

Although it is one of the more famous Shakespeare plays, you don’t get that many productions of Othello in London. There are as many Hamlets as you could possibly want to see including some very starry ones in recent years; a spectacular David Tennant, an apparently competent Jude Law and an acclaimed Rory Kinnear. But not so many Othellos – why? Maybe it’s the slightly tenuous plot; the cause of Iago’s revenge and the ease with which Othello believes him seem a bit unlikely. Perhaps the racial element of the play is harder to approach, or perhaps everyone just likes Hamlet more. Whatever the reason, the current National Theatre production has set the standard for the future.

This modern version, set largely in a military base in Cyprus, is exactly how you’d imagine modern warfare looks. Everyone wears sand-coloured combats and marches between characterless concrete blocks – almost a bank canvass, waiting for Iago to inject the drama into it. A military base is a claustrophobic environment so, for the interior scenes, entire rooms are moved onto the stage and the action happens in these contained boxes. There’s a particularly brilliant use of the base toilets for the famous handkerchief scene in which Othello is led to believe Cassio is bragging about an affair with his wife. All of this cleverly ensures that the characters and their behaviours are at the forefront.

Needless to say Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago are superb. Lester’s range is excellent, capturing Othello’s ease and happiness in the early scenes, building to jealous rage and recrimination, before crumbling into guilt and grief at the end. He’s so convincing that you almost want to shout out to him to stop being so stupid. Kinnear meanwhile is a menacing Iago; on the surface he acts the supportive friend whilst brilliantly stage-managing Othello’s destruction. Very quickly, Kinnear’s Iago goes beyond his petty revenge for not being promoted, and you see the spite of a man who destroys these people because it’s so easy and so enjoyable. I was almost rooting for him!

There’s almost nothing wrong with this production; Desdemona hardly seemed worth all the bother – wet, whiney and prone to unnecessary PDAs in front of Othello’s colleagues. And my fantastic second row seat (thankyou £12 Travelex season), meant I could see the characters still breathing heavily after they’d died. But if you can get a ticket, definitely go and see this before it closes, or catch it this autumn through NT Live.

Othello is at the National Theatre until 5th October and will be shown in cinemas via NT Live from 26 September. Othello is also part of the £12 Travelex season.

Paper – The Saatchi Gallery

What do you do with your old shopping bags – the paper ones? Reuse; recycle; throw them away? How about cutting delicate origami-like trees into the front panel, and folding them down inside the bag so when you lay it flat and look into the bag, you see the minature tree standing between the panels. This is exactly what Yuken Teruya, in the current Saatchi Gallery collection has done. They are impressive and strangely beautiful displays, using everything from a thin MacDonald’s bags to the higher-quality Gucci, Dior and Mark Jacobs ones.

In another room is a large structure made from wood and tissue paper – from one angle it’s an enormous Chinese dragon undulating through the room. Or is it thousands of butterflies packed together in a chain of coloured wings or tangle of kites? Further along is a tiny floating city, hovering just above the ground, made of tiny boxes and paper suspended on barely visible strings. Turn the corner and you’re in a room of child portraits, seemingly innocent and anodyne, but actually these are some of the most vicious dictators of the last hundred years – Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe and Amin among them. Also in this room are two vases of roses made entirely of newspaper; each petal and leaf has been individually cut from pages of the Daily Mail, and carefully constructed as an elaborate bouquet – how refreshing to see the DM being used for culturally beneficial purposes!

This whole exhibition uses paper not just as a surface to draw / paint on, but as the base for sculpture or photography.  Although it shows how a simple and everyday material can be transformed into something quite different, there is little political comment on its use – more ‘look what we can do with it’ than ‘what are the consequences of this’. As with most modern art shows, there’s some nonsense as well but the good definitely outweighs the bad in this case. There are a couple of other interesting exhibitions too – the collections change quite frequently so you can go a couple of times a year and see all new things. And it’s definitely one of the least busy galleries, so perfect for weekend in central London without too many tourists.

Paper runs until 3 November at the Saatchi Gallery on the King’s Road and is free to enter.

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