Monthly Archives: November 2013

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain – British Library

The Georgians are everywhere; looking around London you notice their influence in architecture, parks and artistic spaces. This new exhibition at the British Library examines the country’s growing prosperity and cultural shift as new modes of manufacturing and expanded trade routes brought new influences to Britain. Fundamentally, it argues that the rein of the four Georges between 1714 and 1830 established a number of middle class tastes and values which are evident in the modern world.

The first section is on the home using architectural books, paintings and etchings from the Library’s collection including the famous crescent at Bath and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, an incredible mix of Eastern and classical influences made possible by the burgeoning empire. The Georgian home also benefitted from a new approach to gardening where wildness was tamed into order and elegance, embellished with follies, lakes and grottos. Inside, new rules guided interactions whether through the ritual of tea or modes of politeness, with manuals for behaviour and accomplishment, and we get to see Jane Austen’s writing desk and glasses, Jeremy Bentham’s violin, and some beautifully illustrated books of exotic plant-life.

Section two looks at shopping, and it never occurred to me that all that beautiful furniture came from catalogues. There are also prints of customers in a furniture showroom – imagine an 18th Century Ikea where they can browse, customise and order for home delivery. There are also some lovely examples of the first fashion books for men and women, supported by store advertising and trade cards. This sense of being seen to be fashionable extends to the third section on sociability and forms of culture. Being at the theatres and public entertainments was vital; learning to dance from the variety of guides and tutorials meant showing off those skills at assembly rooms; and enjoyment of various kinds could be found at masquerades, sports, gambling houses and pleasure gardens. All of this is also nicely lampooned by contemporary satirists mocking the obsession with celebrities and trivial self-adornment… that sounds very familiar!

There are slight nods to other parts of society, particularly to slavery which underlay the production of luxury goods, as well as to charitable institutions such as the foundling hospital. But essentially this exhibition is a riot of privileges and consumerism that improved the social experience and position of the middle classes. You can argue that a number of these things pre-date the Georgians and you don’t get a huge sense of change within this 116 year period, particularly the political and economic effect of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, as well as the growing discontent and push for greater enfranchisement. Nonetheless this exhibition is nicely pitched, full of excellent information signs, and the British Library has gathered an impressive array of pieces; not just books and prints, but shop signs, shoes, games and much more. Not to mention each exhibition case is wallpapered with relevant engravings that are not only add a stylish touch but enhance what you’re seeing. There’s even a treat for Londoner’s at the end – the floor in the final room is a map of the city highlighting the effects of the period, seen in buildings, ports, factories, squares, churches, street names and green spaces. So, yes, the Georgians really are everywhere, just look around you.

Georgians Revealed runs at the British Library until 11th March and costs £9 at full price.

Strangers on a Train – Gielgud Theatre

It’s a brilliant premise; two strangers meet on a train, exchange stories and discuss swapping murders to fool the police. One man, Charles Bruno, takes the conversation seriously, disposing of Miriam, the unfaithful and inconvenient wife of architect Guy Haines. Guy, however, assumed it was a drunken nonsense and much of the story involves the pressure on him to uphold his end of the bargain. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel and the superb Hitchcock film, this play has fantastic source material, yet somehow fails to live up to either.

Let me first say that the stage design is pretty spectacular; the creation of the various settings from a 50s train carriage to New York apartments, and especially the Metcalf merry-go-round are amazing. There’s some brilliant use of video creating the sense of a moving train, and projecting various motifs which is unlike anything else I’ve seen. The acting is pretty decent as well; Laurence Fox does well as the crumbling Haines, an everyman unravelling as events overtake him, whilst Imogen Stubbs has a nice role as a glamorous and fey Mrs Bruno. Jack Huston is an eccentric and obsessive Bruno, although I would have liked a bit of menace in his performance. It’s hard to believe Haines would feel threatened and not dismiss him as a crank. You can’t help but compare with Robert Walker’s perfectly pitched and disturbing film performance.

The real problem here is the script; the first half bounces from scene to scene without any proper time to understand the characters, their motivation and the risks they take; the second act needs a red pen through a number of extraneous scenes that add nothing to the plot and just delay what could be a much tighter conclusion. This play needs to be taken away for a few weeks, rewritten and edited before coming back for another try. First, they need to decide whether it’s paying homage to Highsmith or Hitchcock – at the moment it’s veering unsuccessfully between the two and ends up being a bit of mess character-wise.

Most important of all is the scene in the train, which is where this play begins, but it fell flat. They messed this up and it has ramifications for the rest of the play. It should be the crux of the drama, the Faustian pact is set; whether or not the characters know it at the time, their lives change from this point and the audience, at least, should feel the importance of that moment. So, it needs to be longer; we need to know who these men are, the extent of their disappointments, and why on earth the sensible Haines would share any of his secrets with Bruno. It must also explain the origins of Bruno’s obsession with him – it makes more sense in the film because he’s a famous tennis player, but here he’s an architect and I couldn’t really understand the fixation. Fundamentally, this scene has to lay the groundwork for the character and plot developments that follow.

There are a lot of great elements here, a fantastic story, good acting and spectacular design, not to mention the production expertise of Bond powerhouse Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson. This should be so good! And I really think it can be – it just needs a script more worthy of Highsmith and Hitchcock

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror – BFI Southbank

You can always rely on the BFI for a good film season. I’ve seen many a classic thanks to their programme dedicated to an actor or genre. Everything from waspish Bette Davies films to Humphrey Bogart’s film noir antiheroes to Catherine Deneuve going mad in 60s South Kensington. And I’d like to think their amazing Bond season a few years back was my idea – I suggested it in a survey about 8 months before and then it happened – true story! Not only do they show great films but they’re very suggestible, what more could you want from a cinema?!

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film is their latest special season showing a selection of classic horror from the 1920s until the present day. Silent film is having a bit of a renaissance at the BFI, building on last year’s screening of the Lodger at the Barbican with live music played by the London Symphony Orchestra, which was amazing. Nosferatu is the 1922 vampire tale, long before vampires became clichéd figures with slicked back hair and comedy fangs. Nosferatu is moving to a derelict building in Bremen so the local agent sends Hutter with the paperwork. It begins almost like a fairy tale told as flashback from a manuscript written years later. Hutter is a bright and cheery young man, happily married to Ellen and constantly smiling. The screen is washed in yellow to indicate his sunny personality and carefree nature, un-phased by local fears as he travels to Nosferatu’s home. But his happy expression is quickly replaced by wide-eyed fear and dread as he is drawn into Nosferatu’s sphere, first in the mountains and then as he travels to Bremen to take up residence.

This is a very clever film and with subtle use of visual and musical cues, is genuinely creepy, even now when many of its techniques have since become cliché. The character of Nosferatu is an oddly shaped man, shrunken and hunched yet tall and imposing – at one point you see only his shadow move along the wall with monstrously long fingers outstretched. Yet, interestingly he’s not the confident predator of later films, but a being trapped by his need to hunt. The many visual references to creatures in the fields around his castle emphasise his animalistic nature and separation from the rational control of humanity. There’s an amazingly tense sequence when Nosferatu is on a ship bound for Bremen. Shots of the rigging swaying through the water are interspersed with dramatically crashing waves and you can feel the impending danger as he gets closer to his new hunting-ground.

Some of the techniques are of course a little dated; a blue wash on the screen indicates night, when on several occasions it’s clearly broad daylight and sunny, but these don’t detract from what actual seems a fresh and inspired take on the vampire myth. The music was fantastic at creating an initial sense of lightness, and then building an atmosphere of fear and drama later on. You don’t even notice there aren’t any words because the cadence of the music and the visual expression become more pronounced. With Hollywood investing so much in special effects that date before a film reaches DVD, and pushing 3D films which no one really wants, perhaps film-makers should look back to the techniques of 90 years ago to focus on mood and character which European cinema does so well. Unmuddied by an inadequate script the actor’s expressions tell us so much more about the characters than two hours of talking could. Seems Norma Desmond could be right – “we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!”

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is part of the BFI Southbank Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film Season which runs until December.

Frankenstein – NT Live

How better to celebrate the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary weekend than by seeing one of its recent runaway successes. Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is now over two years old but still freshly remembered for its influence on the Olympic Opening Ceremony and most notably for the interchanging performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the role of Frankenstein and the Creature. I didn’t see this at the time, but, having been impressed by the NT Live Macbeth, I thought I’d give it a go.

Let’s deal with a couple of negative bits first. My natural scepticism slightly recoiled from the opening scene as the Creature is ‘born’ and undergoes a Bambi-like evolution from flailing to walking. As a device, it creates instant sympathy for him, but went on a bit too long, and in less competent hands than Cumberbatch would easily be cringeworthy. The supporting cast isn’t up- to-much, apart from the excellent Karl Johnson as the blind man that teaches the Creature about literature and humanity – everyone one else was a bit drama school. I couldn’t decide whether they seemed bad against the quality of acting from Lee Miller and Cumberbatch, or because they were just a bit rubbish – probably both.

I liked Boyle’s design, referencing the mechanical menace of the nineteenth-century whilst being stylistically modern and innovative. The scenes on Lake Geneva and in the hills are some of the best, with clever use of sound throughout which I wouldn’t normally notice. The stage is lit from above by a large wave containing hundreds of small lights which ripple and pulse with life as the atmosphere heightens.

Despite the title, it is the Creature that dominates around 70% of the stage time, and it is an extraordinary performance from Cumberbatch, who I’d thoughtlessly assumed would be better in the other role. His Creature is gentle and erudite, capable of high-minded philosophy that make his acts of brutal violence all the more shocking, especially when they are coldly chosen behaviours rather than unstoppable natural instincts. Cumberbatch spent some time researching the recovery of war and trauma sufferers which adds gravity to his portrayal and never once becomes parodied. Lee Miller’s detached and sometimes arrogant Frankenstein mirrors his creation’s isolation, whilst revelling in his God-like command over life. With no slight on Lee Miller’s performance, the part is a bit underwritten and could have done with more of Frankenstein’s motivation and reasoning, but the scenes between the two leads are intense and brilliantly played.

It took some getting used to but I really enjoyed this play, and it loses little of its power in the cinema-setting. You’ll come away with plenty of questions; you never quite decide which one is truly monstrous and, despite being  about the creation of life,  whether the veneer of civilised society and modes of etiquette just disguise rather than prevent the baser instincts of people to lie, harm and destroy.

Frankenstein is available in cinemas via NT Live – visit the website for dates and venues. Versions are available with both actors in the title roles.

%d bloggers like this: