Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013 Cultural Review of the Year

At this time of the year schedules are filled with retrospectives, so what better time to look back and reflect on my favourite cultural activities of the last twelve months.  2013 was another great year for the arts in London, giving us huge diversity and the chance to see rare and intriguing events. There have been lows of course – the less said about Adore the better! – But hardly a weekend had gone by without at least one London outing. So, in reverse order, here are my top 10 cultural highlights of 2013:

10 – Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me – Somerset House’s exhibition of beautiful prints by the Vogue photographer influenced by Hitchcock and film noir.

9 – Scenes from a Marriage – my first visit to St James’s theatre to see this emotional production of a crumbling marriage with great central performances from Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley.

8 – Othello – the National Theatre at its best, transporting the action to a modern army base. Adrian Lester was on top form as Othello, but I was cheering for Rory Kinnear’s brilliantly malevolent Iago.

7 – Victoriana – the Guildhall’s quirky exhibition of Victorian inspired artwork included a hair cake and plenty of taxidermy. A great chance to see lesser known artists, enjoy a quiet gallery and squirm!

6 – L.S. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life – my first blog post covered this great Tate Britain exhibition. Showing Lowry’s development as a painter building up to the wonderful industrial-scapes for which he’s most famous.

5 – London Film Festival – 3 of the events I saw at my first festival were great; a chance to see new work from around the world as well as influential classics. Parkland depicting the aftermath of the JFK assassination was a great thriller, whilst a superb performance from Dirk Bogarde unravelling a blackmail-plot in Victim, influenced the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

4 – Macbeth – Kenneth Branagh’s return to the stage was a triumph. Innovatively performed in a disused church in Manchester and emphasising the nature of evil, this was one of the theatrical highlights of the year.

3 – Lichtenstein – My favourite exhibition of 2013 at Tate Modern was the first retrospective in over 20 years. Seen before I started my blog, this was a fantastic showcase of Lichtenstein’s deceptively simple style – a print cannot prepare you for how affecting the paintings really are.

2 – Private Lives – so good I saw it twice, Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens were fantastic as the sparring couple in my favourite Coward play. Great chemistry, and great set at the Gielgud, this may well rival the Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan version as a definitive production.

1 – Richard II – no surprises here! This RSC production was undoubtedly the best thing I’ve seen this year – and probably any other year too! Having waited for most of 2013 to see it, everything about this production was amazing and David Tennant was beyond spectacular as the ill-fated King.

Retrospectives can be a bit sad, especially if you missed these things. But never fear, as 2014 already has plenty of treats lined up – Sam Mendes King Lear with Simon Russell Beale opens at the National Theatre in January – all sold out until March (and I don’t have a ticket – boo!), but more seats are released in February, and failing that there’s an NT Live showing on 1st May; Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury comes to the Gielgud in March – having seen her eccentric novelist in Death on the Nile, this will be a perfect role for her;  A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson is scheduled for the Young Vic in the Summer, whilst Greg Doran’s two Henry IV plays for the RSC and Barbican arrive in the autumn. In exhibitions we look forward to Constable at the V&A in September, David Bailey at the Portrait Gallery from February and Jean Paul Gaulthier at the Barbican from April. 2014 is looking pretty promising.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore – Somerset House

I have to confess, I had no idea who Isabella Blow was when I went to this exhibition but I was intrigued by the description on the website and a rare chance to see a private collection. I’ve had mixed experiences with Somerset House fashion events; the Miles Aldridge prints earlier this year were beautiful and very nicely put together, but the 2012 Valentino show was a big let-down. Lots of pretty dresses, some worn by famous people, but next to no curation, sense of chronology or information about the inspiration, purpose or history of the garments.

Thankfully, this is quite different. It begins with some sensible background on Isabella, her aristocratic upbringing and early life clearly a useful means to promote the designers, photographers and models she took under her wing when she eventually worked for Vogue, Tatler and the Sunday Times. So this is her wardrobe, a unique collection of clothes, hats and shoes interspersed with letters, photographs and video. Most famously she brought Alexander McQueen’s entire student collection, several pieces of which are displayed here, and as his clothes dominate the exhibition this was clearly an important relationship for both them.

Similarly, she helped to launch the career of milliner Philip Treacy whose spectacular hats are the most striking part of the collection. Whatever your views on the validity of fashion as an art form, Treacy’s innovative approach to hat design and sculptural form is incredible; it’s not just the use of strange materials and the creation of unexpected shapes, but through unusual placement and designs that extend beyond the head, he has changed the purpose the hat from a functional item to an artistic statement. My favourites were butterfly themed, first an eye-mask, a beautiful red and gold creation that covers one eye with tendrils curling perfectly away from the face, and another with a swarm of red butterflies around the head. You can also see the inspiration of Rolls Royce (who sponsored an early show) through some sleek and beautifully designed pieces early in the exhibition.

Somerset House has done a good job with this one, the shape of the exhibition is great, early influences, to main collection, to pieces inspired by Blow, all cleverly displayed. I also liked the photographs of models Blow had discovered, suitably presented in a separate room to maintain focus. Using different types of exhibit emphasised her varied contribution to the fashion industry. Vastly improving on the Valentino exhibition, each outfit is given its own space, and, crucially, plenty of information. And although these rooms are filled with items created by other people, you do leave with a sense of Isabella Blow’s character – dynamic, eccentric and innovative – eager to support talented people. I may not have known who she was before, but I’m glad I got the chance to find out.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore is on at Somerset House until 2 March. Full price entry is £12.50.

Richard II – RSC at the Barbican

Nine months, nine months I’ve waited to see this play! Booking my front-row tickets back in March it seemed so long to wait. The play opened in Stratford to amazing reviews, it was shown live in cinemas which I had to resist and finally it arrived at the Barbican this week. After so many months of anticipation and near hysterical levels of excitement, could the RSC’s Richard II possibly live up expectation…hell yes!

I’ve been privileged enough to see David Tennant on stage twice before, most recently in Much Ado About Nothing where he displayed a surprising aptitude for slapstick. But his Hamlet, also with Greg Doran directing, was electrifying – a play I’d seen countless times had me on the edge of my seat with a central performance of grief so brilliantly balanced it was at once dark and comedic, menacing and heartbreaking.

Richard II is the story of two Kings, Richard himself and his successor (or usurper) Henry IV, but this production shows them as the two faces of kingship – Richard is regal, godly and majestic, dressed often in pale white and gold, while Henry is thuggish, hard and earthy in his darker reds and browns. They are in some sense one person, two sides of one King. In a particularly striking moment you see Richard descend from above enthroned on a platform, bathed in white light and shining gold. Later, in parallel, we see Henry do the same, and yet despite the trappings of kingship – the crown, sceptre and throne – he seems a parody of the man he replaced, now embroiled and muddied in a more deadly political world. Greg Doran, as with Hamlet, brings a real sense of threat to the direction, building the tension as the action plays out, so that even after nearly 3 hours you’re still captivated and wanting more. With so much happening off-stage and just reported by the character’s Shakespeare can sometimes appear sanitised, but with Doran’s productions you feel a shadow of those events slowly infecting everyone as the play progresses helping to create a fantastic tension and drive.

And so to Tennant….what can I say, it was a performance of real magnificence. His Richard begins stately and in control, his chin raised but using a softly controlled voice to imply a hint of androgyny. Wholly convinced of his divine right to rule and his status as god’s representative, his courtiers obey however strange the decision. Yet by appropriating John of Gaunt’s lands his arrogance blinds his judgement and leads to his undoing, and here Tennant is unsurpassable. One of his great strengths as an actor is being able to convey deep and complex emotions and always suggests great pathos without becoming hammy. He takes an audience with him, and here creates incredible sympathy for Richard; watching him crumble was mesmerising – from the scene on the Welsh beach when he first realises his supporters have deserted him and the Kingdom is lost, to reluctantly and indecisively choosing to hand over his crown – devastating.  Earlier, I used the word privilege in seeing Tennant perform, the word was carefully chosen for a privilege it is.

There are often great theatre performances in London and I’ve been lucky enough to see most of my favourite actors. But sometimes something very very special comes along. Tennant’s Hamlet was one and now his Richard II is a rare chance to see a performance of such majesty that it will be talked about among the great moments of theatre history. Everything about this production shines, the ensemble acting is first class, the stage design is glorious and the direction brilliant – I could write pages more! It was worth every second of that nine month wait, so do whatever it takes – queue for day tickets, scour the country for an RSC-live cinema screening, bribe the Barbican – do whatever you have to do, but SEE THIS PLAY!

Richard II is at the Barbican until 25 January.

Silent Shakespeare – BFI at St James’s Theatre

The heyday of the silent film was undoubtedly the 1920s when a combination of great cinematography and glamorous ‘movie stars’ drew audiences to the cinema. Yet the first moving pictures were thought to have been captured about forty years earlier in the 1880s undergoing continual refinement and innovation before the First World War helped to boost cinema-going. The BFI have unearthed and restored a collection of 6 incredible, potted Shakespeare plays filmed in Europe and America between 1899 and 1911, lasting between 1 and 20 minutes, and given a brand new score played live by the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Shown in chronological order, we see a one-scene King John, a UK production from 1899 – essentially a man on a throne gesticulating woefully; a fascinating version of The Tempest from, 1908 which although fairly brief has Ariel disappear and reappear in shot; A Midsummer Night’s Dream was my favourite, filmed in a forest with brilliant costumes and great sense of the mischievous atmosphere of the play (USA, 1909); King Lear from Italy in 1910 was tinted with coloured costumes, demonstrating how film-makers were developing techniques that would take another 30 years to become widely used. The actors, especially Lear, conveyed the story so well that you got a real sense of his sadness and despair as he finally came to understand the true value of his daughters; Twelfth Night also 1910 but from the USA, had lovely comic timing whilst Italy’s Merchant of Venice from the same year had some great characterisation. Richard III, a UK film from 1911, was by far the longest, taking inspiration from the complexity of the original play, interspersed with direct quotes. Whatever historians now think, this Richard wasn’t a hunchback but he was a ruthless murderer.

These films are fascinating insight into the quite rapid advancement of both visual technique and acting skill in this early period – moving, in just 12 years, from a shaky single frame to experimental multi-scene films. The music in any silent film is enormously important in helping to set the mood, and there’s something quite special about hearing it played live. Somehow you hear the music better and it enhances what you see. Last year a BFI-Barbican collaboration screened Hitchcock’s The Lodger staring Ivor Novello, with live music from the London Symphony Orchestra, which at the time, was a completely new experience. The score for Silent Shakespeare is performed by just six musicians from the London Contemporary Orchestra (3 violins, a cello, a guitar and a piano) and suits each play so well.

These are quite rare opportunities in London so I’d recommend going if you hear about them; the Albert Hall is showing The Artist with live music at the end of December. Neither the BFI nor St James’s Theatre advertised Silent Shakespeare widely it seemed – there were around 20 people for the matinee, and I only booked the night before because I accidentally saw it in Time Out. They don’t seem to have any more performances scheduled, but the films are on DVD and a really lovely example of early cinema. Let’s hope the BFI dusts off a few more silent classics and gives them a special live-music screening.

Silent Shakespeare is a BFI production shown at St James’s Theatre.

Intervals – The Barbican

You don’t see a lot of painted scenery in modern theatre; so much is constructed now to give you a more naturalistic 3D effect – rooms, forests, even sunsets are a combination of lighting designs. Ayse Erkmen’s small exhibition at the Barbican celebrates the artistic value of painted backdrops, mixing a variety of styles as the inspiration for each scene, ranging from the Mikado, to Turner and a Parisian clock face, all prepared by established scenic painters.

Erkmen is famous for designing her creations around the location where they will be shown, so this exhibition not only fits the Curve gallery, but draws on the history and purpose of the Barbican. The result is a small but intriguing 10 minute walk through a series of large scale paintings which are raised and lowered on pulley systems. Mimicking the idea of a theatre backdrop being lowered into place, the 11 pieces here stop in front of you, and are then raised to just above head height allowing you to move forward to the next. The spacing between each piece is uneven and the rate at which they move is deliberately uncoordinated, blurring, according to the notes, ‘the performance space and the backstage…each “backstage” becomes a new stage for action, and we in turn become actors in Erkman’s production.’ Well, I don’t know about that, but the effect she creates is quite compelling, particularly in restricting your progress through the exhibition and unusually allowing the artist, rather than the viewer to set the pace.

In some ways, it’s like those scenes in Indiana Jones films where he tries to get through a lowering door before it slides shut, just rescuing his errant hat in time. Here too there’s a childlike reflex to get through before the backdrop gets too low and you’re trapped (for a couple of minutes). The quality of the artwork varies so sometimes the impulse to rush on is stronger, whereas with others you’re happy to stop and enjoy. It’s an interesting concept focusing on the mechanism of display rather than the work itself, which belongs to a variety of other people, and as well as saying very serious things about performance and reality, it’s also quite fun. If you’re heading to the Barbican for the Pop Art Design exhibition or the lovely Christmas market, make sure you see this as well.

Ayse Erkmen’s Intervals is in the Curve Gallery at the Barbican until 5 January and is free to attend.

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