Monthly Archives: February 2014

Only in England – Science Museum

Sitting on a windswept beach in our coats, eating sandwiches wrapped in tin foil – can there by a more British image? This delightful exhibition of Tony Ray-Jones photographs in the Science Museum’s new Media space is a fascinating insight into, predominantly, working class life in the 50s and 60s. It’s divided into three sections, the first are Ray-Jones photographs of the English at leisure, followed by Martin Parr’s images of northern community, and finally Parr’s selection of lesser-known Ray-Jones pictures.

Ray-Jones wanted to photograph the peculiarity of everyday British life and made lists of characteristics, and traditions that he wanted to capture. In this period, he felt there was a growing Americanisation of international culture, and his English seaside images particularly attempt to record what he thought was a disappearing way of life. From bored beauty queens preparing to go on stage, to a thunderous child at a carnival, to some very grumpy people around a beachfront arcade game, these are images full of nostalgic warmth for his subjects but emphasising the absurdity or quirkiness of the scene. Many of his photographs have two subjects; you’re often first drawn to the centre or foreground, before you see the second, usually more humorous, focus. People are also arranged a different angles to each other which moves your eye around the full scene, creating nicely contrasting areas.

Many of the photos look random rather than posed, with the subjects or groups engaged in different tasks, generally oblivious of one another. They each have an individual narrative but at the same time are united in that moment by the photograph and their shared English customs. Although the individual dramas have a hint of melancholy, Ray-Jones, inspired by seaside postcards, still manages to convey a slightly mischievous humour, an affectionate wink that’s never mocking.

This exhibition is also punctuated by a room of works by Martin Parr who, openly acknowledging the influence of Ray-Jones, has documented life in a rural Yorkshire community in the 1970s. The two artists sit well together, although Parr’s approach is more formal and felt a little more detached. His work is also focused on the nature of a specific religious community and in particular the local Methodist and Baptist churches. There’s something almost austere about these pictures as he captures the cold silence of people at prayer. This is less an anonymous crowd drawn together by chance one day, as an insight into a community where everyone is known and revealed in a different kind of social coming together. Putting them next to Ray-Jones emphasises their shared documentary style, but also the interesting differences between them.

This is a great exhibition to launch the Science Museum’s new media space, and one of the best photography exhibitions I’ve seen in London for a while. The Tony Ray-Jones images alone are worth the visit, but then, having grown up by the sea on a diet of fish and chips, Carry Ons and gentle sitcoms, the content of his work feels very familiar. The English still head for the beach come rain or shine, determined to enjoy (or endure) it – so perhaps that way of life hasn’t changed so very much after all.

Only in England is at the Science Museum’s Media Space until 16 March. Tickets are £8 and concessions are available.

King Lear – National Theatre

Sam Mendes has created a cold and bleak world in which Lear publicly divides his Kingdom amongst his three daughters. Here is a version of a totalitarian state; an absolute monarchy in which the army shore up the whims and fancies of their King. It is an overwhelmingly masculine domain in which familial relationships are brutally sacrificed for political gain. At more than three hours, this is not an easy production to watch; it is violent and unremitting, but staged with a film-like breadth and intensity that will feel like you’ve been through an emotional mangle by the end.

Two families are presented, first Lear and his ungrateful daughter, with whom you initially sympathise, exasperated by a father who continues to demand a share in the power he, by choice, relinquished. Lear imposes himself on Goneril’s palace with 100 knights who contemptuously wolf-whistling as she enters a room – hardly appropriate behaviour to a Royal princess. This is not a world where women can prosper and it’s hard to believe the daughter’s rule would ever be accepted. Anna Maxwell Martin plays effectively against type as a vampy Regan, a fur-coated gangster’s moll goading her bullish husband to hideous acts of torture. Soon the grasping political nature of the sisters is revealed as they plot and scheme to permanently remove their father, and eventually each other, from office.

Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is very competent, although quite shouty and inaudible at times. He’s a despotic ruler, short-tempered and easily riled – especially when his vanity is wounded by Cordelia’s refusal. Like a school bully, his power is drawn from the mob around him and as they desert him he is unable to retain his sanity. But Lear is a mass of contradictions; he is simultaneously an enraged tyrant and loving father, whilst at the height of his madness, he lucidly recalls the cause of his troubles. Russell Beale’s complex and watchable performance captures all of this, but he’s initially so alienating that he couldn’t engage my sympathy until the final scene. Overall he’s less compelling than the other big performances this winter, Tennant’s monumental Richard II and Hiddleston’s frighteningly powerful Coriolanus.

However, the other family examined here, Gloucester and his sons – Edgar legitimate and Edmund not – was genuinely touching. Sam Troughton’s Edmund was a brilliant study of cruel ambition, destroying all around him; he could almost have been the natural heir to the despotic early Lear. But, in a very good cast, it was Tom Brooke as Edgar and Stephen Boxer (a potentially great Lear) as Gloucester who stood out, and haven’t received nearly enough attention in the critical reviews. A fabulous performance from both, gripping from the moment they walked on stage and genuinely heart-rending during some horribly dark consequences for Gloucester, brutally played out before us. Like Polonius’s family in Hamlet, also fodder to royal intrigues, Gloucester and Edgar are fundamentally good people, almost innocently caught-up in the wider dramas, making their story all the more tragic and affecting.

Finally to the staging. Sam Mendes brings an impressive filmic quality to this production with sets signifying both the grand application of the plot’s national wars, and the frailness of the individual against the political and elemental backdrop. There are video projections of rolling black clouds, loud claps of thunder as the storm takes hold, fire and smoke as war breaks out, creating an impressive sense of epic drama. It’s certainly ambitious direction and design, and although some have been critical, I found it refreshing. Often Shakespeare is minimal these days so it’s quite fun to see a version that has chucked everything in to remarkable effect.

The major downside is there are no tickets. The second release has also sold out (the NT has an annoying habit of allowing members to buy them all so there’s nothing for public release), but check the website regularly, tickets are being returned every day and you’ll hopefully see one of those dates go orange – but be quick! Overall, the National Theatre has another winner on its hands here and you’ll certainly leave impressed by the power of this production. It’s a fine cast, well directed, and although the central performance didn’t quite grip me as other recent productions have done, this is still an exciting and fascinating interpretation.

King Lear is at the National Theatre until 28 May and will be available in cinemas via NT Live on 1 May.

Fortune’s Fool – The Old Vic

The critics have been very positive about this Turgenev play at the Old Vic, but sadly I didn’t share their enthusiasm. A lot of that has to do with the absence of Iain Glen who was sick and, for me anyway, the production was much the poorer without him. Fortune’s Fool is the story of Kuzovkin who for over twenty years has been conducting a lawsuit to win back the property he should have inherited. In the meantime, he has been allowed to live on another estate, but his lowly appearance and jester-like status in the house, has made him a figure of fun, disrespected by both servants and local society in spite of his gentleman status. The play begins with the return of the estate’s heiress, Olga who Kuzovkin knew as a child, with her new husband, and the revelations pour out when Kuzovkin is tricked into getting drunk by a malicious neighbour.

Some of the characters are pretty two dimensional – all of the servants particularly the steward / butler, and Olga’s husband who spent much of the play being bossy and superior, over-ruling his wife’s better knowledge of the house and estate – you can hardly imagine why she married him. Lucy Briggs-Owen was very good as Olga, giving a nicely rounded performance of an intelligent woman eager to recapture the happy memories of her childhood home, and managing the shocks that follow considerably better than the men around her. Richard McCabe too was very funny as the flamboyant, yet spiteful neighbour Tropatchov whose sense of his own local importance allows him to behave appallingly to the new arrivals without caring for the consequences.

I appreciate that it’s not easy to have to perform as the understudy – the audience are already disappointed that the star you’re replacing isn’t there, and except in a rare few cases, no one’s going to remember a good performance. Unfortunately, in this case, the absence of Iain Glen was glaring. His replacement, spoke the lines like a children’s TV presenter – very loud and without nuance, or the light and shade the role seemed to demand. Kuzovkin had been mocked for twenty years, forced by his penury to live in a half state between servant and gentleman, despised  by those around him and holding only to his dreams of winning back his birth-right. In Act One, there needed to be much more of the bitterness and exasperation that would engender, whilst in Act Two, more emotional engagement in his scenes with Olga. This lacked Iain Glen’s gravitas and subtlety, which unfortunately made it far less engaging, and sadly he won’t be returning. It’s certainly a lesser production for his absence.

Russian drama isn’t an easy thing to watch; you often end up wondering what it was all about. Characters meet, talk a lot, repress their emotions and life goes on largely as before; realistic perhaps, but sometimes dramatically unsatisfying. The audience around me seemed to like it a lot, and the critics certainly did, but I thought it was fairly average – not great, not bad, just ok.

Fortune’s Fool is at the Old Vic until 22 February, tickets start at £11

Coriolanus – NT Live

As with so many of London’s big Shakespeare productions these days, the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus sold out immediately. The NT Live widely sold-out live broadcast is fast becoming the only way to see these shows without pricey memberships or the dedication (and time!) to camp outside for day tickets. This winter, London’s big three – Richard II, Coriolanus and King Lear – have received universal critical admiration and incredible interest from those accessing Shakespeare through their favourite screen actors. It’s amazing that 400-year old plays are being gobbled-up with a ferocity usually reserved for headline music acts.

The Donmar is a small venue for the scale of Coriolanus, but by stripping it back and focusing largely on the character interplay this is an intimate and intense production. It takes place somewhere between ancient Rome and a stark urban setting, all grim brick and graffiti. The flooring resembles a boxing ring echoing the various bouts within the play as Coriolanus battles with his enemies. This version has set aside the usual pomp and ceremony, focusing on the nature of man unable to reconcile his honourable nature with the reality of what he’s fighting for.

This is a very good production, but it didn’t start well. The first act had too many stunts which seem out of kilter with the rest – these overblown scenes were somehow at odds with the tight concentration on individual human natures. It’s a big stagey beginning with lots of noise and digital projection creating the impression of a siege in process. This meant the dialogue was muffled and confusing for anyone who hadn’t seen it before. Maybe it was the cinema relay but that doesn’t account for the terrible digital music between scenes. Disappointingly, the small cast means you never really get a proper sense of the ‘the people’ and the threat their will poses to the men in charge. It seemed a little unlikely that a mob of 3 could run this Coriolanus out of town.

Tom Hiddleston is unsurprisingly excellent as the man raised always to be a soldier, driven by his militaristic mother who’d rather have eleven sons die in battle than have one survive dishonourably. Despite his manly aspect, he repeatedly bends to his mother’s wishes with disastrous consequences. In an early scene, his face is drenched in the blood of his victims as he glories in his success; the audience is left in no doubt that he is half warrior, half monster. Understandably he is unable to play the supplicant politician and Hiddleston’s Coriolanus switches effortlessly from insincere cajoling to terrifying rants of loathing for the people he protected. Often actors in this role are a little older, but his youth works brilliantly, playing on Hiddleston’s earlier screen role as celebrated warrior-King, Henry V – had Henry lived, would he have developed into Coriolanus?

In exile he again becomes the noble warrior, inspiring his men to a string of victories and existing only for revenge. In the final act, he flips again from coldly rejecting the entreaties of his friends, a touching scene with Mark Gatiss as Menenius, before a tensely emotional confrontation with his family that has shocking consequences in the play’s final moments. Like Richard II, Coriolanus was destined to be one thing, but his actions make it impossible to be sympathetic to his flaws. He rarely soliloquises and makes little excuse for himself. The whole cast is pretty good, although Birgitte Holt Sorensen is wasted as Virgilia who has about three lines, but a stand-out performance of considerable balance from Hiddleston as the mercurial protagonist dominates every scene.

Seeing it in the cinema is no bad option, what you lose in physical proximity to the actors, you gain in terms of close-up. Minor niggles on this one aside, two of the big Shakespeare’s and their leading men have hit the mark, we’ll see whether Lear can do the same in a few weeks…

Coriolanus is at the Donmar Warehouse until 13 February and Encore screenings are listed on the NT Live website.

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