Monthly Archives: May 2014

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs – Tate Modern

Matisse had long used cut-out shapes to plan his paintings, altering the position of objects to create the most pleasing composition before starting to paint. Towards the end of his life, with failing health, the cut-outs themselves became the art and this exhibition nicely charts the development of both the technique and scale of this.  Colour and simplicity are the watch-words throughout, using human shapes harking back to the style of cave paintings. Matisse’s skilled creation of fluid shapes that look effortless is impressive, layering the paper to create a sense of movement and depth. The two works showing Icarus are very special as is ‘The Horse, the Rider and the Clown’ which contrasts stark purple and blue.

Throughout there are opportunities to see printed reproductions of these works, such as book cover designs, shown next to the original piece. In almost all cases the duplicate looks flat and the colours muted, losing the jagged lines and colour banding which give texture to the cut-out. But it’s the sheer size and detail of later works that is most impressive, created on the walls of Matisse’s studio. ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ has six large panels filled with giant leaf and plant shapes individually cut in one piece from coloured paper, which is also interesting for its use of white space. Likewise the two large Oceania cut-outs which look above and below the sea use almost no colour at all, layering white shapes on a beige background, to create significant impact, emphasising the deceptive simplicity of Matisse’s work.

This exhibition charts the progression of form, style and skill very well, allowing you to see the technique refining in front of you. It builds nicely to the conclusion showing how cut-outs have been adapted for use in stained glass windows and priest’s robes, whilst retaining examples of Matisse’s painting which continued alongside the cut-outs for some time. I would have liked a little more information in the rooms about the styles and why particular shapes (such as the leaf) recurred so often, but I assume this is all in the expensive guide.

Although the exhibition itself is great and deserves to seen, the cost will leave a bitter taste long afterwards and genuinely ruined my enjoyment – £18… are they joking? Even the non-donation price of £16.30 is pretty unreasonable, whilst the concession of £16.00 (or £14.50 without donation) is pitiful; people on lower incomes or those who wouldn’t normally engage with art are not going to be able to spend this and it will stop them going. Charging a concession price of more than £10 is ludicrous. And it gets worse, you may grudgingly pay your £18, but then it’s another £4 if you want an audio guide (why is this not included?) and £40 if you want an exhibition catalogue to explain it all fully (£30 in paperback). You could easily spend the best part of £60 for just for one person. I appreciate there are enormous costs in running a gallery and the logistical expense of pulling together a show of this scale, but aren’t corporate sponsorships supposed to reduce the burden on the paying public?

You have to question whether the people setting ticket prices in galleries, and increasingly in theatres, have any conception of relative value? Even journalists who praised it in their newspaper columns probably went for free. Is it right to charge £18 to see this exhibition when you can go downstairs at the Tate Modern or along the river to the National Gallery and see some of the finest artworks ever produced for free? £18 is £8 more than I paid to see A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic which left a more powerful impression (on me at least), and £11 more than the wonderful Victoriana exhibition at the Guildhall last year. Maybe Londoners are spoiled by the vast array of cultural activities that are openly available, but surely that shouldn’t mean we pay over the odds for special events – there has to be some limits. Especially when the end result means galleries are failing in a duty to engage the widest section of society in their activities. It’s just a huge shame that so many people will be prevented from seeing the cut-outs and that institutions in receipt of public funds are not doing everything they can to engage with new audiences.

If you can afford it, Matisse: The Cut Outs is at the Tate Modern until 7 September. Ticket prices are £18 (£16.30 without donation) or £16 (£14.50) for concessions.

The Silver Tassie – National Theatre

So I’m not really sure how to explain this one, and has to be one of the stranger evenings I’ve spent in the theatre. It opens in a working class Dublin tenement where a family and neighbours are waiting for Harry to return from playing in a local football match. He’s on leave from the First World War and his ship departs imminently. Most of this first scene anticipates Harry’s arrival, details life in the community and explores the domestic drama of those living in the flats. This is all fairly interesting and engaging stuff building up to a triumphant football team holding the Silver Tassie (a sports trophy) aloft, before boarding his ship back to war.

Then the second act starts and boy was that a surprise – in more ways than one. First the amazing set transformation pulled apart the tenement flat, transforming it into a bombed monastery in Northern France now being used as a hospital. Amid the sounds of canons and shells which produced some impressive pyrotechnics on stage, a group of battle weary soldiers come to rest.  After that I pretty much lost the thread. Almost the entirety of this part was sung which was hugely disconcerting after the fairly ‘straight’ drama of the first scene, and there was no plot as such, just a loose collage of fairly clichéd phrases and characters. This was an expressionist vision of the First World War but without much sympathy or engagement with the men fighting because the constant singing and disjointed phraseology was very alienating. Maybe that was the point but the combination of the first two acts made for a very uneven tone.

Coming back from the interval you have no idea what to expect – would there be more singing, would anything make sense? Scene three is set in a Dublin hospital and like the first act is played completely straight. Harry has been injured and can no longer walk. What is less clear is why two of his civilian neighbours were in the same ward. But thank goodness they were because at least that added some light relief. The final scene is at a party some months or years later, back at the football club where Harry, now in a wheelchair is dismayed to discover his sweetheart has met someone else. The message is pretty strong – the men who were wounded in the war cannot reintegrate into civilian life, they are in a world apart, so the best thing everyone else can do is ignore them and get on with their lives – charming!

The critics have been very positive about this production and refer derisively to Yeats’s famous rejection of The Silver Tassie when playwright, Sean O’Casey presented it to him at the Abbey Theatre. His reasons were that O’Casey had no direct experience of fighting in the war and it felt like 4 almost unrelated scenes. I think I’m with Yeats on this one and although I’m sure this is a very important landmark in expressionist theatre or some such, it just wasn’t for me.

Having said that it is frustrating when critics give a bad review to play they dislike regardless of the quality of what they’ve seen, so I will say that given the limitations of this play I cannot imagine a better version than this one at the National. The acting is pretty good for what are fairly one-dimensional characters and the production values are extremely high as you would expect at this venue. Even the aberrant second act was done very well. But would I recommend it? High ticket prices aside, the test for that is whether I would see this version again or another production elsewhere. And honestly… no I wouldn’t, so take from that what you will.

The Silver Tassie is at the National Theatre until 3 July. Tickets start at £15 if you can get one, otherwise more like £39.

A View from the Bridge – Young Vic

I should start by saying that this is the best production I’ve seen so far this year but I wasn’t expecting it to be. I’ve only experience one other Arthur Miller play before, an A-Level Theatre Studies visit to The Crucible showing in Canterbury, which was one of the most tedious evenings I have ever spent and several of my classmates fell asleep. So The Crucible and The Doll’s House are probably the only two plays that I will never see again – I appreciate they are much loved, but you could not pay me enough. The Young Vic’s version of A View From the Bridge however is an astounding piece of theatre.

Eddie Carbone lives with his wife Beatrice and their orphaned niece Catherine in a small Italian-American community close to the Brooklyn Bridge in 1950s New York. In the opening scenes we see the strong bond between the 17-year-old Catherine and her uncle but their happiness is disrupted by the arrival of Italian immigrant brother Marco and Rodolpho who have entered the US illegally to work in the area. As Catherine and Rodolpho grow closer, Eddie’s possessive love for her begins to infect the family, leading to a terrible betrayal with shattering consequences.

This is a true Shakespearian-style tragedy – a protagonist with a fatal flaw which, unrecognised by him, leads to his eventual destruction. The decision to run the play straight through with no interval adds to this sense of entrapment and gives a compelling drive to the events before you. Mark Strong is amazing as the troubled Eddie, initially a respected member of the community whose unwillingness to allow his niece her freedom becomes an obsessive compulsion to save her from a man he sees as ‘not right’. He dreams she will have a better life, perhaps across the bridge in Manhattan. Everyone around him sees his love for her has become corrupted and inappropriate, but he cannot admit this to himself. Simultaneously, Eddie is a very macho figure, a hard-working man, respected and keen to display his masculine traits in impromptu bouts of boxing and belief in ‘respect’.  Strong’s performance brilliantly captures these multiple sides to Eddie, all with an intensity that is utterly gripping – the overt manliness, the need for control and the protective emotional fixation with Catherine. It is a remarkable performance which makes the conclusion all the more devastating.

There is not a weak link in the rest of the cast either. Nicola Walker brings a real sadness to Eddie’s wife Beatrice who powerlessly and resignedly observes the changing relationship of her husband and niece. She keeps the family together, turning a blind eye until it must be confronted. Phoebe Fox’s Catherine has to grow-up in front of the audience and watching her childlike idolatry of Eddie curdle into confusion and revulsion was impressive. The Italian brothers and Eddie’s lawyer friend, who acts as the Chorus are also excellent, with the latter becoming more dishevelled as the play goes on emphasising the incurable decay at the heart of the family.

Significant praise must also go to the director Ivo van Hove and the design team for some extremely bold decisions that enhance the tragic story. The set is an empty black box and the top lifts up for us to see the caged characters trapped in their world. They all hope for better lives but none of them will escape this setting. Throughout we get a subtle mixture of musical styles from melancholic choral works to tapped beats that ratchet-up the confrontational tension. The final scene is a masterstroke which I won’t spoil for you, but it is wholly shocking and a little bit awe-inspiring in its daring.

Critics often use the word ‘powerful’ to describe intensely dramatic theatre, but here the adjective assumes its full meaning. The drama in this breath-taking production thumps into you and when you’re down kicks you a few more times, but it’s worth it. The respectful silence that followed the curtain going down was followed by resounding applause and a near entire audience on its feet. You will be profoundly moved and emotionally wrought at the end, knowing you have experienced a very special piece of theatre. My perfect-view ticket only cost £10 but delivered many many times its value. I may never want to see The Crucible again but A View from the Bridge will stick in the memory for a very long time.

A View From the Bridge is at the Young Vic until 26 May. The show is understandably sold out but £5 standing tickets and day seats are available from the box office.

James Dean Season – BFI Southbank

1955 was quite a year. James Dean became a star after releasing two of his three films and died tragically in the September. I have to admit, until recently, I had never seen any of them, partly because they’re rarely shown and partly because I’d wrongly assumed his status as tragic cultural icon may have overstated any acting talent he possessed. So when the BFI advertised an extended run it seemed the perfect opportunity to see for myself, and even better I could see all of them in a weekend mini-season. Now, going to the cinema in the afternoon has always felt somewhat indulgent, but seeing a double bill on Saturday and the third film on Sunday afternoon felt very luxurious!

Giant was first up, although Dean was actually killed a few days after shooting. It’s a somewhat overlong melodrama about a Texan cattle rancher, played by Rock Hudson, who goes away for the weekend to buy a horse and comes back married to Liz Taylor, as you do. It’s the story of their whole lives and its various run-ins with neighbour Jett Rink, played by Dean, a loathed employee who inherits a portion of the land and discovers oil. Rink begins as a shy and socially awkward boy, who for reasons that remained unclear was despised by the family, but develops an affection for Taylor’s character. As he ages, becoming wealthy and famous, Dean effectively instils an air of confidence and business savvy, while hinting at Rink’s continued feelings of exclusion, and in a very touching scene, an ongoing love for Taylor. At well over three hours the film goes on a bit and I thought Hudson’s largely one-dimensional hero was acted off the screen by Taylor and Dean – a few more scenes between them would have been nice. Despite this Giant is a strong example of Dean’s sensitive approach creating sympathy and depth in characters we’re meant to dislike.

Next up was Rebel Without a Cause, a classic tale of disaffected youth which is a relevant today as it’s ever been. Every generation thinks youth culture is a new problem but there’s actually a surprisingly long history, dating back to the beginning of compulsory schooling in the nineteenth-century, which socially created our notion of adolescence. This idea of young men loitering in the streets and causing a nuisance has had various titles from the Boy Labour Problem to juvenile delinquency, but nowhere has it been better represented than in Rebel. We first see Jim Stark (Dean) drunk in the police station, a new boy in town, we already know he’s trouble. But is he… Jim’s parents arrive and you get the first glimpse of a broken down relationship with an overbearing mother and emasculated father. On his first day at school, Jim catches the attention of the local gang who decide to teach him a lesson. Cue an intense flick-knife fight behind the planetarium in which Dean was genuinely cut, and a drag race with fatal consequences.

It’s the classic troubled teenager role, alienated from his parents and unable to make the world ‘fit’, he tries to behave, but trouble finds him and, in an interesting scene with his father, we learn about the codes of honour that mean he can’t just walk away. It’s a fascinating performance from Dean, impressively reflecting his struggle to manage a teenager’s conflicting emotions. At one extreme there’s a stubborn self-determined exile from the established culture which sets him at odds with the School gang, whilst at the other he’s a lonely boy seeking the love of his parents and unable to cope with the very adult consequences of his actions. Although the teenage gang is much copied, (Saturday Night Fever, A Clockwork Orange and Quadrophenia to name a few) I can’t think of a better or more nuanced performance than Dean’s in this role.

The final film of the weekend, and actually Dean’s first, was East of Eden. Based on the John Steinbeck novel, this is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story, set before and during the First World War. Dean plays Cal the son of a religious farmer who lives in the shadow of his perfect brother. The boys have grown up believing their mum has died but as the film opens, Cal has discovered her whereabouts running a house of ill repute in the neighbouring town which he agrees to keep secret from his sibling.

Like Jim Stark, Cal wants the approval of his father who views him (seemingly unreasonably) as being the ‘bad’ son inheriting his mother’s vices.  As events play out and America joins the war in Europe, you again see Dean in this balanced role of a boy with good intentions frustrated by his inability to please his father and plagued by this notion of his pre-determined ‘badness’. Although he initiates activities that have significant ramifications for his family, and particularly his perfect brother, these are never maliciously, with one exception (and even then you feel there’s some justifiable provocation). Dean is by far the best thing about the film with his multi-dimensional portrayal of Cal.

Having seen all three films (albeit in reverse order) I now understand the fuss! Dean’s sensitive and multi-layered approach emphasised his theatre experience and made his performances compelling to watch. Dean had a rare talent more than holding his own against some of the industry’s established stars, and helped to bring a more complex style of acting to the screen.

The James Dean Season was at the BFI Southbank and all films are available on DVD.

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