Monthly Archives: November 2014

Charles III – Wyndhams Theatre

The arrival of a new monarch is often to be feared, especially after a long and stable reign. But the very nature of this form of government (usually) requires a death to occur before a new age is ushered in. Will the new ruler be fair, dignified and peaceable, or will they court controversy, spend extravagantly and encroach on our rights? Such a change evokes perfectly natural fears and history is awash with examples of heirs to the throne who were considered weak or even downright hated. Much of the time, however, they turned out to be perfectly adequate, even pretty good Kings and Queens.

Transferring from its critically acclaimed run at the Almeida theatre, Charles III leaps forward about 10 years to the death of our present Queen and the moment where Prince Charles ascends to the British throne. Immediately Charles, a thoughtful man with integrity, decides to withhold his signature from a bill ensuring privacy from media intrusion. His reasons are sensible but his interference in the constitutional process leads to a showdown with the Prime Minister and serious consequences for the fragile new state.

One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the use of blank verse which gives it a grand and almost timeless Shakespearean feel. Had it used more modern speech it could easily have felt trite and soap-opera like. Instead what you get is a serious comedy drama touching on some universal themes about the nature of power and the limitations of constitutional monarchy. Even the notion of a King providing an advisory check and balance to the temporary authority of elected politicians is called into questioned when that theoretical sway is used to halt a democratic process.  To what extent then should the honour of a King, even with the intention of doing good, be used to obviate Parliamentary decisions?

The role of Charles is an interesting one here and happily the play is quite balanced in its presentation of him.  While you may not agree with what he’s doing he is a man of integrity and genuinely believes that what he is doing will be to the advantage of the law being created; the refusal to sign is to encourage the government to think more carefully about its proposal rather than an attempt to overthrow the democratic process. However as the play progresses and Charles digs his heels in, his willingness to compromise is lost and his temper leads to some poor decision-making. I loved the subtle references to the personal rule of Charles I and that hint at the historic precedents for monarchs clashing with Parliaments down the ages came across really well.

Although Tim Piggott-Smith didn’t perform on the day I saw it, his understudy was very good and the show didn’t suffer for the absence of its star. It is becoming common for leads not to do the matinees, which is annoying for people paying the high prices and it ought to be noted on the website. In this case it wasn’t so it may well just have been illness on the day. The surrounding cast is very good too, especially Adam James as the much harassed Prime Minister and Nicholas Rowe as the somewhat two-faced leader of the opposition, privately supporting the King but publically disowning him. Envisaging Kate as a Lady Macbeth figure, manipulating events and effortlessly controlling both the family and the public is one of the highlights of the show.

It’s not entirely perfect and the subplot involving Harry wanting to leave the family to be with a deeply irritating pro-republic student lacks any credibility and the performances are pretty flat. Of course the plot is driven by the stark differences between the ruling styles of Charles and his mother, but I couldn’t help being slightly frustrated by the fairly clichéd assumption that Charles would be a bad King. For a man who’s spent the best part of 70 years watching an arguably successful reign it seemed unlikely that he would upset the apple cart so early in his own rule. There are many examples of Princes of Wales whose accession were feared – George IV as Prince Regent was loathed and Queen Victoria’s heir (later Edward VII) was considered profligate – but they ruled unchallenged. There is balance in Charles III however and we see that an essentially decent person doesn’t always make an effective King. It’s a fascinating exploration of the British democratic process and where power actually lies in our constitution. See it if you can.

Charles III is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 31st January and tickets start at £20.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived – Museum of London

In all of British literature there are only two characters who have managed to escape from their books and take on a life of their own. Far beyond the intentions of their authors, they have been constantly reimagined, rewritten and rebooted through TV adaptations, films and homage novels by contemporary writers. Since their creation, every subsequent generation has found in them a modern hero just as suited to their era as to the one they originally belong, and able to triumph over the wrongs of the age. Their continued success resides in their very human ability to overcome their frailties, fallibility and oddities to defeat their enemies and protect Britain.  These two men have blurred fiction and reality for decades, and they are James Bond and Sherlock Holmes.

London has enjoyed a number of Bond exhibitions in the last few years and with Bond in Motion running until December at the Film Museum our favourite spy will continue to draw the crowds. But the Museum of London’s new Sherlock Holmes exhibition is quite unique and a rare chance to see something of the genesis of the character within the context he was created and his later absorption into popular culture. You enter this exhibition through a secret door in a bookcase, more Batman than Holmes perhaps, but a nice introduction to the world of secrets and detection. Most appropriately you are immediately greeted by the public image, the filmed versions and their original posters that demonstrate Holmes’s appear from the birth of cinema to the modern BBC.

Then almost like walking through the illusion the exhibition takes you right back to Conan Doyle’s very first manuscripts and notes for a character he initially called Sherrinford Holmes with his sidekick Ormond Sacker. In this early section we then see the more recognisable Holmes and Watson take shape in a number of short stories printed in publications such as The Strand Magazine before launching a fuller length novel. Most interesting is the idea that the image of Holmes was being created alongside the literary version through the illustrations of Conan Doyle’s father and later of Sidney Paget, and it is here, rather than the text, that the ‘look’ we know today comes from.

Having learnt a bit about the original stories and the author, this exhibition really begins to have fun with the material and we get to explore contemporary London and Holmes’s lifestyle through references in the stories. The great detective has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the capital’s streets so the Museum has created maps for three of the stories plotting the routes Holmes and Watson take by cab, on foot and by train. Underneath each is a video reproduction of the same journey taken today and played at high speed.  It’s all about context in this section and showing the viewer how Conan Doyle’s London would have looked under the strain of its expanding industrialised population. Paintings and photographs are used to highlight key places mentioned in the books – The Strand, particular hotels, The Tower of London and Trafalgar Square, which, although recognisably the same place, is yet so different without Lutyens 1930s fountains. We see pictures of the famous Hansom cabs that Holmes takes everywhere and the railway tracks and stations that gave greater mobility to his powers of detection. There is also a small section on the atmospheric London fog inspiring artists like Monet to depict its changing colours and ethereal effects.

The final room is filled with cabinets containing an array of Victorian and Edwardian artefacts which give a sense of the social history around Holmes. There are telephones and telegraph machines similar to the ones Conan Doyle would have envisaged his character using, examples of clothing, pince-nez, typewriters, stage make-up and wigs for Holmes’s disguises, furniture such as Paget’s own chairs which he installed in Baker Street in several illustrations, pipes, chemistry and fingerprint kits, as well as canes and the famous deerstalker. For fans of the current series they even have the blue great coat and dressing gown worn by Cumberbatch which will draw a lot of fans.

The Museum of London has pulled together a very fine exhibition here giving the viewer access to both original manuscripts and the context in which he was created. It’s a clever approach that simultaneously links descriptions from Conan Doyle’s stories to the world around him, and shows us those influences to provide new and clearer insight into the text. As one of Britain’s most enduring fictional characters there is a physical Holmes for every age; whether yours is Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch, they are all here as part of the man who, as the subtitle of this exhibition tells, us will never die.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is at the Museum of London until 12 April 2015. Tickets cost £12.55 (with donation) and a range of concessions are available.

Film Review: The Imitation Game

The winter film season will be dominated by the scientist biopic. This Friday sees the release of the much anticipated film about Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and just after Christmas Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking – The Theory of Everything – is released. Both have appeared at recent Film Festivals and for what it’s worth at this point in the year their leading actors are generating Oscar buzz. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to secure a seat for The Imitation Game at the London Film Festival last month, the BFI offered an early preview and will do the same for The Theory of Everything on 8th December (tickets go on public sale on 11th November).

The Imitation Game shows three periods in Alan Turing’s life; primarily it focuses on his work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War breaking codes using his invented machine, but also travels backwards in time to his schooldays to show the foundation of his interest in cyphers and close friendship with another boy, and we go forward to 1951 when a suspicious robbery at Turing’s house leads to his arrest for gross indecency and an horrific sentence of hormone therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. This is largely a very good and terribly British film, its nationality seeping through every second of the picture. No one presents the war on screen in that way except the British film industry – slightly cosy with everyone cycling down cobbled streets with lovely hairdos.

It’s also relatively low budget (qualifying it for inclusion in the British Independent Film Awards), which is noticeable in the few action scene; bombs dropping over England and a few sorry-looking tanks are all you get. The rest of the war is represented using archive footage from newsreels to give the audience some context – a classic ‘we have no money for war scenes’ technique. Every bit of that tiny budget has however been spent on a bundle of lovely tank tops and cardigans for that authentic 1940s flavour.

I don’t know why I’m being mean, I actually really enjoyed this film and its focus on the quite difficult human interaction between Turing and his team. This character-driven approach is something British films do so well and the cast includes some of our best theatre actors. As the film opens, Rory Kinnear, an Iago worth rooting for at the National last year, is the 1950s Manchester bobby who investigates Turing’s past only to find empty files and begins to suspect he may have been a spy in the war. Back we go to 1941 and see Turing’s team at work – well we don’t see them work, just stand around in those nice tank tops – trying to break the German Enigma code. Initially the team is led by chess genius Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) who oozes professional resentment, while his hostility to Turing’s odd manner almost gets our hero sacked. Goode makes him likeable though; good looking, charismatic, suave and a hit with the ladies – so not like any mathematician I’ve ever met.

Another theatrical luminary, Mark Strong, plays the head of MI6. Fresh from his breath-taking performance as Eddie Carbone in this year’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, Strong has a relatively small but memorable role as the spymaster as keen to deceive his own government as the enemy. Charles Dance is also on scary form as Commander Denniston who reluctantly recruits Turing and then spends the rest of the film trying to fire him. Dance is in Tywin Lannister mode so is threateningly good value.

Cumberbatch is the heart of this film and it is surprising to think that he’s hardly headlined a movie before. He’s been the villain and had major supporting roles but in film his leading man experience is slight. On TV and in the theatre however it is extensive including major stage roles in Frankenstein (2011) and a pre-Sherlock (and therefore pre-hysterical fame) After the Dance at the National in 2010 in which he was marvellous. There is no question of course that he easily carries this film with a complex and somewhat emotional portrayal of Turing. He’s not depicted as an inevitable hero, at times he’s not very nice at all and seems to have difficulty with social convention, although his very literal approach is successfully used for comic effect throughout. It’s a very interesting performance which is both confident and fragile at the same time, becoming particularly affecting during his hormone treatment in the 50s. Comparisons with Sherlock are sadly everywhere given both characters have traits in common, but it’s misleading to suggest the performances are anything alike and at no point do you feel you’re watching Sherlock in World War II – Cumberbatch is far too good an actor to fall into that trap and the emotional elements of his Turing make it quite distinct.

Comparisons are perhaps more appropriate with Enigma, the Robert Harris thriller with Dougray Scott from 2002. Jeremy Northam’s fantastic chief spy aside, The Imitation Game is a far better representation of Bletchley Park, which without the melodramatic spy hunt and silly love story, gives a more nuanced insight into the consequence of the code-breakers achievement. Far from the simplistic idea of breaking Enigma winning the war, instead we see that they can’t really use it or the Germans will cotton-on and change the whole thing. For 2 years then, they had to carefully select which attacks they would prevent whilst allowing men to die every day elsewhere, and all to protect their ability to read German messages. Even when the war ended the world still needed to believe that Enigma hadn’t been broken so Britain would have the advantage should it be used in another war. It’s a fascinating aspect of this film and one that throws up many questions about the morality and ambiguity of conflict strategy.

The film isn’t perfect however, and in addition to the cosiness I mentioned earlier, there’s also a missed opportunity with John Cairncross a member of Hut 8 whose full name is barely mentioned until the end. Cairncross was allegedly the fifth man in the famous Cambridge Five spy ring that throughout the war betrayed secrets to Russia. Although he was not close to Burgess, Blunt, Philby and MacClean their betrayal is still infamous today, so Cairncross’s appearance is rather underplayed in this film. I could also have done without the childhood flashbacks, although well-acted, they just seemed a bit cliché and only serve to tell us that Turing was always good at crosswords and socially on the edge. You might also notice that I haven’t mentioned Keira Knightley…well she just does her best Keira Knightley impression so your enjoyment of her performance depends on how you feel about that.

This film is going to be popular if only for its lead actor’s current appeal, so come Friday the cinemas will be packed with people desperate to see it, and they won’t be too disappointed. It may not take any risks in its intellectual presentation of the war years, but looking at Turing’s achievements from the perspective of his shocking treatment later is one that gives you plenty to think about. It also offers a more complex idea of what war means that many such films, when doing the right thing and making the right decision are by no means the same. Although it is packed with star performances, it is very much Cumberbatch’s film, setting a high bar for the first of this winter’s scientist biopics. We’ll see in a few weeks whether Redmayne can match him.

The Imitation Game was previewed at the BFI Southbank and London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on Friday 14 November.

Constable: The Making of a Master – V&A

Constable is my favourite artist and it’s all thanks to Charles I; let me tell you a story… My A-Level history class was studying the English Civil Wars and we came to London on a trip to see the Banqueting House where in 1649 for the only time in our history we beheaded a King and became a Republic for 11 years. The majority of us were pretty sympathetic to Charles – tell a bunch of romantic 17 year old girls that he was around 5ft, devotedly loved his wife and was forced to kill his friend, and you’ll make Royalists out of them – and after lunch we were taken to the National Gallery to look at the magnificent Van Dyck portrait of Charles sitting aloft a disproportionately large horse dripping in English symbolism. We emerged from the side room into a collection of Gainsborough portraits and Turners; suddenly there it was, right at the end of the room, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, the most beautiful painting I had ever seen, and a lasting love of Constable was born.

So this new exhibition at the V&A was something of a must-see. I’ve had my differences with curation at this museum in the last couple of years and their Horst exhibition, which is running in the rooms next door to Constable, has done much to salvage our relationship. Happily Constable confirms the upward trend and, despite my preference for the artist, this still has to be one of the best shows in London at the moment. There is plenty to learn about the development of his technique, his methods of scaling from tiny sketch to 6ft canvas, and how this led to his famous interpretations of nature and the drama of the English weather.

It begins with some interesting context, placing Constable’s work among other earlier and contemporary artists who had inspired the development of his style. Here we see the original work of ‘Old Masters’ sitting alongside a piece that either Constable copied directly or used to inspire a similar landscape study. Constable practiced his technique by looking closely at the work of Raphael, Rubens (there’s that link to Charles I again – Rubens designed the Banqueting House ceiling) and particularly Claude Lorrain, who composed classical scenes of pastoral or harbour landscapes often using dramatic light effects. He was also inspired by Thomas Girtin, a contemporary, who painted a number of ruins of medieval churches in a simple but imposing style and that can be seen in Constable’s similar fusion of religion and nature in a number of works.

One of the great successes of this exhibition is that sense of place Constable has in a longer tradition of landscape painters, clearly seeing his work evolve and reflect his wider learning. Sensibly, then, having absorbed the theory the next stage is to experience it for himself and the viewer is guided to a section on ‘Sketching in the Open Air’ where the famous clouds make an appearance. The pieces in this room are quite small as Constable sketched on scraps of paper or cloth and you can see pin holes in several of them showing where they had been pinned to his paintbox. Although many of these reflect the immediate surroundings of his countryside home, there are also some lovely sketches of Brighton beach where the open expanse of sky dominates more than half the image. Building on the work of the Old Masters, you see not just his command of weather effects, but also of reflection and movement in water, particularly in the lovely Watermeadows Near Salisbury.

There are some more direct copies of other artists which helped to pay the bills and often fetched more than Constable’s original works. His large colourless sketch of the fallen saint from Titian’s ‘St Peter the Martyr’ is stunning and surprisingly soft. There are few portraits so it is interesting to see the lightness of touch he has in this piece, sitting alongside all those more famous works depicting the immovability of nature. And in the next rooms we get to some of those amazing large canvases, The Haywain, The Leaping Horse and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, all exhibited alongside the tiny pencil drawings of particular elements and the full-size oil sketches Constable did in preparation for each. It is still surprising to see the looseness of the full-size sketches which have a blurry quality next to the almost pinsharp precision of the final painting.

The exhibition finishes with the end of the artistic process and the transformation of these works into print form, telling you about Constable’s struggle to the get them right and the fall-out with those he was trying to do business with. You come away not just with a sense of the artistic process, from theory to mass print production, but also having seen the growth of an artist who painted what he knew. Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows is here of course, temporarily back to London from its tour of the UK having been purchased for the nation last year. It’s now owned by the Tate (and partners) so it’s probably never going back to that wall in the National Gallery unfortunately. Painted shortly after the death of Constable’s wife, and less naturalistic than his other work, he considered it his masterpiece. And I can’t help but agree,  it’s the culmination of everything his work can do –  full of drama and pain, beautiful detail and much to say on nature, religion and hope. Despite countless exhibitions, hundreds of artists and probably thousands of pictures, it’s still the most beautiful painting I have ever seen and well worth the entrance fee. Constable: The Making of a Master is a great show and not to be missed. Well done V&A, we’re officially friends again.

Constable: The Making of an Master is at the V&A until 11 January. Tickets are £14 (without donation) and concessions are available.

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