Tag Archives: art history

Apologia – Trafalgar Studios

Apologia - Trafalgar Studios

In the UK, we take most of our daily rights and freedoms for granted and forget the hard-won struggles that brought us the right to vote, to work, to design our lives however we choose. “Millennials” are also a generation that grew up a step removed from the experience and consequences of European warfare, the long-term effects of which were felt first-hand by our grandparents and through them our parents’ generation who took to social protests to overcome the economic and political downturn the Second World War created.

Alexei Kaye Campbell’s play Apologia is all about this generational struggle within a family divided by the external world they grew-up in which shapes their attitude to each other and the parent-child relationship. Our childhood determines the type of adult we become, but Campbell’s play argues that this has varied across the Twentieth-century and makes it considerably harder to understand each other. Someone growing up in the 1960s has a very different idea of what the world could and should be than someone raised in the 1990s.This separation of perspective casts a dark shadow over the play and defines its central relationship between an absent mother and her stolen children.

Respected art historian Kristin invites her adult sons, their girlfriends and her gay best friend to celebrate her birthday with a dinner at her tasteful country home. But relations are strained between the family as Kristin’s recent memoir “Apologia” entirely omits her children Simon and Peter from the story of her life. Frustrated by what they see as her absence, both are determined to have it out with her, while their respective partners Claire the actress and the American-Christian Trudi clash with Kristin over their own lifestyle choices. As the evening unfolds family tensions simmer and it becomes clear that the boys don’t understand their mother at all.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction tends to be love-it or hate-it and Apologia along with his previous works The Ruling Class, Faustus and The Maids has divided critical opinion. I’m in the love-it camp because risky approaches designed to entice new audiences is something London theatre needs as much as the reverent recreation of classic texts. Faustus in particular had many detractors but it’s grotty hyperrealism was a pointed comment about our obsession with transitory fame, empty celebrity and meaningless status, which for many feels like the only escape from a future of limited opportunity, unemployment and purposelessness.

Asking James McAvoy to ride around on a unicycle in his pants or Kit Harrington to take a “blood shower” are part of bigger conversation Lloyd is having with audiences about the changing nature of the modern world and how we engage with it. So, it is in this space that Lloyd meets Campbell and with a text full of skirmishes between past and present, of people born decades apart who can’t quite reach each other, Lloyd directs with considerable understatement that allows the rising and falling waves of family tensions to determine the pace of the show.

At the core of the play is the idea that the post-1980s generation are self-centred, caring only about making money and protecting their own individuality and status, without a thought for the good of society, and Kristin virtually says as much as she locks horns with Simon’s girlfriend Claire. Her youth and indeed the rest of her life was spent protesting for anyone who needed help – an idea Claire finds ‘quaint’ – and we begin to see Campbell’s point that whatever road you take there is a cost. Acknowledging that ‘having it all’ is a media myth, women have long struggled with the balance between family and work, and been severely judged either way.

For the women of the 1960s being the first to really forge careers, enjoy political, social and sexual freedoms, and live in relative economic stability, some experienced a domestic cost in the proximity to their families. Stockard Channing, returning to the West End for the first time in 25 years, gives Kristin a somewhat hard surface, a testament to a life spent earning a respected position as an art historian and politicised figure. The result was having her pre-teen sons taken from her by her former husband, and although they are now back in touch, an air of resentment and abandonment persists within the family.

At the start of the play, Kristin is given a tribal mask by Peter and Trudi, and while it’s a none-too subtle dramatic device, we watch Kristin’s own mask slip during the dinner party and its aftermath. Channing makes this a compelling and skilled unwrapping of a woman who neither knows nor cares what effect she has on others. Frequently when told something about her character, her only disinterested reply is “do I,” and this Kristin is forever controlled, even in criticism she barely raises her voice, preferring to leave the room than rant and rave.

However, formidable and cutting she may be – and her barbed retorts aimed at Claire and Trudi are a well-timed comedy highlight – underneath the hard-shell Channing’s Kristin has suffered for her work. As the initial awkwardness of the reunion turns to outright enmity from her sons, Channing reveals a regret and fear for her children that elicit considerable sympathy, that this accident of history, of being a woman of her time, has led to unbreachable divisions in her family.

And while we eventually learn what really happened when the children were removed from her care, Channing ensures that Kristin is not entirely let off the hook, that her decision to pursue her work has affected her sons’ lives irreparably. The audience is left knowing that although the truth has finally emerged, no one feels any better for it, and much of this is due to the clever ambiguity of Channing’s performance that gives an apologia, a defence of herself, but not an apology for it.

Joseph Millson plays both Peter and Simon, who through another slightly unlikely dramatic device, are never seen together, and leads to a moment of confusion about the position of the interval as Millson rapidly changes costume for his one scene as Simon. Peter is given more stage time and has clearly coped better with the lack of engagement with his mother, but has built up a bitter resentment about the memoir that explodes at dinner. Millson commands the stage and fills it with a lifetime of anguish but it’s clear Peter isn’t there to find redemption but out of duty on his mother’s birthday.

Simon whose emotional problems stem entirely from childhood does come seeking answers and again Millson is impressive as the more fragile brother in what becomes a tender duologue between mother and child. Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Freema Agyeman) is never seen with him, but battles with Kristin repeatedly about the work she does and her lifestyle. Agyeman makes Claire smug, attention-seeking and unphased by the slights of her near mother-in-law, but Claire becomes the exact counterpoint to Kristin that Campbell and Lloyd want us to see, a product of her time that, despite a small monologue about her own upbringing, is interested in vacuous fame and status only for the self.

Laura Carmichael’s Trudi is initially seen as the opposite, a good natured Christian girl absolutely out of her depth intellectually and emotionally in the charged family atmosphere. And while Kristin’s attacks make her see her life differently, the two form a respect of sorts that add nuance to what could have been a slightly two-dimensional role. Carmichael delivers a cleverly ditzy performance that balances the comic timing with a sense of the innocent bystander trying to keep the peace.

The themes of the play are pronounced in Soutra Gimour’s (a long-term Lloyd collaborator) set that eschews an art strewn household for a cosy kitchen almost devoid of any paintings, save for a few postcards pinned to the fridge door. The emphasis is on the family dramas rather than Kristin’s career, but Gilmour sets the whole production on a raised proscenium arch, surrounded by a picture-frame adding to the discussion about the boundary between life and art that feeds through the production.

Apologia is not perfect, and at times overly reliant on worn scenarios and coincidences that are a little jarring, but there is an intensity to the writing that well captures the difficult balance of engagement that typify family life. And while the presence of Channing anchors the production with a pitch-perfect performance full of emotional uncertainty, the surrounding cast members are given equal opportunity to shine. More than anything, we see the problematic balance between nature and nurture at the heart of Campbell’s play that shows we are as much a product of social, political and cultural forces of the era we’re born as we are the people who raise us, making the generational divide within families much harder to breach.

Apologia is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist – Imperial War Museum

As the centenary commemorations for the First World War began last year, it has led to a plethora of war artist exhibitions in London. From Stanley Spencer at Somerset House to the disappointing Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate there has been plenty of material covering many of the wars of the last century. Despite the rather messy re-launch of the new First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum which are a poor use of their incredible material, the one thing the IWM can do is interesting art exhibitions.

Last year the Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War was a high point of the Great War commemorations, containing some of the most fascinating conflict art ever produced. Now political artist Peter Kennard famous for his photo-montages gets a fascinating retrospective that references key moments in the last 50 years, from mass protests to modern day conflict. And few exhibitions have such a powerful opening statement. Entitled Decoration, a number of thin full length panels line the wall each showing a form of military medal but the ribbons made from American and UK flags are shredded and frayed, and instead of some kind of medallion at the bottom, there’s a series of negative war images emphasising the real cost of fighting and the meaninglessness of awarding a sanitised medal to obscure what really happened. From debris to a man being tortured with his head in a sack, from a bandaged and bleeding head to a ghostly face, these images make a startling impression, and one that shouts about the futility of war from the start.

Kennard’s most recognisable images were used for posters, badges and the front of magazines particularly in the 70s and 80s where threats of nuclear war in particular were at their height. Interestingly the IWM displays these on wooden panels that you can flip through, much as you would flip through the music posters in HMV, and it’s a useful space-saving initiative for a small gallery. But this doesn’t make Kennard’s message any less stark, as you see his montages of destruction and danger. Some of the most striking include a gas-masked face where the mouth is stuffed with rockets or a skeleton whose head has been replaced by a mushroom cloud explosion of gas. There are more images of specific politicians, artfully lampooning their lack of heart and naturally Thatcher appears in many of these including a particularly blistering attack showing her cutting the tubes of a baby on life support.

However much you agree or disagree with Kennard’s views his skill in the days before photoshop are impressive, repeatedly using skeletons, nuclear weapons and mushroom clouds as symbols of the threat. So, even if you didn’t live through this period his work gives you a strong sense of the tensions and fears both of nuclear fallout and the freedom of politicians to casually stoke the fires that could endanger the population. You see this idea of gambling with people’s lives in a number of images, most significantly in a scene of people playing Blackjack using rockets as stakes in the game. Unsurprisingly Kennard’s later work includes an image of Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of an explosion.

Interestingly some of the most powerful works are quite different and the penultimate room has two groups of work based on the inequality of wealth. In the centre of the room are a number of large easels with the financial page of a newspaper opened on them. Entitled The Reading Room, each double page spread has a portrait photocopied into it of a person clearly poor and starving.  It’s hard not to be affected as their large eyes stare directly out at you, a haunting image of western greed. Around the room, using a similar technique, Kennard has created a number of hands photocopied across stock market results, each clawing and tearing at the paper. They look ferocious as these two dimensional hands create three dimensional rips, like a horror movie come to life. Again whatever your own views, there is a searing anger in these pictures which is surprisingly potent and for me the high point of the exhibition.

The final room is a strange one, a sort of retrospective within a retrospective; a new installation summarising some of the most famous images along with some statistics indicating the costs of various wars in the last 50 years. Now the IMW as a research institution should know better than to purvey unverified or at least unreferenced facts to the public – although as part of an ‘art work’ arguably not their fault – but when I visited one of the ‘facts’ had already been redacted (i.e. covered over by tape) and other writers have mentioned further errors. The difficulty of this section is perhaps a lack of perspective on how things have changed in the last 50 years. The political situation of the 1970s and 2000s is quite different and although purely chronologically one has led to the other, more nuance needs to be given to his message that all wars and governments are the same.

In an interview for Time Out Kennard mentioned how interesting it is to have his work shown at the IWM because people don’t come there specifically for the art so it’s a new (and largely younger) audience and the effect the work has on them may be interesting. And that is true to a point – seeing war art in a place dedicated to understand conflict and translating it for those who have never experienced it, creates a level of consistency and approach that is impossible in a standard gallery that inter-mixes war art with other forms. Here the art is positioned in the history of war rather than the history of art, allowing the viewer to make broader connections with other parts of the museum. In practice though I’ve never seen more than a handful of people in the IWM’s art gallery, tourists whip through as if they’ve wandered in by accident and I was even completely alone in there for 5 minutes at a time (not that I’m complaining!). But given that the crowds have now died down in the First World War Galleries, perhaps realising what a poor investment they have been, the IWM should do more to promote the gallery space because the curators really have done an excellent job with both the recent exhibitions there. Kennard’s work is fascinating and this exhibition is a worthy showcase of civilian fears of modern warfare.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is at the Imperial War Museum until 30 May 2016. Admission is free.


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