Tag Archives: Barbican

Obsession – The Barbican

Obsession - The Barbican

We’re in an age of the super-star theatre director, where their name alone will not only sell plenty of tickets – even before you factor in any well-known actors – but is also a hallmark of style. There have always been famous directors of course but with a high turnover of shows in London’s big venues, the existence of dedicated companies with a lead director who work together repeatedly is only now coming back into fashion. Kenneth Branagh’s 10-month residence at the Garrick was a significant success, while Robert Icke at The Almeida and Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios work repeatedly with the same cast and crew, forming an unofficial company of sorts.

Perhaps the biggest name in London theatre right now is Ivo van Hove whose Toneelgroep Amsterdam company has regular seasons at the Barbican, while van Hove wetted the appetite of London theatre goers with his extraordinary interpretations of A View From the Bridge and this year’s Hedda Gabler at The National Theatre working primarily with British actors. It was only a matter of time then before his European and British interests would meet, and the result is Obsession which unites Toneelgroep with three British actors including Jude Law.

As a director, van Hove is renowned for the physical sparsity of his staging which allows the emotional life of the characters to emerge uncluttered. For an audience, this approach is often uncomfortable but entirely consuming, watching helplessly as stories hurtle to unstoppable conclusions, while the tragic flaws of the central character are writ large. With nothing to distract you, van Hove turns characters inside out so we can see what drives them, and ultimately what destroys them – it’s a powerful technique that is always emotionally shocking but transforms well-worn plays into something fresh, relevant and timeless.

Obsession has quite vast cultural roots and van Hove’s new production is based on the 1943 film (Ossessione) by Luchino Visconti, which was itself based on James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, a title you may recognise from two subsequent American films of the same name, one with Lana Turner in 1946 and another with Jack Nicholson in 1981. This version is firmly based on and credits the Italian interpretation but follows the same central story: Former solider and now drifter Gino arrives at the roadside bar owned by Joseph and his much younger wife Hanna. Initially suspicious, Joseph chases Gino away but an instant attraction to Hanna makes him linger. Within days he’s indispensable to them both, but Hanna wants out of her marriage and the adulterous lovers take a murderous path. But will it bring the right kind of freedom to either of them?

The first thing you’ll notice about van Hove’s production is the cavernous space on stage filled with only a few pieces of scenery. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, this modern set has only a bar, bath, back window and door, and a giant engine representing the truck Joseph is trying to fix. The Barbican stage is already sizeable, but the emptiness of it gives it a giant garage-like feel entirely devoid of emotion, and not the warm, loving home Hanna desires. And Jan Peter Gerrits, who has adapted the film, wastes no time in introducing Gino and getting the lovers together within minutes of the play starting. With only 1hr 45 minutes and no interval, the writing is slick and spare, delivering only what we need to understand the plot and what characters feel at any given moment.

For anyone who has waited to see Jude Law play the harmonica then this is the play for you, heralding Gino’s arrival, a symbol of his freedom and wanderer status. His lust for Hanna is instantly clear and the two circle each other briefly before succumbing to their passionate connection. But this is only the start of the story for Gino, and Law creates a complicated figure, drawn to the security and camaraderie of fellow veteran Joseph, but unable to contain his overbearing feelings for Hanna. The power struggle between them becomes hugely significant in the rest of the play, and while their desire is mutual, control is something that Hanna seems to gain as Gino loses.

Most interesting is the second half of the performance in which Law gets to explore the consequences of their actions, and it is here that he unpacks ideas of guilt and regret which take the audience deeper into his mind. His former army service make him dangerous and several violent eruptions are sudden and shocking, adding an edge to his interactions with Hanna, but Law makes it clear this is all part of his sense of containment – caused by his affair with Hanna – that make him unable to flee from his actions or himself.

Like van Hove’s recent Hedda Gabler, Gino longs for the freedom of the life he knew before, but is equally unable to walk away despite several attempts. His chance meeting with fellow drifter Johnny offers companionship and chance to join the navy, while a need to confess his actions much later in the play to dancer Anita give him a freedom from the burden of carrying his remorse which Law uses skilfully to show us that the extent of Gino’s suffocation is both physical and emotional. There is a slightly heightened style to the production which takes some getting used to, but Law fits seamlessly into the existing Toneelgroep Amsterdam company, holding his own but never allowing his movie star status to pull focus, which is no easy task and admirably achieved.

His counterpart Halina Reijn as Hanna is the stronger part of the couple and more easily able to accept her actions, seemingly without remorse. Driven entirely by her passion for Gino, something she fights hard for and fervently clings to, Hanna is as enthusiastic an adulteress as she is cold and calculating in the manipulation of the men around her. What saves her from being a classic femme fatale is the lack of self-awareness that Reijn gives her, and while she does terrible things, they are almost guileless and driven solely by love rather than money or power.

Yet Hanna has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her, able to better control her public face than Gino who finds it harder to reconcile their actions. Reijn’s Hanna sees a clear line from wanting something and taking it to enjoying the spoils. To her the plan was devised so she and Gino could be happy, and cannot comprehend his moodiness and distance after the fact. She seems more the villainess than Gino perhaps but she feels liberated by their actions while he is imprisoned by them.

As the cuckolded husband Joseph, Gijs Scholten van Aschat is nicely ambiguous, neither entirely likeable or objectionable, leaving just enough room for the audience to pity him, casting doubt on Hanna’s motives. Fine support is given by Chukwudi Iwuji in the dual role of priest and inspector adding the moral and legal perspective on the central relationship, while Robert de Hoog and Aysha Kala have brief roles as drifter Johnny and dancer Anita.

van Hove’s production is almost a continuous stream of consciousness as scenes slide into one another with nothing more than an intake of breath to indicate a change of time, day or even venue. Key decisions or moments are underscored by Tal Yarden’s video projected across the walls, showing the intimacy between Gino and Hanna which helps to counteract the size of the stage, but also reflects the play’s origins in Visconti’s film. Frequently characters try fruitlessly to run away from the bar on a treadmill (which looks a bit ridiculous) but their scared and desperate faces are projected around the stage ensuring in that second the whole room is filled with the characters’ inner life.

Obsession’s slightly heightened reality, reflected in the acting style, may not suit all tastes and there’s something in the central characters that keeps the audience slightly distanced from them – you’re drawn in enough to feel the intensity of their relationship but kept back sufficiently to judge their behaviour as that passion curdles into something more destructive. So, while this is gripping and innovative it doesn’t quite have the power of A View From the Bridge or Hedda Gabler, you leave Obsession with lots to think about but not shaken to the core and needing a lie down.

Similarly, the influence of film and simpler theatre styles is still difficult for those used to the more traditional productions that still dominate the West End, so it will be interesting to see what will certainly be a range of differing reactions to Obsession after tomorrow’s press night. Nonetheless, with official and unofficial theatre companies becoming more prevalent, Ivo van Hove’s attempts to create closer collaboration and integration between British and European theatre approaches is to be welcomed, and his integration of stylised techniques, along with a very decent turn from Law, make Obsession’s tale of a destructive love affair compelling viewing.

Obsession is at the Barbican until 20 May and tickets start at £16 and an NT Live cinema screening is scheduled for 11 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Cymbeline – RSC at the Barbican

cymbeline-royal-shakespeare-company

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most derided plays, coming quite late in his career (1609) and offering a top-heavy mish-mash of subplots that are never satisfactorily resolved. In some ways it’s like a greatest hits album of his most recognisable plots and techniques cherry-picked from his earlier successes, but thrown together in a bag and shaken about to form another story entirely, one that unfortunately is far less than the sum of its parts.

There’s some star-crossed lovers right out of Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), a maligned female reputation which questions her virtue like Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9), a warrior King who struggles to trust his children (King Lear, 1605-6), some lost siblings and a chance for some female-to-male disguise like Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and people escaping into the magical woods where they meet some common folk as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6). By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare clearly knew what his audience enjoyed but the jumbling-up of stories with very little poetry is one of his more lacklustre and dense efforts.

Although rarely performed, London has welcomed two major productions in a matter of months; The Globe’s modern reinterpretation which has set the seal on Emma Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director, and the RSC dystopian production which arrived in London at the end of October for a two month run and recasts the titular King as a Queen. Cymbeline is the not-so-straightforward story of an ancient British princess called Innogen who has married her lover Posthumus against the wishes of her mother Cymbeline who then banishes Posthumus to Rome. Here, he enters into a bet with Roman, Iachimo ,who tricks him into believing Innogen has betrayed him.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline is guarding the throne from internal plotters while facing a possible Roman invasion. Meanwhile out in the woods, her two lost children are being raised by a woodsman unaware of their royal status. As Innogen is accused by her husband, she decides to dress as a man and sets off in search him, leaving the three sets of characters to mix at a volatile time for Britain.

The RSC’s production is a pretty mixed affair and in many ways it makes a fairly decent job of envisaging what is a poorly constructed play with relatively little character depth. It starts off really well and the first half rattles along quite efficiently and with a decent amount of tension as the drama of Iachimo’s attempts to upset Innogen’s marriage creates plenty of intrigue and villainy. If you’ve seen enough of the Shakespeare plays listed above then you’ll pretty much know where all of this is going but its credit to Melly Still’s direction that you remain engaged and entertained nonetheless.

Much of this is due to Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Iachimo who manages to avoid becoming a finger-drumming panto villain as he develops and executes his plan to smear Innogen’s reputation. When he meets Posthumus in Rome he is every bit the swarve Italian, impeccably dressed and coiffured, and casually bantering with his attendants. Confident he can seduce Innogen before he meets her, he is pleasantly surprised to find her beautiful but also intellectually his equal, and you sense in Johnstone’s performance that Iachimo begins to fall for her, eager to fulfil the bet and keep her for himself. It adds unusual depth to the scenes between them and like Kinnear’s Iago at the National a few years back you might will him to succeed.

One reason for this is the less successful relationship between Innogen and Posthumus upon which much of the play hinges, and here the company fail to really sell this at the start so the audience never quite believes in their passion for one another. Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumus is an underwhelming presence, never seemingly a physical or intellectual match for Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen, and so easily led during his exile that it’s difficult for an audience to generate any sympathy for the lovers which fatally undermines the dynamic and drive of the play.

By contrast Cullinane makes for a modern and intriguing heroine, determinedly knowing her own mind and, despite being heir, she is happy to go against her parent’s wishes. The teasing relationship Cullinane’s Innogen develops with Johnstone has considerably more depth than the flatter romance with her husband which adds considerably to the tension in the attempted seduction scene giving it a ‘will they, won’t they’ momentum. But throughout Cullinane balances the emotional introspection as Innogen contemplates life without her lover, with the anger and frustration created by being wrongly accused.

Among the rest of the cast there is a mixture of ability, ranging from those who speak the verse very naturally to those who struggle to find its rhythm, and none of this is helped by the characterisation which often lacks depth – although this is Shakespeare’s own fault. And there are some problems with projection which make it difficult to hear even at the back of the stalls so it’s probably considerably worse in the balcony.

To say it’s difficult to care is an understatement, and even a fair amount of gender-switching which works perfectly well, isn’t used to any particularly effect. Gillian Bevan makes a good fist as warrior queen Cymbeline but spends most of the production stomping around in Ugg boots and a dressing gown, while her second husband, the evil Duke, is given a nice platform by James Clyde but somehow the machinations to overthrow the monarch are never clearly articulated in this production, especially in the first half where the romance takes precedence.

Even Anna Fleischle’s visuals are a little inconsistent which adds to the confusion; The British court seems somewhere between a post-revolution dystopia and a steampunk fantasy world. The walls are covered in graffiti and the place looks quite beaten up, and the costumes suggest a court fallen from its previous glory, including a ragged denim outfit worn by Innogen whose ruffles and puffs are tattered and torn, while the Queen struts around in her nightie. Simultaneous scenes in the woods borrow from the Lost Boys while Rome is firmly set in the 1980s with a Miami Vice look that celebrates slicked back hair and blazers.

It’s actually all a bit confused which makes it much harder to place, raising considerably more questions than it answers – why is Britain in a post-holocaust state and not Rome, what possible major even could have decimated one country without affecting a reasonably near neighbour? It would be perfectly sensible if Britain was pre-civilisation and Rome was on its way as a conqueror but it’s clearly meant to be after some kind of war-like disaster so the reason for this difference is a little vague.

And towards the end as much of the action decamps to the forest the whole things gets a bit Peter Pan with vine trails and hideaways that undermine the danger of a fragile community fending off attempted regicide and succession issues, and starts to feel more like a cheery frolic as families are reunited and political issues resolved. Towards the end, after nearly 3½ hours the whole thing starts to feel very laboured as all the threats dry up and the tension created by Iachimo’s villainous plans splutters to a weak conclusion.

Again much of this is Shakespeare’s fault because Cymbeline is a hotchpotch of half realised plots and poorly delineated characters. Initially the RSC’s production manages to paper over some of the cracks with a show that starts strong, with some very good performances that add layers to the characters, as well as an intriguing vision of a society in decline. Yet, this production feels sluggish and unconvincing in the second half as the plot becomes rather flabby and the tone shifts from political intrigue to fantasy adventure romp which all feels rather thinly conceived. A decent effort by the RSC but it’s not going to salvage Cymbeline’s reputation as a play or have you hurrying to see the play again in the future.

Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17th December. Tickets start at £10 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined – The Barbican

vulgar

Taste is a very personal thing, something we use to assess our attitudes to the outside world, to determine whether something is decent, appropriate or aesthetically pleasing. But, our tastes can also be used against us, to define what we kind of person we are and the effectiveness of our judgement. To have good taste is not just about individual satisfaction but it sends an outward signal to the world about who we are – one key element of taste is a sense of collective agreement, having others to reinforce your ideas. With this in mind the Barbican has opened an exhibition it claims celebrates the antithesis of taste, vulgarity.

Having now seen the exhibition, I have to admit to being to being rather perplexed by the use of the word “vulgar” in association with the exhibits and arguments on display here. It opens with a determination to reclaim the word and return it to its earlier associations where it meant commonplace or vernacular, and a determination to show how fashion ‘revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste.’ There is very little here that, to my mind, fits our notion of the word vulgar which, aside from its original meaning, now has a prevailing association with the coarse, crass and crude.

While I see what the Barbican is trying to do, it seems the word vulgar was chosen more for its intriguing appeal on a poster than for its actual and clearly defined application to the exhibits and themes of this exhibition. It may get people through the door but the concept feels over-intellectualised which for all its reasoning and the explanatory text by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, just doesn’t make sense in the context of what you see. Instead, what this show is about are the perhaps less attention grabbing concepts of populism and fashionability, exploring the line between societal changes and clothing, and whether fashion creates or reflects new modes of living, particularly when dealing with the outrageous or unconventional.

A centrepiece on the Ground Floor is a large collection of dresses from or inspired by the eighteenth-century fashion for large hooped skirts, ruffles and shaped bodices that transformed the female form by extending the hips, flattening the bosom and slimming the waist to almost unnatural proportions. The argument here is that etiquette books offered young women a modest and genteel guide to dressing appropriately suggesting that extravagance in size and adornment of dress was the antithesis of good breeding and elegance. Yet, these are quotes from the late nineteenth-century guides while the pieces on display are clearly eighteenth-century, more than 100 years before when the way taste and fortune were displayed was quite different.

Those considered to be leaders of ‘polite society’ such as the famous Duchess of Devonshire and the Whig crowd, certainly took fashionable interpretation to excess with enormous expensive dresses and unmanageably tall wigs that often represented their political allegiances, and what this exhibition doesn’t tell you is the fame and recognition that excess created was used to promote interests in politics, science and patronise the arts. By the definitions of this exhibition and guides from a century later, these people were ‘vulgar’. But the historical record doesn’t really back this up. In fact while the extravagance of “The Ton” – the nickname for the Duchess and her cronies – was gently mocked in the press, their influence on fashion, concepts of taste and modes of living among those considered ‘well-bred’ was more celebrated than derided. And the purpose of such styles was to display their wealth and influence.

It created a trickle-down effect through society that only suggests vulgarity in the old-fashioned sense – the popularisation of something that was once the preserve of an elite. And as this room goes on to show, the effect of that influence continues to resonate in fashion today with stunning modern pieces by John Galliano, Gucci and Vivienne Westwood who have frequently drawn on the eighteenth-century shapes and fabrics for inspiration. Sitting alongside some beautifully embellished wide-hipped ‘Mantua’ originals, Westwood created a spectacular jade green full-skirted Watteau dress with black trim inspired by the era. You can’t wear it to Tesco but it’s hardly vulgar in either sense, haute couture is certainly not populist nor can the artistry, detail and beauty of it be considered coarse or crude.

Rather than shoe-horning these clothes into a pre-set definition of vulgarity and taste – labels which of themselves change over time – adding more historical context can explain a great deal about why particular fashions and preferences for excess or simplicity emerged, based on the social, political, economic and cultural experience of the era as well as how they were used by individuals to create personal influence. And that is something clearly missing from this show.

One of the issues here is that most of the clothes on display are specifically avant-garde or haute couture where there is an argument that they are created as pieces of art, not intended to be widely worn, self-selected for this exhibition by virtue of their outrageousness, and thus not representative of “fashion” in the sense of a ready-to-wear designer collection or a high-street off-the-peg offering. And while some exhibits represent those categories, the distinction (ie. the purpose of creating that specific item), is not made clear enough, never mind whether it can be classed as vulgar or not (in whatever sense).

If you take away the entire structure of this exhibition, you’re left with a collection of interesting and eclectic items which are actually nice to see. Borrowing from Pop Art influences there is a Moschino evening gown that looks like it’s made from sweet wrappers, while sitting next to it a short yellow number is also printed with packaging images, while a paper dress from the 60s has a pattern of Campbell’s soup adverts (which you can also see in the V&A’s Records and Rebels show). These, as I suggest above, showcase the intersection of design and populist influences from the fun movements of the times, but are arguably not created to be widely worn.

Similarly the show opens with some beautiful Grecian inspired dresses which the blurb rather pretentiously interprets as ‘the imitation of classical culture… reimagined in a vernacular tongue’, as well as later displaying some puritan lace collars and seventeenth-century stomachers that defy the label of vulgarity. Like the eighteenth century clothes this suggest an ongoing interest in the way in which draping, cut and shape can create a fluidity around the body that again reflects the political attitudes to femininity in the era they were created rather than a mere vulgarisation of ancient styles.

And then there’s the outfits that are truly avant-garde, created as part of a wider collection and never seriously intended to be worn. In a section on royalty entitled ‘impossible ambition’ there are Dior outfits inspired by the short-like pantaloons and ermine trimmed jacket worn by Henry VIII in his famous Holbein portrait, as well as a Viktor and Rolf flared red dress with accompanying wheat and flowers headpiece inspired by Van Gogh in a section on ‘Too Big’, while a Walter van Beirendonck elephant skirt is reminiscent of those emu costumes with fake legs that 70s comedians used to wear at the Royal Variety Performance. Yet, none of this is vulgar; silly yes, playful certainly, but vulgar not really.

For the most part, the Barbican delivers excellent value with its art and photography exhibitions which are usually smart and informative without being pompous, and I think that is the problem here – the intellectualising in the written descriptions is just a bit too pleased with itself, a tad smug. This attempt to unpack the concepts of taste and vulgarity could have been achieved more simply and in a way that matched the outfits chosen with the historical, social and cultural context of their creation. So go for the clothes, enjoy the chance to see detailed craftsmanship, artistry and glamour of designer work, but don’t worry about the concept – it doesn’t make any sense anyway.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican until 5 February 2017. Tickets cost £14.50 and there are concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   


Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers – Barbican

Bruce Davidson - Hastings

Who are we and what have we been? This is the key question that photographer Martin Parr examines in the Barbican’s astonishing new exhibition which Parr has curated, of international photographer’s perspectives on Britain since the 1930s. What it means to be British and how the challenges of the twentieth-century shaped who we are has troubled historians for a long time, with cultural outlets recently beginning to catch-up presenting insightful exhibitions such as the Tate’s Artist and Empire show and Parr’s own exhibition at the Science Museum last year. But is how we see ourselves the same as how others see us? The answer is yes and no, and while the images displayed here are unarguably British, they show far more reality than our own nostalgic view of the last seven decades.

Our perspective of these years is a blur of pop culture images, heavyweight political stories and romanticised projections, a ‘Downton Abbey’ view of a history that never was. From the smiley victory rolled women of the 1940s to the mini-skirted dollies of the 60s and on to the power-suited greed of the 80s, our view is highly focused on metropolitan areas, especially London, and coloured by fashions, celebrity and periods of supposed societal ‘change’. But this is far from the Britain that the vast majority of people actually lived in and one of the most fascinating aspects of this exhibition is just how domestically unchanging Britain appears to be.

Through the eyes of over 20 external observers, we are a land of work and predominately working class people, of decaying buildings, unresolved industrial decline and poverty, but never of hopelessness judging by the number of happy looking scamps playing in the streets or people having a lovely night in the pub. There are the obligatory shots of bowler-hatted financiers and 60s youth enjoying rock concerts, but most overwhelmingly Britain is a place of Sunday football in the local field, of coal miners enjoying their tea, of seaside holidays and, unfortunately for all the republicans out there, of enthusiasm for the Royal Family, as flag-waving patriots hold street parties in honour of coronations, jubilees and royal weddings or happily sit among the detritus of London streets to catch the action first hand. Interestingly the middle and upper classes barely get a look in, this is a Britain of ordinary people living ordinary lives, battling in that charmingly stoical British way.

The abiding image of the exhibition is by American Bruce Davidson of two old people, sitting in their Sunday best in deckchairs on the beach at Hastings, drinking tea from a cup and saucer. Like Parr’s own work there is wry humour to this scene but also a clear human story of the obviously long-married couple at its heart braving the weather. It is so familiar an image yet seems long ago – who now would take an actual cup and saucer to the beach – but somehow this picture seems to epitomise everything we think about ourselves and interesting to see that it accords with how others also see us.  As a long-term London resident it’s also hard not to be drawn to the shots of the capital including Chilean Sergio Larrain’s beautiful tube escalator at Baker Street station shining up to the sky as well behaved commuters stand on the right and the man in the centre close to the camera gives it an inviting perspective (1958-59), or the wonderfully humorous image of a quirky old lady sitting on the shoulders of two upright gentlemen in Trafalgar Square as she tries to catch the Coronation of George VI in 1937 pictured by Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson.

And it is these ordinary folk that make this exhibition so enriching and combining so many images from across the UK it is clear we have never adequately resolved the problem of industrialisation. Edith Tudor-Hart’s dramatic 1930s portrait of the tiny backyard of a slum dwelling in which a mother and her six children are crammed into one half, divided by a small washing line, while surrounded by broken chairs and rubble on the high walls. Similarly she recorded a dramatic picture of a group of children having ultra-violet light treatment, presumably for skin conditions, that this collection implies are the result of living conditions. Bruce Davidson picks up this theme in the 1960s in Wales as factory towers emit smoke into the greyed countryside as a white-dressed bride picks her way across the field to be married, or a small bespectacled boy pushes his teddy and doll in a pram as the entire background is swallowed up in industrial smog. These images remind us that not only were so many places reliant on the industries like mining that have left social decay behind them, but were themselves a double-edged sword that brought tough urban living conditions for many that have barely improved since.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this show is how multiracial Britain appears through the eyes of these photographers. Cas Oorthuys from The Netherlands took a series of pictures of Oxford in the 1960s including one of a two black students in their gowns and what is presumably their friend on his bike. Frank Habicht’s picture of Vanessa Redgrave carrying a peace protest banner in 1968 and fellow German Candida Hofer’s shots of turbaned schoolboys in Liverpool also help to reinforce this sense of Britain as a more multicultural society than is often depicted and it’s worth looking at the crowds in many pictures to see this long-existent diversity.

Some of the more recent work on the ground floor of the exhibition adds to the regional, and at times highly politicised, feel of the exhibition including Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura’s shots of Northern Ireland which give a sense of the effect of war in the1970s on the people living there including two dressed-up children at a street shrine with a backdrop of destruction in a terraced street, and various victory celebrations in Londonderry. Axel Hütte’s images of decaying tower blocks have a similar effect actually making you think about the lives they contain, and the unfulfilled hope of elaborate names like ‘Hamlet Court’.

But it’s not all doom laden stuff and American Jim Dow’s shop-window images benefit from improvements in photography that tap into our nostalgia for the corner shop, including the bountiful Scarborough sweet shop, a takeaway in Leicester and a wallpaper shop in Leytonstone all of which leap out at you. The move to digital images is captured brilliantly by Bruce Gilden’s stark and brutal portraits that end the show, of faces he captured around the country. Five intimidating faces glare down at you with very little background and instead you see every line and vein. These are not flattering shots by any means, almost grotesques in fact, as you see the bursting redness of alcoholism on ‘Peter’s’ nose, and the re-growing hairs on the eyebrows, upper lip and chin of the painted Essex women. But they’re not images to laugh at and somehow you can see the despair and hardship in their eyes which tells you that maybe nothing much has changed since the time of Tudor-Hart’s slum children. The fashions come and go, but the problems remain the same.

Strange and Familiar is an extraordinary exhibition that forces us to really think about who we are. As you walk through the decades and see Britain through the eyes of other people it certainly makes you think about how much has really changed. Each ages had its own concept of modernity but what is so clear in this exhibition is that only applied to a select few. There is a timelessness to it; outside of London, daily life hasn’t altered all that much, Britain is still decaying but life goes on. Most importantly, Britons still try to have a good time – we get dressed up, have a drink at the pub with our friends or a cup of tea and just get on with it. Unflattering it may be at times, but the perspective of these twenty-odd international photographers, under Martin Parr’s skilled curation, shows us that whatever happened to Britain in the last 70 years, life goes on.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is at the Barbican until 19 June. Tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Hamlet – The Barbican

Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? This is the question on everyone’s lips at the moment. I am, of course, talking about whether this will be the greatest Hamlet any of us has ever seen, because I’m increasingly coming round to the idea that maybe there’s one perfect Hamlet out there for you and when you’ve found him (or her) then that performance will be the benchmark for every other Hamlet that follows. The Guardian’s eminent theatre critic Michael Billington recently wrote an interesting article suggesting that actors can never fail in their depiction of the character because there is so much scope for individual interpretation which can never be ‘wrong’, but I would take that a step further and say that we as the audience bring our reading of this play along with us, whether we’ve studied it, seen it 100 times or never, at some point an actor’s version and our own will intersect and bam you’ve got your Hamlet.

Without making this sound like an insipid rom-com, you’ll probably only find one ever, maybe two if you’re really lucky. That’s not to say you won’t appreciate, enjoy or love other Hamlets, but deep down somewhere there’ll be only one that really got to you. Mine was David Tennant in 2008, which even 7 years later I can happily gush incessantly about. I’d seen other impressive versions including Alex Jennings and Sam West (both at the Barbican incidentally) but Greg Doran’s 2008 RSC production showed me Hamlet as I had never seen it before, as a thriller, moving at an incredible pace to it’s  inevitable conclusion. I had studied this play for A-level, knew it inside out, yet I was on the edge of my seat almost willing the story to turn out differently. And Tennant was everything I’d ever wanted Hamlet to be, consumed with devastating grief that spoke of so much pain, agonising over life and death, mercurial but turning wonderfully on a hair’s breadth between comedy and tragedy. It was electrifying.

And there have been many other recent Hamlets that may have been the one for you – Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Sheen or Ben Whishaw – and these are just the ones since 2000. So, given the openness of the text you pretty much have free reign to like any Hamlet you want if you think the actor brings the right qualities to the role – although honestly if you think Mel Gibson was a perfect Hamlet you should expect exile as minimum punishment. Yet I can’t recall a Hamlet that’s created so much off-stage drama as this new Barbican version; Cumberbatch refusing to sign autographs, critics sneaking in to publish unethical early reviews, rows about fans filming the production, the cost of preview seats – and amid all of this what is really sad is that no one is talking about the work, so let’s do that now.

What everyone really wants to know is how good is Cumberbatch? And the answer is fairly good with potential.  Now I need to caveat this by saying it’s still a preview performance, although it’s now got 10-12 shows under its belt and 20 days of previews is unusual. Not that I knew I was booking a preview a year ago having waiting 3 hours in an online queue of 4000, given just 5 mins to book some seats – back then the press night would not have been set. Anyway, Cumberbatch’s take is an outraged and angry Hamlet, and we first see him sentimentally packing his father’s things suggesting their close connection. This sense of outrage is then fed through the performance which Cumberbatch uses well to make sense of Hamlet’s frustration with his mother, disgust with Claudius and anger at his own failure to act.

The soliloquies have everyone sitting forward in anticipation and Cumberbatch feeds the anger through them so each one builds into a tirade against the circumstances of his life (purists will be delighted to know that ‘To be or not to be’ is back in its proper place). He has to fight against the scale of the set to put across the intimacy of these internal struggles so all credit to him for almost winning that battle, and as the evening draws on his performance grows in confidence. Cumberbatch is particularly adept at drawing out the humour and this is one of the high points. There are still things to work on though, particularly I felt at the beginning where he’s not quite connecting to the depths of grief necessary for the ‘Too, too solid flesh’ speech, and although this is clearly a production choice there’s not quite enough emphasis on the philosophising side of Hamlet, particularly in the early contemplation of life and death, and the later acceptance of fatality. These are things he can quite clearly do as his fantastic lead in After the Dance at the National pre-Sherlockian fame proved, but overall it felt that other decisions in this production somehow mute the depth he was trying to convey and actually do his performance quite a disservice.

Its set in the hall of a large country house with sweeping staircase, littered with paintings and memorabilia that emphasise the military life and country pursuits. Designer Es Devlin has created another beautiful set and while the scale of it may infer the grandeur of court,  it destroys the tension of a small group of people holed up together. It just doesn’t feel claustrophobic enough so you never quite get that sense that events are teetering on a knife’s edge. Lyndsey Turner’s has made the same mistake here that she did in A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, there’s lots of talking but it didn’t feel like it was building to anything. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy so there should be a certain inevitability driving this; from the moment he agrees to act he is doomed, but that over-arching shape to the production, which the director gives, is lacking. So even the final scene felt botched, with all the tension dissipated – as the bodies stacked up it should feel epic but was a garbled rush that was slightly unsatisfactory.

There are several reasons for this, one is that the other characters felt pale and in the background, which is no reflection on the crop of very fine actors here. Lots of the text has been cut so while Polonius is often a viciously controlling, verbose and creepy character, here he just seemed a bit quirky being dispatched before you’d even noticed he was there. It also takes a long time to get insights into Claudius and Gertrude, and until pretty much 2 hours in when they get their own focus. Ciaran Hines is completely compelling in Claudius’s prayer scene to the point you almost sympathise but we’re not seeing that danger early on. Anastasia Hille is very good in the Closet scene which is transposed to the Grand Hallway, as her Gertrude pleads ignorance but the motherly tenderness of concern for her son is not embedded early enough. Similarly there is restraint in the other characters too, including Laertes who reacts to the death of his father and sister with a surprising sense of ‘oh well’ which doesn’t quite align with the later demand for Hamlet’s death. All of these performances could be more colourful, and it seemed liked they’d been asked to hold it back. Maybe they’re saving it for the press but maybe it’s also to ensure the light stays on our star-Hamlet, which is fine but in doing so they give Cumberbatch less to bounce off and less reason for his character’s predicament, thus undermining his deeper portrayal.

This is by no means an awful production and I enjoyed watching what has clearly been designed to be a visual and accessible version of the play. There are also some interesting ideas which made me think, particularly the emphasis on childhood (seen on that cryptic poster) and games demonstrated through Hamlet’s toy soldier fort and the player’s toy theatre onstage. It’s hinting at questions about the infantilization of Hamlet as a character through the close connection with his parents and disgust at his mother’s remarriage. So there is an almost rites of passage element to this where he must pack away childish things and deal with adult themes of murder and lust. I think that’s a really interesting interpretation of the play but there’s only a surface engagement with that at the moment and something that could really set this apart from other productions.

So there you have it, a lot of unrealised potential and some unfortunate directorial choices. Cumberbatch is very good in spite of those choices and it’s clearly a mark of his skill that you can see him fighting to give a deep performance in a stylised and at times superficial production. I almost wanted to lift the entire cast out of this toy theatre and plonk them into another version to let them fully realise all their roles, and I fear that the shape of this production won’t ever let them do that. But I await later reviews eagerly. Perhaps fundamentally the production still needs to position itself on the key questions and even if you decide not to address the politics, or the philosophy of it, the production itself needs to enhance rather than restrain the acting. Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? Not for me but he will be for lots of people and I hope the rest of the run gives him the space to develop it, he certainly deserves that.

Hamlet is at the Barbican until 31st October. Advanced tickets are sold out but 30 seats at £10 are available each day plus returns so check the website. NT Live will be broadcasting to cinemas on 15 October but best to book now as that is also selling quickly. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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