Tuesday 31 January 2017

Some stylish opera, an enthralling Gemma Arterton performance and the final bow for Bowie's Lazarus...

16th January 2017 - 22nd January 2017

A theatre-centric week this one, spanning three types too with some opera, a play and a revisit of a musical, so without further ado...

Written On Skin

Miss, (soon to be Mrs), Culture was under the weather on the cold Wednesday night we'd decided to catch the revival of George Benjamin's opera, so this was a solo outing, (and also my second time seeing it, the first time being during it's initial run here in 2013), and it must enough of an impact to want to revisit it as a couple but alas it was not to be. Unfortunately as seems to be the case with operas it has quite a limited run so rearranging or booking again wasn't an option.

Now let me state this right up front, I'm no opera expert. I've seen around ten operas in my life, either at the ENO or here, (and one production of 'Tosca' by the opera group Opera Up Close which was pretty great at the Soho Theatre, but I digress...), and usually go because the production looks interesting or the story appeals, so I can't comment with any degree of authority on what is considered a triumph by discerning opera goer's standards I'm sure.

It also seems that people generally appear to be of the opinion that opera is a pursuit of the upper classes as many are in a foreign language, (although usually with surtitles above the stage), and tickets are prohibitively expensive for the layperson. I first took a punt on 'Don Giovanni' at the ENO and really enjoyed it, they perform all of their operas in English so for many that could be overcoming a barrier, also there are a huge amount of seats and standing spots at the Royal Opera House which are priced as low as £6, (obviously the stalls can be over a hundred pounds, but in my experience everywhere sounds good in the ROH, a feature of a good opera house I'm led to believe). In fact for this performance I had a £6 ticket up in the heights of the Upper Amphitheatre in a standing space, which was perfectly fine for hearing and seeing the production, which was only around 90 minutes with no interval. Also be assured, you don't need to be dressed to the nines either...

Tickets for £6 are a steal...

So the opera itself then, well firstly the set itself is superb, a real wow of design, it's a two storey construction which also slides sideways between acts to reveal different sections, so if nothing else it's a treat for the eyes.

The music is also very easy to listen to, it's quite film-score like in parts and the orchestra were being conducted by the composer Benjamin himself which is always a bonus, and not so common an occurrence.

The singers were universally excellent, especially the female lead Barbara Hannigan. The male lead Christopher Purves had a throat infection on the night so although he was on stage acting the part he wasn't singing, the part was sung off stage by James Cleverton, which didn't diminish from the performance one bit.

Set in 13th century Provence, loosely the story involves a wealthy landowner known as The Protector who lives in a farmhouse with his wife and employs an artist/writer known as The Boy to produce a book based on their lives, (the book is written on bound skin hence the title), and follows the wife Agnes falling in love with The Boy and the consequences/revenge that follow.

The brilliance of the production however is that throughout the people and settings are arranged and 'controlled' by angel-like figures who are always present in adjacent rooms to the farmhouse in modern styled office type environments. So while the action is playing out in the farmhouse they are moving in slow motion with slightly subdued lighting going about the admin side of portraying the story and sorting costumes and props to stage each scene and move the story along... It's quite difficult to fully explain and needs to be seen in action really, (there's videos floating about the interweb and a DVD/Blu ray does exist of the show).

It plays almost like an adult Grimm's fairytale of sorts, with a dash of Shakespeare, (primarily in mind was Titus Andronicus), with modern flourishes to the text and music which melded the 13th century setting and the more modern angelic universe.

I've always found even when the opera itself doesn't quite float my boat that I've enjoyed hearing and seeing the music performed live, and the staging so have never really experienced a wasted night, however after seeing 'Written On Skin' in 2013 it had stuck with me and I really wanted to see it again. It didn't disappoint.

As divisive as opera is I urge you to give it a go, you never know...

Saint Joan

The next night Miss Culture was thankfully back on her feet, and in time to see the latest production at one of our favourite theatres, the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden.

Usually we'll see whatever production is on here, via the now defunct Barclays Front Row scheme which although could be a bit of scrum come release day were a bargain at £10 per ticket for front row seats.

So onto the play, a revival of a George Bernard Shaw play from 1923 which depicts the life of Joan of Arc, based on information from the mass of records which still exist from her heresy trial.

Gemma Arterton is Joan, and once again proves herself to be a very versatile, captivating presence, (we've previously seen her in the criminally short-lived production of 'Made In Dagenham' and the West End transfer of the Globe's 'Nell Gwynn', both of which she excelled in having singing duties too). She's on stage already as the audience filters in performing prayer and personal meditation of sorts, which along with the sparse set backed by three framed screens and the orchestral chanting music sets the mood. Throughout the play the set revolves slowly and the action is set almost entirely around a large table which is dressed to suit the scene, something which allows the audience to see all the characters properly during every scene.

Arterton on stage before the play starts proper...

The story although unchanged in it's characters, locations and time period, is updated to use modern metaphorical devices to convey such events within the text such as 'the wind changing' in the French army's favour before they launch an attack on the English, and the fluctuations of stock markets to portray the effects of the hens not laying at the start seen as a message to encourage the army to instill faith in Joan and her messages from God.

Brian Cant also makes an appearance as a couple of characters and proves himself more than capable.

A shot during Joan's trial for heresy...

Although the play is nearly 100 years old we won't spoil the story arc, and the 2 hour 40 minute run time, (including interval), flies by and never drags, whilst examining an interesting look at Joan's religious condemnation and subsequent historical significance.

The show runs until the 18th of February and is well worth catching, if only to see Arterton at the top of her game in such an interesting piece and in an impeccably, intimate environment.


So we were back for our third visit to 'Lazarus', and the final performance of this London run, (it's not currently announced as transferring elsewhere so maybe the last time this cast will be together).

We'd booked the tickets for the final performance back on the day that ticket sales opened, along with the other two pairs and opted for the fantastic bargain of £15 tickets, although for this performance we were nearer the back, (perhaps having been a little spoilt by our front row experience last time), however it didn't diminish our enjoyment too much despite reduced sight lines due to the design of the auditorium, (which is now being removed).

A shot of the amazing artwork for the production...

This performance also allowed us the opportunity to see Sophia Anne Caruso as The Girl and again she didn't disappoint, totally inhabiting the role which has almost entirely been only hers, and providing just enough other worldliness and ethereal charm along with a sublime, pure singing voice which lent such familiar songs a new emotional resonance.

Again Michael C Hall inhabited the role of Thomas just as seamlessly as Bowie did in 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' and despite the character not initially being an outwardly emotional force, depicts the awakening of feeling and his deteriorating mental state brilliantly.

Amy Lennox also continues to bring heft to a role which be considered slight in the grand scheme of the plot, but proves herself more than capable of making every moment count, especially her chance to let go during her performance of 'Changes'.

Also Michael Esper once again proves his versatility in flitting between vulnerable and sinister in his role as Valentine and shine throughout.

Although it's now over for the time being it was filmed so hopefully a home release is on the cards, and maybe will transfer elsewhere to continue Bowie's legacy.

A section from the programme...

The director Ivo Von Hove is moving on to many projects including a production of 'Obsession' with Jude Law at the Barbican later this year, (we have out tickets already), and will also be directing Bryan Cranston in a production of 'Network' at the National Theatre too.

That's it for this week, but next week brings a film preview and some iconic movie scores brought to life at the Royal Festival Hall. Till then, get inspired...

Monday 23 January 2017

Bits and pieces round-up, including a Christmas cinema classic, a party to remember and an American pop art precursor...

18th December 2016 - 15th January 2017

Due to the Christmas holidays, wedding planning fever and various bouts of sniffles, the barren wasteland between Christmas and mid-January was sparsely populated with cultural events, so here's a little round-up of what was ultimately enjoyed nonetheless!

Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)

First up was a last minute choice to see the classic 1951 adaptation of Charles Dicken's 'A Christmas Carol', known more commonly as 'Scrooge' and starring possible the greatest representation of the character seen on screen by Alastair Sim.

The film itself was preceded by a surprise addition of a now little seen propaganda/Ministry of Information film from 1941 called 'Christmas Under Fire', which aims to show how Britain, (London in particular), was coping with a Christmas spent under the threat of World War II and nightly bombings, blackouts and life in the bunkers. Created primarily for American audiences it's a quaint, stereotypical look at the British stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on attitude which is so often referred to in film and TV depicting the time.

It was a really nice clean print to, and an interesting slice of history so an unexpected treat to say the least.

Then onto the main feature, and the annual viewing of this classic adaptation, (although the first on the big screen).

This was a digital presentation so was a nicely cleaned up version, probably looking as good as it's ever going to, replete with slight print damage and audio defects which i feel only adds to the experience when watching older films.

Everyone knows the story so I won't go into that, suffice to say if you've not seen it this is one of the definitive versions, (along with 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' of course), and as previously mentioned is a must see for Alastair Sims's portrayal alone, the sheer giddiness and wild eyed joy he exhibits upon Scrooge's redemption of sorts is a masterclass of performance.

Abigail's Party

It was back to the BFI Southbank for part of the current Alison Steadman on TV season showing there.

One of us hadn't seen this before, but had been assured it was well worth catching, for the iconic Steadman performance alone, and the rare opportunity of seeing it projected, plus paired with a separate but related event of Alison Steadman in Conversation made for an interesting prospect.

Steadman as Beverly...

The plot for those unfamiliar revolves around a drinks party hosted by middle-class wife, (although she's an aspiring upper-middle-classer), consisting of her and her husband Laurence, their new neighbours Angela and Tony and her divorced neighbour Sue, (mother of the titular but unseen Abigail, invited as a respite from her daughter's own house party).

Originally a play, and directed and filmed as such by Mike Leigh so it plays almost like a single take, it was originally part of the BBC's 'Play For Today' series and aired in 1977, and the TV version features the original stage cast except for Sue.

Steadman's portrayal of Beverly and her sarcastic, snooty and often condescending way of talking to people is what has gained the play and this version such notoriety as a blackly comic tour de force that still holds up today and remains as quotable as ever.

It was also a treat to find we were actually in the company of Steadman, (sat in the row behind us), Leigh, Tim Stern who plays Laurence and Janine Duvitski who plays Angela to watch it too.

It's well worth seeking out, and we won't spoil the ending!

Alison Steadman in Conversation

After a short respite for a quick coffee, we were back in the screen in our usual seats for an entertaining career spanning conversation and Q and A with Steadman herself.

Steadman herself comes across as very down to earth and immensely likeable, although more well spoken than one of her most beloved characters Pamela from 'Gavin & Stacey'.

Much of her early work on many BBC dramas such as 'Nuts In May' and 'Abigail's Party' were discussed in detail, including her groundbreaking involvement in the 1974 BBC drama 'Girl' which featured the first lesbian kiss on TV in Britain.

Steadman in full flow...

She also spoke of her later roles such as 'Gavin & Stacey', (of which she stated she'd be willing to do maybe a special, but didn't think it likely to happen due to James Corden's and Ruth Jones's subsequent career successes), and other well known appearances including 'Pride & Prejudice', 'Fanny Hill' and one of her favourite roles in 'News Hounds' a drama which seemed to predict the current trend for sensationalist reporting.

She also demonstrated her knack for comedy and character development, and her skill for different accents and voices.

She ended with a short Q and A with the audience which thankfully wasn't as inane as many we've been to.

Coupled with the earlier screening of 'Abigail's Party' this capped of a fantastic entertaining evening.

Robert Rauschenberg

After a bit of wedmin in the morning, (a legitimate word I'm told), we took the opportunity to make good use of our Tate membership, (a real bargain as memberships go), and took in the new Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Most commonly known for his works which preempted the 'Pop Art' genre, it was treat to finally get to be able to see artworks oft-seen in books and on postcards, but usually scattered worldwide and seldom seen together as a cohesive whole.

Some iconic imagery at the exhibition entrance...

The exhibition contains works spanning his six decade career, ranging from painting to sculpture, screen printing and found objects.

Of particular interest were the iconic found object sculpture 'Monogram' which most famously features a stuffed goat wearing a tyre and the 60s era screen prints which famously feature JFK as a central figure made around the time of his assassination and are still a potent glimpse at various aspects of world events during that time. His screen printing process is also more detailed and layered than that of the arguably more famous Andy Warhol, incorporating more colours and more detail to great effect.

Another strangely hypnotic piece takes the form a glass tank filed with 1000 gallons of liquid mud called 'Mud Muse' which is connected to a vintage computer, reminiscent of the huge reel to reel variety often seen in vintage footage from the 60's, which controls random bubbling of the mud, a very satisfying thing to behold and something we could have watched for hours.

Sections of the exhibition focus on his different practices and involvement is different applications of his art, such his involvement is sending an artwork into space and his work on set design and choreography for dance inspired works, both created by himself and in collaboration with others.

He's also known for his collaborations with other notable contemporaries such as Cy Twombly and some of this is touched upon too.

His final works were created not long before his death in 2008, yet he still managed to maintain a focus for his visions and a variety within his mediums which meant the exhibition always had something up it's sleeve of interest, no matter what your personal preference of art genre may be, he was quite chameleonic in that respect, much like Picasso, he seemed to be able to assimilate various styles and mediums and manipulate to his own ends. Hopefully this large scale show can bring a bit more much deserved recognition to the more casual art lover.

As usual there's no photography within the actual exhibition, which can only be a good thing as it stops the selfie brigade from lingering in front of the works and spoiling the experience for everyone else!

It's on until the 2nd of April 2017 so don't take too long to see it, well worth a visit.

The next blog won't take so long as we're now back in the swing of things and out and about!