The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com
I have been lying on the beach thinking about the lovely
girlfriends I have called Emma.They
are, it has to be said, thoroughly good eggs - exceptional lasses in countless
ways who I’m lucky to have in my life.
I can say the same about fabulous women with many names...
but after noticing this comparison I realised I also feel quite a deal of
affection for literary heroines and actresses called Emma.So, writer that I am, I got to thinking about
whether a name might inspire a person to be a certain way?
A name certainly affects, I think, the way an author
feels about her character... or how could Jane Austen have crafted such a
perfect curve of personality and plot development for her Emma?And similarly couldn’t parents and teachers respond
to children differently depending upon their fondness for a name?
So perhaps you’ll allow me to disagree with Shakespeare’s
Juliet who famously said:
What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.
She was, after all,
hopelessly in love with a stupidly cute Latin boy.And I rather fancy the idea that if you are
called Emma you are more likely to be intelligent, generous, interested,
loving, open, kind, motivated, practical and... special.
It may be a generational
thing, perhaps Elizabeth or Mary were the fabulous girls half a century
ago?Or maybe I’m simply too inclined to
make connections between odd and disparate things?It has been said.But to that I reply: isn’t that how one
weaves a story?And isn’t that, in fact,
how we live and view our lives?Read my
blogs if you don’t believe me... or my soon to be published book (watch this
However, before I go on
with this theme, I must give immediate credit to Samantha Ellis for her book How To Be A Heroine.In this book Samantha goes back over her
reading life to draw all sorts of comparisons between her literary heroines,
highlighting how they have impacted on her life, and that’s what inspired me to
think about my Emma friends.Anyone with
any serious interest in English Literature, storytelling, the development of
characters, narrative and feminism should read Samantha’s charming work.Its premise is hugely imaginative and its
research far reaching.The author does
not waste a single word or illusion, and there are so many familiar connections
and satisfying new allusions that I found it thoroughly entertaining and
stimulating. I even read in this exploratory
work a reference to a man I have kissed (passionately) and a place in Tuscany I
had a particular romance. Who would have
thought?Yet even without these personal
parallels, I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone interested in
female characters and the building of meaningful literary and dramatic themes.Thank you Samantha!Maybe you’re leading a trend for Samantha to
be the next ‘special name’.
Anyway, with that as
background, I’ll flatter Samantha further by imitating her fascination with a
fiction-life crossover... and allow Jane Austen’s Emma to supply my benchmark.I always do write arts-life crossover stories
in this blog (as opposed to reviews) so I hope Samantha won’t mind.
Austen’s Emma is described
as having a bright and happy disposition.That is just as I’d describe the Emmas in my life.Emma Woodhouse is known for being
exceptionally pretty; as are my friends Emma G, Emma H and Emma W.Austen’s Emma takes special care of her
friends and family, going out of her way to make herself available to them, and
in this my friends definitely resemble her.The comparison remains true in so far as my girlfriends and our literary
heroine take active steps to help the people they love achieve their ambitions,
and empathise sincerely when plans or aspirations do not blossom as hoped.
My general sense is that an
Emma is a no-nonsense type of girl, who is always there for you, gets a job
done, and is down-to-earth and classy at the same time.Emma laughs and loves, thinks and reflects,
without being fussy or heavy.She has brains
and practicality, is a sensible, gentle and caring person without being
overly-sentimental. In particular, the light and warmth which infuses Emma’s
courage and humanity is no less sure for being under-the-radar.
Even my muse for this
story, Samantha Ellis, has a best friend called Emma who sounds like my clever girlfriends.And you can’t ignore the fabulous Emma
Thompson for a role model can you?I saw
her in Sweeney Todd recently at the ENO singing and commanding the stage with
Bryn Terfel as if she was born to play Mrs Lovett (yes, of course I was jealous).When I played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing some years ago, I
couldn’t watch her tremendous film with Kenneth Branagh again until the season
was over, because I knew damn well I didn’t have a hope in hell of playing it
any better (hey, I’d have settled for half so well, and I’m usually ambitious with
Back to Jane Austen: Do my
Emmas live on an enormous country estate?Do they set me up with the wrong man and then realise they have to
apologise?Do they mock the maiden aunt
for talking too much, or marry their next-door neighbour after years of not
noticing they were in love?No; not so
far.So I won’t draw the comparison
literally.Yet the qualities established
above serve sufficiently well to highlight that the name and character of Emma appear
to come with many delightful attributes.Let me show you.
Emma G is a remarkably
centred, informed twenty-something who is lots of fun and wonderful company at
a dinner party or on a holiday.We
worked together on the Olympics and have grown increasingly close ever
since.She is as happy debating the
politics of the day as she is sitting in a wine bar chatting with unexpected
eccentric characters, cooking a cheesecake, navigating her Boris bike across
London (I find this very impressive), absorbing the architectural feats of La Sacrada Familia,or unpacking the mysteries of a play or contentious media
article.Smart, that’s what she is, and
exquisitely modern – neither of which take away from her sincere social values
or physical beauty.I love that with Emma
G we can switch from laughter and flippancy to serious feminist dialogue
without missing a beat.She can also
remind me, when I need to hear it, that true feminism is not just about being
strong or brave or fighting hard to resist paternalistic limitations, it’s
about not letting men shape the argument or dilute our ability to view our life
(our choices and feelings) in a way which is uniquely feminine or, more
importantly, true to ourselves.(That’s
what Samantha Ellis refers to, cleverly, as ‘defining yourself’ rather than
allowing anyone else to do it for you.)
Recently I was telling
Emma G about a niggling sensation I had over an encounter with a certain man, a
negative feeling, and she pulled me up short because my story had started with
a positive perspective: “hey, don’t let his reaction shape the way you view
what happened... who cares what he thinks... you work out what you think and
stick with that”.How could you not love
her?!Equally, Emma sometimes tells me
I’m brave and adventurous and that when she’s older she wants to be like me...
and though I’m sure she’ll be far more accomplished and amazing in her own way
by then (she already is) her validation never fails to hearten me.Female friendship and respect is so precious.
Emma H is also smart and wise.She can google, gather and forward relevant
information faster than anyone I know and I only wish I was currently running a
company so I could employ her.She seems
to have a ‘bullshit detector’ which allows her to navigate around rubbish and
stay focused on the important things, and in this she is immeasurably practical
and positive.She is non-judgemental and
gentle too, her strength quiet and unassuming.We met on a yacht in Greece when unexpectedly forced to share a bed...
and it could have gone so horribly wrong if she’d been a snorer or a
wriggler... I confess I wriggle after a few wines... but she stayed on her side
of the small, odd-shaped bunk without a moment’s discomfort or
inconvenience.Seriously, how can any
stranger be that easy to get on with in such intimate circumstances?But that’s Emma H - she’s a no fuss girl,
while still being hugely sensitive and mature (again beyond her years).
I was in a funk not long
ago after a particularly lovely man caused me a considerable amount of pain
(not because he’s not a nice guy, but because sometimes people’s needs
just don’t align), and I was desperate to jump on a plane and get the hell out
of London.However it was school
holidays and flights were exorbitant.What did Emma H do, she simply offered me her (and her partner’s) car to
go exploring in the UK instead.She
knows me, she knew I needed movement to begin the ‘letting go’ and refocusing
process, and she offered as if it were the most natural thing in the world.I feel compelled to make an Emma Thompson
comparison here – in her role as Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility - for Emma H is just like that much-loved character
as portrayed by Emma T: loyal, sensible, sensitive, aware and ready to put
others before herself.Again, how could
you not love her?!
And that brings me to the effortlessly
appealing Emma W: we did our Masters of Commerce together in Australia and
became friends quickly.Emma W can talk
clothes, handbags, shoes and girly magazines (she’s often catches me up on media
gossip, especially about Liam Neeson of whom I’m stupidly fond), but that light-hearted
side belies her keen intelligence and capacity for engagement in many a diverse
analytical topic.It also doesn’t tell
you how flexible or resourceful Emma W can be.For example, I never fail to smile when I remember Emma’s response when
I invited (probably cajoled) her to be on a group project with me worth thirty
percent of a subject’s final grades: “oh but Julie, you are an A student and
you’ll expect to get an A on this assignment, and if I don’t do the work you
expect you’ll get tense and I don’t think either of us needs that”.(I would highlight Emma was running a
household and caring for children as well as studying so her need to be
practical and set realistic boundaries was sensible and important.)I was a bit shocked at first, disappointed, thinking
she’d want to study with her friend, but when she said “isn’t our friendship
more important?” I couldn’t argue.And
actually the group I did ultimately work with did piss me off and, as I saw it,
drag me down, so Emma’s decision was not only honest and wise but
prophetic.When I haven’t set clear
enough boundaries in my life – yep, that’s happened a few times – I remember
this experience and sincerely wish I had Emma W’s objective assessment skills.
Some years later, this university
friend (and her husband) were so incredibly understanding and supportive of me
in the midst of a major personal crisis – generous beyond description – that I
still cannot think of their kindness without a tear in my eye.I won’t bore you with the details, but in
this case Emma’s giving was utterly without boundaries or rationality, and it
showed to me a capacity for love and care which is not only remarkable but
typical of this warm-hearted and special woman.You might hear that the attributes of tall leggy blondes or beach-babes
are all on the surface, but I tell you this Emma has it all going for her - on
the outside and the inside – and again so much of what she does and who she
helps is low key and pragmatic.
All in all, it’s no wonder
I have a terrific impression of the name Emma – these women are rich in so many
qualities, not to mention brilliant company!And they just happen to share a name with one of my favourite literary
characters.So thank you Samantha Ellis for
inspiring me to reacquaint and reappraise the heroines in my life – in my ‘real
life’, in books, plays, television and movies - as the gift that these women
are... the many women I value... is a gift which just keeps on giving.
'crossing over the footlights' into arts and events management, and
subsequently more traditional project management, I have often thought
about the skills which transfer. I
was invited recently to write a guest blog on the topic, and it
made me stop and reflect. It's certainly not an exact science
but if you’d like to read more please follow the link.
I have said in this blog that I write arts-life crossover
stories, as opposed to artistic criticism.I have said, too, that I don’t tend to write about productions I don’t
I’ve just changed my mind.
have seen a film that very much troubles me.And I saw it before I heard the furore.
Usually I go to the cinema to see a particular director
or actor’s work.Or I go because I’m interested
in the story.Occasionally I
go to a random film because that’s what is on when I am meeting a friend at a
particular location. This was one of those
occasions, and random is what our experience turned out to be.
Kingsman is an
action comedy which appeared to suit our Friday evening mood.It was never going to be a great film, the
premise too far-fetched and the characters so light they are flimsy.However the film is entertaining, sometimes
slick, fun and silly.That is not a negative
observation as the same can be said of some of my writing, it is just what it
is.For most of the film it also ‘does
what is says on the packet’.It bubbles
along and gives you a giggle.So far so good...
Until, that is, you get to the final scene.You may have heard about the controversy and
if not you should.Because what the
makers of this film have done by way of a substitute for a real ending is disgraceful.Indeed I would go so far as to say, criminal.
If you think I’m exaggerating, let me ask:
·Do you agree, over history, that it is a
travesty warriors have arrived in a place and, no sooner asserted their
authority, gone on to rape and pillage?
·Do you think a super hero, a special agent,
or anyone acting the part of a ‘protector’ should take advantage of the
·Do you agree there are standards and values which
popular cultural has some responsibility to uphold?
·Do you agree that sexism is wrong?
·Do you agree that information which is disseminated
and shown to be discriminatory – especially in Great Britain, the United States
and countries claiming the moral high ground – should be allowed to circulate
in the public realm without repercussions?
·Do you think power should be used wisely and women and young people protected?
·And do you agree that a film should be
classified as suitable for young people if the contents of that film – physical
or psychological – could harm them?
If you have answered yes to any or all of these questions
then even before you know the details you should appraise Kingsman with your eyes open.
I am not a prude; nor is the young woman, Emma, seated with me
in the cinema.She is educated, in her
early twenties, and working at the London School of Economics.Yet we were utterly shocked by the sudden
turn of this film. Indeed everyone in
the cinema was stunned; the general reaction one of jaw-dropping silence.We, and many, are appalled by what the makers
of this film – and those who released it – think is an acceptable way to end a
film in the 21st Century.
Has the fight for women’s rights, for respect and
equality, receded that far?
Is sexism so entrenched such that the people who
contributed to the decision to leave that ridiculous scene in the film can no
longer see it?Or can they see it but
just don’t care?
Or do men really feel that it is not only acceptable, but
humorous, to send a message to young people around the world that it is normal
and impressive for a conquering male to use his power to take extreme sexual liberties
where and how he may?
I make no judgement on anal sex.What consenting adults do in their own beds doesn’t
concern me in the least.It is the context
here which is so reprehensible:
·the woman offering up her “arsehole”, as she
so elegantly puts it, is captive and reliant upon the hero for her release from
·the hero has champagne and acts as if it’s
all a laugh and why shouldn’t he – a virile and conquering male – get from the
damsel in distress what all men want (so it suggests)
·the woman doesn’t know him and has had no
relationship with him (barely with the audience)
·there is no intimacy or respect
·there is no relevance to the story
·there is an underlying aggression about his
desire (and his arrogance)
·there is aggression too in the implied need
for him to take the one thing left on this rescued planet that he hasn’t yet
·the scene is utterly gratuitous and in the
worst possible taste
·the scene, the ending, lacks any creative
credibility or real imagination
·and it ruins an otherwise frivolous romp of a
narrative - undermining anything of value which has gone before (including all the
I didn’t need to read a review to know that this ‘ending’
was a spoof on the ending of James Bond films, where Bond always scores the
girl.But that excuse from the director is
as pathetic as the scene itself – because it lacks all Bond charm and
class.Even the Bond franchise has grown
with the times and wouldn’t dream of being so crass.
a desperate wannabe and – unless the ending is changed - it doesn’t deserve an
audience.Nor does it deserve for it to
be allowed to continue to play in cinemas, or God Forbid, on television.
We should all be considering this very seriously.
What message is this widely released film sending young
women and boys – children from ten to twenty-five years – who have limited
sexual and sensual experience?For it
seems to me, and the girlfriend who saw it with me, to suggest that women are
to be conquered as and how a man pleases, and it is the woman’s job to comply,
to lie down and take it, whether she wants it or not – and especially if she is
in a position without power and therefore reliant upon him for her liberty.
Where is the respect?Where are the women who were involved in this process of decision-making
and who did not stand up and say “this is not acceptable now or ever”?Or did they, but weren’t heard?Because doesn’t that tell you what a fight we still have on our hands to resist the
ugly tentacles of sexism?
For make no mistake (and again I say this without reading
any other commentary), any film-goer knows that this was not a decision made by
a few people, but many - many men and women over many months from draft scripts,
to approved script, in the shooting, editing, post-production, marketing, classification
and release of the movie.This is no
accident or over-sight.The ending
chosen for this film is intentionally arrogant and shocking – and every single
one of these people should be ashamed of themselves.
And so should we if we do nothing about it.
I have never been as depressed at the end of a film as I
was at the end of Kingsman – because I
thought the world had made some progress.
It is no wonder we can’t protect girls and women from
enforced circumcision in other parts of the world, from every sort of
enslavement, if we think a film with an ending like Kingsman is acceptable.
It isn’t even funny.
We need to find and harness our outrage.Don’t reserve it for the current episodes of Selfridge, where one hundred years ago
women and men seemed to have more fight for the subject of sexism.
All the young boys and girls you care about are relying
P.S. If you want to see a film which takes discrimination
head on, which moves you, is worth the ticket price, and leaves you (and the
world) uplifted and inspired, then give Kingsman
a big miss... and see SELMA.Everyone
involved in that project can be proud.
I was going to name this blog post, So Very
Beautiful.But when a word is already
perfect additional adjectives muddy the waters.
The same can be said of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical which has just started previews
in London.Never did a word, a title, a
song, more aptly describe the experience you are going to have at the Aldwych
Theatre.Everything about this story,
this snapshot of life, this celebration of living, learning, loving and making
music – the thing its heroine was born to do - is beautiful.Beautiful too are the friendships, the
challenges, the humour and the fun which is had on the stage, in the auditorium
and no doubt back stage.
I don’t write blogs about the arts to be a critic.I can’t, if I still have ideas of returning to
a performing career. I write arts
commentary – what I like to call arts-life crossover stories.And I don’t write about a production if I don’t
think it’s good.
Well, this new London production - privileged, as I was,
to attend the final dress - is an arts-life crossover story if ever there was
one.It is a jukebox musical in that it
tells the truth about the lives of the musicians and performers who crossed
paths with Carole King and Gerry Goffin when they began to collaborate for a long
series of hits.But it is more.
Like Jersey Boys
(a favourite of mine as you can see from earlier posts) this retrospective gets
well below the skin.The excellent book for
Beautiful by Douglas McGrath,
combined with inspired direction by Marc Bruni and thoroughly entertaining choreography
by Josh Prince, give audiences a real chance to understand the journey which
made Carole King the person she is, to appreciate the nuances of what making
music was all about in the 60s and 70s, and to feel the complexities which love
in the new age threw up for people when the rule book was no longer safe and reliable.
Beyond that Beautiful
is slick, witty, finely designed and costumed, extremely well cast and
delivered (without exception), that you will have so much fun you will be
bopping not just the night you see it but all through the next day while reaching
for Spotify because your vinyl copy of Tapestry
is in a box in Australia somewhere.As I
said on FB to mates, if you don’t enjoy Beautiful
you must be dead, or so boring that you might as well be dead.
I was so moved and satisfied by this engaging theatrical
experience that I’m already planning to see it again.I’m ridiculously jealous of the cast and
creative team who are working on it – and make no mistake, a star is born in
Katie Brayben playing Carole... superbly companioned by Alan Morrissey, Lorna
Want, Ian McIntosh, Gary Trainor and Glynis Barber (playing Goffin, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Donnie Kirshner and Genie Klein respectively).I can’t
stop singing “you’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and
show the world all the love in your heart...”.And I’m so keen to get back to the soundtrack - to which I’m happy I still remember the words, even though it’s
been years - that this is the shortest blog I’ve ever written.
I don’t necessarily know what I want in a theatrical
experience, I only know if it works.But
like a good romance, those precious hours in the dark are magical.And usually it’s down to an inexplicable
combination of ingredients, acting and reacting to stimuli, to create a unique
and memorable cocktail.
Such is the power of The Royal Opera House’s production
of L’elisir d’amore and the acclaimed
Young Vic transfer to the Garrick Theatre, The
So what’s the magic ingredient?
Well, in the case of Gaetano Donizetti’s infamous potion,
In fact, Donizetti’s leading man in The Elixir of Love has nothing but some cheap red plonk to fuel his
passion, sold to him by the con artist, Doctor Dulcamara, played with perfect
cheek by Bryn Terfel.As this is a comic
opera, however,melodramma giocoso, Nemorino’s bottle-fuelled optimism and tipsy,
tenor charms win over the fickle Adina (sung sweetly by Lucy Crowe), suggesting
there’s much to be said for an innocent placebo for a hero lacking confidence.
Be that as it may, in this particular case, the Royal Opera
House audience was so in love with Vittorio Grigolo’s beguiling and heart-struck
Nemorino...so completely under
Donizetti’s spell... so happily convinced by Laurent Pelly’s direction... that by
the time Nemorino sings Una furtiva
lagrima there would have been a riot if Adina hadn’t succumbed to his irresistible
advances.Indeed the outpouring of
breath which followed the fading last notes of Grigolo’s famous solo was not
just the enthusiastic shouts of bravo, the
vigorous clapping and cheering, but a collective sigh of emotional and musical
satisfaction as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in the theatre.
I grew up hearing my father sing Una furtiva lagrima - at any time of the day or night his humming of
this delectable melody wafted up the corridor in my direction, making me feel
all was right with the world.I declare
my bias. Yet the theatrical tension, deeply
infused affection, vocal control and playful stretch of the phrase which
characterises the perfectly poised voice of Vittorio Grigolo as he explores every
nuance of this exquisite aria is nothing less than profound.I feel the electricity still.It was cathartic, stimulating, moving and deeply
enriching.And if I could get another
ticket - to be there as Grigolo recreates this magical moment - I would.
Of course around this moment, around many scenes and
sequences which worked in this excellent production, are ingredients of
musicality, vocality, setting, design, direction, interpretation, acting, chorus,
costume, lighting and imagination... too many and complex to list like a recipe.But in that one aria, as you close your eyes
and are transported to a place unutterably beautiful, there is only Donizetti’s
uplifting alignment of notes - and no matter how many times since 1832 tenor and
orchestra have breathed life into those notes, the acoustic purity and blend of
instruments I heard last Thursday night in Covent Garden under the baton of
another Italian talent, Daniele Rustioni, was as remarkable and unique an
elixir of love as I can imagine.
Vittorio Grigolo, ti
The potion which is The
Scottsboro Boys is quite different.
It starts with light-hearted humour, a skip, a smirk, a
wink and a giggle.The direction and choreography
is so polished and magnetic, I wondered if it was Susan Stroman even before I got
my hands on a programme.(It is!)And I was enjoying the energy and movement,
the vaudevillian escapism, the ‘minstrel show’ innocence and silly gags (done
in reverse with black actor/dancers playing white characters), that I was unprepared
for the challenge which followed.
Scottsboro Boys is based on the true and tragic story of
nine black youths who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931, convicted
and kept on death-row for year after year, decade after decade, denied justice
and liberty even though one of the alleged victims confessed to the lie and
there was no evidence to substantiate the charge.Such were the discriminatory laws and
entrenched bigotry of the time, that it was easier for southern Americans to
believe the ‘white’ lie, to victimize and destroy the lives of nine innocent
young men, than it was for society to face the glaringly obvious truth or challenge
an acutely racist and unjust ‘justice’ system.
As this musical unfolds, in the comic style and figurative
turn of a traditional minstrel show, it was for me the acting, dancing and
staging ingredients that were the most memorable.I particularly admired the cast’s manipulation
of the nine chairs – originally set in a semicircle as was common for the genre
– reconfiguring them in clever ways to create trains, court-room scenes,
holding cells and every necessary emotional and dramatic setting. The cast were excellent, performers of great
breadth, and it didn’t escape my attention that a vehicle such as this for
their talent was probably a long time coming.
(Ok, there was a bias toward men but I think we can put
that aside for the moment; for it’s not as if it’s any different in lots of
plays, going back to Shakespeare!)
I found the songs enjoyable but this score, for me, does
not have the gravitas or melodic impact of Kander and Ebb’s better known Cabaret and Chicago scores. Nevertheless
it works, it supports the characters on their journey, and it serves a strong
book and powerfully clever choreography and staging which skips the audience
into a frenzy of folly until we find ourselves staring in the face of such
immense legal lunacy that there is no escape from its unaccountable cruelty.
Kander and Ebb, Susan Stroman and David Thompson (the
writer) don’t set this moral tale as per Brecht or Ibsen, as a serious lesson
which must be heeded.Rather, they charm
and beguile you, entertain and flirt, with routines and physically engaging manoeuvres
of set, time and place, so that, even as these happy young fellows squander in
prison, you like them so very much – are endeared by their talent and
versatility - you can’t possibly imagine anything but a happy ending: a musical
So when the awful reality hits you – their appeals fail,
these miserable boys rot behind bars as media interest wanes, and the rest of
America goes back to doing whatever it has to do to forget how bad it is down
there in the south – you are left with a feeling in your stomach as heavy as
the elixir of love in Donizetti’s opera made you light.The music stops.The dancing is over.No jokes, no tale can be spun around a bleak
and frightening ending.The mood, the
soul of America is black - and the dark, innocent faces of the nine youths
stand as a brutal reminder of how arbitrary life’s gifts and chances are for
those unlucky enough to be born into a persecuted minority or class.
And the most frightening thing about the silent curtain
call... the failure of fun in ‘the minstrel show’, guilty of prolonging stereotypes
and never as pure as first believed... was that it was 2013 before all the
Scottsboro Boys were officially pardoned.And people continue to rot in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Were these theatrical ingredients magical?If you mean that a state, a phenomenon, can
change from A to B without logical explanation, then yes.If you mean did the drama – the comedy and
then the tragedy – take me where it was intended, thrill then break my heart,
then yes again.Una furtiva
I agree with the Evening Standard who awarded The Scottsboro Boys the 2014 ‘Ned
Sherrin Award for Best Musical’.Ingredients
which push the boundaries on musical theatre as an art form are just the potion
the West End needs.
It has been a violent summer in many ways.So troubling has been the international
landscape that it seems flippant to wax lyrical on the cultural treats I have
enjoyed in recent months.Yet even in
the face of political calamity and human crisis, I am reminded a civilisation
which does not work to protect, indeed fervently celebrate, art and beauty is
not a world in which we’d like to live.So since it is my great good fortune to reside in places where much of
that celebration goes on uninterrupted, I can only thank God for it and pray things
markedly improve in other parts of the world where too many are suffering.
While busy wearing an arts/event manager hat, I haven’t
found time of late to post comment on many good productions: King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe; the exquisite performance of
Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda in the Royal Opera House’s production of Rigoletto; the striking Restless Futures exhibition at Central
Saint Martin’s Letharby Gallery for London Design Festival; the interesting Disobedient Objects exhibition at the
V&A; and the energetic (nationalistic) fun of the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms at the Royal
Albert Hall on Saturday 13th September which wrapped up another
wonderful season of accessible and vibrant concerts.Yet of many luxurious experiences in
galleries and theatres this summer, it was arriving back in Tuscany a few days
ago which has surely been my personal highlight.
Regular readers know I used to live in Toscana and not a
day goes by where, on some level, I don’t miss her.So going back to see friends and visit old
haunts was food for the soul.I stayed
an hour with David, as lovers of
Renaissance sculpture must do, and as with many visits it was hard to drag
myself away.He did not step down from
his plinth as is commonly desired, but rather stayed as poised and concentrated
as Michelangelo left him, but one can only hope.And there is so much to be thankful for in
this figured miracle that, as usual, it took an act of will to focus a while on
masterpieces by Perugino, Albertinelli, Bronzino, Allori, di Tito, di Credi and
of course Michelangelo’s Unfinished
Slaves.The latter, in particular,
reminds us marble is not an easy substance in which to ‘find flesh’... heightening
one’s respect for the famous artist’s extraordinary ability to release lifelike
figures from the stone and create something as glorious and monumental as David.
Apart from abundant eating, drinking and socializing with
Italian and ex-pat friends, a little retail therapy (couldn’t resist three leather
handbags), I spent one big day in the Uffizi – arguably the most famous
U-shaped building in the world, perfectly situated on the banks of the River Arno
and adjacent to Firenze’s Piazzale
Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio.Cutting the queue by asking the guard to let
me into the office for Amici delgi Uffizi,
the helpful lady, Lima, who administers the programme asked with a welcoming
smile: Guilia, come stai?Vivete in Toscana ora?O dove?In Londre, I replied... whereupon
we chatted for a good ten minutes, as is the friendly Italian way, before
getting down to business.Quickly then I
was through security and climbing the beautiful neo-classical stairs to the infamous
A couple of years ago I knew every inch of most Tuscan
and Umbrian museums, churches and villas.I was excited to see it all again in the Uffizi, to feel utterly cocky
and familiar.And I did for a while when
perusing the first corridor, the cheeky ceiling grotesques and Roman busts a weekly fixture in my former Italian
routine.Then I discovered the curators
had moved much of the collection around.I was a little discombobulated.The
world had tilted, like stepping off a roller-coaster and having to re-adjust to
the earth.Well, they might have
asked.I mean, don’t we come back to
ancient and classical places specifically so things stay the same?It dawned on me many references in my
research and writing would now have to be updated.I felt an unnerving loss of knowledge,
ownership... a perceived loss of control
perhaps... confirmation the universe evolves whether or not we keep up.And this self-observation made me laugh.Clearly I was going to have to: a) respect
the wisdom of the curators... who would not be doing their job if they didn’t augment
and reinvent the exhibitions; and b) take the opportunity to rediscover the
Uffizi as if, indeed, it was my first visit.
So that challenge accepted, I began with new eyes, new curiosity,
and did my best to become acquainted with the collection as it is now
Though I do wish to say I hope when they finish
renovating Rooms 2-7 they put back works from the Sienese and Florentine 14th
century schools, as well as masterpieces like Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi (circa 1423), for
it is only through appreciation of more primitive and gothic styles that the
full flowering of the Renaissance in the hands of Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli,
Perugino and da Vinci can be truly understood.Nevertheless the masses were not disappointed, for Room 10-14 is still
home to Botticelli’s much adored Primavera
(circa 1482) and The Birth of Venus
(circa 1484).So I found a seat and let
the crowds come and go as I swivelled my attention slowly from one wall to
another - immersion of the best kind – inevitably coming back to Venus, Flora and the Three Graces
who are draped with such sheer and billowing fabric their ethereal delicacy
belies Botticelli’s underpinning statement of vigour, sensuality and fertility.
I didn’t queue to get close to The Tribune for I know its gold and shell encrusted dome as well as
I know my bedroom ceiling, but I was very happy it had not moved (hardly
possible given its elaborate and unique construction!) and that she still houses
the demure and tiny Medici Venus.The only difference was the shuffling of a
few paintings and that visitors can no longer promenade around the cylindrical
room because it’s been decided protection of the multi-coloured precious tiles
must take priority.
I also thought the new display in Rooms 19-23, keeping the
works Italian and grouped by region, was a positive change.And as Rooms 24-32 used to be crowded and rushed,
with respect to historical development, I was pleased to find them closed for
restoration and reorganisation.So far
Room 35 now houses Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (a round painting of the Holy Family with the infant St
John the Baptist) but, as is common in heavily-trafficked galleries, it was having
a day off from tourists and the door was shut tight.I used to admire Rubens in Room 41 but it appears
to have been hijacked for storage so not sure what plans the Uffizi has for
him.However the large room with ancient
sculptures telling the Legend
of Niobe is unchanged and as popular as ever due to extravagant Baroque decoration.
It is down on the first floor where the latest renovations
to the Uffizi become dramatically clear.There is now so much more useable space.The temporary exhibition rooms (formerly ad hoc and somewhat cobbled
together) are located now under atmospheric and attractive stone arches which
seem to burrow so deeply into the building I wonder how I never knew these ‘rooms’
were there.These sneaking ‘corridors’,
or more literally ‘cavities’, form a chain of space which is not only generous
to curators looking to evoke a theme, but under neutral stone arches emitting a soft, low and ancient light, the individually lit paintings on display
are thrown into such striking relief it creates the kind of reverence and
contemplation ordinarily reserved for monasteries and abbeys.The Uffizi’s new temporary exhibition space –
the area used for visiting works and paintings which might otherwise remain in
the basement – is no longer of secondary interest but a part of the
experience which the savvy visitor will now have to reserve time to enjoy.This is a huge change when over three years I
could count on one hand the times I did more than hurry through the first
In addition, the first floor now groups artisti stranieri, the works of Spanish,
Dutch, French and Flemish painters from the 16th, 17th
and 18th Centuries, into one logical area. So that's where you go if you're looking for Rembrandt. And in larger and less crushed rooms along
the dividing wall from the temporary exhibition space - around the large Uffizi U,
all the way to the steps which lead back to the book shop and main exit - the
visitor can stroll in a digestible and leisurely order from the early Mannerism
of Andrea del Sarto to Vasari, Bronzino, Raphael, Correggio, Titian (or more
correctly, Tiziano), to Caravaggio and his many followers.The only challenge, for a one-off visitor, is
to have the time to take it all in.
There are other rooms of course which take one forward
or back in artistic time, not least to areas with ancient sculpture (frequently
in the Uffizi, Roman copies of Greek originals), but the groupings, the overall
flow, it must be said, is much improved and less intense.
I might not know for a while where every work hangs and,
in admitting it, swallow the distasteful knowledge I am not currently a resident Fiorentina... but it is deeply
heartening to know this great gallery continues to preserve and improve our
access to the works gifted wisely and generously by Anna Maria Luisa Medici to
the State in 1737, and to be reminded there will always be more to learn, more
to admire, more to cherish.