Julie

Julie
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

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Viva Italia!


 
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 second floor. 

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 arranged. 

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 so good.

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 floor. 

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.  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.

Viva Italia!
 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Love on the Southbank


The Southbank on London’s Thames is an infamous arts and entertainment precinct – a cultural hub filled with spaces and activities to meet every kind of hunger.

If, notionally, you include The National and The BFI...independently managed, like-minded organisations, in geographical proximity...  I find it hard to keep away from the Southbank.  Along the embankment too are Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate, a couple of blocks the other way the Young and Old Vic.  The Southbank is the centre of a happening ‘South End’ really: a thriving communal place in the broadest sense of the word.

If you approach The Southbank from Waterloo can anyone resist tasting something delicious from the market stalls?  If you approach across the bridge from embankment, in any season you feel the vibe of the place, the pulse of life and creativity, friends and strangers celebrating what it is to be alive: to see, taste, smell, hear and feel... immersion in countless interactive and engaging experiences.

Exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery and programmes at the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls deserve much comment.  I am also amused by goings-on in the Udderbelly.  But in this blog I want to share something more ad hoc, trivial, but for all that, rich.  I want to share my thoughts on the benefits of the themed festival... the one-off popular event... and the Pop Up; the trendy phenomenon which has taken hold of entrepreneurial event planners.

I met a friend by the Thames for a pint on Friday night.  I’d just finished the first week of a new contract – consulting as Manager of Events and Visitor Services at Central Saint Martins, another wonderfully dynamic and creative institution – so our first drink went down beautifully.  We then moved to one of The Southbank Centre’s interesting summer installations, The Heartbreak Hotel.  I was principally looking for a comfortable chair and a second (and final) drink before heading home to catch up on sleep, so my expectations were greatly exceeded.

The Heartbreak Hotel is part of the Southbank’s Festival of Love.  It’s made up of the I Think I Love You Lounge, The Department of Good Cheer, an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships, and the Dear Cathy and Claire Room (a tribute to Jackie magazine’s Agony Aunts from the 1970s).  These elements are exquisitely well-themed and organised.  I started with an informative chat with one of the founders of The Department of Good Cheer, followed by pro-active, friendly table service and a delicious gin and tonic; hand crafted, as I discovered, by Dodds.  It took only minutes to realize the four guys who run this pop-up bar are on to something: turning cocktails into a tasteful and aesthetic experience, with tipsiness a bonus rather than a driver.  When my friend left to go to the theatre, a guy on an adjacent table appeared to be talking to a stranger on an old-fashioned plastic handset.   I was intrigued.  Next he handed me the white receiver and I discovered I was talking to a man elsewhere in The Department.  I couldn’t see him, it was random, but engaging; like pressing buttons to another hotel room, hoping to find a friend.  The bizarre result of this flesh-and-blood-chat-room: we did.  I instantly connected with Antony and Christine on ‘my end’ of the line... and by the time Antony had phoned another table and again passed me the receiver, I was chatting to Jorren from Amsterdam all very much in a spirit of good cheer.  Or, to borrow from the Southbank’s theme, in a spirit of love grounded in shared experience; what the Ancient Greeks called philia love.  I/we loved the unusual gin, I/we loved the random frivolity and unexpected intimacy of the telephones, and I/we loved the subsequent social bonding which followed. 

After moving round the room and joining tables with these four new friends, our gang of five crossed the threshold into the I Think I Love You Lounge.   I’ve been out of London travelling for a while so I didn’t even know it was there.  You might therefore imagination my surprise (though clearly no reluctance) when moments later we were dressing in wigs and costumes, standing at microphones, surrounded by a chilled-out audience on big floor cushions, singing madly to a karaoke track of Dancing Queen.  Abba in concert with Michael Jackson!  The sound we made was dreadful, the choreography even worse, I can’t pull off a blonde wig so Bjorn was a dodgy choice, and ordinarily I hate karaoke (on account of snobbery over people singing out of tune)... but I LOVED it... my love of the gang, the barmen, and the evening moving rapidly from philia to ludus, the flirting, playful, affectionate kind of love.   

I regularly need a fix of the Southbank – it is part of the heart and soul of London – but this unplanned, strangely organic conflation of events, themes, art and people is a highlight.   

My only concern in sharing the karaoke video footage with Jorren, Pam, Antony and Christine is that it might get posted to You Tube and that would end in tears; or in the gallery of Broken Relationships, on account of unforgiveable embarrassment.    

By chance I was due to be back at the Southbank the following evening for Sing-a-long Grease.  After finding Emma and Kate in the crowd we approach Door D on Level 5 of the Festival Hall and the usher, Harry, says “Hey, you were doing karaoke last night.  You must like singing.”   Hmm, guilty as charged.   One day I might learn to be more subtle, reserved.  Find some of what the Greeks called philautia, love born of self-respect.  But not tonight.  Not when it gets in the road of a good time.  For Sing-a-long Grease was a blast.  It happens to perfectly express the festival theme of eros and ludus love.  It is supremely silly, wonderfully romantic, the kind of light-hearted, contagious, unadulterated fun which makes even a tee-total feel drunk.  The world’s love of Grease, every crooning, cultish piece of it, is pragma - a love which endures.  And defying the logic of some empty seats, this crowd danced and screamed up a storm.  We left the auditorium humming, enamoured of the beauty of Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, and feeling rather agape – a bubbling sense humanity is sometimes all too easy to love.   

What could we do then, but return to The Heartbreak Hotel?!  After time in the gallery, and conversation with Alex, Travers, Van and Sam who have established The Department of Good Cheer, we thanked them for their delicious cocktails and headed for the train.  On the ride home I was torn between smiling at images from Summer Nights and Greased Lightning, and feeling touched by letters and confessions I’d read in the gallery about painful break-ups.  The loss and loneliness evident from these objects was almost too palpable.  I ruminated then upon the curators’ clever combination of complimentary elements... also how tempting it is for us all to want to find and hold eros, but how devastating it can be to lose romantic and intimate love.  I suppose it is like the colours and glamour of The Heartbreak Hotel Neon - designed for this festival by Chris Bracey – a sober reminder “all that glisters is not gold”... that not all love has the ingredients for pragma. 

Ah, but without it, without LOVE, of one or many kinds, we wouldn’t have this glorious art, this enduring culture, the expression and reinterpretation of which is life itself. 

Be quick to experience your dose of ‘summer lovin’ on The Southbank for it finishes on 31st August 2014.  
 

                RECOMMENDATIONS:





 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Joie éternelle


Joie éternelle or Eternal Joy is the title of an important melody from the kunqu repertoire, an old Chinese operatic form. 
 

I learned this when attending the British Premier of a piece composed by Qigang Chen to be performed on the second night of the BBC Proms.  I’d gone to the Royal Albert Hall because I looked forward to being immersed in Elgar, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, but Chen’s composition, with trumpeter Alison Balsom as featured soloist, was an unexpected and satisfying surprise.  It was eternal joy to hear someone of her musical calibre on an instrument I love (and have tried to play), jumping and sliding through phrase after phrase of difficult trills and turns, tones, semi-tones and tones-without-name, as if the trumpet suddenly had more than a mere three buttons.  The programme notes comment on the work’s expressive and physical robustness, but still I marvelled at the miraculous pantheon of sounds delivered from Alison Balsom’s lips.  And I thank God for the wisdom (and funds) of the joint commission, and the standard to which the China Philharmonic Orchestra have soared in such a short number of years under the baton of Long Yu.  Bravo!
 

The title and mood of the piece also got me thinking: summer is to the seasons, Joy Eternal.  We feel immersed in sunshine, immersed in warmth and positive feeling, immersed for refreshment in water (wine or beer), celebrating in these precious weeks the best life has to offer.  And as such, I can’t separate the socializing I do in a European summer from the artistic riches on offer.
 

The very next morning I was back at the Proms... this time with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and an array of guests chatting with the host, Gabby Logan, about sport.  Yes, sport.  Imaginative Prom themes designed to appeal to the masses, this concert had large video screens so we could digest the likes of Strauss, Mozart, Prokofiev, John Williams and Richard Rodgers while watching cricket, rowing, sailing, rugby and tennis highlights.  I think The Skaters Waltz by Emile Waldteufel (1882) had special appeal with Torvill and Dean gracing the screen.  The crowd enjoyed singing with Freddie Mercury’s We are the Champions (so did I), and the infamous football anthem You’ll never walk alone.  I was pleased, too, to see a confident female conductor, Rebecca Miller, lead her band through an eclectic programme; a lovely start to a summer Sunday.
 

The crowd was busy doing a Mexican wave to the theme from ‘Ski Sunday’, when a friend and I rushed out the door, on to a bus in the direction of Trafalgar Square, and up to the Royal Opera House to attend the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance. Some years ago I used to look after the sponsors of New Zealand Opera’s Emerging Artist’s Programme and in the arts, as in all industries, it is vital to coach and encourage the next generation. So though I was a little over-indulged with music at this point (and not much sleep), after a quick bacon and egg sandwich I settled into the first act of Donizetti’s La Favorite and was left wanting more.  I think those two cranky Muppets (from the balcony box) were sitting next to me in the first half, complaining about all and sundry, including the audacity of a young couple who’d brought a small boy to the performance.  FYI the little chap behaved in a nicer fashion than they did – nor did he hog the arm rest - so I was relieved to move to an empty seat in the front row of the amphitheatre for the second half, from where I could stretch my legs into the aisle, and see and hear without interruption scenes from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.  These young artists are in development of course, and it’s a big thing to step out onto that imposing stage in costume for the first time, so I immersed myself in the spirit of it and, unlike the Muppets, resolved to forgive small mishaps.  The point is their promise, not their polish, and in this we were not disappointed.
 

The same could be said of the Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at Canary Wharf last week: it wasn’t the best presentation of that wonderful play that I’ve seen (though I’m bias as I’ve played Beatrice) but sitting outdoors in the balmy evening air surrounded by light-hearted play and jest, energy and enthusiasm, you’d have to be a Muppet or a cranky-old-Codger not to enjoy it.  That’s why I’m going to see Norma with Opera Holland Park this week – summer is all about using what’s available to us... making the most of opportunity, space, sunlight and good cheer.  It is easier with a comedy I grant you, but I’m sure the flowers, shrubbery, and picnics associated with Holland Park will have the audience in a chirpy mood long before the first note.
 

That brings me to another infamous summer occupation: the festival.  I can’t possibly list them all, but I know people are still scratching dirt off their Glastonbury boots.  I, on the other hand, headed to Ireland for a family festival this year, set in the grounds of Westport House, County Mayo.  The Westport Festival of Music & Food was running for the third consecutive year and by all (known) measures was a great success.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.
 

To begin with, Westport is a great destination long before the festival starts: it’s pretty; it’s small enough to walk around; it has good jogging, cycling and walking tracks circling the town and adjacent country-side; it’s filled with friendly people, a lovely harbour, good restaurants, and dozens of pubs packed with music, dancing and good craic until the wee hours pretty-much every night of the week.  There’s also Guinness.  There’s an historical and artistically valuable manor house which deserves a visit.  There’s amazing scenery, and places like Clare Island to visit nearby, and a big mountain you can climb if you dare. 
 
 
 
And who needs more than all that? 
 

Then the music and food festival gets under way: there are cooking displays by respected chefs... caravans and booths with quality local produce and culinary diversity... plenty of Heineken... and two particularly relaxing tents, one for Comedy and one for RTÉ Radio 1 which was sometimes going out live and other times beautifully silly and community-minded.  The Irish comedians were terrific and I so wish I had written down their names!  With the open-mic, I cringed to hear an Aussie singing Waltzing Matilda out of tune... but so generous are the Irish when it comes to “having a go” that even she received applause.  Westport House grounds and lake are stunning and on the last weekend in June, under perfectly blue skies (no rain), for two days and across three stages I thoroughly immersed myself in talent such as: the 2 Cellos; Paddy Casey; Lisa O’Neill; Shane Filan; the Bootleg Beatles; Morrissey & Marshall (look out for them); Danny Battles (look out for him too); The Young Folk; the Clew Bay Pipe Band (with assorted guests such as Matt Malloy and Mundy); David Gray; Sinead O’Connor; and the headliner, Bryan Adams.  As an artist Adams has depth, talent, charisma and stamina, and he really deserved his top-billing on the marquee – complete with impressive videography, and the breadth of appeal which earns accolades like ‘classic’ and ‘legend’.  The Promoter chose well... letting things slowly build throughout the day... while families and friends interacted and enjoyed the atmosphere... culminating in a first-rate-rock-‘n-roll show (where I knew many more of Adam’s songs than I expected)... and ending with everyone dancing and cheering and a surprise firework display.   
 

The fact that I also met fun people, made new friends and cemented old ones, adds to Westport’s immense charm.  I do hope they put the Westport Festival of Music & Food on again next year, and locals and tourists have the good sense to appreciate and support it.   And if I wasn’t there myself I wouldn’t believe that after an intense fourteen day holiday mix of culture and comedy, art and adventure, flirting and frivolity, music and madness, my very last night was spent sitting in front of a Georgian fire at the home of a wonderful Westport family listening to the great Irish poet, Paul Durcan, recite his work, in his own voice, from several precious anthologies.  I had to twist his arm to do it, such is this artist’s humility, and the rich satisfaction we already felt from good table conversation and superb dining, but it was an opportunity too good to be missed. 

 
And though I’m back in London now, I still feel the goose bumps (goose pimples) from that privileged coalescence of social and artistic immersion – and it is nothing less than joie éternelle. 

 
So do yourself a favour and get a ticket to something special this summer.  For one day this winter the memory will keep you warm.

 


Recommendations:








 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

A new playhouse


I have been neglecting my arts blog while busy with other things and writing a new book, so it’s such a pleasure to start 2014 with a few words about London’s exciting new venue: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

Playhouse is just the word for it too… because its appealing wooden construction is as cosy as a tree-house and the potential for play is endless!

I was lucky enough to be there for the very first performance and the audience was wild with excitement.  The production of The Duchess of Malfi was very worthy of our enthusiasm, but a dimension of our energy came from delight at being introduced to a space which has been long talked about, imagined, researched and desired but which we were scarcely able to believe had managed in practice to be realised.  ‘Let the trumpet sound’ we wanted to call: this is an auspicious moment and everyone should know about it!   Instead we stamped our feet, whistled and clapped our hands for so many repeat curtain calls the cast must have been thinking “oh for goodness sake stop, we want to get off… it’s been a long week, we’re tired and need a drink”. 

Ironically, this was the noisiest it had been all night, because one of the beauties of this Jacobean performance space is its intimacy.  A trumpet is likely to be too loud.  The cubby-house theatre is big on ideas, potential and class, but extremely up close and personal.  A whistle could have the impact in this space that a trumpet might have in the big O next door.  You could hear a pin drop for most of the performance… so intimately drawn are you to each actor, each verse, each bar of musical accompaniment.  If the wardrobe missed a stitch you might have noticed it.  Not that I’m suggesting they did of course, for the preparation for this incarnation of John Webster’s work has been immaculate.  Only now, though, do I really understand what’s meant by ‘a dandy’… that is, the show-offs in elaborate dress who sat on the stage or up in the minstrel’s gallery so they could be seen in the 1600s as clearly as the actors.   A dandy to a Jacobean is basically a media slut with thicker stockings. 

Actually it was fascinating to me that the costumes seized so much of my attention, for this theatre is lit only by candlelight and I expected it to be fairly dark.  However a few things combine to bring not just the dress but the movement of the actor in the costume into striking focus – and that is the cleanness and simplicity of the wooden frame, the accessibility and closeness of the thrust to every seat (or standing position), and the actor and director’s careful choice as to when to move into the light and when to use the shadow for creative and dramatic impact.  You may wonder: but don’t electric lights give that option?  And they do.  But as I think about it, I suppose it’s less organic, less subtle… a lighting plot akin by nature to amplified music as candlelight is to acoustic music.  You may wonder: is a wooden frame so different to a black-box?  And in many ways the answer is no.  But still, this gloriously carved wood is so soothing, so warm, so begging for actors, musicians and costumes to appear within it.  Call me a tree-hugger but go for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. 


I’ve loved the open stage at the Globe on so many occasions that I wouldn’t for a moment say the experience isn’t intimate.  It is wondrously intimate and raw in a way few other theatre experiences can be.  What I found so refreshing about London’s new indoor Jacobean playhouse, however, was that your expectations when you arrive are as expansive as they might be for the Wooden O, but that as the dialogue unfolds (in this play every bit as poetic as the Bard) the collective harmony of voice and music under candlelight, is as hushed as a whisper – not in volume but in tone, timbre – as naked and private as you might feel on a closed film set.  Wrapped up, that’s how I felt throughout the performance.  Wrapped and enveloped by a story which is all the richer for being simply told.

The mainstream press will no doubt make much comment on this occasion, until such time as the novelty wears off and there’s something found about which to be critical.  Yet everyone in the arts and every keen theatre goer should be awed by the achievement here.  From the Globe Trustees and dedicated Architecture Research Group to the historians, architects, timber experts, construction teams and every last carpenter… the vision and persistence to realise the vision of Sam Wanamaker sixteen years after the Globe’s official opening on the south bank… and in a market which is economically difficult and entirely reliant upon generous donations… is quite remarkable.  

I was inordinately proud to play a miniscule part in the Festival of Firsts at the Globe in 1997… so proud I kept the cheque for ages before cashing it, as I’d have willingly paid them to carry a spear… and all the emotion of that experience came back to me as we stood to applaud the talented cast of The Duchess of Malfi.  What came back to me too was the sense of unbridled fun and adventure, the sense of an undefined and exciting horizon.  That’s what London has again in this precious new Playhouse.  Mr Wanamaker and the Elizabethan and Jacobean artists must be watching over it with such a big smile!

Admittedly I was in the front row of the Pit for this experience on the 9th January.  But I expect to feel as intimately rewarded when I return for Eileen Atkins’ evening with Ellen Terry.  It’s a unique and most interesting house in which to play.  Don’t let the lucky actors in this first season have all the fun – get yourself along!


            Recommendation: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/  

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Turning Table


If you were going to write one literary work to leave your mark on the world, then Reginald Rose certainly nailed it with Twelve Angry Men.  He wrote far more of course, but alone this play is an impressive legacy.

Many are familiar with the script from the film starring Henry Fonda, but like a well interpreted Hamlet this play bears regular revisiting.  What struck me first in Bill Kenwright's West End transfer to the Garrick Theatre was how contemporary the conflict seems despite 1950s dress and décor.  What struck me next was the insightfulness of the language and Rose’s deft carving of character. Then I was just plain jealous: green with envy such a strong line-up of actors had gathered in a rehearsal room for x weeks with a sensitive director to crack open this hard-edged, variegated puzzle; sharing their hunger and talent on a text, and with colleagues, worthy of their best work.  I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to witness the combination of testosterone and craftsmanship put to good use; no doubt with a healthy splash of humour.  Better still I’d like to work on a female equivalent - if only such a piece existed!

There is not a weak link in Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Twelve Angry Men.  In an increasingly hot room their individual and collective assumptions, intelligence and morals are tested - as each man’s prejudices are peeled back and held up for examination.  My excitement was enhanced by knowing the quality of the production means the same careful stripping and building went on in the rehearsal room amongst acting peers as much as it did for the characters in live performance.  And the result is that the play, in all its complexity, truly lives with this volatile and energetic company; every ugly, courageous, amusing, shocking, suffocating, compassionate, vibrant and illuminating element of it.  Bang, bang, bang swing the arguments, clash, clash, clash collide the personalities… as all the time the pressure of responsibility to find ‘truth beyond reasonable doubt’ in a murder trial builds because one man dares to swim against the tide; one man kick-starts a more subtle evaluation of the facts and a brave reflection upon our emotional baggage and socialisation. 

Since, I’ve been wondering about the experiences people have on a jury.  I wonder if it is often that tough.  And one can only hope in important cases that it is, if our system is to work as designed.  I won’t be the first to remark that Twelve Angry Men finds echoes in To Kill A Mockingbird.  Both concern the trial of someone disadvantaged.  Both show that one gentle, ordinary man can set himself apart by his integrity and ability to remove ego from a debate – and in doing so, display the qualities of greatness we equate with the likes of Schindler or Mandela.  This man is also a positive influence on the group or community so that others locate their own potential for greater honesty and generosity of spirit.  One story has a happier result, but the point is well made in both that the pursuit of honour requires a step by step effort, however bad or challenging the odds. 

When I saw Twelve Angry Men last Saturday evening I had only just returned to London from Prague – carrying with me a shamefully vivid image of the list of names of the 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews who perished in the holocaust, eerily painted on the Pinkas Synagogue walls.  Heartbreakingly poignant, too, were the children’s drawings done by the innocents confined to the concentration camp in Terezin; most of whom didn’t survive.  I could not help but be reminded of the famous maxim that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.  It seems Rose understood this operates as much for individual cases as it does for society in general and, come to think of it, crudely applied political ideology.  So despite a thoroughly riveting and engaging evening of theatre, I suspect it would be a rare individual who left the auditorium without feeling personally challenged to remain aware of the blocks, presumptions or resentments which threaten at any time to cloud judgements of our fellow-man.  And the ‘lesson’ runs all the deeper because Rose doesn’t lecture, he simply shows fallible humans in action.

A particularly beguiling feature of the production is the excellent design by Michael Pavelka.  The action takes place in one room, the centrepiece a large wooden table.  As the debate progresses the table literally turns – providing jurors and director with new perspectives and opportunities for focus, and simultaneously creating a powerful metaphor… a metaphor which highlights fairness and respect for others (the defendant included) requires adjustments to our first impressions, involves reconsideration of judgements which, if more wisely examined, will reveal broader truths and less shallow relationships.  In the ‘table turning’ the audience sees a movement from blandness to detail, from negativity to optimism, from denial to acknowledgement, from dismissive irresponsibility and intolerance to moral and human consciousness and, ultimately, justice.  This piece of design is the simplest, yet the most effective, dramatic tool I have seen in a long time.

The splendid team who have created this enriching experience include:

Director:        Christopher Haydon

Designers:    Michael Pavelka, David Harris, Jan Bench, Mark Howland and Dan Hoole

Crew:            Erin Gilley, Mary Howland, Terry King, Martin Rodges, Matthew Cullum, Jessica Alice McGloin and Tim Henshaw

Cast:             Martin Shaw, Robert Vaughn, Jeff Fahey, Nick Moran, Luke Shaw, David Calvitto, Paul Antony-Barber, Edward Franklin, Robert Blythe, Miles Richardson, Martin Turner, Owen O’Neill, Jason Riddington (and understudy, Jon Carver).


You can’t be an actor and a critic so it’s true I only write arts blogs about productions I largely admire.  Yet in a London landscape where there’s always so much to see and appreciate, it is an immense pleasure to chance upon a dramatic piece which is satisfying and compelling in every conceivable respect. 
 
And if that’s a bias judgement, I challenge you to look for yourself and get back to me!

 

Recommendations:




Book online or call 0844 482 9673

 
 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Fear, Films & Fiona


I don't usually put the same post on multiple blogs, but today is an exception for an arts/life crossover story. 
 
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I have a way of seeing connections between things which some think odd.  But it’s not my issue if people’s brains work differently.

The last two movies I’ve seen at the cinema have reminded me hugely of two dear friends called Fiona and of our experiences around fear.  Your loved ones don’t often know when you are thinking of them and missing them on the other side of the world – ‘little Fiona’ in Brisbane and ‘the other Fiona’ in LA – so I figure I may as well write a blog about them as anyone else.

The films I’m referring to were superbly made and highly recommended: Rush directed by Ron Howard, and Captain Phillips directed by Paul Greengrass.  Both these craftsmen know how to make a great movie which girls as well as guys love, because they have human nuance and compelling narrative as well as thrilling action and speed.  I don’t even like Formula One and I was engaged by Rush from the earliest frames.  And anyone connected with the making of the brilliant Bourne Trilogy and I’m hooked. So Howard and Greengrass: in your enormous fields of achievement these were exceptional efforts.  Thank you!

As it happens I’ve never taken speed.  Apart from health or legal concerns I have absolutely no need.  It’d be like giving uppers to the Eveready Bunny.  But these films made my blood pump.  Glued to the seat, all other realities evaporated as I utterly suspended my disbelief and sank into the drama.  At the end I felt like I’d been running a marathon and was desperate to get outside into London’s chilly Autumn air, walking home with wind blowing in my face and image after image replaying in my head.  I dreamt about them too – Tom Hanks’ final scenes exquisitely moving.

So what is it about fear which is so simultaneously frightening and compelling?  I’ve sky-dived, scuba-dived, heli-skied and fallen out of a white-water raft in a most inconvenient rocky river… but I wouldn’t class myself as a high-risk sportsperson.  I never go to horror films.  Yet these movies frightened the hell out of me and I loved it.  Perhaps the characters and story-telling won me over to the extent I endured the fear as an inescapable bi-product?  Yet I suspect Howard and Greengrass are so clever they understand how to take an audience to the brink of their coping threshold - dangling us in a metaphorical bungee-jump, where a collective addiction to narrative unites with a carnal hunger for wildness and beyond-our-boundaries experiences. 

The element which really made my heart pound in Captain Phillips is the lifeboat.  That small capsule with a lid was far more frightening to me than the pirates or the prospect of a bullet.  I could intensely feel the heat and lack of air, to the point that I had to repeatedly concentrate on slowing my own breathing.  How can one survive such a long journey so confined?  It was torture.  How do people in prison cope with four close walls, especially those thrown into dark dungeons without trial or justice?  All through the film I kept thanking God for Amnesty International and promising I’d give them some more money. (Can someone please hold me to that so I don’t forget?) 

Of course, Hanks’ brilliant performance and the director’s intense building of tension are sufficient provocateurs, but my projected fears enlarged the experience.  I am a little claustrophobic.  For years I’ve had a recurring dream I am trapped in a box or a cupboard.  And time and again I’ve woken up banging the wall behind the bed trying to get out. 

In life I do whatever I can to avoid peak-hour public transport, especially undergrounds.  On planes it isn’t crashing which freaks me out, but rather waking up in an overheated cabin with insufficient oxygen.  Occasionally this has threatened a mini panic-attack, but thankfully it only seems to happen in economy; which is great incentive to fly at the front of the bus. 

Anyway thoughts about “facing one’s fears” brings me to my friend, Fiona.

When we flatted together in Bondi in our fun-filled, wonderfully courageous, it’s-all-ahead-of-you 20s, Fiona would confront any hesitance or fear she felt, by saying “there’s nothing to fear except fear itself”.  I’m inclined to forget Franklin D. Roosevelt and attribute this phrase to Fiona, for I never hear it without thinking fondly of her.

Now fast-forward to the Mediterranean in 2009 when I’m showing ‘little Fiona’ around the Cinque Terre.  Setting out on the coastal walk from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, I call out: “Walk at your own pace, Fifi, you can’t get lost, there’s only one path… I’ll wait for you somewhere on a rock”.   The wind is whistling, a delightful breeze tickles the pre-midday leaves, and hundreds of metres below steep cliffs I find the sound of crashing waves utterly invigorating.  Various parts of the path are infamously narrow and rocky but I’m in my element – out in the world, fit and free, luxuriating in the sights and smells of my beloved Italy. 

Some time later I am perched in shade admiring the infamous blues of this great sea, and I hear footsteps approach.  Turning around with my lemonade (a treat offered by neighbours on route made from delicious local lemons) my sweet but somewhat pale-looking friend walks slowly toward me.  “What’s the matter?” I ask, bewildered.  “It’s really high, Julie” she says with more shock than malice.  She then adds quietly: “I think you’ve forgotten I’m afraid of heights.”  OMG, I had COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN.  What a dreadful friend – a most awful thing to do to someone who has travelled half way across the world to visit you!

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry” followed, but the girl with the most generous nature in the world would hear none of it: “But I did it” she said humbly.  “I was scared.  Especially the difficult parts when I thought I was going to slip off the edge.  But I did it.  I took my time and I was fine”   What can you do but hug a girl like that?!  I love her to bits, then and now.  And after a refreshing glass of lemonade we continued the walk to Vernazza, wandering quietly and contentedly together – the making of a very precious memory.

Now I’m thinking of ‘the other Fiona’, which is how I distinguished my L.A. friend from ‘little Fiona’ who my Tuscan mates had met and taken to their hearts.  I am sitting on a bar stool near San Gimignano recounting an extraordinary adventure to the Ice Hotel in Sweden with ‘the other Fiona’.  I have the whole room’s attention for this story, something I clearly enjoy, and the audience should be praised for accepting its meagre delivery in a mix of English and hand-waving Italian with conspicuously dodgy grammar.  I’m making my point anyway, sometimes jumping off the high-stool to act out various parts. But this Ferrari-loving race is hooked.  I skim over the details of meeting the chiefs of Audi while swigging vodka in the Ice Bar – a compulsory part of the Ice Hotel experience – and I’m up to the part where this divine group of ‘strangers’ have taken Fiona and I, and assorted journalists, out into the middle of a frozen lake in Lapland for the launch of a new Audi Sports Car.  (Don’t ask me which model. Not my thing.)  The sun is setting and in the far distance six spotlights cut through the haze.  Lights race toward us across a wide expanse of ice, until we recognise there are three pairs - three very fast pairs on bright red cars.  Audi has arranged for their European Racing Team to arrive… and arrive they do like James Bond or Jason Bourne… pulsing hot-rods soon inches from our twitching toes.  You’ll have to buy my book to get a full description, but suffice it to say the experience was nothing short of spectacular. 

The point about fear is this: Fiona and I were taken by each of these hot, racing-car drivers out for a spin on the enormous lake.  Scream?  Are you kidding – it’s a wonder you didn’t hear us in London!  These guys were out to give us the ride of our lives and the more we spun, the more we screamed, the faster they went… with an ocean of slippery ice between us and the nearest tree they played those cars like a Stradivarius… the little sports-steering-wheel so small yet powerful in the hands of truly great drivers.

Adrenalin pumped.  Curiosity peaked.  So much so I had to stop screaming and ask questions – while still the car spun, sped, reversed and raced while the driver calmly informed me about things I previously never thought interesting.  In love with everything Audi, everything fast, and everything stimulating, we returned to the Ice Bar for more vodka.  The anecdote has followed me around the world never failing to amuse.  And this fond and familiar sensation tugged at my heart during every scene of Ron Howard’s brilliantly rendered, Rush. 

OK, my thrilling European Rally Car had a proper roof.  I am still terrified of the risk Formula One drivers face with burns and injuries and the sheer insane noise of it.  But if my racing-car story is not about overcoming fear, it is certainly about embracing it. 

Rewards are all the richer, whatever the activity or goal, if we face the risks and do it anyway.  So thank God for friends, for my pals Fiona, and for films and experiences which take us out and beyond ourselves.



Recommendations:    

            Captain Phillips:             http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1535109/ 

Rush:                            http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1979320/     

 

 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Always So Much To See


I’ve said it before, no doubt I’ll say it again, but I agree with the millions who agree with Samuel Johnson who famously said in 1777 “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.

The weather and the cement may sometimes get me down (I need extended doses of sunshine and the great outdoors) but if one is ever bored in London it really is entirely their own fault. 

Putting aside for the moment the brilliant array of museums, exhibitions and historic houses, even the most committed cultural-addict simply can not keep up with all the theatre and music London has to offer.  I try.  I really do.  But lately I’ve been busy and my batting average has gone down.  I have seen and enjoyed these events in the last couple of months but haven’t had time to blog about them:

à        La Rondine with Charles Castronovo and Angela Gheorghiu in Trafalgar Square for the Royal Opera House and BP Big Screens

à        Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter Theatre

à        The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House

à        The Night Alive at the Donmar

à        Othello at the National

à        The three plays of Henry VI at the Globe (in one day)

à        The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre

à        The Cripple of Inishman from the Michael Grandage Company

à        The Last Ever Musical on the fringe

à        Assorted musical gigs including an opera concert by Opera Alegria in Kensington


Coming up in the next fortnight I have tickets for:

à        Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford

à        A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Apollo Theatre

à        Turandot at the Royal Opera House

à        A Tale of Two Cities at the Kings Head (the play, not the opera)


I may yet slot other performances in between.  Ah, the choice.  And compared to many countries (including Australia) the tickets are so cheap.  Theatre is very affordable in this country, if you know where and when to book, or there’s no way I could have gone to these events while waiting for my next contract to begin.  It’s one of the upsides of a larger population. 

I’m not a critic, so unless I’m writing a broader commentary on the impact a show has particularly had on me or the resonances it has with other aspects of life - as I did in my last few blogs - I don’t need to say too much.  I can, however, say many were a treat.

If you put good actors with Conor McPherson dialogue, as the Donmar has clearly done in The Night Alive, you can put money on the likelihood of a good giggle.  The same came be said for Martin Mc Donagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan.  I’ve seen the play several times around the world and it never fails to make me laugh.  The real gift these writer’s have, however, is that, when least expected, they flip their audience from laughter to tears; or if not tears, certainly great empathy and appreciation for the scene’s poignancy.  Where would the world be without the Irish, eh?!  And I thought Daniel Radcliffe held his ground very well in a talented cast.

There’s a lot of Elizabethan material around at the moment.  Many of us are  anticipating Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic and the Donmar’s Coriolanus and Julius Caesar; the latter directed by Phyllida Lloyd.  Even Christopher Marlowe is getting his turn with Edward II at the National.

The Globe regularly satisfies my appetite for Shakespeare and with Henry VI parts one, two and three, I was pleasantly surprised to find plays I have generally considered at the pedestrian-end of the Bard’s achievements – little more than an abridged history lesson - came alive with vigour and believable competitiveness between the Houses of York and Lancaster.  Most of that was due to clever staging, committed characterisation, and sheer energy, reminding me that stage texts can only ever provide a blue-print to inspire creative development. 

If you’re talking about substantial, eloquent plays – yes, I declare my bias - I have never enjoyed an Othello more than Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear.  The contemporary setting and dynamic cast drew every nuance from every couplet and (with the exception of only one scene) the production was thrilling and terrifying; terrifying with respect to the destructive effects of manipulation and jealousy.  It is very exciting when you think you know a play but then the piece before you is all made new… when themes you thought you’d considered are suddenly emblazoned with original truth and social challenge.  I said it on the night from the front row and I’ll say it again: Bravo!  Productions like that – the ones which stay with you for weeks, months and years - are what every serious, dedicated artist is striving toward.  Bravo!

On the music front I’ve also been spoiled, though the context has been more frivolous.  Sondheim was at his best in the Chocolate Factory’s transfer of Merrily We Roll Along.  I saw a supremely silly musical about Mormons which somehow manages to navigate offensive insults and university-review spoofs with slickness, wit, and character and circumstance so hysterically ridiculous (yet polished) you can’t resist.  And I enjoyed a live telecast of Puccini’s opera La Rondine while sitting and eating with a friend in Trafalgar Square.  If you don’t know Charles Castronovo yet, you will, for his tenor voice is as rich and seamless as honey, his looks and acting ability to match.  I had liked him as Tamino in The Magic Flute, noting his stage presence from the top balcony last Spring, but it was a bonus to enjoy his arias with a film close-up, and a glorious public event for a summer evening. 

Of course I can’t mention everything, but suffice it to say that this summer has been rich in more ways than sunshine – alleluia -  none of which I take for granted and all of which I am now ready to do again. 

It’s just as well the new season of Downton Abbey is soon to come to air, for that will give me a solid excuse to sit at home some nights with my feet up in front of the television.