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

Wednesday, 27 May 2015


When I decided to self-publish my own book I knew it was time to put a stake in the ground, to ‘just do it’.  I felt that ignoring excuses and setting a deadline would focus my energies and attention, forcing me to make compromises and get to ‘curtain up’ just like you have to with an opening night or a live event. Percolation had gone on long enough. Perfection is a status reserved for those who never publish. If I really am going to be a writer and take myself seriously it is time to put out there one of the four manuscripts I have written since making a solid commitment to my writing in 2008.

I’m facing that deadline now, on the 8th July, with the soft launch of my light-hearted book of short stories, To Kiss or not To Kiss. That means getting printed copies of the new work to potential reviewers as close as possible to the 8th June; as one month is a standard lead time for newspapers. In an ideal world I’d be operating three months ahead, as that’s the average lead for magazine publicity, but I decided not to let that deter my commitment to moving forward. Magazine coverage, if/when I am lucky enough to get it, will just have to wait until after my book is up for sale on Amazon; after which I hope to organise a broader distribution schedule and a more comprehensive PR/Media launch. Sometimes you just can’t do everything at once.

That brings me to the different hats I’m currently wearing: author, co-editor, brand/design manager, publisher, event co-ordinator, marketing manager, and general dog’s body. I have hired professionals into key roles (you’d be mad not to) but still I’ve been close to drowning under the pressure this week. The writing of a book is one thing – the most obvious job – and then there’s an intense but enjoyable process with editor and designers. While still completing those discussions, I am now turning my head to things which I’d generally understood would need attention... but which I hadn’t quite been prepared to encounter all at once in such a challenging timeframe.

It is, to be frank, like an avalanche, which no amount of planning on a whiteboard can avoid. The last few days I have felt that my brain might explode - as I read (at speed) endless online articles, specification documents, and digested arguments for the pros and cons of a myriad of details pertaining to the business of book production and print on demand service agreements.  And that’s before a single step in the direction of marketing and publicity, both of which must kick-off the second I have a finished cover image to use on social media.

No wonder I had three glasses of wine last night in quick succession after 10 hours on the computer.  How else was I going to stop my head exploding?  I did run 11kms before I sat down to dinner, which definitely helped to clear my head, but it also meant I absorbed the wine faster into my bloodstream!

Thankfully I am not a complete novice when it comes to marketing or print materials. I have managed staff and agencies who have delivered marketing strategies and marketing collateral for arts and events businesses over many years.  I knew the kinds of questions which needed to be asked and I’ve been reading about self-publishing for an extended period. But until you are actually in the HOT SEAT, you don’t really realize how much of this ‘new industry’ you are yet to assimilate and how much you still have to learn. It’s a little like taking up a new sport, where you may be fit, flexible and well informed... but your muscles aren’t going to operate as if it’s all natural and easy until you’ve clocked up the necessary hours on the turf.

So in my crash course about publishing in the last week, I have had to work out how to apply for ISBN numbers. I have had to estimate the number of pages in my book, something difficult to do when the manuscript is not quite finished being edited, nor has it been formatted for print. I’ve had to decide: how large (or small) I want my book to be, while respecting industry standards for genre; the colour and thickness of the paper; the gloss or matt finish of the cover; the type of binding; the estimated thickness of the spine; the font to be used for the interiors; dozens of tiny manuscript formatting and type-setting questions; submission guidelines for each platform; unit cost per book; recommended retail prices (for the US, UK, Australia and Europe); the purchasing of websites and business names; longer-term distribution strategies after my 90 day exclusive agreement with Amazon finishes; American IRS tax exemption forms (definitely the most tedious); and whether or not I need permissions for musical quotes when every document I read about the legal status of copyright suggests something different and is ultimately rather confusing.

Just writing that list makes me tired.  No doubt you too.  So imagine what actually doing it is like?!

Ah, but nothing good happens in life without a bit of effort... so I just have to pace myself, take one hurdle at a time, and ensure I stay focused on the ultimate goal.  And I am very happy to say – on the blog I’ve been sadly neglecting lately - that I will soon be able to hold my new book in my hand, knowing that years of life, years of artistic percolation and writing practise, and some dedicated months of study and practical effort has made a long held dream a reality. Then it’s in the world, like a new baby, my baby, and it can make its own way.

8th July 2015 – To Kiss or Not to Kiss – live on Amazon and Kindle.

Watch this space.   


Tuesday, 21 April 2015


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 space).

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 standards).     

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. 


Highly recommended:



Monday, 20 April 2015

The true art of project management

Since '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.







Monday, 23 February 2015


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 like.  

I’ve just changed my mind.

Why?  Because I 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 vulnerable? 

·         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 prison

·         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 conquered

·         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 performances)

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.  
Kingsman is 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. 

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 on you.  

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. 


Wednesday, 11 February 2015


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.

What more can I say.  Beautiful speaks for itself.




Sunday, 7 December 2014

Magic Ingredients

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 Scottsboro Boys.

So what’s the magic ingredient? 
Well, in the case of Gaetano Donizetti’s infamous potion, not much. 

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 amo.  Sigh.  Bravo.  Sigh.  


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.
The 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 minstrel ending.  

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 lagrima...
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.  






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.  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.

Viva Italia!