Sunday, 19 April 2015

'Play Mas' at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

A few weeks ago we went to see the revival of a play from the 1970s by Mustapha Matura at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, 'Play Mas' about events before and after the liberation of Trinidad from Empire in the 1960s. Well, freedom from the British Empire to be swallowed by the American empire. Apparently this was it's first revival since the '70s which seems odd but its politics of big business and money are still as current today as they ever were.

It starts out in an Indian tailors' workroom with the tailor and the family servant bantering about making a suit and films, while the tailor's off-stage mother needs to borrow the servant lad for odd tasks. It takes a while to get going and gradually the political overtones start emerging of class and race and the ridiculousness of the one white character appearing all sweaty and exhausted from just walking from his car to the tailor's workroom. And then there's the political rally that the servant lad wants to go to but is forbidden by his employer and subsequently fired. That was a long scene that was pleasant enough but didn't seem to go anywhere until you make the connections in the penultimate scene.

Next we have the 'Mas' or 'masquerade' of the title, with various people visiting the tailors' workroom in costume and character as part of the Trinidad carnival. Firstly the servant lad returns in military fatigues and carrying a rifle threatening to kill the tailor and his mother, totally convincing until he broke out laughing, swigs some rum and leaves in high spirits. But that's too much for the tailors' mother and she dies off-stage of a heart attack. That makes the next few has characters even more surreal as it's never entirely clear who's playing who - the doctor, the priest, the undertakers. This was a throughly engaging and enjoyable part of the play and Victor Romero Evans was great as the witchy-doctor character, servant of the underworld wanting a few pennies.

The second half kicks off a few years later with the former servant now serving as the chief of police under the new regime with his social climbing wife, rich friends and new entrepreneurs trying to influence what happens and his wanting to ensure that America will invest in the newly safe and trouble-free nation that's being created. He tries to enlist the tailor to be a spy while telling him about being wined and dined in New York and going to see international films (films - or flims - keep cropping up). Mas is banned that year to ensure no civil disturbances but he's eventually persuaded to reinstate it and give an amnesty to the anti-American groups so that can join in. At his Mas party in his office over-looking the city square all his rich friends come dressed to the nines as the army takes on the rebel groups celebrating and his plan comes together as the lights go down.

It was such an odd ending that it wasn't immediately clear that is was the end and then the clapping started. Seun Shote was excellent as the servant/police chief moving quite easily from the shambling servant lad in cut-off trousers to the be-suited police chief. I also liked Victor Romero-Evans as the indebted spiv, the witchy-doctor and the thrusting entrepreneur in the final scenes. It was well produced on the tiny stage, made even smaller by the audience members in the front rows sitting with their legs stuck out.

So that's two trips to the Orange Tree in the first months of 2015. That suggests there may well be more during the year if the quality of works stays at this high standard.

Friday, 17 April 2015

'A View From The Bridge' at Wyndham's Theatre

A powerful new production of 'A View From The Bridge' is on at Wyndham's at the moment, transferred from the Young Vic. Mark Strong has just won best actor in the Olivier Awards for this play, so that tells you all you need to know.

It\s a painful, slow play, gradually developing its themes and telling its story, slowly getting more complicated and murky as truths start to emerge. The tension starts to mount early on as the small family becomes more dysfunctional and the young girl who I originally thought was meant to be about 12 turns out to be more like 18 but kept a child by an over-bearing father figure who doesn't know what he's doing. That's Eddie, the Mark Strong character. But we can see it.

When two cousins arrive from Italy as illegal immigrants Eddie takes against the younger cousin who is blond, likes singing and dancing and can even sew. He can't express what he feels, can only say that he's 'different', that he's 'wrong' whereas what he means is that he thinks he's gay. Or, more accurately, that he's a threat to his relationship with his adopted daughter. His frustration at not being able to express his thoughts and feelings is almost painful to watch and experience. And just ratchets up the tension.

To get rid of the threat of the cousin Eddie reports them to immigration and starts his downfall as he's now shunned by neighbours and friends alike. He wants his name back but can't see that it's his own fault that he's lost it. His daughter and the blond cousin plan to marry but the other cousin can't forgive Eddie since he's now lost his means of making money to send back to his starving family. He attacks Eddie with a knife and the family and friends try to pull them apart as a rain of blood starts as the people form a pyramid of humanity drenched in blood. And the pyramid collapses…

And I don't know what happens next in the last minute of the play since a woman in front of me chose that moment to switch on her mobile phone to check for messages. I mentioned that here but by the time she switched off her phone the final lines had been said and the lights went out. At the peak of all that tension and I miss it because of a selfish woman who thinks she can do as she likes.

I thought about going back to see the play again so I could see it all the way through but don't think I could take all that tension and frustration again. So this is a rather frustrating end to a blog...

'Stevie' at Hampstead Theatre

There's a new production of 'Stevie' at Hampstead Theatre, the play about Stevie Smith with Zoe Wanamaker in the title role. Stevie holds a rather odd place in modern English literature, a lauded poet in her day but largely forgotten today, a name we've heard of but who can name any of her poems? Not me. It's also not that easy to find her books.

The title page of the theatre's website includes a quote from Stevie:

"You expect me to behave in a certain way, to think a certain way, to lead a certain life. Well, I don't think I can do it."

That makes her enormously attractive to me.

The play is, essentially, Stevie telling us about her life growing up in Palmers Green in north London, being a bit different, a bit idiosyncratic, finding love but deciding it's not for her and living with her 'lion-aunt' played by Lynda Baron with a mane of grey hair. Within seconds of Zoe coming on stage she convinced me that she was Stevie - that's no mean feat and a tribute to Zoe's skills as an actor. She was just standing there, then moving across the stage which was set as their living room with chairs and a desk, smoking incessantly, speaking quickly and slowly, thinking as she remembers and tells us about her life. And there was Stevie.

There's a great partnership between Zoe and Lynda as long-term cohabitees of their house in Palmers Green, knowing each others foibles and preferences. Lynda was excellent as the lion-aunt shuffling in and out with tea and, later, dinner, worried about her niece and her life. It was really touching to see her in the second half, grown old and unable to walk unaided and now looked after by Stevie, the dutiful and loving niece.

I loved the set - simple in a sense since it was based entirely in the living room of the house but very complex in the detail. The lovely front door with stained glass panels, the living room bay window with trees outside, the big book case with the small stool to reach the books higher up. I thought it was great.

Greater still was Zoe Wanamaker acting her socks off and making it all look so easy. The dialogue includes quotes from Stevie's poems and prose and provided a few dramatic moments when least expected. We see Zoe all dressed up to go to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace and then fall ill while nursing her sister, all terribly laconic.

What this play achieved was to make me want to find out more about Stevie Smith and make her more than just a name in the back of my head. Zoe brought her to life and I need to take the next step and learn about her.

'Sweeney Todd' at The Coliseum

Do you like meat pies and a nice, close shave, the closest shave in London? If you do then you're a bit late to see the latest production of 'Sweeney Todd' at the Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera. The production closed last week but I was lucky enough to catch it before it ended. This was 'Sweeney Todd' with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel.

The Coliseum is terribly ornate and old school but, when I walked into the auditorium, my spirits fell slightly when I saw a line of microphone stands at the front of the stage with the orchestra behind. O, I thought, it's a concert version. Not what I was expecting but it should still be good (I hoped).  After all, it was Emma Thompson's first time on the London stage since the '90s and Emma is always worth watching.

And then on came the cast carrying their songbooks, Emma and Bryn in the centre with the rest of the cast along the front of the stage. Bryn started singing and then after a minute or so stood at his microphone, picked up his songbook and dropped it on the stage. Emma tipped hers into the orchestra pit and the others started throwing their songbooks around. The other leading ladies went up to Emma and pulled the sleeves of her frock off and all of them began ripping clothes, moving around the stage, upturning the grand piano to make it a small platform and generally causing mayhem. This was more like it!

Bryn has a big operatic voice and menacing presence that needs a similar voice to challenge it so Emma didn't even try. Instead, she went for comedy and acting to hold her place against Bryn and she more than succeeded with her comedy East End accent and taking over the stage. I loved how she used the orchestra at the back of the stage, taking the conductor's baton at one point to help give Sweeney a hair cut, swiped the double bassist's stool to give Sweeney his first barber's chair and walked to the violin section when talking about pie made of fiddlers. Emma was great fun and easily ruled the stage. She seemed to be having a ball!

I'm very pleased to have seen this production - and seen Emma on stage at last. It certainly wasn't what I expected but that would've been boring, to just put on a standard version with a couple of big names. No, this was different and deservedly so and a production I'll remember for a long time.

Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris

It's always fascinating to visit a new museum or gallery and a highlight of my recent trip to Paris was going to the Musee Marmottan Monet in the inner suburbs of Paris. It is located in the mansion house of M. Marmottan and it houses a truly eclectic range of arts on display as well as being the repository for the biggest collection of Monet paintings in the world, mainly donated my Monet's son, Michel.

The collection begins on the first floor of the house with rooms laid out in their Empire glory with some lovely furniture illustrating the uses of the rooms. All light and airy, the place feels comfortable and welcoming, being able to wander round at leisure without having to avoid crowds. The walls are hung with a wide range of paintings, from Empire and the Restoration to a lovely painting of a vase of flowers by Gaugin and a painting by Marc Chagall, 'Fiancee With A Blue Face'. There's also a room full of small head and shoulders portraits - maybe a couple of dozen - of random early 18th Century people by Boilly. Very ragged fringes over the forehead seem to have been all the vogue at the time.

Wandering round the rooms I stumbled across a large room full of paintings from illuminated manuscripts and a few larger gothic paintings. I've always loved illuminated manuscripts, their delicate power and simple beliefs, with scenes from the life of Christ and some from 'books of days' showing the seasons and other more mundane scenes.

The museum houses the Wildenstein Collection of illuminations from the middle ages to the early Renaissance and they're all gloriously colourful and fascinating. Illuminated manuscripts have been secret passion of mine since I first discovered them as a teenager. You can rarely get close enough to them in displays to really see the detailed miniature paintings but the Wildenstein Collection is laid out so you can get really close and enjoy the colour and design. Many are miniature versions of full sized paintings - and what skill that must have taken - whereas others were clearly lifted from manuscripts. But what a joy to find the exhibition!

Another, much smaller exhibition, was a couple of rooms full of paintings and drawings by Berthe Morisot, usually referred to as the first woman Impressionist. There's a series of paintings of one of her nieces, showing her as she grew into a young lady but my favourite was 'Les Cerises' showing two girls picking cherries. I can't find a good reproduction online - they all look a bit too anodyne and chocolate-boxy, but the real thing looks vibrant and almost like it's just been hung up to dry as Berthe finishes it. The multiplicity of greens in the painting, the sun-drenched orchard and the girl balancing on the step ladder to get to the cherries makes for a very intimate  depiction of a scene that must be reproduced countless times in late summer the world over.

Another painting of her's I really liked was of a shepherdess lolling on the ground next to one of her sheep, a lovely, lazy scene when you just know she should probably be doing something else. It's a very simple and very effective composition with warm colours and the sun beating down.

Another surprise was the current exhibition which I expected to be relatively small since all the other rooms were ordinary sized, but the exhibition space is surprisingly large and well designed. The exhibition is 'The Toilet: The Birth of Intimacy' and is exactly what the title says it is, ie, paintings of women in the bath! Or what counted as a bath over the centuries. What an intriguing idea for an exhibition!

We're shown some very early paintings of women bathing up until the 20th Century with the captions explaining progress through the years from the decline of public bathing in the early Renaissance to making it a more private experience, but one in which other people (and strangers) could still participate at times. The captions explained the move away from bathing using water in the plague years to avoid the threat of contagion to gradually discovering it again as water came to become more easily available in people's houses. It was a rather fascinating history lesson and a novel idea for an exhibition.

I suppose that in a city where every artist has had his or her own solo show over the years you've got to be a bit more creative in coming up with ideas to show paintings so that we can get some new insights. Brigading these paintings together is an inspired way to bring new life to them.

The paintings run through the centuries from artists barely heard of to works by Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Berthe Morisot, Picasso and others. One of my favourites was this one, 'La Rouge a Levres' by Frantisek Kupka of a woman applying lipstick. Such a simple image but, in the context of this exhibition, very powerful. One of the more graphic paintings was of a woman holding up her voluminous skirts to urinate into a bowl she holds in front of her - so that's how it was done! It's an interesting exhibition - not really about naked women (which is freely available everywhere) but about women in intimate and private moments. A bit voyeuristic but also something to learn from.

All of this and I haven't even mentioned Monsieur Monet yet. He has his own custom-built exhibition space downstairs and it is fab. Very light and airy, well lit and nicely spaced out to provide lots of space to view these great paintings. The current exhibition is a mix of his early works with his later painting of his gardens at Giverny and the inevitable waterlillies.  Given the wealth of Monet paintings the museum has in its collection then I assume the exhibition space is re-hung every now and then but the paintings currently on show are top notch.

It was a delight to see 'Impression, Sunrise', the painting that gave the name to the Impressionists, with Monet's vision of an orange sunrise. It's astonishing to think that this one painting changed the way we see - not immediately, since it took decades for Impressionism to become accepted - so what must Monet have seen and thought as he gazed out that morning? It's that vision that makes him an artist, an originator and not a copyist. And he kept on originating for the rest of his life.

One of my favourites, and a painting I'd never seen before, was 'Vallee de Sasso, Effet de Soleil' with the mad foliage swaying in the breeze and the sun creating a new colourful Eden. One hillside forested with dozens of greens and the valley floor and other hillside flooded by the sun bringing out a mass of colours in the leaves and trees, the foliage and flowers surrounding the artist's house. This is a poor reproduction and doesn't properly illustrate the wild colours that make you want to step into the painting and pick some of those branches and flowers to bring back into this drab world.

The Monet room closes with a series of paintings of his waterlillies, as it must. I've been spoilt of course, since I've seen his eight giant canvases at the Orangery gallery in the Tuileries and it's difficult to compare anything less than the heroic to those great paintings. But it's always good to see more!

What an astonishing museum Marmottan Monet is, with so much comfortably packed into a relatively small space. There was a steady flow of visitors but it wasn't crowded, which made it a joy to wander round and see everything properly and leisurely. Another great plus was that it had a good shop as well - loads of postcards, loads of books (in English as well as French) and loads of merch of all sorts. It also did very brisk business that shows the wisdom of it's ways - pay attention bigger museums: people will buy stuff if you've got good stuff and Marmottan-Monet certainly has the right stuff! Now all it needs is a little cafe with nice cakes...

I will definitely go back on future visits to Paris - such a great discovery!  

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie at The Tabernacle, London

Buffy Sainte-Marie and her new band flew over from Australia to join Morrissey on his current UK tour and, on their night off, came to London for a one-off show at the Tabernacle. They must be well tired by now. I had to be there, obv.

The Tabernacle is a bit of an odd place to play but I suspect there wasn't much of a choice in venues since this was only booked about four weeks ago. I'd never been there before and it's sort of an old churchy place turned into an arts venue with the quaint thing of going up to a reception desk to show your tickets and then getting your hand stamped with ink so you can go in and out all night if you want to. The hall is upstairs with a raised balcony on three sides with pews to sit on, with the hall being standing, a glitter ball hanging from the ceiling and the ceiling held up with good old Victoria ironmongery. I quite liked it but, not being local, it was a bit of a pain to get to wandering round the residential streets of west London. I wonder what Buffy thought of the place?

This was all a bit exciting for Buffy fans, what with the announcement of touring with Morrissey a matter of weeks ago and then this gig and the news of Buffy's new album, 'Power In The Blood', due in May.  Buffy last played in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank during the London  Olympics in 2012 (I was there, of course).

There was a sign on the door saying that filming would be going on and I suspect that's what slowed down the start of the gig, with the camera lad wandering round, checking cameras, getting set up to film and such like. I couldn't help but thinking, 'you've only had all day …' and then suddenly the band started to come on, a new bassist and guitarist, Michel still on drums and then on came Buffy in tight black jacket and trousers, beaded choker, wreathed in smiles and waving to the audience.

Then, without a word she slung her guitar and started picking the strings to open the show with her new version of 'It's My Way', a song first released in 1964. And it is powerful! The original is just her playing acoustic guitar, but this is her with a flight of guitars and drums and makes a mighty song to start with! And then we had the pounding opening to 'Cho Cho Fire' and we're off and running for the drum!

It was a great setlist and definitely at the 'rock' end of her work, full of guitars, drums and keyboards with the odd exception for some of her classics. The setlist was (not in the right order):

It's My Way (new version)
Cho Cho Fire
No No Keshagesh
Little Wheel Spin and Spin
Blue Sunday
Universal Soldier
Until It's Time For You To Go
I'm Gonna Be A Country Girl Again
Generation (new Version)
Darling Don't Cry
Up Where We Belong
Soldier Blue
Not The Lovin' Kind (new version)
Power In The Blood (new)
We Are Circling (new version)
Farm In The Middle of Nowhere (new)
Carry It On (new version)
Starwalker (encore)

Buffy and her band must've been dropping from jetlag and sheer tiredness but you'd never guess it. They were definitely 'up' and in very good form indeed. The sound was a bit muddy now and then but that's hardly surprising since they've come out of arenas to play the more bijou Tabernacle.

It was a great setlist and I must focus on the songs from the new album, 'Power In The Blood', since new Buffy songs are always worth listening to (and these in particular). These were:

'It's My Way' is the new version gradually introduces guitars and drums rather than Buffy's original acoustic version and it was a great opener, throwing down the towel to say this is me today, not 50 years ago! It's already available to download from iTunes as the lead song from 'Power'.

'Power In The Blood' is Buffy's re-worked version of the Alabama 3 song of the same name, a powerful and political rock song that she's made her own.

'We Are Circling' was introduced as a round-song sang by the acid-rainbow hippies on a hill outside San Francisco that she's written some new verses to and it sounded fantastic in it's mesmerising repetition. I've got the version Buffy recorded a few years ago with The Sadies but this version is so much better, pulling you in and making you part of the family.

'Farm In The Middle Of Nowhere' was introduced as 'true, sort of' and is a delightful and gentle song that had me smiling at the sheer simplicity of Buffy singing about living in the middle of nowhere with her goats. I loved it. Especially since someone in the audience asked her about her goats immediately before the song.

'Generation' is an old song from 'Sweet America' given a make-over and some slight word changes to make it a new song with soaring guitar and Buffy singing about wanting to dance with the Rosebud Sioux in the summer (don't we all?).

'Not The Lovin' Kind' is another old song (from 'Moonshot') and works incredibly well with the full band sound behind it, and then there's...

'Carry It On' which is another old song but you won't find it with that title in Buffy's catalogue. It's based on 'Look At The Facts' from 'Sweet America' but sounded so much more powerful played live. My first reaction was that, with a bit of judicial editing, Buffy's turned it into a rock anthem complete with a punch-the-air chorus - it was magnificent! I'm looking forward to hearing the recorded version of this when the new record comes out!

This was a most fabulous gig and I'm sort of thinking it's the best I've seen Buffy on stage. Part of that is the joy of the new (and re-recorded) songs but the energy coming off that stage was almost palpable. The reception of the old songs was great and there weren't even that many of Buffy's classics - songs were mostly from 'Running For The Drum' and 'Power In the Blood' and the set worked so well. It got the audience dancing and singing along and that's what you want, isn't it? It was also lovely to see the old freaks and hippies coming out to play, with lots of people in 'casuals' but also a surprising number of younger people as well, which is a good thing. Oh, and Cerys Matthews was in the audience too (I had to say hello on the way out). I didn't see any publicity for the gig at all so clearly word-of-mouth still works for Buffy!

As ever, I never take good photos of Buffy so I didn't take many at all but there are a few in this blog. They're all a bit serious looking but there were far more smiles than frowns. And I love the out-of-focus photo below since it shows the energy Buffy puts into her songs, head back and vocals forward!

Migweetch Buffy - until the next time!

'Inventing Impressionism' at the National Gallery

Last week we went to see the new exhibition at the National Gallery on the Impressionists. I'm not the biggest fan of the Impressionists - they've been far too ubiquitous and their paintings have found their way onto greetings cards and biscuit tins. I've walked quickly through the Impressionist galleries at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris because I've seen too many and felt like I was drowning in their paintings. They're everywhere.

And maybe that's why this exhibition is so good since there is no filler. It's themed around the collection of Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who nearly bankrupted himself twice through his love of the paintings and support of the artists. All but one of the 85 paintings in the exhibition went through his hands at some point. He championed the new style of painting and almost single-handedly invented the idea of the solo exhibition. Holding exhibitions in London and New York took Impressionism international and eventually secured the funding they needed to keep painting and their reputations down the years.

The exhibition opens with two lovely paintings by Renoir of Durand-Ruel's children, sons sitting together and daughters sitting together, full of life and colour with their whole lives ahead of them. I liked the painting of the girls with the posy of flowers and bright hat, with the red flowers matching the red lining of the hat. They're having a chat and just look up to see themselves being painted. I wonder what they got up to in their later lives and whether they were happy?

I've never been that keen on Renoir before but I liked the paintings in this exhibition, not just the paintings of the Durand-Ruel's but there are three of his life sized 'dance' paintings in the exhibition as well. My favourite was 'Dance In The Country' if only because of the face of the young girl - she's clearly found the love of her life and the exuberance of the dance has taken her to another level. It's a lovely painting and made me smile.

Of course, the Impressionists are famed for their landscapes in which they painted light. There are paintings by Pissarro, Sisley, Monet and more, mainly set in spring and summer but also a few set in winter with snow on the ground and leaden skies. One of my favourites was 'Entrance to the Village of Voisin' by Pissarro with his classic tall thin trees casting shadows - this picture doesn't do it justice since to my eyes he was painting the light in, around and covering the landscape, rather than painting the landscape itself. It's quite a marvellous painting.

It was also lovely to see his small paintings of Sydenham and Upper Norwood from his years in and around London.

There are some gorgeous paintings my Monet, including five paintings from his 'Poplars' series, a beautiful painting of his garden with a courting couple in the background and this magical painting, 'Road at La Cavee, Pourville'. It's a lovely painting that draws you in as you gaze at it, wandering down a dusty path between two banks of grass and tiny flowers, down and round a hill towards the sea. But what is just round that corner? What surprise or adventure awaits the dreamer who just follows that path. I imagined a pirate ship sailing into view from behind the trees, coming to whisk me off an adventure on the high seas. It's a magical image that draws you in - I'd like to step into that painting and wander off down the road…

There are also paintings of everyday life and the everyday life of certain groups of people. We see Degas's racehorse paintings and the delightful 'Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando', swinging from a rope hanging from the ceiling. I like Miss La La for her athleticism, her bravery and her strong teeth. The painting is all about capturing movement, the feeling of her spinning around at the end of the rope and Degas has caught a split second of her act. Painted from below adds to the sense of height and danger and makes her an exotic character. Interestingly, we don't see her face. I wonder if he ever painted her with her face showing - I'm intrigued.

There's a lot to make you think in this exhibition and it seems to have been well thought out with text on the walls to give you an idea of what was going on and which exhibitions the paintings were part of. And slowly, the Impressionists started to become appreciated, welcomed and then lauded.

The final room includes the later paintings of some of the Impressionists and one that really grabbed my attention was 'Two Sisters (on the Terrace)' by Renoir - yes, another Renoir painting! It's the red hat that calls to me across the room, then the flowers on the little girl's hat and the flowers in the older sister's lap. They're a riot of dashes of colour brining fresh flowers to life against the greens in the background and the dark dress. I couldn't help but move over to that painting, by-passing some of the others to get lost in those impossible flowers. Nothing can be that colourful - I don't believe it but there they are, captured in paint forever. This picture doesn't do them justice at all - it's always so much better to see the real thing in front of you.

Also in that final room, on the wall beside the exit door is a quote from Paul Durand-Ruel from 1920: "At last the Impressionist masters triumphed… My madness had been wisdom". I like that quote. He honours the painters by calling them 'masters' and saying that they 'triumphed'. He also notes that his own judgement had been right all along.

This is a really good exhibition and is a must. If you visit only one exhibition in April go to this one. If you love the Impressionists you'll see new things to love and if you're ambivalent towards them, then this might make you think twice. Basing it around the life and collection of Paul Durand-Ruel is an inspired idea and it's great to see these wonderful paintings together in the same exhibition.

I'll leave you with 'The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil' by Monet. Let your eyes drink in those flowers and bushes and then wonder what that courting couple in the distance are talking about...