Wednesday, 30 July 2014

'Anthony and Cleopatra' at The Globe

I have a bit of history with Shakespeare's 'Anthony & Cleopatra', not that I've ever seen it on stage. I 'did' the play at university but the most abiding memory is getting the bus past the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the mid-80s and seeing the posters for Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra and thinking 'I must see that'. And then one evening going past on the bus and seeing posters for another play - I'd missed it. It's been performed since then, obviously, but I'd never seen it until last night when I saw it in the open-air warmth of The Globe after a day wandering round both sides of the river Thames hunting for literary benches. Shakespeare's bench is, naturally, outside The Globe under a tree and (usually) covered in tourists (and bench-hunters).

What I like about 'Anthony & Cleopatra' is the carefree love and playfulness of two mature people who each have countries to rule and responsibilities beyond the lovers bed. The jealousies we see from both characters help to make their love believable and say to us that the loves of emperors and queens are the same as ours but have greater consequences when they fail. Their golden period is closing when we first meet Anthony and Cleopatra, when Anthony hears of the death of his wife and must go back to Rome from Alexandria. He is part of the ruling triumvirate after the death of Julius Caesar and his duties call him back to the intrigue and factions of Rome where he marries Octavian's sister to keep the peace. But, naturally, he longs to return to Egypt and Cleopatra. The rest is inevitable, with Octavian becoming Augustus Caesar and emperor over the deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra.

This is an excellent production and (with one exception) all I could've wished for in my first viewing of the play on stage. Eve Best and Clive Wood were excellent as our lovers with great and touching scenes of passion and playfulness, jealousies and lusts and people around them that understood their passions. Phil Daniels was great fun as Anthony's captain Enobarus for most of the play, serious and cutting and comedic by turns, who defects to Octavian and regrets leaving his master. I'd also pick out Sirine Saba as Charmian, Cleopatra's main servant and confidant and Peter Bankole as Cleopatra's messenger and Anthony's man, Eros, both of whom were excellent and got great laughs as well as pathos.

My exception? Well, it was Cleopatra's final speech which Eve delivered with determination and great intent. But I wanted passion and fire, I wanted anger and power and disdain - the anger of a queen at the death of her lover - not quiet determination. I can fully see why it was delivered like that in the context of the play but it's not what I wanted. Cry to the heavens in anger and joy at joining your lover, Cleopatra, this is not just a political act, it is an act of love.

The lines I have remembered for over 30 years are:

"Give me my robe, put on my crown
I have immortal longings in me...
I am fire and air, my other elements
I give to a baser life..."

I want the heavens to open on those lines, for lightning to fork in the skies as the gods rebel against any concept of natural order, and Cleopatra, standing tall and proud, railing against the fates and sending her soul to seek Anthony in a world beyond this one. That's what I wanted but I'm happy with what we were given.

This is a great production - we were even given envelopes full of gold paper to shake down on the union of Anthony and Cleopatra at the end of the first half to join in the celebration of their love. It's on until the end of August so make sure you see it. It'll stay with me for a long time.

Malevich at Tate Modern

I didn't know much about Kazimir Malevich other than he worked at the start of the 20th century in Russia and pushed abstraction as far as it could go and that's about it. When I saw that the Tate Modern planned a summer exhibition of his work then I decided to go to find out more about the man and his work. I made an unplanned visit yesterday since I was in the area and needed to get out of the sun for bit (yes, London is sunny at the moment). Not the best reason for going but it got me through the gallery door and I'm pleased I did.

The exhibition is on the floor above the current Matisse exhibition and, possibly, suffers because of that. There were quite a few people browsing his paintings but nothing like the hoards that seem to inhabit Matisse's Cut-Outs exhibition. That was a good thing from my point of view. The twelve rooms take us chronologically - and intellectually - through Malevich's career, from his early, largely figurative paintings through his extreme Suprematist abstractions and back to a figurative form in the 1930s. Politics is never far from Malevich and his work wasn't always welcomed by those in power and soon disappeared from view shortly after his death in 1935 when Stalin decided that socialist realism was the way forward.

There are lots of labels in this exhibition, and just just the names of the paintings. We see how the Russian painters absorbed cubism from Paris and futurism from Italy and developed their own 'cubo-futurism' style. One of my favourites in this style is 'Morning In The Village After The Snowstorm' where we see planes and curves of snow drifting and covering the houses and trees. Later, after the Russian revolution, Malevich led the new artistic and intellectual discipline of 'suprematism'. He wrote, 'The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature' and, 'Suprematism is the beginning of a new culture...'. 

Malevich holds a rather unique position in the history of art, living through not only the First World War but also the Russian revolution and staying in Russia. Perhaps that's why we see such radical changes in his art, not just the inevitable growth and development you would expect between someone's early and later works, but Malevich seems to push any conceivable boundaries to their extreme limits. And then worry that he can't push them any further. We see his early figurative work give way to flat and curved planes of colour before moving into more pure abstraction and then, when he reaches the limit of that, starts painting white on white pictures before falling silent. He then recovers and starts painting intensely colourful figurative paintings before re-discovering his own version of realism in the last years of his life. 

The one word that screams at me throughout this exhibition is 'intellectual' - no doubt their is passion in there as well but it's the intellectual foundations of his works that overpower. That's what makes him a bit different from his contemporaries and what makes this exhibition rather special.

After going through his extreme experimentation with art he returned to figurative painting in his later years and I like this painting of his wife in 1935, the year of his death. That makes it rather poignant. The lasting impression of the exhibition is the painting that helped him to develop suprematism, his 'Black Square', a black square with a white border. It's an iconic and challenging symbol of revolution and change and he signed his later paintings with a small black square rather than with his name. The exhibition booklet tells us that, at his funeral, his mourners held flags with black squares. What a profound gesture of respect.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Phyllida Barlow at Tate Modern

When I went to the Tate Modern to explore its Folk Art exhibition I stumbled across the enormous installations by Phyllida Barlow. They're difficult to miss since they are on a huge scale and fill that old and venerable Victorian space with its faux Greek columns with planks of wood, colourful tape on brown cardboard boxes and traffic cones stuck here and there. The culture clash is quite obvious and I walked under and through the installations with a puzzled expression - every so often with the nagging worry of, 'what it all collapses now, on me?'.

It didn't, of course, but one of the installations was built with the appearance of something big collapsing, of everything crashing down together and making a new piece of art in doing so. It was really quite strange and I couldn't help wonder which was the piece of the art, the pre-collapse or the collapsed work and, of course, it's the latter since the pre-collapsed version was never built. It was an odd puzzle but it kept me engaged for a few minutes. It did seem to be the most popular of the works with the photographers in the gallery this afternoon.

It was rather strange exploring these enormous works in the sterile confines of the Tate Britain, giving no clue what to expect or how to interpret them. And I think that's the right approach to something like this. Just place these incongruous structures in the available space and leave the rest to us, the audience.

I have no real idea about what I saw today. I saw lots of planks of wood stacked in different ways, but, collectively, what did I see? I don't know, and that, in itself, is quite intriguing. Was it so different, so unclassifiable that I couldn't engage with it on any level? No, I wouldn't say that, I certainly engaged, but the overwhelming feeling was of curiosity and of wonder, of wondering what it would be like to clamber over the installations, to climb up the planks of wood and see what was at the top and whether it was finished or rough.  To see whether it is really as strong and robust as it looks or if removing one nail somewhere would bring it crashing down. Jumping around, from one installation to the next with a sword exposed during a swashbuckling exercise sprang to mind more than once. I resisted the temptation, obviously!

So, OK, the installations didn't come crashing down on me and I didn't clamber around them. So what are they and what are they for? I still have no idea but take your wonder and awe with you and see them for yourself, walk amongst and under them and see what you think. You'll almost certainly see something I missed. Enjoy!

Monday, 28 July 2014

New John Lydon Book

I didn't realise that John Lydon had a new autobiography coming out in October but he does - 'Anger Is An Energy - My Life Uncensored'. His previous memoir, 'No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs' came out quite a while ago so it'll be interesting to see what's different in this new book (given the 'uncensored' in the title) as well as the re-creation of Public Image Ltd and new music a couple of years ago.

'Anger is an energy' is a great title for the book since John is almost perpetually angry about something (except when he's not, of course). It'll tell us about his 'I'm a Celebrity' scrapes, his wildlife documentaries and butter adverts as well as Sex Pistols reunions and getting PiL back together to tour and record. It should be a good read and I'm looking forward to it.

The title is the chorus from the 1986 song 'Rise' from 'Album' (or 'Cassette' or 'Compact Disc' depending on which version you bought). John will always be the young Rotten in the 'destroy' tee shirt but he's also Lydon who's still challenging and creative. They're both great heroes.

British Folk Art at Tate Britain

'Folk Art' is a rather odd term and those people at the Tate Britain have put on a collection of it to demonstrate how diverse and difficult to catalogue it is. It seems to encompass virtually anything and everything that isn't 'fine art' or traditionally accepted art, often anonymously produced at any point over the last four hundred years and is still around. The cockerel in the poster for the exhibition is a good example, having been made of cast-off bones by a French soldier who was a prisoner of war during the Napoleonic wars. His name isn't known but his handiwork survives.

There's all sorts of stuff in the exhibition, including embroideries, quilt covers, paintings, leather Toby jugs, 'needle paintings' (ie sewn reproductions of masters from the late 1700s  to mid 1800s), paintings, shop signs and figureheads from ships. You name it, it's in there somewhere.

When you go in you face a bright yellow wall with shelves to hold old shop signs with the three hanging balls for a pawn shop, a giant top hat for a hat-maker, big boot for a shoe shop and a giant key and a lock. I didn't notice what the bear was there for (second column from the right in the photo). It was a shame that most people seemed to glance at them and then move to look at the paintings on the right in the room rather then lingering to look at them properly - I thought they were great fun!

My favourite room was painted blue and held lots of carved figures, from statues of Scotsmen wearing rather short kilts to stand outside tobacco shops to draw the custom in, to figureheads of all shapes and sizes for ships. My favourite was the massive Indian carved out of hardwood and wearing a red turban, blue coat and with a glorious moustache. He was the figurehead for HMS Calcutta built in 1831. He's been fully restored and looks marvellous. I think he lives in a sailing museum in Portsmouth these days.

I nearly burst out laughing when I walked into and took in the room - laughing with wonder and joy that these things actually existed and were so shiny and colourful and so big! There were wistful looking ladies in colourful frocks and acres of bosom who would've sat at the prow of boats a couple of centuries ago, steering the jack tars of old out on an adventure and then home again. There was a lovely, snarling unicorn figurehead next to what I think was meant to be a yellow lion, equally snarling and both were magnificent. When I become a pirate I shall have a figurehead on my ship!

There were also paintings, usually what would usually be called naive and mainly anonymous. One of the most striking was a painting in oils on a wooden panel from 1850 called 'The Four Alls' by DJ Williams. It shows Queen Victoria saying 'I govern all', a priest saying 'I pray for all', a soldier saying 'I fight for all' and a working man holding out his purse saying 'I pay for all'. A bit of early political satire there! It's not a terribly well executed painting but it doesn't need to be - the message is clear and, what's more, it's fun!

Another painting that took my fancy was 'Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day' by Walter Greaves from 1862. It's a riot of colour and people flooding over the bridge and sitting on the cables holding it together. Part of me was surprised that Hammersmith Bridge is that old but there it is in the painting. It's the detail in the melange of colours and shapes that draws you in - the minstrel troupe to the left, the adverts on the horse-drawn double-decker buses, the gentlemen in their top hats and beefeaters in their red tunics and furry hats. All of London is there and determined to have fun. And the rowers in the boat below wearing hats, as is right and proper, of course. It's a lovely painting and I'm delighted to have seen it.

It's quite a small exhibition with only five or six rooms but is well laid out, well lit and full of lovely and unexpected stuff. Did I mention the delicate and detailed quilt made by recuperating soldiers in the Crimea War? Very colourful and full of stars. Or the 'Goosewoman' by George Smart from 1840 made from paper and bits of cloth? No? Well, here she is:

It's a lovely little exhibition so, if you can delight in seeing the unexpected then go and see it - it's on until the end of August so there's still time.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Zoe Smith wins GOLD

Do you remember Zoe Smith from the London 2012 Olympics? I do! She broke the British weightlifting record and came 12th at the Olympics and I blogged about her back then. Today, she won GOLD at the Commonwealth Games, was wreathed in smiles when she lifted, held it and dropped the bar and then celebrated with a backflip! Well done Zoe, so proud of you!

Shut Up And Follow

I got on the tube yesterday morning, on the Victoria Line, and sat there with my fellow morning commuters. I'm not in the middle of a book at the moment so I did the 'looking at the adverts' thing and then I noticed one that was just words and perked up - a new Poems on the Underground poster! This one featured 'Small Brown Job' by Gwyneth Lewis and reads:

May you be lead on all your walks
By an unidentified bird
Flitting ahead, at least one branch,
The tease, between you
And it. Is that an eye-
Stripe? Epaulette? Your desire
For a name grows stronger.
Chaffinch? Warbler? This is spinning
Gold from straw. You're in good hands.
Shut up and follow.

This latest series of poems is in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, that mad Welsh bard who liked a tipple. I visited his house at Laugharne many years ago.

OK small brown, I'll shut up and follow.