Mirolaw Balka v. Mondrian – Art made visible for the heart, not the eye
I had a lot to think about today about two very different artists – one is Mondrian whose early work is on show at the Den Haag Gemeente Museum and Mirolaw Balka, born in Otwock, Poland in 1958, whose installation at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London was discussed in a radio interview. This black box was nothing like the square paintings, either in white or black one has seen in exhibitions since the 1960s. Balka’s, who has done work on the subject of 8000 Jews rounded up ina single day and left in stationary cattle wagons for two days in the town of Otwock, where he was born and where he still lives and works. Otwock was a beautiful town surrounded by pine trees was renowned as a spa and health resort which attracted thousands of middle-class Jewish families each summer. They built beautiful summer villas, established sanatoriums and orphanages. In 1939 the Nazi invaders set up a ghetto in the town, forcing over 15,000 into ever increasing squalor by imposing severe restrictions. The train filled with 8000 people finally went to Treblinka and to the gas ovens for most of them.
For a long time, Balka, born in 1958, knew nothing about the role his birth town played in the Holocaust. As an artist and sculptor, he rides around his town, convinced that material, stone, wood and soil have a memory and this is palpable in all of his work. The houses remember,’ he says, ‘the wooden ones (built by Jewish families.’ But in London’s Tate Modern the black box had a special message. It stood on two metre-high legs in the Turbine hall. On entering it one immediately knew what it was about – the black that surrounded one was the blackest black on earth – all sound seemed to disappear, one had no idea which way to turn or indeed how big the space was. Miroslaw comments on what the Jewish victims must have thought and felt as they arrived in Treblinka – no one could imagine the horror to come. A shower, they were told, undress, get clean, here is the door to the shower room, the water will come from above. Then the lights went out but no water came, only death and the unending blackness of becoming nothing.
It may seem strange to juxtapose of these two artists. I only felt compelled to do so it because I had heard Balka interviewed in the morning –
and went to see Mondrian’s early work at the Den Haag Gemeente Museum afterwards.
Mondrian is famous world-wide for his grid paintings of New York, so it was a surprise to see his early work. Before 1908-1909 it seems he tried painting in every style going, impressionism, expressionism, fauvism, pointillism, impasto – none of them well. His main obsession seems to have been the church tower of the Dutch town of Domburg, drawn and painted in a way that I recall from 14 year-old pupils striving for modern art.
He seems to have had one basic drawing from which he did a number of paintings – all of them lacking the slightest dynamism or interest. The pictures of his trees were equally lacking in just about everything that makes a good artist. As a former art and design lecturer in major London art schools, it seems to me that he realised that he really was neither good at drawing nor at painting, nor someone with a fertile imagination or the necessary creative spark. When around 1909 he hit on the idea of dividing up spaces, already apparent in some of his rather flacid beach/dune paintings, he began reducing his tree drawing to a mere overall tree shape by using nothing but little crosses and intersecting marks. It seems that alone was enough to include him into the modern artists’ fraternity.
I had never seen Mondrian’s early work in the flesh until today. When I was a student at Chelsea School of art in London, Mondrian was held up to us as a genius. His work never impressed me – I found it contrived, lacking in soul, exhibiting all the signs of a retentive, controlling personality. Now, so many years later, that suspicion has been confirmed. If I had to mark him as I had to mark my students when lecturing years later at my old art school, the result would be: Drawing 20%, painting 10%, content 5%, creative spark 0%, self-promotion (though I wasn’t around in his time) probably 90%.
By contrast, Balka’s black box made the invisible palpable and overwhelming, both physically and intellectually. The work had such power that it will never leave anyone who has stepped into his creation of the blackest space on earth. By contrast, Mondrian remained floating of the surface – I defy anyone to convince me that he reaches the heart and soul of the spectator. ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child, said Picasso.’ Mondrian did no such thing. He played with little boxes. The patterns thus created have proved to be all round winners – they are printed on socks, table ware and even on gift shop knick-knacks like china cows – in fact, anything you like, maybe, for the super fans, even on toilet paper.
For me Mondrian always brings to mind one of Samuel Beckett’s favourite deprecating insults – architect!, a term chosen to describe poseurs claiming to be artists.
Papier Biënnale Rijswijk 2018 – 12 June – 7 October 2018 (open Tuesday- Sunday, 11-17h)
The Papier Biënnale Rijswijk 2018 celebrates paper on a grand scale with work from international artists. And very impressive it is too and beautifully presented.
Paper is and always has been at the centre of our lives, now and in the past. Its fragility belies its capacity for survival of wars and flames when stone and metal have long been destroyed. It has outlasted papyrus and vellum. Fold it and it produces light and shade, coat it and it becomes hard, wet it and you can mould it into anything you like. The conceit that we could live without it came with the computer age and the prediction of the ‘paper-less office’. But low-and-behold, books have survived, paper has become more than just something you write on – in fact, it is loved more than ever.
In the 8th century Arab hordes invaded China where they found artisans making fine rice paper to wrap the Emperor’s tea. The paper makers where made prisoners in Samarkand, then part of the Persian Empire. They were tortured to divulge the art of paper making. The Arabs discovered that mulberry trees, growing in abundance around Samarkand, were ideal for paper production. They kept the manufacturing secrets for 1000 years before this art spread to Spain and Italy (paper making did not reach America until 1659). Contrary to the Spanish who produced murky paper due to lack of the right water, Italy and the town of Fabriano triumphed, thanks to the purest of waters. Paper making moved to France where I had the privilege, as part of my book-making work, to buy my hand-made paper from the 17th century paper mill of Larroque on the Couze river. Walking into their mill was like walking into a cathedral of paper.
It is impossible to name all the artists exhibiting in this Biënnale. Some let the paper dominate in their work, other do things with it; not many seem to actually make their own paper; most use recycle paper and other materials. French artist Dominique Rousseau does make his own paper and produces intriguing, organic works related to the mysterious worlds she finds under water. Annita Smit’s pieces are made of plissée newspapers, achieving an almost textile effect. For some works she uses remnants of pages from a big Bible publisher. German artist Aja von Loeper creates monochrome, embossed works on giant hanging sheets which look like wounded stone walls; Zaida Oenema painstakingly uses a fine cutting technique and produces the most astonishing, mathematical patterns – her piece entitled Fields was stunning.
Inevitably, some works impressed me more than others – the folded, monumental pieces by Dutch artist Mathilde van Wijnen could have been made of large sheets of metal or stone until one stood right beside them. In contrast, the fragility of French artist Vivianne Colautti Ivanova’s work, intriguingly titled You, the one I’ll never know, has something of a tangled, cobweb-like organism struggling to find a form. And lastly, work that chimed with my love for old, dead wood was that of German artist Ute Krautkremer who creates parts of barren trees, actual size, one with the amusing title of Mama’s Nussbaum.
Most of the work exhibited seems to be made by women – perhaps they have more affinity with texture and organic forms. I was looking for work in which paper starred so I found the absence of hand-made paper in most of these works a little disappointing as recycled material simply does not have the same presence. – An excellent exhibition all round in a splendid museum – not to be missed. Astrid Burchardt, July 2018
OPERADAGEN, ROTTERDAM, 22 May 2018
END OF THE STORY , a performance about the surrealist/absurdist writer KHARMS and his friend, the artist Kasimir Malevich
As film translator I was once asked by the National Film Theatre in London to do a live translation to Antonin Artaud’s Lettrist poems, spoken at frenetic speed directly to camera during a festival of the French Avantgarde. I did my best to keep pace through his succession of random words and phrases, with Artaud apparently under the influence of mescaline. By comparison the work of Russian Daniil Kharms is relatively tame. I am no stranger to abstract, surreal or avant-garde works so I was much looking forward to Michael Rauter’s piece. Sadly, I was disappointed.
In the Krijn Boon Studio theatre of the Schouwburg over-head projectors were set up, cables snaked across the floor. The performance by Rauter, Katrin Lohman, Johann Günther and Ladislav Zajac began well. Kharms is not exactly a household name with the general public so Katrin Lohman read texts to the sparse audience about Kharms life and his starving to death in a Leningrad prison during the almost nine hundred-day siege in 1941-42.
She explained Kharms’ admiration for his iconic artist friend Malevich whose experiments with projectors to compose colours in light produced a series of black and white squares. To illustrate this the performers pushed projectors around to cast squares of light onto the white curtains surrounding the stage – unfortunately, due to the folds of the curtains and the projectors clipping the corners, we were not treated to the perfect squares Malevich had intended. A number of experimental sequences followed. Small extracts from Kharms’ Blue Notebook were sporadically recited, some truncated to no more than the first line. Sound effects from a cello or on electric guitar followed, occasionally some of Kharms’ more amusing three liners were used, mostly the ones about old men dying.
Similar to Dada poetry, Kharms work, politically and historically loaded, provides a potential goldmine for a theatre maker but there was little time for mining between the adjusting of equipment and much walking around in multi-coloured socks (a nod to Malevich’s passion for colour?). Given that Rauter was dealing with two important Russian artists, it was surprising that the piece was stripped of any Russian context.
Towards the end, colour squares were projected to the reading of infinite colour variations, presumably a list made by Malevich. A sequence expressing utter boredom about the structure of the army was recited to what appeared to be the sound of farts. To close the show, we watched as the cast slowly packed up the equipment while Katrin Lohman recited Kharms’ deeply philosophical poem NOTNOW – This is This, That is That, This is not That …. which I felt described the whole performance – a bit of this, a bit of that, Malevich reduced to a few squares, Kharms to a few lines. What a missed opportunity. Astrid Burchardt 2rd May 2018
Jean Brusselmans (1884 – 1953) exhibition at the Gemeente Museum , DenHaag
till 10 June 2018
The Belgian painter Jean Brusselmans is perhaps less know than his fellow painter, Rik Wouters, with who he shared a studio. Having entered the prestigious Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels aged only thirteen, to study engraving and lithography, he dropped out to share a studio with Rik Wouters. Working along Wouters cannot have been easy – Wouters, who died young, was by far the stronger artist, with a bold colourful style at times not a million miles removed from Degas and Renoir. Brusselmans too followed along those lines. But from the 1920s onward he went in search of structure, both in lines as well as in applying the paint, in bold horizontal and almost naïve, simplistic ways – the clouds begin to look as if made of wood, the canvas is boldly sectioned. His work depicting a maid scrubbing floors and poor farm workers in the fields show real empathy as he depicted them in the harsh, somber Belgian autumns and winters, but much of his work is fresh and brightly coloured, as in the harvest scene. As all painters of his time, he was searching for a new way of making pictures, a simpler style – abstraction, cubism, he tried them all. Wouters resolutely pursued his very own style, Brusselmans seems to have got distracted; he was overshadowed by his fellow fauvists and expressionists, the latter with whom he did not want to be mentioned in one breath. As a result he remained virtually unknown until the 1930s. I found echoes of Rousseau, Leger and Picasso in the way he painted some faces. He even attempted a work strongly reminiscent of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Giacometti haunts the portraits of his wife, Madame Brusselmans, whom he repeatedly painted in the same black and white checked dress. Was he so fond of the dress or of his wife, I wondered. She died in 1945; it was said he was distraught, but quickly seems to have found consolation with a new, younger lover in the same year…. His best known painting is the one of the zoo keeper feeding parrots which comes very close to Rik Wouters style, but I prefer his paintings of everyday life portraying simple, working people.
This is very well conceived exhibition with ample explanations along the way to show the work of a quiet artist who was, for a long time, eclipsed by the showmanship of his contemporaries.
Michael Wolf, photographer, at the Fotomuseum in Den Haag until the 22 April 2018
The German photographer Michael Wolf, winner of numerous photography prizes, was born in 1954 in Munich. His work as a photojournalist for the prestigious German magazine STERN brought him to Hong Kong where he now lives
He is fascinated by life in big cities. His photographs of Hong Kong’s tall buildings are truly disconcerting to say the least – the photographs, cropped to exclude ground and sky show the repetitions of patterns of functional buildings reaching for the sky, people compressed and stacked as nameless units. This inhumanity in dealing with overpopulation points the way to a frightening future for all city dwellers across the globe.
And the word compression returns in Wolf’s work with a series of photographs of faces, pressed against the misted-up windows of the Tokyo subway as people come and go to work. The commuters’ expressions are soul-less, apathetic, some almost look as though they had expired during their journey and had been left leaning against a window dripping with condensation. Again, the inhumanity of over-crowded city life acts as a warning of things to come. But there are also some small human touches – someone drying their pink rubber gloves on hangers outside a window, colourful umbrellas inserted behind broken water pipes, chairs temporarily parked outside a window – small touches that people still add colour in an otherwise desolate concrete jungle of heartless buildings. These small works are truly beautiful.
This excellent exhibition finishes on 22nd April. Try not to miss it.
Den Haag, REWIRE FESTIVAL, Electriciteitsfabriek The Music of Stranger Things
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s performance of The Music of Stranger Things was a true experience. Sitting on a rostrum reminiscent of a steam-punk boxing rink and rarely visible to the audience in the vast dark space of the factory which quickly filled with hissing, billowing clouds from the fog machines, they looked like two pilots lost in a unknown, limitless, dark space, trying to control a craft that had disintegrated, leaving only the control desks.
The concert was of the Netflix Stranger Things theme. For this Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein won an Emmy Award for ‘Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music’.
In Texas they work at the Austin synth store Switched On, a community hub for local dark-ambient soundscapes creators using moog analogue synths and all manner of other sound-creating contraptions – Switched On has been described as the knob-twiddler’s paradise….
From their control rostrum their soundscape filled the enormous space. I would not have been surprised if both sound and smoke went skywards through the two tall chimneys of this Piranesi-like former power station. Their truly stunning music filled not only the space – it vibrated in one’s body. It was entirely immersive as enormous clouds reached out to engulf us. One is used to classical music being very descriptive, of lief, emotions, landscapes. But this was description of things, and worlds to come. My partner later said, that to him, it was a lost spaceship hurtling around the universe, colliding with asteroids, pierced by space debris, but, with perhaps my more pedestrian imagination, I very quickly felt that I was in a 747 Boeing full of passengers – and the plane was going down over the Himalayas – the howling engines, the screams of the people, the loss of power and control, the plane bouncing over ice and snow-covered crests and scraping past razor sharp, vertical ridges. About three-quarters through the piece, after all that momentous, hair-raising part came a quieter passage – in my imagination the engines had finally sputtered out. I could almost hear the agonised breathing of over 400 passengers as they inexorably cruised to their demise among the glaciers. The end was once again a very loud, wrap-around experience. As we exited the building the smoke bilged out of the doors – we were almost surprised that the fire brigade had not yet turned up.
This concert is one of the best, most engrossing ones I have ever been to, and that includes seeing early Led Zeppelin appearances and the original Super Group Cream, both on stage and in Hyde Park.
UUUU at the PAARD 2, Den Haag
They say that in every festival you have a ‘bummer’ and for me this was it. As soon we entered the Paard 2 and saw the stage set-up I knew that it was going to be super loud, so out came my earplugs, not that they dampened the sound that much when UUUU started to play. I could pretty much predict what was to come after the first number (no one could really tell if come to an end, judging by the hesitant clapping). A thumping, mechanical, unchanging beat throughout the whole set, some screaming sound, the occasional screech of a malfunctioning mic (surely part of the ‘composition?). The themes, as repetitive as the name of the group, were not very experimental. This could have been in 1969 in a minor Camden Town concert, but then I saw the super group Cream and Led Zeppelin when very young in London – perhaps I was expecting too much. To watch 15-17-year-olds twiddling knobs to produce droning sounds in order to be ‘strange, dark and deep’ is always endearing – one knows that in a year or two that phase will pass and they will go on to play better or give up altogether – it’s not quite so endearing coming from middle-aged musicians who should know better. The whole concept of this evening was quite ‘teenage bedroom’, including the poem It’s all about …. Tiiiiiime -which, for extra credibility, required a wrap-around pair of dark glasses. Yeah! Cool, man! They largely seemed to rely on the swirling lighting to create excitement …. And yet, some beardies and head-bangers still managed to whoop and clap as one of them pushed past me and spilled his beer over my shoulder bag.
Must see! CIRCUS EUROPE, MICHAEL KVIUM at the KUNSTHAL, Rotterdam until the 6th May 2018
Michael Otto Albert Kvium (born 15 November 1955) is a Danish artist. Since the early 1980s, he has created grotesque realistic works.
We were warned about Kvium’s work – ‘a bit shocking, also a bit painful’ said the man at the museum desk.
In his paintings and sculptures Michael Kvium exposes the absurdities of Europe and of life in general through the depiction of key members of our society – a judge still wearing his wig denoting status and power but otherwise naked, his decaying body stuck in an oil drum, an old priest strangling a five year-old altar boy, a painting of a man in a high hat posing like a circus entertainer, again his body already shrunken and in a decrepit state, holding open a pair of trousers become too large, looking out at us with the promise, or the threat, of revealing the horror of his withered sexual organs. There is a newborn, hanging upside down over an oil drum, apparently full of black oil. Half the baby’s body has been dipped in the black liquid, thus turning a white child half black. It is striking piece, asking the question – what is a black or a white person.
Many of Kvium’s sculptures have the hands of skeletons, some of which are only discovered by the viewers when the figure is viewed from the rear – were these skeletal hands once the tools of evil and corrupt deeds? Is that why they decay before the rest? Kvium seems to have a fascination with old, dilapidated bodies – hanging empty breasts or the drooping, flaccid bellies misshapen by a life of not only eating and drinking but also sitting too much.
Almost all of the figures were stuck in full oil drums up to the hips, hiding the sexual areas of the human body. There is nothing ‘nice’ about Kvium’s work though some is amusing and the word circus is very aptly used. But he largely comments on human physical failure, on the fact that, no matter how important a man may become in society, as in the case of the judge, underneath it all, the body decays and fails us all in the end.
At the back of the exhibition hall, behind a curtain in a dark space was another, ultimately more shocking and explicit installation – an inflatable dingy, the type that has led to the death of thousands of migrants in the last few years. It lies run aground, half deflated while bright search light sweep in circles across the black space. Spilling out from the wrecked inflatable are hundreds of books. This piece, though less picturesque than the sculptures and paintings, said it all – it was the shipwreck of Europe as we have known it – le naufrage de notre culture, as the French would put it.
ABOUT MISS JULIE, Korzo Theater, Den Haag
August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, written in 1888 during his ‘naturalistic’ period, has been performed as a play many times and was made into a film, but now it comes in the shape of a modern ballet, choreographed by the much acclaimed American Stephen Shropshire who has made his home in the Netherlands. I was lucky enough to see its world premiere tonight. Strindberg’s Miss Julie is the tale of an aristocratic, capricious daughter of a Swedish Count who, to relieve her boredom, insists on dancing with Jean, her father’s valet, engaged to kitchen maid Christine (Merete Hersvik). Julie, (Jessica Lyall) dances playfully with Jean (Stefanos Bizas), much to the consternation of the kitchen maid who is disturbed by the escalating attraction between Jean and Miss Julie. But soon Miss Julie’s light-hearted relationship with the valet turn into something else, and the dangers looming are beautifully illustrated by her attempt to balance on a very slim beam and repeatedly falling into the arms of the valet as she gradually seduces him, apparently against his will. Christine the maid, Jean and Miss Julie find themselves in a triangular tug-of-war from which there seems no escape, as they link arms, each wanting to pull Jean away from the other woman. Miss Julie manages to interpose herself between Jean and his fiancée – by dint of her superior social position she wins the battle. In a frenzied pas de deux, the passion between Jean and Miss Julie reaches a climax until their love is consumed. Re-enters Christine, frantically trying to regain her lost love. After attempting a compromise, by linking hands and arms in subtle, conciliatory moves, Jean undergoes a dramatic change – now despising himself, he assumes the role of the cruel man, rejecting Miss Julie by repeatedly flinging and slapping her down onto the floor, at one point holding her head down as if trying to drown her. Miss Julie is broken as he whirls her around like a spinning top until she collapses. In one last attempt to regain control, she balances on the thin beam, watched by a dispassionate Jean waiting for her to fail, until she finally falls to the floor, extinguished.
All three dancers performed beautifully, but inevitably, Jessica Lyall proved the more enthralling. Jessica, who danced with the Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid where she rose to soloist in just three years, danced with great passion and was entirely convincing as the foolish girl playing with fire. I was however mystified by the almost total absence of music or sound scape, something which would have done much to underline the drama of the piece.
**** Astrid Burchardt
MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY at the 2018 Dance Festival, Den Haag
Very lucky to have seen the Martha Graham Company as part of the Dance festival 2018. Martha Graham revolutionised dance – classical dance became truly modern. But she was more than that. Her influences came from all quarters – music and modern art. It is impossible to watch the work she inspired without thinking of Picasso, Braque, of the DADA surrealists. With her striking appearance and poise she could have stepped straight out of a painting by Dali.
Tonight we saw a mixture of works. In CHRONICLE, a female dancer, clad in a vast black dress sat on a plinth, with the luminous bright red, glimmering hem forming a circle. Once moving, the dancer swirled her voluminous dress in typical, dramatic Martha Graham style. The piece, written in 1936, was full of the foreboding of the coming war, the huge skirt being hurled into the air and curving over the dancers head like blood gushing from an oversize bursting artery – imagine someone dropping a boulder into a great pot of red paint and you get the picture. In a following piece the lights came up on what seemed to be three male and one female figure – the excellent lighting created the effect that all the dancers were nude. In the almost golden light the male figures all competed for the female – I couldn’t help but think of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.
It is not be accident that Martha Graham has been compared to Picasso in her ability to create a revolution in dance as he had done in painting. This also came to the fore in a later piece this evening which illustrated Graham’s discovery of the relationship of the movements of the shoulders and the hips, in which the dancer, alone on the stage, proceeded to shrug shoulders and push her hips into extreme shapes, so much so that one feared she would remain distorted for life. There followed an ensemble piece of a white figure, apparently symbolising good or innocence, repeatedly battling against black clad, aggressively marching hordes to military beats. At one the point the white figure seemed to have succumbed, but in the end she conquered the evil forces and there seemed to be a suggestion of hope. Most of Graham’s work has a kind of violence, but a violence of utter beauty. Graham’s last creation, premiered only months before she died, was an exuberant ensemble piece to the frenzied music by Scott Joplin – Martha, usually very prescriptive when it came to music, said – ‘just play something pretty’ – she was too tired by then. I wouldn’t have missed this evening for anything.
ART DECO EXHIBITION, Gemeente Museum, Den Haag, October 2017
In an age where the influence of the high fashion designers filters down to the street, with not much more than the slashed-knee look or the hacked off jeans legs, it is hard to grasp what an overpowering influence Art Deco had on every aspect of life. Designers liberated women from the wasp-waisted, corseted straightjackets and gave them loose clothing and flowing lines. This enormous and wide-ranging exhibition at Den Haag’s Gemeente Museum is truly a tour de force. It focuses largely on Paul Poiret, the charismatic and multi-talented Paris designer who surrounded himself with the great artists of the time – his ambition was to create an all-encompassing life-style and culture. Although women of modest means could only dream of his gowns heaving with lavish ornamentation, the low-slung, wrap-around coats and flapper cloche hats, revived by Biba’s in London in the 1960s, were within reach of the purses of the ‘midinettes’, the young shop girls. Poiret, a veritable power house, inspired not only clothes but also the costumes for Diaghelev’s Ballet Russe, elaborate perfume bottles, fans, pottery and glass design. There are countless dresses, dripping with exotic embroidery, sublime multi-coloured jewellery, many pieces inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun around that time. Coco Chanel also tiptoed onto the scene with her ‘garçonne’ haircuts and understated school girl style designs. Paul Poiret, who dubbed himself the King of Fashion, said of Chanel, ‘We ought to have been on guard against that boyish head.’ There are fascinating projections of fashion footage. Models in fabulous gowns promenade in parks, lounge on divans or give a slow twirl, and not a size 0 in sight. But it is films of High Society parties given by Poiret that really show just what went on in the Parisien ‘Années Folles’. I loved this exhibition. It runs until the 4th March 2018 – do not miss it.
***** Astrid Burchardt
ALSO – MUST SEE at the Boijman in Rotterdam
TAL R, danish artist. See our review on ARTSTALKMAGAZINE.NL
DELFT CHAMBER ORCHESTRA FESTIVAL , July-August 2017
Ieder zijn verhaal (Everyone is his own story)
Sunday, 30th July, at 20.15
Tonight’s programme of the Festival of Chamber music held a few surprises. Alexandra Nepomyashchaya’s fingers skipped lightly on the keys of a superbly ornamented instrument with a light feathery sound as she played Bach’s harpsichord concerto nr 3. Then came the surprises. The world première of Marijn Simons’ his Chamber Concerto, op.83 once again posing the question which is the theme of this year’s festival – what is true or what is true music? The young Dutch composer and conductor Marijn Simons has already made his mark world wide. He has conducted major orchestras across the globe and his compositions have been performed by the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. I spoke to him during the interval. ‘People ask me, how should I listen to your music?’ he confessed, ‘and I say, with an open mind. Even Beethoven was told “Your music is impossible to listen to.”’ Simons has recently been commissioned to write a piece for Steffen Fuchs’s new ballet to be staged in Koblenz in the autumn. For the audience the main focus of his Chamber Concerto was the frantic work of percussionist Colin Currie who was kept very busy with a panoply of bells, at one time even striking a bow across something resembling a conical birdcage. The piece was an extraordinary soundscape, a conversation of sounds between Nabila Chajais’s harp, Liza Ferschtman’s violin and Ole Christian Haagenruud’s piano. Haagenruud at times leaned over to drag his fingers across the strings inside his open Steinway. The Stockholm Syndrome Ensemble struck up with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Vor Deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit, followed by a work with the same title by Russian composer Sofia Goebaidoelina’ s, born in 1931, an avant-garde composer heavily censored by the Russian state that sent a KGB agent to strangle her in a lift. Anyone expecting Bach’s familiar structures, repeated motifs and flow was given a great deal to digest as the evening developed. Ervin Schulhoff’s Concertino for flute, in part lyrical and full of crisp energy came as a sweetener at the close. Adam Walker’s flute, Nimrod Guez’s viola and especially Rick Stotijn’s double bass produced a wonderful mellow sound, at times Stotijn wealding his bow as if playing the cello. The spritely, witty Rondino, Allegro gaio brought light relief for some. Those expecting Bach’s familiar structures, repeated motifs and tuneful flow were certainly given a great deal to digest as this evening.
THE MYSTERY OF VERMEER’S DISAPPEARING HOUSE Exhibition at the Prinsenhof, Delft, Netherlands
It is billed as “an incredible detective story” – something with which we are very familiar on these pages as there has recently been quite a spate Agatha Christie and other whodunnits gracing our stages. Everyone likes a mystery, all the more so if it is true.
On a recent visit to Holland we discovered one that has been rumbling on for nearly 100 years, one not dissimilar to the riddles of the Loch Ness monster or the Mona Lisa’s smile – everybody has a theory but nobody has the facts. The mystery we came across in Delft was revealed in an exhibition concerning the whereabouts of the house featured in one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings.
The story has all the makings of a stage play – in the mellow afternoon light one of the world’s most famous old masters is sitting by a Dutch canal, painting an enigmatic house. The new exhibition at Delft’s Prinsenhof Museum entitled Vermeer Is Coming Home tries to find the house in question.
The title does not refer to a prodigal Johannes Vermeer, who was born and died in the town, but to his painting The Little Street. This beautifully presented exhibition, with the actual masterpiece there to be admired, traces the documentation of successive theories and investigations.
The true location of the building in Vermeer’s picture has been lost and has puzzled many scholars and art historians over the years. In 1922 the Delft town architect claimed to have found the actual house, still standing and thus started the ball rolling.
The painting shows a typical Dutch step-gabled house which, not surprisingly, resembles many other dwellings in the town. Over the last century or so experts have argued over the location of the house and produced intricate drawings of architectural elements, measurements, sightlines and studies of how sunlight falls onto a variety of buildings to back up their theories.
Now the original hand-written ledger of the 17th century Delft water authority has provided the key to the research of Professor Dr Frans Grijzenhout, Professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam. The dusty leather-bound tome records the dredging and canal taxes of the time and records the exact size of each plot, frontages and the gateways of all buildings at the time. The house in the painting has two side entrances which, apparently, was unique. From these records Professor Grijzenhout identified a canal-side house in Vlamingstraat, which was owned by Vermeer’s aunt, Ariaentgen Claes. Another aunt lived opposite and cared for Vermeer’s mother, a tripe seller, in her dying months. Sadly, the house at 40-42 Vlamingstraat today looks nothing like the one in Vermeer’s painting.
This latest, and some would say final, analysis provides a very compelling theory so it seems that the mystery has been solved – or has it? As with all creative work, Vermeer could have used a substantial amount of artistic licence, adding or excluding elements to please his own aesthetic sense – or he could have painted a wholly imaginary scene.
So, as with Nessie and the Mona Lisa, there may well be some mileage left in this story. Agatha Christie could not have plotted it better – the only thing missing is a corpse.
If you find yourself in Delft, or its vicinity, you would do well to spend a couple of hours at this excellent and intriguing Prinsenhof Museum exhibition which runs until 17th July.
ENGLISH TOURING OPERA, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. at the Everyman, Cheltenham, April 2016 – ***** + *fabulous, fabulous, fabulous!
Opera is a very physical experience. As a child I was put off opera because my mother, an ardent fan, was constantly talking about it. My first experience of it came when my colleague and classical music reviewer at Time Out magazine offered me free tickets to Placido Domingo’s first ever performance of Otello at Covent Garden. It was the first time I experienced the power of both his and Margaret price’s voice filling a vast space (no microphone required) and it sent shivers through my entire body – and so it was with the ETO’s Iphigenie en Tauride this week.
A group of women in blood-stained butchers’ aprons drag a man onto the stage and proceed to hack him to death. So opens the ETO’s stunning production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. As in all Greek tragedies there is much blood and human sacrifice and the cast of ETO do it justice with heart-rending and at times blood-curdling singing.
When I was a child my opera loving mother had put me off opera until one day a music reviewer and colleague at Time Out magazine offered me two tickets for Placido Domingo’s debut as Othello and I was hooked. Live opera was an unexpected, very physical experience. Being suddenly bombarded with some of the most powerful sounds, not an instrument or a recording, but a human voice can produce sent shivers up my spine and resonated in every fibre of my body. What also stunned me was the fact that a single person’s voice could fill the vast Covent Garden auditorium. One of those voice belongs to mezzo soprano Catherine Carby, starring in the role of ETO’s Iphigénie en Tauride.
Iphigénie has been saved by Artemis when her father Agamemnon tries to sacrifice her to help him win the war. Believing Iphigénie dead her mother Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon only to be killed by her son Orestes, brother of Iphigénie. So far so Greek, but Iphigénie pays dearly for her survival – Artemis has installed her as priestess on Tauride (modern Crimea) with a duty to slay all Greeks passing by. When her brother Orestes arrives as a prisoner on Tauride she does not recognise him. The local despot demands his death and she is set to kill him in a scene reminiscent of Christ going to the cross.
Catherine Carby’s mezzo soprano voice, as always, goes straight to the heart and her role as Iphigénie is a tour de force. The scene in which Orestes (Grant Doyle) and Pylade (John-Colyn Gyeantey) wrestle with each other to decide which one should die at the hands of Iphigénie was for me the most moving. The contrast of Doyle’s forceful tenor voice and Gyeantey’s lyrical singing sends a shiver up the spine.
Here, as in the production of Don Giovanni, Anna Fleischle’s set was of one of masterful restraint, with Guy Hoare’s lighting dramatically doing much of the heavy lifting. A scene with hands emerging from small dark spaces to reach for the tormented Orestes brought to mind the overcrowded hellish prisons of a third world country. James Conway’s direction and Bernadette Iglich’s choreography were faultless, creating tableaux resembling the images on Greek vases. Martin André beautifully conducted Gluck’s rousing music with great élan.
2015 CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL REVIEWS for stagetalkmagazine.com
Monday 5th October 2015 – ARTHUR MILLER at 100 *****
An immovable figure of the theatre – this is how Miller biographer Christopher Bigbsy today described Arthur Miller when he celebrated the centenary of his friend with touching affection. When Miller described Willy Loman, the central character of Death of a Salesman, (a staunch believer in the American Dream, no matter what the cost), as ‘a man who tried to inscribe his name in a bloc of ice on a summer’s day’, perhaps he was speaking about himself – he could easily have gone the same way, if the House of Unamerican Activities (HUAC) had succeeded in banishing him and his work. As it was, throughout his life Arthur Miller never hesitated to stand his ground.
When Arthur Miller started out as a new playwright with an ambition to see his work staged on Broadway the idea was greeted with hollow laughter. His plays were metaphors, deeply personal stories but they always had a wider political and moral dimension. He set out to have a conversation with American society; instead he was to have a dialogue with the world, as his work was better received in Europe than in America. Most of his ground-breaking plays were written in the 1940s and ’50 when Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, though both older than Miller, also produced their major work.
In an inspiring and intimate platform discussion Christopher Bigsby managed to dispell the constant obsession with the Miller-Monroe connection (lasting only 4 years as he pointed out) by which the wider public have tended to define Miller. Astrid Burchardt
Tuesday 6th October 2015 – FRANZ KAFKA: AN INTRODUCTION and FRANZ KAFKA: THE METAMORPHOSIS
The ever personable Misha Glenny introduced both Kafka events, the first featuring Kafka expert and Oxford professor Carolin Duttlinger; in the second Joyce Crick, Kafka translator, Ritchie Robertson, Oxford professor of German and Jeff Young, playwright and life-long fan shared the platform. My problem with academics digging for gold in an artist’s archive reminds me of a kind of autopsy. In Kafka’s case the fact that close friend Max Brod chose to ignore Kafka’s death bed wish to burn his unpublished manuscripts (an act of disloyalty in many people’s eyes) has provided an opportunity to rake through obscure writings that were never intended to be made public.
All too often academics tend to dissect what others have created. The ambition to go where no man has dared go before, or, as in the beer advert, reach parts others cannot reach, produced a typical, rather dry university lecture, read from a manuscript. The short pieces cited by Carolin Duttlinger seemed to be jottings, the kind every writer makes but then never finds a place to use them. Had Kafka worked on a computer he would surely have destroyed the many previous versions of his writings and jottings, as I do, perhaps thus preventing Brod from reworking The Trial after his trusting friend’s death. Some of the material illustrating Kafka’s life and loves depicted the writer as obsessed with food and fitness who dreamt of working in a locked cellar room and recorded the outbreak of WW1 with the words: Germany has declared war on Russia – Swimming in the afternoon. The overall picture that emerged was of a man who only took note of the world around him when he was in crisis.
The second event dealt with the dilemma of how to translate Kafka’s Metamorphosis (many are still surprised that Kafka actually wrote in German). Joyce Crick was particularly interesting here, explaining the finer points of producing a ‘translation’ that is true to the spirit of Kafka’s language. Astrid Burchardt
Friday 9th October 2015 – The Life and Work of DENNIS POTTER
On Friday 9th September Piers Haggard and Kenith Trodd, the two most influential and creative directors and producers of what became called ‘the golden years of television drama’ shared a platform with Potter editor John Williams to celebrate the legend that was Dennis Potter. Potter was a giant playwright for the small screen, one of the first and arguably last heavy weights. He wrote for television because he believed that the medium was a democratic gift to the audience otherwise deprived of ‘good stuff’.
In 1978 Potter’s mini series Pennies from Heaven, produced by Kenith Trodd and directed by Piers Haggard, hit the screen. It was revolutionary – not only was it a scandalous story of a music sheet salesman and his seedy affairs, it was also a musical which made stars of Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell. Anyone who was an adult at the time is still talking about it. In 1986 The Singing Detective, another landmark piece, followed. It was a largely autobiographically influenced piece about Potter’s own crippling disease of psoriatic arthritis. The piece was not a cry for help but a scream of anger and frustration. I found it so uncomfortable to watch that I have no desire to see it again. Potter’s career is littered with prizes and Oscar nominations, namely for the screen play of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and many more original plays and adaptation too numerous to mention.
Potter not only had a talent for ground-breaking writing, but also the talent for offending most people he encountered; in fact, he went out of his way to offend, probably because he believed himself to be repulsively disfigured by his shocking illness – so he gave people a good reason to dislike him; this is not an uncommon psychological phenomenon. John Williams edited the book The Art of Invective which was discussed at the festival.
Potter’s time was a time of ‘Kitchen Sink’ drama and social realism. Despite being an ardent socialist (he was a miner’s son), he went against the grain by writing plays of exquisite imagination. In the play Blue Hills Remembered, in which Helen Mirren, Michael Elphic, Robin Ellis and Colin Welland played a group of seven year-old children who cause the terrible death of one of their weaker playmates, Potter, as Piers Haggard said, achieved the highest form of art.
Potter’s work as a prolific journalist and critic was legend – there was no one who was his equal when it came to being vitriolic, provocative, rude, ironic, abusive and insulting about any subject, or indeed about anyone under the sun.
He was given an experimental drug for his psoriatic arthritis which he knew to be dangerous but which he refused to give up as it allowed him to continue his writing. The drug is believed to have caused his final cancer which he named Rupert, after Rupert Murdoch whom he hated. Two months before his death, at the age of only fifty nine, he was interviewed by Melwyn Bragg. Their conversation had to be frequently interrupted by the need to refresh his drug. It was to be his last interview in which he spoke freely about his death. Astrid Burchardt
THE DOCK BRIEF produced and directed by MICHAEL HASTED *****
A new comic genius of the stage has arrived. This week saw a new departure for Alan Digweed, commonly known as Tweedy the clown, one of Britain’s most unique mime clowns. In his first straight theatre role he trod the boards at the Cheltenham Everyman Studio Theatre in DOCK BRIEF, a play written by John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame. It was produced and directed by Michael Hasted, creator of the theatre review website stagetalkmagazine.com and author of several books on the theatre.
Dock Brief was written in 1958 when the death penalty was still in force. The play was a forerunner to the much loved Rumpole television series. It takes place in a prisoner cell, immediately before and after the trial of the accused Fowle who has killed his wife. Morganhall, the barrister assigned to defend Fowle under the Dock Brief system, the random selection of a barrister to act for defendants without means, has spent his entire career sitting on the bench in court, waiting to be given a case. This is his chance to finally exercise his classical education and years of training.
Michael Hasted’s staging is stunning. The play opens in total darkness with the sound of successive prison doors clanging, locks being unlocked, bolts being slammed shut. The stark light from a barred cell window falls onto the prisoner Fowle as he stands on a table, starring out into the distance. The cell door opens and in the swirling mist stands the barrister Morganhall, his dark shadow falling across the stage.
But as soon as the lights go up there is a comical misunderstanding – Morganhall thinks that Fowle has climbed onto the table in order to hang himself. From thereon the laughs come hard and fast as it transpires that Fowle, a budgie fancier, has killed his unbearably humourous wife because she would not leave him alone with his birds. He freely admits that he has done the evil deed.
Morganhall is played explosively by the excellent Mark Hyde who, not for the first time in his long acting career, is called on to play a character of the legal profession. Morganhall is pompous and patronising. ‘Would you like to hear some Latin?’ he asks the wife murderer whom he is supposed to save from the gallows. The line signals the barrister’s flight into fantasy. At last he has found an audience, someone he is sure to impress. Soon he complains that Fowle is not helping him to realise his dream of showing off his legal brilliance in court. ‘I shall speak,’ Morganhall proclaims, ‘for a whole day, perhaps two.’ Fowle however is resigned to the fact that there is no point in a defense; he accepts that his rendez-vous with the executioner is inevitable. In answer to Morganhall’s reprove he simply says that he can’t see the point of a defense, that for him, ‘the flavour has gone out of it.’ It is just one of the hilarious lines that flowed from Mortimer’s pen.
The failed barrister continually berates the prisoner, not only for his unpleasant appearance, but also for his lack of education. The modest Fowle is only too happy to accept the learned barrister’s assessment. As most working class people of the 1950s he ‘knows his place’ in society.
As the play progresses Morganhall fantasises about what he will say in court and persuades Fowle to rehearse the forthcoming court proceedings. Fowle is only too keen to please the learned man and soon, just like his deluded barrister, spins off into a world of make-believe. Alan (Tweedy) Digweed, playing Fowle, has for years been the main clown/mime for Gifford’s circus, worked as clown in the Greatest Show on Earth for Ringling Brothers, travelling all across the USA, starred in pantomime and created his own hilarious mime shows. Under Michael Hasted imaginative direction, Alan Digweed has been handed a golden opportunity to alternate in alarmingly rapid succession between playing the judge, several witnesses and members of the jury, each to a level of farce seldom achieved on stage. The scene in which Digweed mimes the sewing of a hem is a stroke of pure genius.
The second act sees a depleated Morganhall who has failed to defend Fowle. All the years of waiting for a case and imagining what grand gestures and speeches he might make have been for nothing. He knows all the law but he cannot deliver. His lack of practice has rendered him dumb-struck, incapable of uttering a single word in defense of his client when all eyes are on him in the courtroom. The jury has found Fowle guilty of murdering his wife and the hangman is readying the noose. Mark Hyde, rehearsing for the part of the barrister remarks, ‘Morganhall gave Fowle his Hamlet, but to the jury he has given his Bottom (the ass in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Under Michael Hasted’s direction the play hurtles back and forth between poignant drama and the height of comedy. The physical contrast between the portly Mark Hyde and the emaciated, highly mobile figure of Digweed are strongly reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy and thus, on a visual level alone, unleashes hilarity from the word go. Could there be a career as a comedy double act for these two on the horizon?
I shall not give away the outcome of the play. Anyone who has not been lucky enough to catch this production at the Cheltenham Everyman Studio Theatre can find copious extracts, interviews and clips via stagetalkmagazine.com (click About us, then Links, then The Dock Brief) or see it on YouTube.
CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL 2014
This year there were some truly lively and inspiring theatre related events at the festival which I reviewed for the theatre website Stagetalkmagazine.com where you can find everything that is happening on a daily basis in the theatre, opera and ballet in Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol, Bath and Cheltenham.
There was a fresh approach to some of the events as opposed the well-trodden path of book festivals where two grey figures, often hard to see for the thousand odd spectators, face each other in the gloom. For those sitting more than ten rows away from the stage the only way to actually realise that you are at the right event is to watch the author or celebrity via the large screen as the event is being videod. At times I feel that I might as well be watching television, except that, as we got press tickets, I was actually near enough to the stage to reassure myself that there was a real person on stage.
A number of events featured directors and actors from the Royal Shakespeare company, enacting parts of their productions or demonstrating their rehearsal methods of Shakespeare’s plays.
Here you can read some of my reviews, as well as other theatre reviews of shows in Cheltenham, either linked to the festival or running concurrently with the festival.
SHAKESPEARE AFTERNOON this year packed out the enormous Sunday Times Theatre tent with a presentation/performance of King Lear, Live! Ben Crystal led the Shakespeare Ensemble which has the mission of performing the Bard’s works in O.P., original pronunciation as opposed the R.P. which for so long has dominated the stage. The difference is stunning – here we hear Shakespeare ‘spoken from the heart’ as Ben Crystal demonstrated by comparing the two pronunciations. It reminded me of a strange experience I had a few years ago. During an international Shakespeare week at the Globe I once saw a performance of King John – in Armenian. I didn’t understand a word of it but there too it was a performance from the heart – breathtaking.
In the Literature Festival tent five rucksacked twenty-somethings, one of them a puppeteer, climbed onto the stage for a slice of the Original Pronunciation World Première of King Lear. With not one of them approaching Lear’s age, they constructed him out of a well-stuffed rucksack and a pair of yellow rubber gloves pulled over two small collapsed umbrellas for hands. A waggling, upturned black beret with a pink lining stood in for mouth and beard and was lip-synched by Ben Crystal to give life and emotion to the creation. It was all very improvised but none the worse for that. After a lively exchange between actors and audience, Crystal, who lives and breathes Shakespeare, ended the event with an impassioned plea that in schools Shakespeare should not be read but taught to be spoken – from the heart, as he reminded us. He is also the author of Shakespeare On Toast, a little tome much praised by Judi Dench. A N Burchardt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2014
I don’t know who had the idea of the Shakespeare Afternoon events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, but the huge Sunday Times Theatre tent was full to the brim yesterday for King Lear Live!, as well as today for Henry IV, Part 1&2, a long-time favourite of theatre goers with all its bawdiness and general bad behaviour by a young royal (now where have we heard that before?).
This time it was all about how to read and deliver the Bard’s words, the rhythm, the verse used for the royals, the prose destined for the lowly characters. Owen Horsley, associate director for the RSC on Henry IV and an actor called Sam showed us their rehearsal process of Prince Hal’s soliloquy in which the prince explains his plan of how to be a king in waiting – and a cunning plan it is. As a young prince he will be carouse and cavort, drink and even participate in a robbery, in fact, do anything to get the reputation for being a bad boy. Then, by some heroic act and undergoing a total character reformation, he will be all the more appreciated and worthier to sit on the throne at the demise of his strict and disappointed father, Henry IV.
The RSC, Owen Horsely told us, rehearsed for around eleven or twelve weeks to stage two plays. This is in sharp contrast to Shakespeare’s time when the Bard would hand the actors their parts a day before the performance. This, to me was the most interesting fact to come out of today’s event. Did actors of the time have a better memory than today’s product of drama school? Even in the days of British repertory theatre right up to the 1980s actors would be playing a part every night plus matinees, learn their part for the following week’s play and at times even their role for a third play in another theatre. As Horsely explained, today we no longer work with ‘long thoughts’, i.e. an idea expounded over several lines, in some cases whole pages. Now there is texting and twitter, he says, we are coerced to express ourselves in a contracted form, which of course leads to throwing one’s opinion onto the net in a brutal way as though throwing a punch in the boxing ring – no debate, no exposing an idea in its fullness.
The second extract the duo worked on was Prince Hal’s speech when his father shows his disapproval and disappointment to which Hal replies, ‘…I’ll be more myself,’ and makes to exist. To me this remark sounds like today’s ‘whatever’.
The audience enjoyed this presentation/RSC rehearsal demonstration immensely, much amused by Sam’s pacing across the stage with giant steps, like a toddler who has just learned to walk in order to demonstrate the heartbeat of Shakespeare writing masterfull pen. It was a relief not to have to watch two dusty chairs facing each other on the platform with the predictable, stale form of interviews.
I was left wondering if, a few years ago, Prince Harry might have forged a plan not unlike the one in Prince Hal’s soliloquy. A N Burchardt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2014
MIKLÓS BANFFY event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, 11th October
Although the Cheltenham Literature Festival, like most book festivals, has in recent years, for literature lovers, in any case, veered towards the inclusion of a somewhat disproportionate number of celebrity biographies (some grumble that in future it should be renamed ‘book festival’ rather than ‘literature festival’) there are still real discoveries to be made, albeit in the small side rooms instead of the large tents. One such this year was today’s event, presenting the work of one Miklós Banffy, a Transylvanian/Hungarian multi-talented aristocrat/author, playwright and politician, all rolled in one. Though half of my family has the same origins and social background as Miklós Banffy (in school in France I hid the fact that my mother came from Transylvania for fear of being called a vampire), I had no knowledge of Banffy at all. He was the author of the trilogy A Transylvanian Tale, also called The Writing on the Wall, which traces a story of a character not unlike himself from around 1904 onwards, a time when the Balkans were heaving with trouble and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the point of imploding. The novels were published in 1934 and 1940.
Banffy was the director of the Hungarian State Theatres from 1913-1918 where he promoted not only the theatre arts but also musicians, giving Belá Bartok his first break. With the upheavals of WW2 he became more and more involved with political matters. In a vain attempt to prevent the destruction of his massive, baroque chateau of Bonchida he remained after his wife and daughter had fled. His estate was looted and burned down by the retreating German army. He was not reunited with his family until 1949 and died the following year. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Hungarian communist regime relented and allowed publication of some of his work. In 1999 his trilogy was translated into English. The castle is currently being restored with involvement of Prince Charles and European heritage funds among others.
During the festival event, Julian Evans, biographer, travel writer, Académie Francaise prize winner for his translations of French literature and author of BBC Radio 3’s series on the European novel The Romantic Road, and Artemis Cooper, biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor both gave us a taste of the beautifully translated work of Miklós Banffy’s. I for one am now on the hunt of an English translation of his plays. What a find. A N Burchardt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2014
Sheila Hancock, author of Miss Carter’s War’, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival
While still at art school in London, and in between working nights to pay for my studies, I spent my few free evenings in cheap theatre seats. At the Alwych theatre I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” directed by Peter Hall. Though not as seering as Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” it portrayed a seriously dysfunctional family. Playing an aggressive four-times divorced daughter, and along side theatre giants Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Hordern, was 36 year-old Sheila Hancock, a life-force that stormed across the stage. In fact, hers is the only performance I remember from the piece. Although I have often heard her on “Just a Minute”, her speed of repartee and wit outstripping that of comedians two generations younger than herself, last night was the first time I saw her again in the flesh, and she has lost none of her passion, sharpness and honesty. Now 81 years-old, she has spent the last 4 years writing her first novel about a woman named Miss Carter, once a SOE spy. Sheila has delved deep into her own experience of London life, both during the war and the post-war years. ‘No, I’m not in the book,’ she says, ‘I hate reading about myself.’ Though judging from the extracts she read to the packed Forum tent (close to a thousand people), it was clear that she had brought all her powers of observation that make a brilliant actor to this book. Her description of a mysterious woman she had observed taking tea in Fortnum’s was simply delicious. Sheila Hancock is an amazing woman, made stronger by her life experience, who now enjoys her old age immensely. ‘The great thing about old age, ‘she jokes, ‘is that you can be as rude as you like.’ She is living lesson that provided you keep fit and healthy, 81 is no worse age to be than 18. ‘I wasn’t so good at 18,’ she confessed. ‘If people don’t like the book I don’t care,’ she waved, ‘I won’t be here in a few years anyway!’ To tackle a hefty volume after such a long career in one of the most precarious professions, all I can say is, ‘not bad for a girl who grew up over a pub and left school at fifteen.’ A N Burchardt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2014
FAKESPEARE by Russell Kane, Cheltenham Literature Festival, 12th October 2014
Dum-dee-dum-dee-dum-dee-dum – that’s how Shakespeare wrote, or, as Owen Horsley, associate director for the RSC on Henry IV at the Cheltenham Literature Festival put it, the Bard wrote a great deal to the rhythm of the heart. Anyone can do, innit?
That was the assumption of self-confessed social observationist-stand-up comedian Russell Kane on the last evening of the festival. Not quite as tight-trousered as usual, he presented his Fakespeare, The Tragickal Savings of King Nigel, the tale of a city banker and his secretary, his bonus office-lay, at the time of the credit crunch. So far so promising. The fact that his performance of the piece was picked up by the RSC in Edinburgh is an interesting one, but more on that later.
Never one to dismiss anyone’s work until I have heard or read it to the end, I was quite prepared to be amused, entertained and even amazed. At first, his reading was amusing, not madly, witty, not madly and suitably lewd in places. He himself mentioned that by taking today’s city slicker’s slang, with all its silly made-up, wide-boy jargon, then ‘turning sentences around’ to play with the words, such as substituting ‘self-topping’ for committing suicide and giving the whole a Shakespearian cadence, was what sparked his new, exciting idea. But then trying to ‘shakespeare-ise’ his usual comedy line is not the same as taking the p… out of the contestants of I’m a celebrity, get me out of here. That hoped for lift-off into a higher sphere simply doesn’t happen in Kane’s offering. He seems firmly ensconced in the world of WAGS, TOWIE, the women with surgically enhanced bodies and so many hair extentions that half of India must now be bald, the men in pointy shoes, low, low cut t-shirts and bum-and arm pit hugging outfits. Could it be that the RSC, in populist mood, is fishing for that kind of audience, relying on the fact that wherever Kane goes, his audience will follow and put their daily waxed and tan-sprayed bums on seats?
Bold as Russell Kane’s attempt is, exciting as it could have been, in the end it left us mainly with the after-taste of his self-confessed chip on the shoulder about high art and posh education. I’m not saying that Kane’s idea can’t work, it definitely could. But instead of trying to drag Shakespeare’s unparalleled word craft down to the TOWIE cultural flatlands it would be good to see him take his idea to a more ambitious level, with a proper story line and engrossing characters rather than a rant delivered in a slightly baboonish stance. He seems totally genuine in what he wants to achieve, but, unfortunately, it takes more than enthusiasm to produce quality. If one reads out the lyrics of some of today’s greatest pop songs they often amount to nothing at all without the music and a great performer and so it is for Shakespeare. In the end, we are gripped by Shakespeare’s enthralling characters ans story lines as much as by the sound of his writing. To think one can separate one from the other is like setting out to make a sandwich without the bread – and leaving out the filling. A N Burchardt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2014
SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER, Northern Broadside production 2014 at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Take a spoonful of Molière, a little Vivienne Westwood, add some of Feydeau’s exaggerated comic genius, stir well, set it in Yorkshire and you’ll have Northern Broadside’s production of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.
The play, written in 1773, in which social prejudice and misconceptions collide is perfect for Northern Broadside’s Opéra Bouffe treatment. Molière himself would have applauded enthusiastically, had he been in the audience tonight. And he certainly had followers from thereon – Goldsmith and Georges Feydeau, creator of A Flea in Her Ear, to name but a few.
From the moment the characters enter, the self-obsessed, dissolute Tony Lumpkin and his mother, the broad Mrs Hardcastle with a orange candy floss wig wobbling across the stage, both in voluminous leopard and tiger print costumes, we know that mayhem will be served up. Mr Hardcastle’s ancestral country abode, the rather shabby and behind the times Liberty Hall, sees the arrival of the young Marlow, the son of a well to-do friend, whom old Hardcastle hopes to see married to his daughter Kate, touchingly played by Hannah Edwards. Marlow is accompanied by his friend Hastings who has secret designs on Kate’s feisty cousin Constance. Throughout the play, Lumpkin, Mrs Hardcastle’s carousing son, spins his intrigues and thus ensures that the play hurtles from one confusion to another. Young Marlow mistakes old Hardcastle for an innkeeper, his daughter Kate (and prospective bride) for a serving wench. Luckily, Marlow has a problem – though he can charm common barmaids and less reputable women who will oblige for a couple of coins, he is utterly tongue-tied when it comes to a woman of standing and vertue. Of course, old Hardcastle’s indignation in the face of the two young men’s impertinence knows no bounds, but his sassy daughter Kate is made of sterner stuff – she passes herself off as a serving wench in order to capture the heart of young Marlow and inevitably, delicious chaos ensues.
Northern Broadside can always be relied on to bring energetic fun and hilarity to the stage, not only with its multi-talented musician actors, but also with a fresh look at everything they chose to do. Here the action is transplanted to Yorkshire, giving plenty of opportunity to exploit northern stereotypes. Director Conrad Nelson has created a good deal of hilarity with the portrayal of the hapless servants versus the snobbish Londoners. Gilly Thompson, playing her part full throttle as the grasping, socially ambitious but sadly misguided Mrs Hardcastle is the strongest performance here. With an overload of her ginger wig she emerges at one point looking like a demented medusa.
For my taste, at times it felt a little static – there was plenty of opportunity for a little more frantic action in the well designed rural set. There could, and perhaps should have been a great deal more running in and out of doors in true farce style and a little less standing and delivering lines at the audience. Jon Trenchard, as Lumpkin, delivers as always in his unique over-the top style, Lauryn Redding in the role of Constance , Kate’s cousin, was less convincing as a well-bred 18th century young lady. But all in all, an evening of absurd fun. *** A N Burchardt
LOTTY’S WAR at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 13th October 2014
Guernsey in WWII – Lotty’s boisterous chasing game with her childhood friend Ben is rudely interrupted by the Battle of Britain raging above Lotty’s modest cottage. From then on the mood turns somber with the arrival of the German occupiers, in her case a German General who commandeers her house, forcing her into the role of housekeeper.
Guiliano Crispini’s play is based on a recently discovered diary, written on tomato packing paper, during the 5-year occupation of Guernsey. Lotty is played with great subtlety by Olivia Hallihan who dominates the play at all times. Hallihan’s ability to impart terror or mischieveous pleasure when she succeeds in undermining the General with no more than a twitch of the lips is reminiscent of a young Diana Rigg. As time passes we learn that her father has been killed the day the Germans set foot on the island and now she is not about the relinquish her house and flee to mainland England like other Guernsey women. The presence of General Rolf Bernberg, played by Mark Letheren, physically on the light side, causes an increasing tension in the small house, especially as more and more restrictions are imposed on the islanders, such as the banning of radios and the use of boats. Rumours of people being beaten and shot for insignificant misdemeanours reach Lotty who seems to live as a virtual prisoner in her own house. Now, without her radio she is also deprived of listening to her beloved music. At Christmas, whilst hanging decorations her despair reaches rock bottom and Bernberg makes his move. When they exchange first names it is clear that they have reached the point of no return. Rolf ‘s present of a red dress confirms that Lotty, after all her fiery, defiant protest, is just an attractive young woman who longs to look beautiful after so much hardship.
All through the play her childhood friend Ben, played by Adam Gillen, who believes Lotty was destined to be his wife, comes and goes, castigating Lotty for her relationship with the German General whose true colour is not revealed until the food shortages get a stranglehold on Guernsey, for the locals and even more so for the Germans – people resort to gruesome means to feed themselves.
It was mostly left to Olivia Hallihan to create great emotional tension to illustrate to dire situation of the period. Adam Gillen, in the role of the country boy Ben, had a tendency to mangle his words when he got excited. The General’s costume was somewhat ill-fitting – German high-ranking officers wore hyper-sharp uniforms and immaculate shirts, not simply a creased vest under their uniform jacket, their rigid boots were polished to a high shine. Instead, Mark Letheren as Bernberg, was landed with a pair of soft, dull boots resembling those of the dusty Russian foot soldiers after they had marched across Europe to reach Berlin in April 1945.
All in all, a striking and tense play depicting the dangers for any young woman who had the misfortune of falling in love with the occupying enemy. **** A N Burchardt
CASTING THE RUNES by BOX TALE SOUP, Cheltenham Everyman Studio, October 2014
Two actors, a few suitcases and one very scary giant puppet are all that is needed for another creation by Box Tale Soup which is at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham until Saturday. The two accomplished actors, Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne are presenting a classic story by M.R.James about a man called Karwell, a self-styled alchemist, here represented by the monstrous puppet, who hands a slip of paper with threats written in ancient runic writing to his chosen victims. He gives them just three days to return it to his hands, otherwise they die a horrible death. The first victim climbed a tree in panic, fell and broke his neck. His sister, Rebecca Harrington seeks out Professor Dunning, famed for debunking charlatans and tricksters and warns him not to take on Karswell. But it is too late. Karswell has already foisted his threatening message on the unsuspecting Dunning and begins to haunt him. A frightening drawing of the first victims death which changes by the hour is dropped on Dunning’s doorstep; on a train journey a warning in the form of a poster appears on the window, all referring to the death of Harrington, Karswell’s first victim. This is when Dunning’s nightmare begins; he realises this time it is the real thing and that he is in a race for his own survival.
Unlike in their excellent production of Northhanger Abbey, where the puppets took the lead, this play is much more about creating a frightening tale. Though the set and props are minimal they are put to good use – the handful of suitcases serves as home furniture, as an office, to depict a train journey as well as drums which are banged to denote scene changes. And the giant puppet has a very real, very scary presence. As in their Northanger Abbey production I loved the application of paper and writing to the various props as well as to the costumes. Though small and performed with an almost barren set, this is a gripping show, a sort of mini-Woman in Black. **** A N Burchardt