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Friday, 26 February 2010

Theatre - Nineteen Eighty Four - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 10/10

I have got to admit I was slightly sceptical about how George Orwell’s classic novel about the horrors of totalitarianism and state control could be successfully adapted for the stage. Matthew Dunster has completely dismissed the sceptic in me, and held the Royal Exchange audience both spellbound and terrified in equal measure with his electrifying new adaptation.

Jonathan McGuinness is nothing short of fantastic as the Ministry of Truth worker Winston Smith who tries to strike out for truth and love against The Party, and its leader Big Brother. The concepts first introduced by Orwell when the novel was first published in 1949 are so familiar to us now that it is easy to forget that they were just figments of his brilliant imagination – Big Brother; Room 101; and the Thought Police to name but a few. McGuinness is totally believable as the brave and rebellious Winston.

He and his new found lover Julia (also very convincingly played by Caroline Bartleet), strike out for truth; justice; and love against the terrifying regime. And we all know what happens to those who challenge the ruling orthodoxy. The whole cast gives a brilliant display of brainwashing, and the terrifying attempt to control the thoughts and lives of ordinary people, with the recent/current events in Iraq and Afghanistan making Orwell’s razor sharp political observations as relevant now as they were in the post war era.

And what torture scenes they are. It is difficult to keep watching – so convincing are they, and is McGuinness in particular. Special mention must also be given to Paul Moriarty, whose long and eloquent speech as the subversive dissident Emmanuel Goldstein is extremely accomplished with not a word out of place.

The staging is astonishingly good – with so many changes of scene, set, and mood to convey. And the Royal Exchange does it with style. This is the best production technically that I have seen there since Henry V in 2007. The usual theatre in the round is transformed into a linear set, which brilliantly changes into the terrifying torture scene of the Ministry of Love and Room 101. Music and lighting are also used to terrific effect.

I seriously cannot praise this production too highly – go and see this play, but prepare for a very uncomfortable ride.

Exhibition - Henry Moore at Tate Britain

Star rating – 7/10

Henry Moore’s huge public sculptures are so common amongst our urban landscapes that as a nation we may have started to take his work for granted, given his ‘national treasure’ status. This new exhibition of some of his smaller works from the 1920’s to 1960’s at Tate Britain aims to refocus our collective minds on what a genius he was, and to remind us that he was quite a radical in his day. It features over 150 sculptures and drawings by Moore that really bring him to life for the visitor.

The rooms are organised into the different mediums that Moore worked with, marble; stone; elm and ink. The first room includes a small marble piece of a dog from 1922 which is quite angular, and beautifully crafted. His fixation with the theme of maternity is highlighted by a whole room in this collection being dedicated to the theme. The mothers with their smooth lines, ample breasts and featureless faces cradle suckling infants. I particularly noticed the ‘Mother and Child’ piece from 1924-25 that shows a mother with her child on her shoulders, and is on loan for this exhibition from none other than our own Manchester Art Gallery.

Many of his figures have a very sexual feel to them – he loves to show women in reclining poses, again with his trademark smooth lines and flowing forms. But the sculptures always feel sympathetic rather than exploitative.

One of the most interesting rooms for me is the collection of paintings from wartime, when he temporarily abandoned sculpture for painting. The pictures show almost skeletal bodies huddled together in underground stations, sheltering from the air raids. The ‘Two Sleepers in the Underground’ is particularly evocative, but Moore did not paint these from life, but his own experiences in the trenches during the First World War. Also in this room are wonderful pictures of coalminers, working deep underground, like his own father had done.

In the post war period Moore became very concerned about the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and reflected this worry in his work. The ‘Atom Piece’ in bronze from 1964-65 is especially effective, where his same sleek lines and smooth sculpture belie the potential destructive powers of the object.

The last room is of larger works done in elm, and they clearly show Moore’s love for the medium, with their beautiful grain evident and the lines of his chisel left for all to see.

This collection clearly demonstrates that Moore was a radical artist who had a darker side, as well as the creator of smooth gigantic urban sculptures for our towns and cities. Alongside the artists pushing the boundaries of sculpture today, such as Anish Kapoor, it is good to be reminded of that.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Film - The Last Station - directed by Michael Hoffman & Michael Hofman

Star rating – 6/10

I confess I am a bit of a sucker for a costume drama – and this film depicting the last days in the life of Count Leo Tolstoy definitely falls into that category. Christopher Plummer plays the distinguished writer who, in his later days, becomes committed to the cause of anti materialism, celibacy, and vegetarianism.

Helen Mirren is outstanding as his dramatic wife, the Countess, who is so fiery by nature that he declares during one of their many heated arguments ‘You don’t need a husband, you need a Greek chorus.’ Now that is a great line. She is no stranger to the dramatic one liners either, as she threatens to go to the nearest station to kill herself on the tracks, like his great heroine Anna Karenina.

I don’t know if the story of Tolstoy trying to turn his estate over to the Russian people by changing his will, at the expense of his family, spurred on by his distasteful followers, is true. But if it is, I am not sure it is the best subject matter for a feature film. The plot is a bit too saccharine sweet to be truly engaging. And the counterpoint romance to the volatile relationship of the Count and Countess, that of the young secretary, played by James McEvoy and the worldly wise Marsha, feels contrived.

But Mirren’s acting is undeniably impressive, hence the Oscar nomination. And I do like a beautiful woman who knows how to smash a plate or two in a fury.

Books - Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Star rating – 8/10

Sarah Dunant’s latest novel, recently featured as a star read on More 4’s TV Book Club, is set in a convent in Renaissance Italy. It is told from the dual perspectives of two of the nuns, Serafina - a new arrival who is taken there as a novice against her will, and Zuana – the mistress of the dispensary who befriends her and tries to steer Serafina through the trials of coming to terms with convent life, as she herself had to do many years before.

As a story it is very fast moving and exciting, with great attention to detail as Dunant vividly paints for us the picture of convent life with all its sights, smells and intrigue. But it is also fascinating from the point of view of educating us about the place that convents played in Italy, in the lives of young woman whose families could not afford dowries for more than one of their daughters. Any young woman in such a position, or who was considered unlikely to make a suitable marriage due to disability of disfigurement, was destined to spend her days in a convent, like it or loathe it. And it is in this context, of many women forced into a religious order, not through choice, but through circumstance of family wealth and physical appearance, that the story unfolds.

Serafina is only 16 when she is forced to enter the convent of Saint Caterina in the city of Ferrara, and to leave her lover behind. She howls in her cell in protest, and is determined not to go along with the rules of the order, no matter what the cost. The plight of the young novice reminds Zuana how she herself was forced to enter the convent after the death of her father, as there was no respectable way for a young woman to make her way in the world alone. Zuana survives, and eventually thrives, by continuing the work that her father taught her in the outside world inside the closed confines of Saint Caterina – she becomes in charge of the medicines and health of her sisters. She is not particularly religious, demonstrated by her thoughts about how she could have saved Christ from his wounds by her medicinal skills and healing potions.

There is never any doubt that Serafina will escape from the convent, although Dunant does not make it obvious how she will achieve this. She is a celebrated singer, with the voice of an angel. The relationship between the two women is revealed in a very humane and sympathetic way. The internal politics of the convent are a constant backdrop to their work, even if the ending does seem a little contrived.

Dunant knows how to keep her readers hooked. This is exciting and informative, stuff, but not necessarily a great advert for convents of the day, or the life of a Renaissance nun – nor indeed should it be.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Film - A Single Man - directed by Tom Ford

Star rating - 7/10

Based on a Christopher Isherwood novel, this first film for fashion designer Tom Ford features improbably beautiful people in LA around the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Colin Firth deserves his Oscar nomination for his poignant and nuanced portrayal of George Falconer, a college professor whose English reserve is not really helping him with his grieving process. His lover of 16 years, Jim, has been killed in a car accident 8 months earlier. And George is finding it increasingly futile to go through the motions of everyday life without him.

His experience reveals just how hidden and denied the experiences of gay men in the America of 1962 were– George is not even informed about Jim’s death while he was visiting them until the day after, and even then only by a family friend who feels he should be told, but who has the unenviable job of letting him know that the funeral service will just be for ‘family’. Even George’s best friend Charley, compellingly and beautifully played by Julianne Moore, wonders if he wishes he ever had a ‘real’ relationship.

Although her attitude can party be explained by her drunken state after they have shared an evening together, and her continuing obvious infatuation with George, long after their distant romance has firmly settled into a close friendship for him. But, fragile and unhappy though she is, their friendship is very touchingly portrayed.

The watchword of this film is detail, which should not surprise us really being the creation of one whose career to date has been very successfully built on attention to detail. As George, suicidal in his despair, lays out his own funeral clothes, he writes a note to make sure that his expensive silk tie is tied in a Windsor knot. Much of the action is shot in such close up that it does feel a bit like a very long advert. And the slow motion shots are a little distracting.

But some of the small details help to paint a vivid picture, such as everyday meetings with his neighbours, and a chance encounter with a beautiful young Spanish man. George’s relationship with his students is explored, and in particular with Kenny, who is clearly infatuated with George, and whose companionship helps to give George hope.

I did have a problem with the ending to the tale – not that I would give it away - but suffice to say it felt most improbable. Overall though this is a very watchable, if over manicured film, which shows off the clear brilliance of both Firth and Moore commendably. It will be interesting to see if Ford develops and matures as a more rounded film maker after this first valiant effort.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Theatre - Dunsinane - Hampstead Theatre

Star rating – 7/10

This new RSC play by David Greig takes place after the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth is dead, and the English army are sweeping through Scotland to put a new King, Malcolm on the throne. The English commander Siward, thinks the previous king was a tyrant, and expects to be welcomed by the Scots with open arms. But funnily enough things do not go to plan.

He does not reckon with harsh countryside, the political web he finds, or with the power of the King’s widow, Gruach, brilliantly played by the wonderful Siobhan Redmond. There are obvious parallels with the invasion of Iraq and events following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in this story. Greig wants us to question if an invading army can ever really bring peace.

And it is a very dramatic tale – but a production with which I have a few problems. Firstly, it is a brave person who tries to follow on directly from where the Bard left off – in whatever play they may choose. The complex storyline in Dunsinane only served to remind me of the original brilliance of the master. No one tells ‘em quite like Will. This play has undoubted points of high drama, but in the end the storyline just felt a little too convoluted to ring true. Also, the supposed heroic and noble Siward was rather overplayed by Jonny Phillips, who just ended up as a rather stompy, shouty figure – not really the desired effect at all.

But the back story of the ordinary soldiers was very compelling, and special praise must also go to the wonderful Brian Ferguson, who played the dryly witty Malcolm with such a straight bat that he reminded me of Gregory from the wonderful ‘Gregory’s Girl’. His explanation to Siward of Scots logic and literal pedantry is truly hilarious.

This is a good drama, with some high class acting and wonderful sets, fight scenes and singing, but it suffers somewhat by the inevitable comparison to its forefather.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Exhibition - Walls Are Talking - Whitworth Art Gallery

Star rating 8/10

Wallpaper is usually associated with homely scenes of domestic comfort, but not in this new collaboration between the Whitworth Art Gallery and the V&A. Nothing could be further from the images and feelings conjured up by this wallpaper collection that was not designed to adorn our homes, but to shock, question and definitely not to take a back seat.

The pieces shown here include offers from the likes of Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. The usual concept of our homes as our castles is subverted as some of the artists here use wallpaper to show the home as a place of subjugation, confinement and repression. ‘Chain Link Fence’ by Lisa Hecht, and ‘Five Bar Gate’ by Kelly Mark both convey enclosure and imprisonment. Pieces like ‘Razorwire’ by Matthew Meadows look at first glance to be a richly decorated ornate classical pattern, but on closer inspection the piece uses razor wire to suggest violence and internment.

War and conflict are depicted explicitly in many of the pieces, such as Francesco Sineti’s ‘Acorn’, which has classical cameo patterns filled with disturbing scenes of chemical warfare and people in biohazard suits dealing with obvious contamination. An odd mix indeed. Bashire Makhoul’s ‘Points of View’ shows a repeat pattern of bullet holes in a Beirut wall. A bloody murder scene is enacted in Abigail Lane’s ‘Bloody Wallpaper’ where blood stains hand prints of the murder victim on a plain cream background are on show.

Less violent but nonetheless forcefully made political points are made in wallpaper pieces to reflect the fight against AIDS, and the ignorance of society about the disease. One of the most powerful pieces for me was ‘Bullies’ by Virgil Marti, who used his high school year book to get pictures of all the people who bullied him at school as a gay teenager. Their larger than life faces are repeated in the wallpaper’s pattern in lurid psychedelic colours.

Catherine Bertola recreates fictional wallpaper from literature in her great 3-D piece ‘Beyond the Looking Glass’, whose leaves dripping down reminded me of the magical words in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ when Max’s walls become the world all around, and he goes off on his wonderful adventure. Andy Warhol’s unmistakable style is there is his ‘Cows’ piece – with huge pink cow heads against a yellow background, a pattern he was to go on to use in many other pieces. Damien Hirst uses wallpaper to portray drug use in his ‘Pharmacy’, which strangely also has quotations from the Bible next to the pills, and was apparently used in his London restaurant. Not really sure it would have done much for my appetite.

A separate gallery shows how wallpaper has been used to portray sexually explicit images, and also to generally keep women as we want them - nice and sweet like the Spice Girls wallpaper on display here.

Most of the pieces were never intended to go on our walls, and are works of art in their own right, which is lucky because no-one in their right mind would wan to sit down and relax with a nice glass of wine looking at most of these images. One exception is the rather wonderful ‘Blank Cheque’ by Chris Taylor and Craig Wood who show repeated images of blank cheques both to pay homage to a bit of our culture that will soon be resigned to the rubbish dump of history, and also to suggest the blank cheques that the city bankers felt that they could write themselves for services rendered. Nice touch, and available in the gallery shop to buy. A very interesting and thought provoking exhibition. You may never look at your walls in quite the same way again…

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Books - How to Live - A Life of Montaigne in one questions and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell

Star rating – 9/10

Two weeks ago I hadn’t even heard of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne – now, thanks to an obvious labour of love by Sarah Bakewell, I feel that I know him and like him, very well indeed. Montaigne appears to have been the first blogger, even before computers were invented. He was a Renaissance writer, who was also a magistrate and later major in his native Bordeaux, who retired to his family vineyard to write about life in general, and nothing in particular. In doing so he gained an army of fans, got his books banned by the Catholic Church in France, and had a jolly good time along the way.

Montaigne has won esteemed fans across the ages including the impressive collective minds of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Voltaire; Virginia Woolf; and Bernard Levin. Now that is a list of heavyweight thinkers if ever there was one. But what is all the fuss about? Well Montaigne was the first write to put down on record exactly what he thought about everyday aspects of his life, and what he thought about them. A veritable latter day Bridget Jones without the angst. He invented the ‘stream of consciousness’ long before the term itself was coined. As Sarah Bakewell observes, ‘most of his thought consists of a series of realisations that life is not as simple as he has just made it out to be.’

His personal epiphany seems to have come with a near death experience when still a young man, when to outward observers he was in so much pain he was trying to rip his chest open with his bare hands; but to Montaigne himself he was transported to ecstasies of delight internally. He seems never to have taken life at face value again, but been keen to live each day as it comes, and to take each one by the scruff of the neck.

And I must confess he got my vote totally when I read about his relationship with his cat, where he tries to imagine how it must be for her to regard him, instead of just viewing the world through his own human eyes. ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’ he wonders. He ponders in his famous ‘Essays’ on what the world is like for all creatures through their own eyes, an almost revolutionary concept in sixteenth century Europe.

Bakewell brings Montaigne to life in this absorbing and delightful book. She affectionately writes about him as if he were also a modern day man with modern day failings. ‘He was the sort of man who would today keep himself busy with DIY work, and probably leave half of it unfinished.’ But he did have depths of emotion that coloured his whole view of the world, such as the deep friendship with his friend poet √Čtienne de La Bo√©tie, and his utter desperation at his early death. He explains their love for one another by simply saying: ‘"Because it was him. Because it was me."

Montaigne is not afraid to write how he feels about the minutiae of life, rather than about what he has achieved – a radical concept for his day. And his skill at engaging his readers is captured by a quote from Bernard Levin, who remarked: ‘I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ”How did he know all that about me?”’

And I defy any reader of Sarah Bakewell’s brilliant new biography not to want to read Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ as a result – I will certainly be doing so very soon.