No Boxing Day visit to a traditional pantomime for my daughter and I, but a trip to a play at the theatre. Opera and ballet sadly out of our price range, West End musicals not my thing, but a good, wordy, political drama ‘Best of Enemies’ – perfect. And, for my daughter? Well, as an avid watcher of ‘Homeland’ seeing David Harewood on stage together with Zachary Quinto (Spock!!!!) it was almost too much.
‘Best of Enemies’ is a play by James Graham that focusses on a pivotal moment for the relationship between TV news and political discourse. In 1968 the American TV company ABC was trailing its competitors, NBC and CBS, with its audience numbers, particularly during the coverage of the political parties’ national conventions. A fall in audiences meant less advertising revenue and the TV executives needed a new offer to compete. The men at ABC came up with the idea for a series of debates between two people, one from either side of the political divide.
During the first part of the play we see how both William F. Buckley (David Harewood), from the Republican side of US politics and Gore Vidal (Zachary Quinto), from the Democratic side were approached and engaged to discuss the political issues of the day in a series of live debates. The play truly gets into its stride as it presents how, over the course of these live debates, the tone of the discussions descended and as the debates became shouting matches so the TV audience numbers rose. And, we, in the theatre, witness the beginnings of the sensationalised political discourse we have today.
The performances by the main characters were both electric and engaging. The production was slick and energetic weaving original news footage from significant events of 1968 with realtime video close-ups of Harewood and Quinto as they verbally sparred on stage.
I am just about old enough to remember 1968. I remember the news of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy that so shocked my parents. However, although later as an adult I knew of Gore Vidal, I’d never heard of William F. Buckley or the 1968 debates. And, as for my daughter, she had even less knowledge of the historical period aside from the music and the fashions of the era.
Did we need to know much about the protagonists of the play, or about the American politics of the era, or even about the wider political climate of 1968? Probably not. The play gripped its present-day diverse audience and there were even moments of amusement and laughter despite the serious subject matter. And, at the end of the evening, as the audience left the theatre, I caught snippets of sober conversations recognising the significance of the 1968 debates and our current, ‘politics as spectacle’ so beloved by the likes of Trump, Johnson and others.
‘Best of Enemies’ is well worth a ticket and is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London until 18 February 2023.
In 2018, Sotheby’s in London sold the painting ‘Walton Bridges’ by J M W Turner to an overseas private buyer. According to the Arts Council, once certain cultural goods reach or exceed specific age and monetary value thresholds, the goods require an individual licence for export out of the UK.
‘Walton Bridges’ was painted by Turner in 1806 and as such is considered a significant early Turner work. It is now also worth £3.4 million thus meeting the requirements for an Export Stop, a pause in the granting of an export licence. This became the point at which the process of fundraising to save the painting for the nation began. In 2019, with considerable funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Art Fund and a private donor, the painting was purchased for the country. And, as none of the public museum collections of Essex, Suffolk or Norfolk held a Turner for public display, it was decided that ‘Walton Bridges’ would have a new home at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. East Anglia would at last have a Turner.
As is the way these days, there are loans and sharing between museums across a region and as part of this practice ‘Walton Bridges’ has so far been shown at Colchester Castle Museum and Lynn Museum. It is currently at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, as part of the ‘Landscape Rebels’ exhibition and will eventually return to Norwich in 2023.
The exhibition ‘Landscape Rebels’ explores how human activity impacts landscapes and has split the exhibition into different categories of rebels. These include Nature Rebels, Art Rebels, Coastal Rebels, Global Rebels, Local Rebels and Material Rebels. Naturally, ‘Walton Bridges’ is part of the Art Rebels section as Turner’s works are known for challenging how landscapes and seascapes were traditionally depicted particularly with his painterly expression of light. His painting of this particular Thames crossing is complemented in the exhibition with a loan from the National Gallery, London, of Claude Monet’s ‘The Thames Below Westminster’, painted in 1871.
It isn’t just that both these paintings feature the River Thames, but Monet too was an artist who offered a new, different way of seeing and can also be considered an Art Rebel. I thought it was fascinating to see these two paintings side by side and up close as well. To stand before the work of two artists, a couple of generations apart, but both 31 years old at the time they painted these pictures, was fascinating. They both challenged the received conventions of their time and rebelled.
And, finally if you were wondering about the header photo, it’s another river, not the Thames, but the River Orwell shrouded in mist. I wonder what Turner and Monet would have made of the digital revolution and today’s pictures taken on mobile phones? Detail, colour, mood all achieved instantly, momentarily assessed, perhaps saved and shared, but just as likely to be instantly deleted.
The exhibition ‘Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel Rebel’ at the Barbican opened on 7th October 2022 and runs through to 26th February 2023. I thought it brilliant and extremely memorable, and, the ‘space’ has everything do with the shows impact. Sokhanvari has created an environment that envelops, almost strangely cosseting the visitor, and hung within this world of engulfing geometric pattern, are miniature portraits of 28 Iranian women from pre-Revolutionary Iran.
Last month, it felt timely to visit ‘Rebel, Rebel’, as this exhibition shows portraits of Iranian women who were working in the creative arts before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
As we have recently seen on the news there are ongoing protests in Iran challenging some of the laws of the clerical regime. This period of protest began following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who apparently did not have her head appropriately covered. She was arrested by the morality police in Tehran on 13 September for apparently violating Iran’s strict rules requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab or headscarf. These laws are part of the theocratic society of Iran that came into existence in 1979.
The women featured in this exhibition were active in Iran before its Islamic Revolution during the Pahlavi era between 1925 and 1979. Their stories from this time have rarely been told.
Nowadays we might call these women feminist icons of the period. Despite the conservative, male-dominated society of their times they successfully worked in the realms of literature, theatre, film and music.
Soheila Sokhanvari has painted a series of portraits using egg tempera painted on calf vellum. The finished paintings have a soft lustre and are bright with colour bringing a vivacious quality to her subjects. Short biographies of all 28 creative women can be read here.
Also as part of the exhibition, there are a couple of hologram installations showing ‘Cosmic Dance I’ and ‘Cosmic Dance II’. And, at the very end of the gallery space there is a suspended star, made of two-way mirrors and perspex.
Once settled on a large comfy cushion you can watch clips of Iranian films shining out from the centre of the star showing some of the women whose portraits hang in the exhibition.
Back in February, just before the full extent of the Covid Crisis became obvious to all, I was in London and managed to visit the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ museum. It had been on my wish list for some while.
It was truly a double delight for me. To be in the space, to walk the rooms and to experience the ambience of an 18th-century London house (annual rent in 1742 was £50) with such music credentials was very special. I am a fan both of the grand, ornate choral works of Handel and the explosive and intricate guitar solos of Hendrix. And, I prefer to visit the past homes of the exceptionally talented and able rather than residences simply gifted down to generation after generation of the same family.
We were lucky with the timing of our visit as in one room a volunteer was sat at the Kirckman harpsichord playing Handel’s ‘Air and Variations’ (The Harmonious Blacksmith). To hear Handel’s music played in his house was a breathtaking treat, sublime.
After experiencing the elegant Georgian rooms, it was, as you would guess, an utter change of gear as you step across from 25 Brook Street to the upper floors of 23 Brook Street and the Swinging Sixties of Jimi Hendrix.
Apart from the decorated bedroom there is a room of Hendrix memorabilia. The first guitar Jimi Hendrix ever played on British soil was Zoot Money’s Wandre ‘Blue Jean’ Model Guitar. It is still strung with the same strings that Jimi played on the day he made London his home in 1966.
Jimi arrived in London for the very first time when he stepped off a plane at Heathrow Airport with Chas Chandler on the morning of 24 September 1966. Jimi was taken straight from the airport to the West London Home of bandleader and keyboardist George Bruno ‘Zoot’ Money, a major figure on the Soho scene at the time. While looking for a guitar to play that evening, Jimi picked this instrument up and started playing it (apparently remarking it had a “nice easy action”), before Chas and Zoot managed to track down something more suitable for Jimi’s first public performance in London.
From the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ display.
It is sad to note that it will be 50 years next month since Jimi Hendrix died at his Notting Hill home at the young age of 27. What a terrible loss to the world of music.
There is a little good news though, the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ museum is re-opening this Saturday, 22nd August 2020 – but, of course, now you have to book timed-tickets in advance.
On Monday I went with my daughter to see James McAvoy play Cyrano de Bergerac. We booked the tickets last autumn as soon as they went on sale. We have already been lucky enough to see Mr McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Ruling Class‘. And, as with all those three previous plays, Cyrano is also a Jamie Lloyd/McAvoy collaboration. As it happens I have seen a traditional ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, back in 1992 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Robert Lindsay as Cyrano and also a film adaptation, ‘Roxanne’ starring Steve Martin, but my daughter came to the play completely fresh.
Neither my daughter nor I had read any reviews of this latest production although we had seen five star indications flying past whilst scrolling through social media. We tried to ignore them as we didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas or expectations. As it turned out, rather unusually for us, we both had the same response to this version of the play.
This is a play about poetry, about words, and about the beauty and power of words, but this was not a radio play, or a masked affair, it was a fully cast and staged production. As is usual choices were made: about costume, street-style; about props, contemporary plastic; about lighting, harsh and unforgiving and, of course, about the sound with the use of amplification. Although it was a minimal staging in modern dress, parts of this production were also very physical. All the actors wore discrete head mics and there was additional switching between these head mics and other cordless and wired stage microphones throughout the play. This had the effect of subtly adjusting tonal quality and volume adding extra contrast and intensity to the spoken words at different points of the drama. I assume this was a most considered choice to emphasise the importance of the text.
Interestingly and importantly the script is a new translation by the playwright Martin Crimp. There’s no stipulation in the 21st century to provide an equivalent, literal translation of a late-19th-century French text telling a 17th-century tale. To this end Crimp composes rhyming lines of contemporary language in a rap style enhanced in part with beatboxing. The pace and the punch of the first half of the play was thrilling and the delivery was augmented by the contrasting regional accents from the diverse ensemble. The intense, vigorous Glaswegian tones of James McAvoy seemed to add an almost physical layer to the sound. (Mind you I am a lover of Celtic accents and I could listen to Mr McAvoy read the phone book.)
I don’t think we consider contemporary versions of classic, well-known plays as revivals as such, especially with a new translation, but more as ‘a newly reworked production’ of said classic. Employing and amplifying a 21st-century linguist style to make a play more relevant for modern times was very successful. And, on the night we saw the play there was an immediate standing ovation for the cast and the performances. But . . . . and here it comes, yes, there was plenty of energy to showcase the words as I have mentioned above, but . . . . what about the nose? That very famous nose. It was a decision to have Cyrano with an implied, with an ‘acted’ enormous nose and not a theatrical prosthetic. However, I admit at one point l felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s small child viewing the Emperor as I watched a stunningly, physically attractive, charismatic, A-list Hollywood star giving without doubt an intensely, passionate and poignant performance as an afflicted Cyrano yet looking like a god had landed amongst mortals.
We humans are visual creatures. Sight is our dominant sense. A play is a combination of experiences and a staged production is usually more or less dependent on words and their delivery by actors, but we, the audience, are also reading all those non-verbal communications too. Non-verbal aspects of characters including physical appearance are surely central to an actor’s performance as well. To draw on physicality in this production and deliberately choose an uplifting diverse cast and yet require the audience to be blind to McAvoy’s undoubted physical charm and charisma and not mar his face with ‘the nose’ seemed perverse to me. It didn’t have to be a pantomime nose or even be particularly unrealistic, but just big enough for the powerfully, visually-dependent brain’s response to momentarily be interrupted and diverted to think physical disfigurement and not charismatic film star.
And, as we left the theatre my daughter (mid-twenties, infrequent theatre attendee, target audience?), turned to me and surprised me with her opinion questioning why he didn’t have a big nose.
I have now read the opinions of the professional critics who are not fazed by the ‘no nose’ issue. My daughter and I are aware that great theatre with great actors can be minimalist, just the performer and the words. It is after all about the suspension of disbelief. Theatre doesn’t need big sets and fancy costumes, but perhaps in this case a big nose is central to this play. Maybe it was our fault and we didn’t work hard enough to figure out the significance of the no prosthetic choice. We are just ordinary members of the theatre-going public, but neither of us could give this production fives stars. On this occasion my daughter and I go against the grain and venture where angels fear to tread and give it just three stars.
If you’d like to read another review which I think admirably sums up more about the production and performances and is also an alternative to the mainstream reviews, have a look at meandrichard – another wordpress blogger.
Walking through Trafalgar Square in the evening these days is still a noisy and bustling affair, but with all the cleaned buildings and the National Gallery artfully lit, the experience is definitely an improvement from my first memories as a newly arrived student in 1979.
Also, back in 1979 the fourth plinth beneath the towering Nelson’s Column was empty. In fact it had been empty for 150 years until the current series of temporary artworks was begun in 1999. The present sculpture is the twelfth artwork to top the plinth. It is a replica of an Assyrian lamassu statue that was destroyed by ISIS/Daesh at the Mosul museum in 2015. The original had guarded the entrance at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul) from c700 BC.
Lamassus were protective winged deities with the body of a bull or lion and the head of a man. Some of these statues that stood at the gates of ancient Assyrian cities and palaces as symbols of power are nearly three thousand years old.
This particular lamassu has been created by the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. He is an artist who, within his creative practice, has been considering peoples and cultures that have been under threat of being deliberately erased, and, to this end he has created counter-monuments such as this lamassu. This piece is one of his series ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, a project he began in 2006. His hope is to recreate many of the 7000 cultural objects that have been lost forever. Some of these were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, whilst many others were destroyed across the country during the Iraq War.
From the pavement below it isn’t obvious at first glance precisely what this sculpture is comprised of. However, gradually you realise the surface decoration is tin cans. The Lamassu is made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans and you can even spot the date tree motifs. Selecting date syrup cans was not a random choice. Of course not, this top decorative layer is informing us about another type of loss as a result of the Iraq War, the loss of one of Iraq’s traditional food export businesses.
Placed on a plinth in Trafalgar Square beneath Admiral Lord Nelson, the lamassu’s style and content is very much a counter to the traditional representation of wars and war heroes as seen with the sandstone Nelson atop his granite column. This lamassu is colourful, transient and recycled, literally made from the remains of everyday food packaging. I think it challenges the hubristic ideas of permanence, stability and the ‘forever’ notion that the stone Nelson monument suggests. Trafalgar Square may not be under water within the next 30 years, but much of a London that even now is a forever changing building site, will probably be looking very different. See London 2050 flood map.
Green space in the middle of urban sprawl is definitely something to be treasured. It doesn’t have to be a park or common it could be a graveyard or burial ground. Cemeteries offer lots of opportunities for city wildlife and provide quiet, tranquil spaces for humans too.
Bunhill Fields Burial Ground (technically in the London Borough of Islington) is just off the City Road and is only a 10 minute walk north of the Barbican and the edge of the towering, hectic energy of the Square Mile.
The name Bunhill is thought to be derived from Bone Hill as the site has been used for burials for over 1000 years.
Bunhill Fields is not a large area and it is surprising to think that nearly 123,000 burials have taken place here between the 1660s and when the grounds closed for burials in 1867.
It was a burial ground for Nonconformists, those folk who were dissenters from the Church of England. Nowadays, there are some two thousand monuments, mostly simple headstones of Portland stone, still standing.
There are also some famous people buried here with tombs and monuments marking their burial places amongst whom are John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe.
Most famously it is also the resting place of William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophia although until recently the precise location of Blake’s grave was unmarked.
That has now all changed as following more than a year’s research by Luis and Carol Garrido, Blake’s final resting place has been re-discovered. A new grave marker, organised by the Blake Society along with many Blake enthusiasts, was unveiled in a ceremony last August (2018).
Oxford Street in London this summer has a visual treat. Selfridge’s, well-known for eye-catching and innovative window-dressing, has teamed up with some world-famous fashion designers to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. There are 12 displays – here are five I managed to photograph between the crowds on a very busy Oxford Street.
The Alexander McQueen interpretation is from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ using the quote “Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream”
More dreamlike, romantic clothes.
‘Romeo and Juliet’, was chosen by Christopher Kane with the quote “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” providing inspiration.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ also gives us another romantic, inspirational couplet for Erdem – “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged cupid blind”.
Bucking the trend and displaying an alternative, challenging interpretation J W Anderson uses perhaps one of the most famous Shakespeare quotes “To be, or not to be, that is the question” from ‘Hamlet’.
Although I love the unashamedly romantic frills and ornate prints of the Alexander McQueen window, there is something haunting and long-lasting about the Issey Miyake display. “Love sought is good, but given unsought is better” from ‘Twelfth Night’ is the chosen quotation. The textured, structural coat shaped from cloth adorned/woven with words from the significant text captures our contemporary engagement with Shakespeare in a most memorable fashion. Particularly striking, I thought, emerging from the reflections of a 21st-century cityscape.
There might be a few corners of the world where a certain birthday is going unnoticed, but that wouldn’t be Britain. Apparently, it’s a good news story and folk like a good news story. This morning I heard a radio clip of the Queen when she was very young speaking of the time when, incognito, she and Princess Margaret had joined the celebrating crowds on the Mall during VE Day, May 1945. She would have been 19 years old and it reminded me of a notice I’d recently read when visiting the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London.
More than 125,000 men flew in Bomber Command and all were volunteers. Of this number, nearly half lost their lives (55,573). Most who flew were very young, the great majority still in their late teens.
It has taken 70 years for this memorial to be erected and it was unveiled by the Queen on 28th June 2012. The memorial was designed by the architect Liam O’Connor and is made of Portland stone and echoes the nearby 19th-century Ionic Screen gate by Decimus Burton at the entrance to Hyde Park.
Within the central part of the design, raised on a plinth, stands a bronze sculpture of seven statues. These statues represent the aircrew of a World War Two bomber and were created by the sculptor Philip Jackson.
There is a dedication inscription on an internal wall:
This Memorial is dedicated to the 55,573 airmen from the United Kingdom, British Commonwealth and Allied nations who served in RAF Bomber Command and lost their lives over the course of the Second World War.
But also inscribed on one of the other walls is a message of reconciliation:
This Memorial also commemorates those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing of the 1939-1945.
My Great Uncle Rich was a Pilot Officer who flew Lancasters in 57 Squadron. It was incredible that he survived the war.
I remember him as a quiet, gentle man who perhaps never recovered from his 80+ active flights. He did receive the Distinguish Flying Cross, but I never heard that he talked about his war experience. And, there are no stories if he joined the celebrating crowds in the Mall on 8th May 1945.
I recently exhibited at an art fair in Chelsea, London, and the promotional video has now been uploaded. A little word of warning it does contain several seconds of extremely fast cut rate – I’m guessing something to do with fitting images to the soundtrack. Along with myself there were over 50 artists exhibiting and this video certainly shows how busy and crowded the event was showcasing fine art, drawing, photography, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and jewellery.
Sadly, the most outstanding, beautiful pieces are not shown at all – that was a range of glorious blue ceramics by a woman from the west country. And, that isn’t just my opinion. It was the buzz from quite a few of my fellow talented and knowledgeable exhibitors. Looks like the ‘craft’ part didn’t make the cut.
When I was younger I spent a year attending evening classes at the St Martin’s School of Art in London. I mostly remember arriving at the Charing Cross Road entrance on dark and wet and windy nights although it couldn’t always have been raining.
It was an important experience for me culminating in an end of year fashion show with professional models. The evening show was extra special as the renowned British designer Zandra Rhodes attended offering her support and encouragement to the student/newbie designers.
All cleaned up with replacement windows.
Next door still needs some love and attention!
Nowadays, St Martin’s School of Art has combined with the Central School of Arts & Crafts and is known as Central St Martins (CSM) and since 2011 is based in the King’s Cross area of London. This relocation has left the 1939 purpose-built art school site in the heart of London available for renovation and a new lease of life as retail premises and loft apartments.
Although it is not listed the building is nevertheless an interesting construction of steel, brickwork, Cornish granite and Portland stone. It definitely has a 1930s feel about it and fortunately the recent renovations have not significantly remodelled its external appearance. From the street it looks very much like a successful ‘adaptive reuse’ and so much better than being simply knocked down to allow for yet another soulless glass and steel affair the likes of which seem to be springing up all around.