Tate Modern Photo-ops

Picasso retrospective

Art lover at the Tate ModernChildren playing in Turbine Hall

I love the Tate Modern. There’s the shows, of course — the free ones from the permanent collection and the blockbusters. There’s the mysterious Tanks and the clever Artist Rooms. There’s the building, with all its curves and angles and long, long escalators, and the wonderful smooth sloping Turbine Hall. There are the people who swarm through it, who all seem  happy to be there. People from many lands, with many complexions, dressed up, dressed down, dressed tastefully, dressed oddly. And children, running and rolling and skipping up and down the shiny turbine slope. Photo-ops everywhere!Picasso retrospective

The show was Picasso 1932. An argument is made that this was a pivotal year for Picasso, and it seems so. However, Picasso had many phases in a long artistic life, and there are other years that are equally important. But what does it matter?

Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective
Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective

Lots to see in 1932, particularly since Picasso had his first retrospective that year, providing an opportunity to include works from other periods. Particularly interesting was an arrangement of a group of paintings and drawings just as they appeared in the exhibition in 1932.

I’ve been looking long and hard at Picasso’s work ever since the great

The view across the river
The view across the river from the members lounge

Picasso and Man exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario when I was in high school. (“Picasso and Man” it was called, though “Picasso and Woman” would have been more appropriate. This was 1964.) He’s like an old friend. I’m always glad to renew our acquaintance.

Gallery 46: Photos of homeless in 1970s London

A room in Gallery 46

Gallery 46 is in Whitechapel at 46 Ashfield Road, one of two adjacent Georgian houses. To be admitted to 46, you knock on the door of its neighbour. The gallery occupies three floors of the otherwise empty house.

The exhibition was “A Sort of Home”, photographs by David Hoffman of homeless people, some taken in a “wet crypt” under St. Botolph’s Church, and others in an unregulated Christmas shelter, run by Crisis at Christmas. These shelters accepted anyone, no questions asked, and allowed unrestricted activities (i.e, drinking and drugs). In this way, they provided minimal shelter for people who were otherwise unable to make use of more regulated facilities.

Black Alber comforts his friend Danny in St Botolph's Crypt wet shelter 1976.
Black Albert comforts his friend Danny in St Botolph’s Crypt wet shelter 1976, photo by David Hoffman.

The photos, black and white, simple and stark in composition, pack a powerful impact. There is nothing sentimental, just straighforward confrontation with the reality of certain lives and circumstances.

In one room, the St. Botolph photos are projected on a wall, accompanied by a sound recording of the hubbub captured by Hoffman on site. It’s a hypnotic and disturbing experience to watch while letting the din wash over.

National Theatre: Consent

Consent at the Harold Pinter
Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent is what used to be called a “problem play”, an examination from various perspectives of a current hot topic. The topic in this case: consensual sex versus rape. The characters are almost all lawyers or lawyers wives, except for one: a woman from the working class who has been raped. Two of the lawyers are trying the case, one for the crown and the other as a defense lawyer appointed by the Crown to represent the accused, the alleged rapist. “Who’s my lawyer?” demands the victim, but the prosecutor won’t even talk to her; she’s not a plaintiff, but a witness, and he cannot be seen to be coaching her on her testimony.

Consent, photo by Photo by Johan Persson
Clare Foster, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lee Ingleby in Consent at Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

The lawyers and wives engage in chit chat reminiscent of Sondheim’s Company, but we (and they) gradually learn that all is not as superficial as it seems. Infidelities and sexual power games break and rearrange the relationships, and the men (primarily) try to achieve some kind of understanding of their emotional lives. All this to the click of highballs and wine glasses. At the end of the first act, rough reality breaks in; the rape victim crashes the party and discovers that the two lawyers are friends.

In the second act, one of the wives throws her husband out. Begging forgiveness, he ignores her repeated “no” and they have sex. His friends are horrified: technically, they tell him, this is rape.

There are more facets, more issues to explore, but you get the idea. The script, by Nina Raine, is skillful, smart and sometimes funny. The issues are examined with a certain level of evenhandedness. There are no villains, just imperfect well-bred middle-class professionals doing their best to cope.

I liked the play, but I can’t overlook that it pulls its punches. We want to see those lawyers in court. We want to see a lot more of the working woman’s ordeal than we’re given. And we want to see what happens when the gentle people have their day in court. This never happens. There’s all these lawyers, and no courtroom fireworks? They just talk it out, make concessions and compromises, and life goes on. Cop out.

 

Arcola Theatre: Donizetti and Ravel Operas

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn
Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Grimeborn is an annual summer series of opera performances by alternative companies, held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. This is a chance to hear chamber versions of operas, sung up close and personal by accomplished singers, accompanied by piano or sometimes small ensembles. Sunday, August 5, it was a double bill by Opera Alegria of Donizetti’s Rita and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour).

Rita is about the relationship between a harridan bar-owner (Naomi Kilby) and her downtrodden husband (Richard Belshaw). Into this non-idyllic domestic scene ventures a guest (Christopher Faulkner) who, unluckily, turns Naomi Kilby, Richard Belshaw in Ritaout to be Rita’s first husband, presumed dead. The current husband is delighted at the prospect of his freedom, while the first husband does his best to escape. It is silly and fun, if you overlook the domestic abuse implications. (A program note mentions that some of the content was toned down for modern sensibilities.) What is important is Donizetti at his sparkling best, sung with great verve and played with gusto on an upright piano by Lindsay Bramley.

Opera Alegria, L'Heure Expagnole
Opera Alegria, L’Heure Expagnole

Decades ago, right after university, I was stage director of a small opera company, and L’Heure Espagnole was one of the operas we did. I haven’t heard or seen it since, so you can imagine that I was pretty interested in how they would approach it.

The story is that there is a clockmaker whose job it is to wind the city hall clocks once a week. This provides an opportunity for his wife Concepcion (Alicia Gurney) to meet her lovers, a poet (Stuart McDermott) and a town official (Matthew Duncan). A muscular workman, Ramiro (Thorvald Blough) turns up to have his watch repaired, and both lovers end up hiding in the clocks.  Ramiro carries the clocks (with their passengers) upstairs to Concepcion’s bedroom, and back down again when they prove inadequate. However, Concepcion notices Ramiro’s physique, and things work out after all.

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L'Heure Espagnole
Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L’Heure Espagnole

The music is Ravel in finest form, harmonically rich with some Spanish sauce. Well sung by all.

I was naturally interested in the staging choices. Great grandfather clocks with people inside them are pretty funny in themselves, but not easy to build and not easy to carry, especially while singing. Opera Alegria solved the problem with face masks with clock faces. When a singer donned a mask, he was considered to be hiding in the clock. It was an ingenious solution.

The performance was in the Arcola’s Studio 2, downstairs and no air conditioning, or even much ventilation. London has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, so it got pretty stifling. Still . . . for art one must sometimes suffer, no?

Taming of the Shrew, Trinidad Style

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon
Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Strolling along the Avon River on the way to see Miss Littlewood at the Swan, we chanced on an outdoor production of Taming of the Shrew by a little company from Trinidad-Tobago. I was fascinated, and only with regret tore myself away to go to our scheduled performance at the Swan.

The set was the most minimal imaginable: a gauzy cloth thrown over a tree branch forming an inverted V for entrances and exits. That was it. Calypso songs between the scenes commented on the plot, but Shakepeare’s text was otherwise unaltered.

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon
Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

And we understood every word, every idea, every joke Shakespeare wrote. How did they do it, despite Trinidad accents and 400-odd years of linguistic change? Simple. They spoke every line to the audience as if they really cared that we would understand. They played it like Vaudeville, glancing occasionally at the other actors, but talking to us.And they carried it off with swagger and panache, with that wonderful Trini calypso energy.

And in doing so, a lot of the troubling aspects of Shrew vanish. Hey, folks, don’t take this so serious! This isn’t sociology, this is WWE. Current champion, Katherine! Challenger, Petruchio! As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that this is how Shakespeare intended it to be played. Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (1592). I like to think that this was written for touring, when the company would set up in an innyard, or under a spreading oak tree, and try to engage and win over a crowd using time-tested techniques employed from before Aristophanes to Saturday Night Live.

I looked up the company on the internet. It’s called The Oratory Foundation (www.oratoryfoundation.com).

“The Oratory Foundation is a school with the mandate to touch and teach through oration and creative forms of the spoken word. It promotes and encourages the use of various forms of oratory; it is a teaching institution providing the opportunity for the pruning and perfecting of poetry, oratory and performance.”

The performance we chanced upon is part of a series of free outdoor productions sponsored by RSC called The Dell Open Air Theatre (https://www.rsc.org.uk/events/the-dell). ”

“On weekends during June, July and August, our outdoor theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Dell, hosts a range of lively student, community and semi-professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

“The Dell was launched as part of the Complete Works Festival in 2006 and has hosted more than 300 amateur theatre companies, community groups, schools, universities and professional theatre companies to growing audience numbers of all ages.”

What a good idea.

August 4: Miss Littlewood

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis
Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Joan Littlewood was a theatre innovator who had a huge influence on how theatre is made. A tough cockney who  quit RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)and walked from London to Manchester, she joined with young Jimmy Miller (later AKA Ewan McColl) in 1933 to do agitprop anti-Nazi street theatre. Together with Gerry Raffles, all-round technical fixer-upper, they created an ensemble approach to theatre that revolutionized theatre practice. After the war, the company, now called Theatre Workshop, survived hand-to-mouth and unsubsidized, without a permanent home base. In 1953, Gerry Raffles found a derelict theatre in East London, Theatre Royal Stratford East. The company scrubbed it up and moved in, creating new work and a new way of working, until a series of hits, transferred to the West End, brought international recognition: The Quare Fellow and The Hostage by Brendan Behan, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Sparrers Can’t Sing. The biggest hit of all was Oh What a Lovely War (1963), which told the frightful story of the First World War using a combination of clown show, documentary segments, projections, and songs from the barracks and the music hall, all deftly crafted and arranged into a riveting experience in the theatre.

Miss Littlewood, a musical by Sam Kenyon, tells the story. Or rather, stories: the making of a theatre company, the life of Joan, the Joan and Gerry love story, and step-by-step what happened. Sam Kenyon came late to the party, having had no direct experience of Theatre Workshop, but had the help of Murray Melvin, a company member in the later years. He also had Joan’s Book, Joan’s autobiography, which (by the way) is a terrific read.

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis
Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Toronto’s theatrical innovator, George Luscombe, was in the company in its earlier days, when the techniques were all being worked out. He brought the Littlewood approach to his company, Toronto Theatre Workshop, with a distinguished history of shows: Hey Rube, Mr. Bones, Ten Lost Years, Ain’t Lookin’ and lots more. I was in TWP and co-wrote a play with George, The Wobbly. My own theatre work has been in the Littlewood/Luscombe tradition.

So I had great incentive to see this show. Two days after we landed in London, we scooted up to Stratford-upon-Avon for the production’s last day.

Bottom line: it was worth it. MIss Littlewood was lively, with catchy songs of the right flavour, navigating its way through all the stories gracefully. Given that it wasn’t an ensemble production, but a musical about an ensemble, it managed to put across the feel of group creation. The most significant convention was having members of the company take turns playing Joan in the phases of her life — women black and white, skinny and solid. It was quite striking how the core of Joan was carried through all the transitions.

Standing beside me (yes, standing room again) was a woman who taught English and Drama, and was responsible for staging very ambitious productions (Les Miz). She had returned to see it a second time, bringing her mother. Joan continues to inspire, and Miss Littlewood is worthy of its subject.