Dancing at Lughnasa

The new production at the Olivier is very good. I’ve read criticism of the stage, but I thought the way it combines inside and outside with a real sense of perspective was very clever and effective. The cast, featuring Siobhán McSweeney and Ardal O’Hanlon (as Father Jack) is very strong. The play itself is a vivid slice of life with strong and interesting characters, living complex lives that are just about to break down. It is clearly about memory, with the protagonist narrating his life in retrospect and providing the voice for his otherwise invisible younger self. At the end of the day, though, I don’t know what it tells us beyond what any bit of a life might do. To mention a small reservation, I wasn’t sure about Father Jack’s accounts of the beliefs of the Ugandans he lived among: are they accurate or just invented? But an interesting evening.

Van Gogh and Hals

While we were in Amsterdam we naturally went to the Van Gogh Museum, which is great: and by coincidence we arrived on Van Gogh’s 170th birthday. The gallery shows works by various other artists, highlighting the influence of Japanese pictures and pointillism, for example.

I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this picture before – it’s by Gauguin, of Van Gogh painting sunflowers!

One other artist admired by Van Gogh was Frans Hals, whose works we saw in Harlem.

Hals’s brushwork was always loose and became extraordinarily free in old age. Lace collars from this period look like random slashes of white paint close up, but when you back off they look perfect from a distance. Apparently at the time some though he was senile, but then other artist’s styles (Turner, El Greco) have been attributed to poor eyesight, and indeed Van Gogh’s to mental illness.


I’ve got a bit behind with these posts: we went to the amazing exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where the largest ever collection of Vermeer’s works are gathered (and we got in before Girl with a Pearl Earing went back to the Mauritshuis).

With so many works together, it becomes very clear that Vermeer had certain favoured themes. Many of the images seem to have been staged in the same place: a room with a window to the left, a chequered floor, and a map or a picture on the back wall. Posed in this space are women reading, or with musical instruments, and the same pieces of clothing get re-used (that yellow, fur-edged jacket).

I had had the impression that Vermeer’s stuff was pastel coloured and just a little soft focus, but neither of those things proved to be true. A great experience, slightly impaired by the crowds. and I’m afraid these snaps are not great quality. I would urge you to go, but I’m afraid it’s too late.

Donatello at the V&A

I didn’t know much about Donatello before this, but it seems he is notable in several ways. A pioneer of free-standing bronze sculpture, responsible for some of the first since classical antiquity. An influential creator whose designs and methods were widely copied. And the master of rilievo schiacciato, flattened relief, in which a 3-d image is carved within a few millimetres of depth (the difference in the levels in some of these works must be fractions of a millimetre).

Donatello’s most famous work, his sinuous nude David, is represented here only by a copy. But we have the completely puzzling Attis-Amorino, an ecstatic cherub-like figure who wears droopy leggings off a big belt. He is trampling serpents, and has both wings and a small satyr’s tail as well as wearing poppies. He represents something, but exactly what is unclear…

Hockney at Lightroom

There has been a bit of a fashion lately for shows where an artist’s works are projected at huge size on the walls and floors. The Hockney one at Lightroom (‘Bigger and Closer, not smaller and further away’) is the first I know of where the artist is alive and actively involved in the show. Hockney, of course, has always been up for using technology, whether cameras or more recently iPads.

This show amounts to a guide or commentary to all the different periods of his career, narrated by the man himself. I thought a few things worked particularly well – watching the construction of some paintings, joining in his ‘Wagner Ride’ and animations of his set designs (he has apparently suggested the Lightroom set up could be used to stage a short opera).

It’s lucky that Hockney is good at explaining his views on perspective, say, or the representation of time. He tells us how much he liked it being always warm and sunny in L.A., but he also says there is no bad weather. (‘If it’s raining, I’ll paint the rain: if it’s snowing, I’ll paint the snow. All of the world is beautiful, really, but people don’t look at it.)

Dead Puppets

I’ve fallen a bit behind with my reviews, but I have to say a belated word about ‘Famous Puppet Death Scenes’ by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop from Canada. It is indeed essentially a puppet show with a series of death scenes showing off a range of jokes and ingenious stunts. You could call the style Gothic Absurd, perhaps: supposedly the sponsor, a puppet himself, has put together for our edification these celebrated death scenes, culminating in his own. The series is loosely bound together by some repeated motifs, especially a number of extracts from that seminal work The Feverish Heart by Nordo Frot.
The pieces are funny and ingenious (sometimes you may suspect a bit has found its way into the show because it’s such an amusing idea, rather than because it fits the theme brilliantly, but hey, what’s wrong with that?) and actually have some genuine shock value. You won’t expect deep philosophy, but things are rounded out with a little moral reflection, delivered as snappily as the rest. If this show or this group ever come your way, give it a try.

Spanish Treasures

‘Spain and the Hispanic World’ at the Royal Academy is a mixed bag which doesn’t really aim for a coherent view but presents a large selection from the American Hispanic Society’s collection (I believe their building is being refurbished at the moment). There are works by El Greco, Velasquez and Goya as well as other items whose interest is more historical or even ethnographic. There are fascinating maps and they also have a fine set of knockers on display (thank you, I’m here all week).

Goya’s large painting of the Duchess of Alba (‘The Black Duchess’ – he also did a white one), used on posters for the exhibition, is interesting. You notice she is pointing down, and at first I thought she was drawing attention to the remarkable shoes she is wearing, which are silver and sharply pointed. In fact, there is a message written in the sand at her feet: ‘Only Goya’ it says. Goya treasured this picture and kept it for himself. Hmm.

We also have a remarkable bust of Saint Acisclus, life size and unsettlingly realistic. The saint’s expression, which seems to change slightly when viewed from different angles, expresses a curiously anaemic distress at his head being cut off (here indicated only by a delicate red line).

Also memorable is the set of little pieces depicting the Four Fates of Man (death, hell, purgatory and heaven). Death doesn’t quite fit here: it seems to suggest that total extinction is another option hereafter, which surely isn’t the orthodox view.

El Greco’s work is always fascinating and here we’ve got good old St Jerome, recognisable by the invariable presence of a cardinal’s hat (though he never seems to wear it). His usual friend the lion is not shown, though. You couldn’t mistake El Greco for anyone else. Did those distortions, that otherworldly sense in his paintings, really come in part from poor eyesight? People have said something similar about Turner.

Mother Goose

It’s a lot of fun.

Mother Goose, starring Ian McKellen with John Bishop, is essentially a traditional pantomime, complete with absurd storyline, corny jokes, audience participation and of course, a dame.

In a pretty negative review, the Guardian said that if you were just going to see McKellen do his dame, you wouldn’t be disappointed, but that the rest of the show is underpowered. It is true that McKellen is really what the show is about: he is brilliant and it’s astonishing that at his age, he can take on a run of this length (touring till April). I think the Guardian is also right that when he briefly does a bit of Shakespeare straight, you kind of wish he would forget the panto and carry on. It is at least a welcome acknowledgement that he has played other parts besides Gandalf, a rôle we are reminded of perhaps a little too often here.

Yes, it’s true the jokes are not very sharp, especially the handful of political ones, but then this is panto, not satire. Granted, there is a sort of uneasiness about a pantomime with no children in the audience (a point they make a joke of). And I really wish they hadn’t decided to wrap things up with a rousing singalong of Sweet Caroline.

But… it’s a lot of fun.

Strange Clay

Went to Strange Clay at the Hayward Gallery. I feared this might be a bit austerely intellectual, but in fact most exhibits are attractive as well as interesting, and several are humorous to varying degrees. There is a self-portrait with critique by (Sir) Grayson Perry and a piece by Edmund de Waal, better known to me as the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes. I’m afraid the latter is the least enjoyable thing in the show: small white pots in vitrines hoisted above your head. Katharine rightly said it looked like additional light fittings… Generally though, the show is a lot of fun.

Crucible in the Rain

We went to see The Crucible at the Olivier. It’s a great production, with strong performances from all the cast. The stage was surrounded by a sheet of artificial rain which was used like a curtain – I’m not really sure why. Very effective use was made of the deeper part of the stage, which would occasionally be lit to show a little scene, someone approaching, or the accusing girls in niches like saints.

What did strike me was that although it is unquestionably deserving of its place as a classic drama, the play would get some criticism if presented to a modern writer’s workshop. It opens with a big slab of straightforward exposition, just spoken direct to the audience: all of that would probably be deleted by a current editor. One of the best episodes in the story is how Giles Corey refuses to plead and chooses to be crushed to death, knowing that this way his estate will pass to his sons, whereas if he were convicted of witchcraft it would be confiscated. Miller throws that away, having it merely described in brief. (He wishes, of course, to focus on John Proctor’s agonising over whether to provide a false confession that will save his life.)

Some of the force of the play is arguably lost because on Miller’s account there really was some witch stuff going on: some of the girls did dance naked, help conjure the dead, and drink (chicken) blood. At the close Tituba and Sarah Good are shown eagerly waiting for the Devil to come and take them. So it seems the authorities are sort of right about the crime, merely pinning the blame on the wrong people.

Finally, things are wrapped up with another slice of exposition – what happened afterwards? It dissipates some of the impact of the deaths, especially Proctor’s, if we go on to hear about remarriages and compensation.

Whatever you think of that, it’s a great play with many memorable passages, and this is a great production.