Thursday 28 April 2016

They do things differently in Benelux

Well, forget the 'Lux' bit, but I couldn't think of a better way of combining the geniuses (genii?) of Ivo van Hove on stage - his Kings of War with Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican - and Jaco Van Dormael, whose French-Belgian film Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament) we saw on Tuesday night at the Gate Cinema Notting Hill. I just can't imagine a British filmmaker pulling that kind of fantasy off - it would slop into whimsy or archness - though in terms of theatre we do have our one and only visionary, Richard Jones, whose combination of rigour and imagination seems closest to van Hove's.

As far as Kings of War is concerned, I kick myself for not having caught Toneelgroep's two previous visits to the Barbican - had booked for Scenes for a Marriage and then needed to go on a work trip - or van Hove's Song from Far Away at the Young Vic. Its star, Eelco Smits, naked for most of the duration of that play about mourning, makes no less interesting a psychological study of Henry VI (pictured up top by set designer and photographer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove's real-life partner since 1980) than those of Henry V (an austerely handsome Ramsey Nasr) and Richard III (Hans Kesting, as funny-horrifying a villain as any I've seen).

Van Hove and company give them all possible support in the focus they pull from the three early history plays. No need to write more about it here, just read my very long Arts Desk rave, but make sure you see the last days of the run if you're in town over the Bank Holiday weekend. In the long term, we need van Hove to direct as much opera here in the UK as he's already done on the continent. A Ring from him would, I'm sure, be amazing (he's done it in Antwerp).

The Brand New Testament begins with a startling enough premise: God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is alive but not very well, a power hungry bully and domestic tyrant who lives in a dingy sealed apartment above the streets of Brussels with his virtually mute wife -an old goddess, it later turns out - and daughter Éa (Pili Groyne, pictured above), JCs sister, who provides the narration and gets out into the urban world to do good for six randomly chosen disciples. The mythic kick to the tale, worthy of a Brecht or a Beckett, is that information is released to all humans giving their death-dates, liberating many from God's tyranny. He, of course, can't function in the real world with his inarticulate rages and ends up - I hope this isn't a spoiler - making washing machines in Uzbekistan.

There's enough imagination here for 10 films: how quickly we forget, for example, the brilliant Genesis sequence where God places first giraffes and then Adam, his private parts covered by a reader's-wives sign, on the city streets. A feminist/matriarchal message is wryly introduced and sustained through to what I hope will come as a surprising and delightful denouement. Every one of the stories of the 'disciples' has visual poetry to it: starlings multiply for adventurer manqué  Marc (Serge Larivière) as he journeys to the far north, a lost hand skates on a table for Laura Verlinden's beautiful Aurélie, and of course it's game of Catherine Deneuve to end up in bed with a gorilla.

Éa hears each human's 'inner music': mostly poetic, but it's Fučík's Entry of the Gladiators for Deneuve's character as the girl leads her off to the circus. The found music is all good; the original score for the rest of the film is too trite for some serious reflections on the sadness and absurdity of the human comedy.

Otherwise, as I intimated up top, the fantasy is just a hairsbreadth away from mannered artificiality. But the three of us who went to see it agreed that Van Dormael just gets away with it. And if your reaction is similar to mine, you'll think about various strands in the film for days afterwards.

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Deepest shame and disgust

...on/at the 294 MPs who voted against our accepting 3,000 frightened, unaccompanied and endangered refugee children into the UK*. Whatever the arguments - 'we're doing enough to help them where they are' (still leaving them prey to traffickers), 'this sets dangerous precedents' - it's morally wrong. The list of 294, named and shamed here, needs to be posted everywhere with mugshots attached - there is more than one kind of criminality. It might also be worth finding out how many are the children or descendents of refugees: the majority, I'd imagine.

This man, Sir Nicholas Winton, honoured with a statue here in Prague (there's also one at Liverpool Street Station), would be turning in his grave.

We don't need to go back to World War II - Belgian refugee children in the UK pictured up top - for precedents (our dear friend Edward Mendelson, by the way, was on the last of the Kindertransports from Vienna which also brought the current heroic - and so far rejected - proponent of compassion, Alf Dubs, saved - as it later turned out - by Winton, who became a friend). These are Bulgarian refugee children in 1914.

And so back into history. I wish Dickens were alive today to write a savage invective.

Can't we take a leaf out of Lebanon's book? It has more refugees than it can reasonably cope with, but education programmes for Syrian children are now strong. Gordon and Sarah Brown have been doing an admirable job to ensure more funding flows for the right to school.

The moral bankruptcy currently rife in this country, or at least among its so-called leaders, seems to be coming to a head. All you have to say is 'Theresa May wants us to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights' and you know what's wrong with that. Though this film starring Patrick Stewart, with acknowledgments to Monty Python, is a good way to respond. Do watch through to the end, which had me rolling about with laughter. Doesn't seem embeddable as yet, so click on the link above to watch.

You don't need to make a parody of Jeremy Hunt (not the brightest button in the box, as this article by a former employee makes all too clear) vs junior doctors - it's way beyond satire already**, though the outcome is already looking tragic. Excellent clarity - from the medics' perspective - here. Everyone needs to know that senior doctors are to hand to make sure emergencies are handled during the current strike, so don't believe the scare stories.

What horrible people we have in power. But I know this isn't true of the UK population as a whole - unless support for Brexit proves me wrong, in which case it will just be dangerous ignorance of the facts, which IS a problem here. Let's just hope Obama, the greatest AND most lovable statesman I've ever known in my lifetime, has had the desired effect. While he was here, he went to the Globe, too, on Shakespeare's birthday, happily coinciding with the grand finale of the company's amazing Hamlet world tour. Hope this picture is 'fair use' territory.

I wish it were simple for people to decide when faced with the equation 'Obama wants us to stay in Europe; Putin, Trump and Marine Le Pen want us out'. That and the pitiful roster of damaged human beings leading, if you can use the word, the Brexit campaign, should be enough to show folk what's going on.

Incidentally, when I last looked at the Patrick Stewart film, up popped an ad: 'Canadian immigration: do you qualify?' I hope I do if it's out of the EU for the UK: already having thoughts about moving to the diplo-mate's homeland, Ireland or, when it detaches, Scotland

Rant over.

PS - but let that wonderful artist Wolfgang Tillmans, one of the 12-Star Gallery's finest exhibitors, do more of the addressing in a sequence of sparely-designed messages. They can all be found here - my thanks to Graham Rickson for e-mailing the link - but this one is especially good. The main message (albeit in small print here): register to vote before 7 June

*Yet there is one notable exception among the Conservatives - Stephen Phillips QC MP, whose speech here should be the rule rather than the exception.

**Though Frankie Boyle can always go one better, and just has in The Guardian.

Sunday 24 April 2016

In Estonian

If you can see the small print - miniscule at the above size - you'll note that I had a review of (the last four days of) the Estonian Music Days festival in amazing Tallinn printed in the country's main national, Postimees. Dealings with the editor, as with all Estonians I've met, have been a delight, in marked contrast to most newspaper liaising over here. And what I wrote seems to have been kept intact in the translation. Should you read Estonian, or wish to see some more festival photos, the whole thing is here.

A different piece with some overlap that might make more sense to you is over on The Arts Desk. That covers most of the ground as far as the events were concerned - more to come here about other discoveries this time in Tallinn - but I want to be indulged with a few of my own pics. I got some good ones at the re-launch of Estonia's first electronic organ the varioola.

Having expressed doubts about whether I would survive the experience -  'Eek!! First electronic organ: must it be revived?!' responded one friend by e - I found most of the experience riveting: not just the compositions, in amplified sound by Tammo Sumera which made the veteran, born 1959, sound splendid, but also the visitation of one of its two inventors.

Anatol Sügis's biography reads nicely in the English half of the programme book, according to which he is 'a determined, particular person who is often referred to as an "eco-refugee and gastronomic noncomformist". He has a PhD in physics and, himself a vegan [here a gratuitous food photo, to signal that I ate in the wonderful V - for Vegan - restaurant in the old town, and had to try their beetroot ravioli],

promotes ways for green living.' Although, as I wrote, I could hardly understand a word of his conversation in Estonian with the rather more reserved electronics prof Margo Kolar, I was instantly charmed.

Managed to have a brief chat with him in English while inspecting the instrument (caught here by festival photographer Mari Arnover with fellow writer, the composer Simon Cummings)

and learnt that his co-inventor is living still but was unable to get out of the house and come along. The charming informality of this aftermath was typical of all the events. And this cues a real delight I was lucky to catch while out wandering that afternoon. Looking out from the window of a second-hand bookshop I saw a group of teenagers holding hands and dressed in various national costumes.

Following them to the main square, where they formed a circle and did a kind of hokey-cokey to a national song, I found they were marking the last day of school.

This is good tradition in a country that's anything but conservative in its general outlook - and the kind of thing a visitor always hopes to encounter, a national rite that's not put on for tourists.

As for the progressive, of course that was present in every event I attended. And the last was gobsmackingly impressive in the Cauldron Hall of the vast former power plant, over 100 years old and now serving as an arts centre. Somewhat concealed here behind another old industrial building, but the chimney makes a nice counterpart to St Olav's Church spire.

Next to it is the deliciously makeshift Estonian Museum of Contemporary Art.

I found its good bookshop run by a friendly girl and its creatively wrought cafe run by a rather melancholy one with a shy dog. What I like about this whole area down near the Baltic shore is that there clearly hasn't been the money to chichify it in the way you might find in Paris, London or Berlin (now, at any rate - parts of the city do remind me of the east Berlin I first got to know in the late 1980s). They've just left the Linnahall, formerly the Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport built in 1980 for the Olympics, to its own devices, so it's covered in some quite lively graffiti (love the crows) and left to the young to hang out there in a very non-threatening way.

I was lucky to catch a set of installations at the Contemporary Art Museum which had only been assembled the previous day. All six are competing for the prestigious Köler Prize, and I got to vote which one I liked the best.

From an historical perspective, the most striking installation had to be Art Allmägi's Cold War with its surveillance devices covered in simulated snow and ice below,

with radars in the dark on the floor above.

One 'operations' room has surveillance screens beneath an icon and (out of sight here) an old chandelier and iron gates to suggest the placid surface.

Like the landscapes of terror I heard in Lepo Sumera's masterly Sixth Symphony, this is a powerful commentary on what always lay below the surface of Estonia's Soviet years, evident everywhere outside the Old Town.

In the meantime, new life pulses within the Creative Hub, and the EMD's special theme had greened the space, with striking effects on the piping and the boilers.

If the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir's concert here did not provide the anticipated grand finale to the festival - though the acoustics were superb - then plenty else had hit the heights. And I'll never forget the Sumera symphony conducted so assuredly by Anu Tali. Have to discover the other five now.

Finally, an appropriately Shakespearean note the day after the anniversary (and a superb 400th anniversary concert conducted by Jurowski, which I came back early from Odense to catch and write about on The Arts Desk, well worth it): which play is this, being performed in Tallinn's beautifully located City Theatre?

I couldn't make it out - and the image didn't exactly help - until an Estonian told me that suve means 'summer' and õõ 'night' - that's become a favourite word. You grasp the rest. The full picture follows.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Lacock weekend 2: wet Bath

On an Easter Saturday of mainly torrential rain, there was nothing for it but to abandon plans for a long walk and set off for the galleries of Bath. And so in effect our sole leg-stretching, apart from standing and looking at pictures, was to walk from the Holburne Museum with its top floor of superb Gainsboroughs and Ramsays

along Great Pulteney Street to the Victoria Art Gallery, holding in one big room art from the 15th century to Howard Hodgkin and Grayson Perry.

The Holburne has had much more money lavished on it, so that a star attraction for many is the ace cafe extension with a nice museum attached. Needless to say, we started out there with a second breakfast before J and I headed up to the top floor to see the best pictures. All of these were given long after bachelor Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793-1874) lived here with his three unmarried sisters and amassed an odd miscellany of stuff, most of it second-rate, on display in the rooms below. The collection was bequeathed to 'the people of Bath' by one of said sisters in 1882. The real beauties didn't join the parade until bequests in the mid 1950s and early 1960s.

Inevitably local grandees grown rich on slavery appear in all their finery. The above Gainsborough, a long-term loan, shows George Byam, owner of an Antigua plantation, with his wife, Bath girl Louisa, and their child Selina (added at a later date along with a colour-change to Louisa's gown). There are two very different priests, a group of Ramsay portraits and a rather fine Stubbs of the Rev. Robert Carter Thelwall and his family.

Historically interesting, too, is Zoffany's painting of the Auriol and Dashwood families in India.

One wall has a collection of theatrical paintings which really ought to go to the Garrick, but they make a fine set. I'm indebted to the volunteer in the room for pointing out that the grand piano at the top of the staircase outside, which I would have walked straight past, was a 1930s Steinway used by Rachmaninov in his London concerts of that time. Here's my 11-note stretch, not quite as impressive as his (14). My fingers are long but my hands are not huge.

On the floor below, there's a beautiful light and airy room with 3D computer printed teapots in the middle, and various candelabra from 1780 to 1830 well placed on the windowsills with views over to Sydney Place and Great Pulteney Street beyond. Here's Mercury.

We had a necessary interlude in the studio of Paul Sonabend, right next to a residence of Jane Austen.

Paul has been championed by Deborah, the great sculptor who was one of our two hosts, and rightly so - I think he's a genius. They share in common a fascination with Ned Kelly - Sancho Panza dialoguing with him in the middle of this triptych -

and Paul's other themes are most often biblical, Old and New Testaments. This Crucifixion, with cigarette cases containing texts from Bible pages, seems especially pertinent.

There is shortly to be a Sonabend show at Europe House, so it was good for J to meet the artist. I liked him tremendously but didn't intrude on his privacy by asking for any photos.

So down Great Pulteney Street and over the bridge, which you're hardly aware of as such with shops on both side until you come to the end

to the Victoria Gallery. Deborah and Andrew wanted to see the Grayson Perry exhibition, which I wish from what they told us we'd seen, but never having caught the permanent collection, I thought it was time we made its acquaintance. The gallery felt a bit shambolic and had a slight air of decay/underfunding, but it was good to see it well used. And I hope to return for the Kenneth Armitage exhibition due shortly, because I very much like his People in the Wind (on the right below against Sickerts and Matthew Smiths, among others).

Then it was back under a downpour to the car, home for tea and out to one of those fine riverside restaurants in Bradford on Avon for a pretty good evening meal.