The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Selfishness & Revenge

Two post-war plays.  Two key themes.  Two examples of human-beings at their worst.

Both productions are impressive.  The first, Strange Interlude, is currently playing at the National. The second, Titus Andronicus, is a Royal Shakespeare Company production at Stratford-upon-Avon. 

Eugene O’ Neill’s setting is attractive, on the surface refined.  Shakespeare’s is as violent and bloody as a Tarantino.  Neither story is redemptive.  They make you feel uncomfortable.  And though packing punches in different ways, both are designed to shock. 

The American story of grief and manipulation is gripping because you wonder how far the characters will go to prolong a litany of lies and half-truths.  O’Neill utilises a theatrical device where at regular intervals the characters speak directly to the audience about their true feelings.  This is as informative as it is entertaining, but ultimately leaves the audience feeling no-one in this narrative (and by implication the greater world) can be trusted to be genuine or better than selfish.  Indeed it is the extent of their self-absorption and selfishness which is most shocking. 

Strange Interlude shares with Titus Andronicus questions about self-sacrifice.  Did society gain from Nina’s devotion to the soldiers in hospital or was her obsession negative and manipulative?  Why was it easier, or thought more honourable, to be self-sacrificial rather than honest about Gordon’s parentage and Nina’s long-term love affair with the Doctor?  And having lived a lie for so many years, do the choices made by Nina, Charles and Edmund after Sam’s funeral prolong the deception for selfish or non-selfish reasons?  Perhaps a little of both, for only in the character of grown-up Gordon (played well by Wilf Scolding) is there any real sense of redemption – in that he changes his attitude to set his mother free from her obligations as he sees it. 

These foible-filled character’s are played so impressively well by Anne-Marie Duff (as Nina), Darren Pettie (as Edmund Darrell), Jason Watkins (as Sam Evans) and Charles Edwards (as “Uncle Charlie” Marsden) that though you continue to wish them well… even relishing the humour in the world’s worst suitor finally getting the girl… you know so much of their behaviour has been a cop-out.  And it leaves you feeling entertained but inexplicably restless.

In a reading of Titus Andronicus we tend to like, or at least admire, the lead warrior, because he has sacrificed years of his life and family to fight for Rome with patriotic pride and dedication.  Our heart goes out to Titus when he sacrifices his hand genuinely believing the trade for his sons’ lives is worthwhile.  And we even get a glint of softness in Aaron when he's prepared to sacrifice his life for love of his infant son; such is Shakespeare’s capacity for shades of morality even in the most obstinately vile of characters.

Yet on balance Shakespeare and O’Neill seem to be saying the business of self sacrifice is less than it’s cracked up to be – in the former case probably a comment on Rome being heavily controlled by the Vatican.  Their problem may be one of degree, motivation or sincerity, but neither present self sacrifice as appealing or particularly noble.

A key difference in presentational styles between the two plays – as you might expect written so many hundreds of years apart - is that Shakespeare doesn’t pretend for a moment his characters are anything other than brutal and vengeful.  Even on the page Titus Andronicus shocks by its cruelty. 

I recall being completely savaged by the relentless brutality of “No Country For Old Men” because I’d fallen for the Cohen Brother’s black comedies.   Perhaps my love of Shakespeare’s lighter folios is going to leave me similarly exposed?

So even before arriving at Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday night, I wonder how the designer, Colin Richmond, and the RSC’s technical staff are going to manage the sleight of hand required to present convincing decapitations?  The Swan Theatre is an intimate thrust stage with audience on three sides, so there’s no proscenium to hide the tricks.   And the more I think about it the more I fear the likely quantities of blood. 

Nevertheless approaching the theatre with an invitation to attend a Blogger’s Event, I am excited to see how Michael Fentiman is going to realize this challenging play and satisfy his RSC directorial debut. 

In short, I am not disappointed.  In Fentiman’s hands this difficult play suddenly makes more sense.  Rome is the epitome of civilisation, but is it?  The Goths are our enemies so we can treat them however we wish, but can we?  And what are the relative costs and risks of a relentless pursuit of revenge? 

By setting the play in a timeless world with stylistic statements of past, present, future, East and West, Fentiman and Richmond force us to acknowledge the human trap of revenge is universal.  However extreme some specific behaviour remains, and however distanced a modern audience might feel from the context, the danger of humanity losing its principles and perspective when driven by hatred and revenge is undeniable.  The result is bloody in more ways than one.

Yet herein was a pleasant surprise.  Titus Andronicus is known, even avoided, for its blood lust.  The RSC’s internet trailer hypes the violence – as if tattooed, drug-crazed Sweeney Todds have escaped the musical to be recast in a futuristic, gothic-style horror film, where cannibalism is normalised and human entrails are worn as jewellery.  I thought immediately it was meant to appeal to an audience much younger than myself; perhaps to people who play gruesome video games, or who can sit through a Tarantino without closing their eyes? 

On stage, however, what Fentiman manages to do with the violence is to stop it being gratuitous.  Each ‘assault’ is handled differently, uniquely.  I knew what was coming but still gasped at the sudden and effective slaying of Mutius.  Richard Pinner, the Illusionist, coached the cast well; particularly in the scene where Titus is tricked by Aaron to sacrifice his hand in exchange for his sons’ freedom.  The fight scenes are powerfully choreographed by Kate Waters and Ann Yee so focus is held on character conflict.   And when the sons’ severed heads are swiftly returned to their stunned and wounded father, the choice to put their heads into tied plastic bags had several benefits. 

Firstly, in a stroke of genius from Stephen Boxer - who it must be said sucks inspiration and belief from Shakespeare’s verses the way a bee sucks honey - these bags can be picked up and used as stimulus for Titus’s subsequent monologue... where in talking to, and listening to, the disembodied heads, we empathise with his Lear-like descent into grief-stricken madness.   

This choice also allows Fentiman to contain the flow of blood (so he’s got somewhere to go later), and show that Shakespeare fully intends his audience to be aghast at this point but also to see the situation’s ludicrousness.  For things are deteriorating, they can only get worse, and the tragedy is that no-one appears willing or able to do anything about the rapid decline into lawlessness and carnage.  

That’s not to say Fentiman or Boxer foresaw the multiple advantages of heads in a bag as opposed to heads on a pogo stick, for example, they likely didn’t.  It is to say that when a creative director gets with insightful actors, their collaboration accrues to more than the sum of their parts.  And that is another beauty of this production: the cast and crew have been chosen very well; several making their RSC debut and quickly proving they are worth the trust Fentiman has placed in them.  Nuances abound in this production which make the play all the more palatable and relevant. 

I include in this the imaginative use of the RSC’s enormous technical capability: able to fly villains and corpses over tens of metres while tied by the ankles like stuck pigs; platforms which rise and fall to create pits of despair one minute and exotic bathing arrangements the next; challenging costume developments, and lighting, sound and visual effects so dramatic you feel the entire crew should take an onstage bow; beautiful musical scoring and enough live musicians to make the producers of low budget productions weep; and then there’s simply the intimate beauty of the Swan Theatre, whose uncommonly comfortable seats provide an unusual juxtaposition to a starkly uncomfortable narrative.

As always, however, most memorable in a sea of features are the precious moments when actors find life on the stage you simply can not find on the page.   Suddenly in the walk and attitude of Stephen Boxer did I understand why Titus doesn’t bother to contest the Emperor’s Crown.  He’d had enough.  After ten years of war he was coming back to Rome, so he thinks, for an easier life.   In a cocky glance and grin from Ben Deery I suddenly understand the sibling rivalry and competitiveness between Saturninus and Bassianus.  The new Emperor doesn’t really want Lavinia, he simply wants to establish he’s now top dog.  Ego sets him up.  And ego lets him fall into the manipulative hands of Tamora who steers him, like all the others, into gruesome betrayal.

In a relatively short time on stage Richard Goulding as Bassianus makes an impressive impact.  Ben Deery as Saturninus deserves special mention as he stepped up as understudy into a key role due to the indisposition of John Hopkins.  Happily he was fully on top of it and convincing – not easy at short notice when the play has so many technical demands – and scene by scene he swelled to fill some rather big shoes.  If there were nerves they were absorbed into a play packed with high adrenalin and his fellow cast members supported him well; perhaps even feeding off an inevitable freshness of interpretation. It was a night for Deery to feel proud.

The infamous ‘kill a fly’ scene between Titus and Young Lucius (played variously by school boys Hal Hewetson and George David) was delightful.  Apart from much needed light relief, this exchange provided an opportunity to explore the impressionability of youth - setting up important echoes for the final moments of the play. 

Katy Stephens as Tamora and Kevin Harvey as Aaron made for a frightening pair of shit-stirrers.  Their stage status and their grounded clarity of vision make the fire in their resentment of the Romans all the more dangerous.  And though we accept the murder of Tamora’s oldest son at the hands of Titus has given her some cause, the lengths to which they will both go for revenge leaves all before them breathless and vulnerable.   Something in Katy’s performance in particular reminded me of some interpretations of fascist history – where a determination to remake the world is so tightly bound with rigid concepts of good and evil (Aryan or Jewish) that step by deliberate step the oxygen which feeds compassion or doubt is squeezed out and replaced by non-questioning purpose.  It may not be rational but Katy captures this utilitarianism well, especially when she strides around Saturninus naked in the bath, a babe in the woods to her tattooed wolf.  

By contrast, the scene following Lavinia’s abuse in the forest is a phenomenally difficult one.  I realise it is brave or foolish to criticise the Bard but I’m not entirely convinced Shakespeare got it right here - giving Marcus Andronicus a load of poetic verses to describe an atrocity which is so vile in proportions the “very stones” would surely be “struck dumb”.  The audience is so bitterly uncomfortable at this point that, if not silence, then more in line with expectations would be a tirade like “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”   As such this particular scene is hard for actor and audience alike.  One appreciates Shakespeare is looking for a bridge between the act of Lavinia’s unspeakable molestation and the scene where Marcus presents what is left of his niece to her father, Titus; the appropriate place for the peaking of our empathy.  Yet still it’s hard in the immediate wake of the event for a modern audience to accept a plethora of classical references in gently woven phrases when Chiron and Demetrius have been so atrociously flippant about their lustful destruction and we know it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. 

Having said that, in the wake of Lavinia’s tragic transformation Richard Durden’s portrayal is eloquent and tender, if a little underplayed, and Rose Reynolds’ appearance on the floor, her achingly-fragile back to the audience as she rises from a pit of horror with sharply-drawn breaths and a body gripped by involuntary spasms, is all the more heart-breaking for its subtlety.  So when the ravished Lavinia finally turns to face us and the reality of her torn limbs becomes apparent, it’s all we can do to keep our own breathing under control.  Then cleverly again Fentiman allows the full horror of Lavinia’s ripped tongue to be revealed only when facing her beloved father, using this rush of blood to build step by step toward the play’s dramatic climax.   

In this Fentiman has done well to focus on the play’s complete trajectory of violence, so as to save his big-gun blood and fireworks until the end.  He and the cast have dug deeply into the text to find and follow Shakespeare’s clues about each character’s individual truths and needs.  And by relentlessly trusting this, their director has led them through difficult terrain, conflict by conflict, assault by assault, to the near final scene where everyone, yet no-one, gets their revenge.

In this black and crazy scene there is all the relief you’d expect from an episode of Black Adder.  Titus turns up in a kitchen maid’s outfit, tights and apron ‘n all, running around with a serving trolley ah la Fawlty Towers or a Michael Frayn farce, and dishing up his pies to the befuddled Emperor Saturninus and his grossly-manipulative wife, Tamora, thoroughly enjoying the macabre opportunity to watch his nemesis eat the flesh and blood of her own (hateful) sons which he has relished slaughtering like hogs and packing into said pies. 

After some lines of shock, horror and what-the-hell… the not insignificant smothering of his daughter, Lavinia, which Titus believes will put her out of her misery… all hell does break loose.  In a couple of concentrated minutes - to a brilliantly farcical musical score by John Woolf and exceptionally clever choreography - the entire cast then leap, gallivant, slash, stab, kill, hang, choke, murder and make bleed every other possible candidate on the stage.  From the sudden action and caterwauling there is then numb, dumb, gobsmacked silence.   Actors and audience are satiated and spent.  It’s been quite a journey.

After the stillness and a brief tribute to Titus, the only surviving Andronicus takes command; a role robustly handled by a confident Matthew Needham as Lucius.  The play is then effectively wrapped up with an innovative epilogue: where Aaron the unrepentant dastardly Moor is buried up to the neck in the ground to suffer as despicably as he’s made others suffer.  And the Young Lucius, a boy of barely ten, comes onto the stage carrying the illegitimate baby son of Aaron and Tamora. 

Will he follow the example of his grandfather and uncles, and kill this loathsome little Goth?  Does evil derive from nature or nurture?  Is revenge a non-ending condition?  Or do the young have a future upon which they can write their own destiny? 

While we wonder, Young Lucius holds above the baby a shining and sharp-edged object.  Is it a mirror or a sword?  Both have meaning.   

What is his choice?   What is ours?   Lights out. 


Thursday, 6 June 2013

Made in Belfast (part 2)

After completing a full circuit on the Belfast City Sightseeing Bus, the next time round there were places I simply had to get off: the Botanic Gardens, the Ulster and Titanic Museums, and the Crumlin Road Gaol. 

Typically you get out of these things as much as you put in, so I found the experiences extremely rich.  First I alighted in the Botanic Gardens during a window of sunshine.  The timing was perfect for fresh air and the enjoyment of delightful spring flowers, and then the hot-house smelt so divine I could have happily closed my eyes and stayed in there forever.  Eventually, however, the Ulster Museum called to me across the neatly mown grass and generously bursting daffodils, and it was well worth the crossing.

The Ulster Museum has a series of wide mezzanines which wrap around a deep and open atrium.  It is beautifully laid out with lots of natural light and divided in a user-friendly, topic-delineated fashion.  Indeed you couldn’t be in a better place to walk through the key periods of Irish history, coming out with an enriched understanding and a hunger to know more.  I highly recommend it as an introduction to Northern Ireland, as this learning will put you in a good place for much of what’s to follow in Belfast.

Of the many rooms in the Ulster Museum devoted to artistic themes, I enjoyed a special exhibition called Revealed: Government Art Collection.  Many people were invited to take part as assistant curators in this project and hundreds of art works have been gathered temporarily from government offices and embassies across the globe.  Such logistics alone warrant special mention.  Yet it tickled me that one of the curators, Cornelia Parker, went left-field and set her measuring stick at the feet of… a rainbow.  That is, she arranged seventy-eight works according to the colour spectrum of Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.  

Having fallen in love with Mark Garry’s rainbow sculpture, The Permanent Present, in Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre (the MAC, as already reported in another blog post), how could I not enjoy this recognizable, if somewhat random, choice of theme? 

Amongst the ‘reds’ I especially liked the Portrait of Angelica Kauffmann by Daniel Gardner (circa 1773 and usually hung at 10 Downing Street).  On the ‘blue-indigo-violet’ spectrum it was a Boy with Parrot (circa 1720 by an unknown artist) which grabbed my attention, and a vibrant piece from Andy Warhol’s series on Queen Elizabeth II (circa 1985 and usually hung in the British Consul-General’s residence in New York).  It was interesting to see works ordinarily reserved for people of political and diplomatic distinction.  For unless I’m invited to dinner at these places, how else would I ever get to see them?!

Another stand-out in the Government Art Collection was found in the section called Commissions: Now and Then.  In 2012 a quite extraordinary piece (to eye and ear) was commissioned from Mel Brimfield to commemorate the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The work entitled 4’33’’ - Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister - tracks the 1952 race in the Helsinki Olympics in which so many world-records were broken and competition so fierce that even a great time couldn’t deliver Bannister a medal.  You can follow the flow and choreography of the race in a series of two-dimensional frames while listening to an automated pianola playing a piece of music reflecting the rhythm, tensions and timing of the race in real time.  Complete with bells, whistles and odd snippets of national anthems, people tended to stay and play it more than once in hopes of better following the detail.  Or they gave it up quickly because of its complexity.  Either way, this mixed-media work was extremely different and memorable. 

If the Ulster Museum is a good way to start any trip to Northern Ireland then a perfect book-end has to be the Titanic Museum.  Equally expansive, informative and original, it focuses on Belfast’s labour market and social scene around the shipyards and linen manufacturing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This new museum is also highly interactive and dynamic, bringing visitors piece by piece into the detail of the planning, construction, launch and ultimately tragic loss of the infamously ill-fated ship.  I never imagined engineering details could be so interesting.  And you don’t have to work hard to appreciate the subtleties. 

For example, if you’re energetic you can jump on a construction blue-print magnified onto the floor to see how many bolts or rivets you can ‘nail’ within a certain time-frame.  Of course I did that; dancing around from foot to foot, one adult amongst a sea of children.  You can also sit in a mobile car (of sorts) and be taken up and down, in and around, the bow of the ship, as they explain to you how hard these chaps had to work to bash in the thousands and thousands of rivets.  You can see too, without leaving your seat, the layers of steel in the Titanic as it is built up one layer at a time – every moment making you ever more incredulous that a ship built with such precision and care could come to such an end.  Then you can position yourself in a three-sided ‘room’ and watch a surround of images moving up and down as if you were actually standing in a glass elevator of the fully-fitted-out Titanic, admiring the different floors and cabins styled according to class of passage.  Again of course this leaves you wondering… how?… why?… your fascination with the voyage, and subsequent disaster, further provoked.

I felt quite melancholy by the time I got to the rooms telling the story of the sinking; impressed, but melancholy.  And it was as much for this reason, as other appointments, that after some hours in the Titanic Museum I left it for another day. 

Little did I know that after a couple of hours in the Crumlin Road Gaol I would be re-evaluating the whole concept of sad!  Knowing something of the political history of Ireland, and this prison in particular, adds significant weight to the experience.  However even the social story for most, if not all, of the prisoners who occupied this harsh prison until as recently as 1996 is so forlorn it gets increasingly hard to drag your legs around.  It is very cold in there too, which only adds to your sense of human suffering.  And that’s not to say some people didn’t deserve to be incarcerated… but there are ways and there are ways and the Crumlin Road Gaol put such a fear in me I’ll now think twice before tasting a naughty grape in Sainsburys.  (For since adolescence when stealing food from the Nun’s canteen was common, that’s the extent of my theft if you don’t count hotel toiletries.) 

The prison makes you sharply aware of all those people who have been driven to petty-crime by poverty and famine… families in the Troubles who suffered horrifically on both sides… all those nineteenth-century prisoners who must have thought deportation to Australia a relief after being cramped in freezing, tiny cells.  And what of those who were innocent?  Or justified?  Actors are trained to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and develop their empathy and imagination, so by the time our little group got to the execution chamber… and the chilling story of a ten year old boy who was waiting in a cell to be punished and upon hearing adjacent screams was so terrified of being placed on the rack that he took his own life… I had to ask to have the door unlocked so I could leave. 

Too cruel.  Too recent.  Too many ghosts.

But it was important to see.  And you won’t be surprised to hear I blessed myself all the way to the pub while saying “there but for the Grace of God go I”, before downing a G and T, quickly followed by a Guinness.

All in all though, my visit to Belfast was extremely educational and satisfying.  I stayed comfortably with a friend and his lovely family.  l listened to cracking yarns and musicians in an endless choice of classic pubs; some, like the Crown Liquor Saloon, with beautifully carved woodwork.  I even saw the headland which provided Jonathan Swift with inspiration for his giant in Gulliver’s Travels… reminding me, if ever I needed reminding, that the Irish have an unmatchable rich history of great artists, thinkers, travellers, battlers, jokers, story-tellers and people who have, in large and small ways, changed and enriched the world.

I love Ireland.  It’s in the ancestral blood of many Australians.  But it’s also fabulous just to spend time in a place where it’s normal to talk to strangers and no-one looks at you funny for being open or overtly curious.  And that’s the case whichever side of the border you’re on.

Bring it on Belfast.  I think you’re brilliant.  And there are few cities with an equal depth of history, culture, cheek and charm wrapped into such an intimate and accessible location. 

Well, except of course Dublin







Made in Belfast (part 1)

What do you think of when your hear ‘made in Belfast’? 

I think of Liam Neeson.  I know my geography is off by a few miles as Liam Neeson actually comes from Ballymena, County Antrim, but when you walk around Belfast everybody sounds similar to that wonderful actor so I can’t help but smile. 

Then I found a restaurant in the Cathedral District called, yes, Made in Belfast, and the food, service and bohemian design were so inviting I returned several times.

When I stumbled into the Ulster Hall however I knew I’d found the ‘real’ Belfast.  Don’t you just know that iconic venue from all those album covers?  “Recorded live at Ulster Hall” is certainly embedded in my psyche… and though I suspect that’s from a love of U2 it could equally be from concerts by legends such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, the Boomtown Rats, AC/DC, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and goodness knows how many rock and punk bands - not least The Clash, who famously didn’t perform there in 1977 as scheduled, sparking street riots by disappointed fans.  The walls drip history and culture, and recent renovations have done nothing to dampen her intimate charm and character.   

The Ulster Hall’s Mulholland Grand Organ still takes pride of place and, amongst others, the Ulster Orchestra, now based there, continue to build on a rich and diverse tradition.  The Culture Northern Ireland website expands thus: “Over its century and a half, everyone from Dickens to James Joyce has given readings at the Ulster Hall, and it has played host to sporting events and political rallies from across the spectrum. Not many venues can claim to have had both Ulster Resistance and Sinn Féin address an audience there. During World War II, the Ulster Hall was even used as a dance hall to entertain American troops stationed in Northern Ireland.” 

After relaxing over a coffee in a deep leather arm chair in the cosy foyer, nonchalantly eyeing up a handsome stranger who looked like, but sadly wasn’t, Liam Neeson… I moved up the street past City Hall and around the corner to catch a Belfast City Sightseeing Bus.  I highly recommend this as a way to see the city in comfort, giving you a great overview from which you can return to specific sights and locations later that day or the next (on the same ticket). 

There are several companies who offer a similar service but I was very happy with my big red bus – not least, because when there was a problem with traffic one day they went to great lengths to make it up to me the next; a sure sign, in my view, of a business who cares for its customers.  If you ride the bus for its full duration you will see and learn a lot.  Our guide, Brian, was perfect: intelligent, well-informed, sensitive to political issues but ready to point out important facts, funny, warm and entertaining.  As an actress I was particularly amused by his anecdote about Northern Irish pronunciation: beware the ‘o’ which becomes an ‘a’ because if you own a hardware store (as he did) you’ll lose lots of money if customers come in looking for a ‘mop’ but you’re so convinced they want a ‘map’ you keep sending them up the road to the newsagency. 

On this tour you’ll cross over Belfast’s Lagan River near which is positioned an attractive sculpture called the  Thanksgiving Rings, but locally known as “Noola the Hoola”, and you’ll see the colourful Salmon of Knowledge known with equal affection as “the big fish”.  You’ll pass one of the world’s largest docks with two enormous cranes, Samson and Goliath, reminding you before you get near a museum that ship building is another important part of Belfast’s history and character.  You’ll see the sparkling new Waterfront concert-hall, Customs House Square, the Parliament Buildings of Stormont Estate (home of the Northern Ireland Assembly and site of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement), the up-market suburb of Hollywood, the Odyssey Arena and Pavilion (home of the Belfast Giants, an ice-hockey team with encouraging bi-partisan support), various Universities, the Ulster and Titanic Museums, the Crumlin Road Goal, and, perhaps of greatest interest to many, the historic wall murals and residential streets around the famously contained Fall and Shankill Roads. 

The only thing I’d change about the bus tour, or rather add, if asked… is that it’d be nice if guides pointed out for tourists more of the theatres on route, such as the MAC (behind St Anne’s Cathedral), the Lyric and the Opera House.  I have friends from London and across the UK on tour in those venues, so some verbal PR for their shows would be nice for them and Belfast visitors.  Yet the theatres probably only need to ask info@belfastcitysightseeing.co.uk and they’d add it to their patter in a minute. 

That’s the Irish you see, warmth and hospitality an inevitable part of their DNA.  


[The highlights of Belfast are continued in the next post: Made in Belfast (part 2)]