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

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Magic Ingredients

I don’t necessarily know what I want in a theatrical experience, I only know if it works.  But like a good romance, those precious hours in the dark are magical.  And usually it’s down to an inexplicable combination of ingredients, acting and reacting to stimuli, to create a unique and memorable cocktail.  
Such is the power of The Royal Opera House’s production of L’elisir d’amore and the acclaimed Young Vic transfer to the Garrick Theatre, The Scottsboro Boys.

So what’s the magic ingredient? 
Well, in the case of Gaetano Donizetti’s infamous potion, not much. 

In fact, Donizetti’s leading man in The Elixir of Love has nothing but some cheap red plonk to fuel his passion, sold to him by the con artist, Doctor Dulcamara, played with perfect cheek by Bryn Terfel.  As this is a comic opera, however, melodramma giocoso, Nemorino’s bottle-fuelled optimism and tipsy, tenor charms win over the fickle Adina (sung sweetly by Lucy Crowe), suggesting there’s much to be said for an innocent placebo for a hero lacking confidence.   
Be that as it may, in this particular case, the Royal Opera House audience was so in love with Vittorio Grigolo’s beguiling and heart-struck Nemorino... so completely under Donizetti’s spell... so happily convinced by Laurent Pelly’s direction... that by the time Nemorino sings Una furtiva lagrima there would have been a riot if Adina hadn’t succumbed to his irresistible advances.  Indeed the outpouring of breath which followed the fading last notes of Grigolo’s famous solo was not just the enthusiastic shouts of bravo, the vigorous clapping and cheering, but a collective sigh of emotional and musical satisfaction as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in the theatre.  

I grew up hearing my father sing Una furtiva lagrima - at any time of the day or night his humming of this delectable melody wafted up the corridor in my direction, making me feel all was right with the world.  I declare my bias.  Yet the theatrical tension, deeply infused affection, vocal control and playful stretch of the phrase which characterises the perfectly poised voice of Vittorio Grigolo as he explores every nuance of this exquisite aria is nothing less than profound.  I feel the electricity still.  It was cathartic, stimulating, moving and deeply enriching.  And if I could get another ticket - to be there as Grigolo recreates this magical moment - I would.
Of course around this moment, around many scenes and sequences which worked in this excellent production, are ingredients of musicality, vocality, setting, design, direction, interpretation, acting, chorus, costume, lighting and imagination... too many and complex to list like a recipe.  But in that one aria, as you close your eyes and are transported to a place unutterably beautiful, there is only Donizetti’s uplifting alignment of notes - and no matter how many times since 1832 tenor and orchestra have breathed life into those notes, the acoustic purity and blend of instruments I heard last Thursday night in Covent Garden under the baton of another Italian talent, Daniele Rustioni, was as remarkable and unique an elixir of love as I can imagine.

Vittorio Grigolo, ti amo.  Sigh.  Bravo.  Sigh.  


The potion which is The Scottsboro Boys is quite different. 

It starts with light-hearted humour, a skip, a smirk, a wink and a giggle.  The direction and choreography is so polished and magnetic, I wondered if it was Susan Stroman even before I got my hands on a programme.  (It is!)  And I was enjoying the energy and movement, the vaudevillian escapism, the ‘minstrel show’ innocence and silly gags (done in reverse with black actor/dancers playing white characters), that I was unprepared for the challenge which followed.
The Scottsboro Boys is based on the true and tragic story of nine black youths who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931, convicted and kept on death-row for year after year, decade after decade, denied justice and liberty even though one of the alleged victims confessed to the lie and there was no evidence to substantiate the charge.  Such were the discriminatory laws and entrenched bigotry of the time, that it was easier for southern Americans to believe the ‘white’ lie, to victimize and destroy the lives of nine innocent young men, than it was for society to face the glaringly obvious truth or challenge an acutely racist and unjust ‘justice’ system.

As this musical unfolds, in the comic style and figurative turn of a traditional minstrel show, it was for me the acting, dancing and staging ingredients that were the most memorable.  I particularly admired the cast’s manipulation of the nine chairs – originally set in a semicircle as was common for the genre – reconfiguring them in clever ways to create trains, court-room scenes, holding cells and every necessary emotional and dramatic setting.  The cast were excellent, performers of great breadth, and it didn’t escape my attention that a vehicle such as this for their talent was probably a long time coming. 
(Ok, there was a bias toward men but I think we can put that aside for the moment; for it’s not as if it’s any different in lots of plays, going back to Shakespeare!)

I found the songs enjoyable but this score, for me, does not have the gravitas or melodic impact of Kander and Ebb’s better known Cabaret and Chicago scores.  Nevertheless it works, it supports the characters on their journey, and it serves a strong book and powerfully clever choreography and staging which skips the audience into a frenzy of folly until we find ourselves staring in the face of such immense legal lunacy that there is no escape from its unaccountable cruelty. 
Kander and Ebb, Susan Stroman and David Thompson (the writer) don’t set this moral tale as per Brecht or Ibsen, as a serious lesson which must be heeded.  Rather, they charm and beguile you, entertain and flirt, with routines and physically engaging manoeuvres of set, time and place, so that, even as these happy young fellows squander in prison, you like them so very much – are endeared by their talent and versatility - you can’t possibly imagine anything but a happy ending: a musical minstrel ending.  

So when the awful reality hits you – their appeals fail, these miserable boys rot behind bars as media interest wanes, and the rest of America goes back to doing whatever it has to do to forget how bad it is down there in the south – you are left with a feeling in your stomach as heavy as the elixir of love in Donizetti’s opera made you light.  The music stops.  The dancing is over.  No jokes, no tale can be spun around a bleak and frightening ending.  The mood, the soul of America is black - and the dark, innocent faces of the nine youths stand as a brutal reminder of how arbitrary life’s gifts and chances are for those unlucky enough to be born into a persecuted minority or class. 
And the most frightening thing about the silent curtain call... the failure of fun in ‘the minstrel show’, guilty of prolonging stereotypes and never as pure as first believed... was that it was 2013 before all the Scottsboro Boys were officially pardoned.  And people continue to rot in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.  

Were these theatrical ingredients magical?  If you mean that a state, a phenomenon, can change from A to B without logical explanation, then yes.  If you mean did the drama – the comedy and then the tragedy – take me where it was intended, thrill then break my heart, then yes again.   Una furtiva lagrima...
I agree with the Evening Standard who awarded The Scottsboro Boys the 2014 ‘Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical’.  Ingredients which push the boundaries on musical theatre as an art form are just the potion the West End needs.  






Sunday, 28 September 2014

Viva Italia!

It has been a violent summer in many ways.  So troubling has been the international landscape that it seems flippant to wax lyrical on the cultural treats I have enjoyed in recent months.  Yet even in the face of political calamity and human crisis, I am reminded a civilisation which does not work to protect, indeed fervently celebrate, art and beauty is not a world in which we’d like to live.  So since it is my great good fortune to reside in places where much of that celebration goes on uninterrupted, I can only thank God for it and pray things markedly improve in other parts of the world where too many are suffering. 

While busy wearing an arts/event manager hat, I haven’t found time of late to post comment on many good productions: King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe; the exquisite performance of Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda in the Royal Opera House’s production of Rigoletto; the striking Restless Futures exhibition at Central Saint Martin’s Letharby Gallery for London Design Festival; the interesting Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A; and the energetic (nationalistic) fun of the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 13th September which wrapped up another wonderful season of accessible and vibrant concerts.  Yet of many luxurious experiences in galleries and theatres this summer, it was arriving back in Tuscany a few days ago which has surely been my personal highlight.

Regular readers know I used to live in Toscana and not a day goes by where, on some level, I don’t miss her.  So going back to see friends and visit old haunts was food for the soul.  I stayed an hour with David, as lovers of Renaissance sculpture must do, and as with many visits it was hard to drag myself away.  He did not step down from his plinth as is commonly desired, but rather stayed as poised and concentrated as Michelangelo left him, but one can only hope.  And there is so much to be thankful for in this figured miracle that, as usual, it took an act of will to focus a while on masterpieces by Perugino, Albertinelli, Bronzino, Allori, di Tito, di Credi and of course Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves.  The latter, in particular, reminds us marble is not an easy substance in which to ‘find flesh’... heightening one’s respect for the famous artist’s extraordinary ability to release lifelike figures from the stone and create something as glorious and monumental as David.   

Apart from abundant eating, drinking and socializing with Italian and ex-pat friends, a little retail therapy (couldn’t resist three leather handbags), I spent one big day in the Uffizi – arguably the most famous U-shaped building in the world, perfectly situated on the banks of the River Arno and adjacent to Firenze’s Piazzale Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio.  Cutting the queue by asking the guard to let me into the office for Amici delgi Uffizi, the helpful lady, Lima, who administers the programme asked with a welcoming smile: Guilia, come stai?  Vivete in Toscana ora?  O dove?  In Londre, I replied... whereupon we chatted for a good ten minutes, as is the friendly Italian way, before getting down to business.  Quickly then I was through security and climbing the beautiful neo-classical stairs to the infamous second floor. 

A couple of years ago I knew every inch of most Tuscan and Umbrian museums, churches and villas.  I was excited to see it all again in the Uffizi, to feel utterly cocky and familiar.  And I did for a while when perusing the first corridor, the cheeky ceiling grotesques and Roman busts a weekly fixture in my former Italian routine.  Then I discovered the curators had moved much of the collection around.  I was a little discombobulated.  The world had tilted, like stepping off a roller-coaster and having to re-adjust to the earth.  Well, they might have asked.  I mean, don’t we come back to ancient and classical places specifically so things stay the same?  It dawned on me many references in my research and writing would now have to be updated.  I felt an unnerving loss of knowledge, ownership...  a perceived loss of control perhaps... confirmation the universe evolves whether or not we keep up.  And this self-observation made me laugh.  Clearly I was going to have to: a) respect the wisdom of the curators... who would not be doing their job if they didn’t augment and reinvent the exhibitions; and b) take the opportunity to rediscover the Uffizi as if, indeed, it was my first visit.  

So that challenge accepted, I began with new eyes, new curiosity, and did my best to become acquainted with the collection as it is now arranged. 

Though I do wish to say I hope when they finish renovating Rooms 2-7 they put back works from the Sienese and Florentine 14th century schools, as well as masterpieces like Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi (circa 1423), for it is only through appreciation of more primitive and gothic styles that the full flowering of the Renaissance in the hands of Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino and da Vinci can be truly understood.  Nevertheless the masses were not disappointed, for Room 10-14 is still home to Botticelli’s much adored Primavera (circa 1482) and The Birth of Venus (circa 1484).  So I found a seat and let the crowds come and go as I swivelled my attention slowly from one wall to another - immersion of the best kind – inevitably coming back to Venus, Flora and the Three Graces who are draped with such sheer and billowing fabric their ethereal delicacy belies Botticelli’s underpinning statement of vigour, sensuality and fertility. 

I didn’t queue to get close to The Tribune for I know its gold and shell encrusted dome as well as I know my bedroom ceiling, but I was very happy it had not moved (hardly possible given its elaborate and unique construction!) and that she still houses the demure and tiny Medici Venus.  The only difference was the shuffling of a few paintings and that visitors can no longer promenade around the cylindrical room because it’s been decided protection of the multi-coloured precious tiles must take priority.    

I also thought the new display in Rooms 19-23, keeping the works Italian and grouped by region, was a positive change.  And as Rooms 24-32 used to be crowded and rushed, with respect to historical development, I was pleased to find them closed for restoration and reorganisation.  So far so good.

Room 35 now houses Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (a round painting of the Holy Family with the infant St John the Baptist) but, as is common in heavily-trafficked galleries, it was having a day off from tourists and the door was shut tight.  I used to admire Rubens in Room 41 but it appears to have been hijacked for storage so not sure what plans the Uffizi has for him.  However the large room with ancient sculptures telling the Legend of Niobe is unchanged and as popular as ever due to extravagant Baroque decoration.

It is down on the first floor where the latest renovations to the Uffizi become dramatically clear.  There is now so much more useable space.  The temporary exhibition rooms (formerly ad hoc and somewhat cobbled together) are located now under atmospheric and attractive stone arches which seem to burrow so deeply into the building I wonder how I never knew these ‘rooms’ were there.  These sneaking ‘corridors’, or more literally ‘cavities’, form a chain of space which is not only generous to curators looking to evoke a theme, but under neutral stone arches emitting a soft, low and ancient light, the individually lit paintings on display are thrown into such striking relief it creates the kind of reverence and contemplation ordinarily reserved for monasteries and abbeys.  The Uffizi’s new temporary exhibition space – the area used for visiting works and paintings which might otherwise remain in the basement – is no longer of secondary interest but a part of the experience which the savvy visitor will now have to reserve time to enjoy.  This is a huge change when over three years I could count on one hand the times I did more than hurry through the first floor. 

In addition, the first floor now groups artisti stranieri, the works of Spanish, Dutch, French and Flemish painters from the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, into one logical area.  So that's where you go if you're looking for Rembrandt.  And in larger and less crushed rooms along the dividing wall from the temporary exhibition space - around the large Uffizi U, all the way to the steps which lead back to the book shop and main exit - the visitor can stroll in a digestible and leisurely order from the early Mannerism of Andrea del Sarto to Vasari, Bronzino, Raphael, Correggio, Titian (or more correctly, Tiziano), to Caravaggio and his many followers.  The only challenge, for a one-off visitor, is to have the time to take it all in. 

There are other rooms of course which take one forward or back in artistic time, not least to areas with ancient sculpture (frequently in the Uffizi, Roman copies of Greek originals), but the groupings, the overall flow, it must be said, is much improved and less intense.

I might not know for a while where every work hangs and, in admitting it, swallow the distasteful knowledge I am not currently a resident Fiorentina... but it is deeply heartening to know this great gallery continues to preserve and improve our access to the works gifted wisely and generously by Anna Maria Luisa Medici to the State in 1737, and to be reminded there will always be more to learn, more to admire, more to cherish.

Viva Italia!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Love on the Southbank

The Southbank on London’s Thames is an infamous arts and entertainment precinct – a cultural hub filled with spaces and activities to meet every kind of hunger.

If, notionally, you include The National and The BFI...independently managed, like-minded organisations, in geographical proximity...  I find it hard to keep away from the Southbank.  Along the embankment too are Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate, a couple of blocks the other way the Young and Old Vic.  The Southbank is the centre of a happening ‘South End’ really: a thriving communal place in the broadest sense of the word.

If you approach The Southbank from Waterloo can anyone resist tasting something delicious from the market stalls?  If you approach across the bridge from embankment, in any season you feel the vibe of the place, the pulse of life and creativity, friends and strangers celebrating what it is to be alive: to see, taste, smell, hear and feel... immersion in countless interactive and engaging experiences.

Exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery and programmes at the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls deserve much comment.  I am also amused by goings-on in the Udderbelly.  But in this blog I want to share something more ad hoc, trivial, but for all that, rich.  I want to share my thoughts on the benefits of the themed festival... the one-off popular event... and the Pop Up; the trendy phenomenon which has taken hold of entrepreneurial event planners.

I met a friend by the Thames for a pint on Friday night.  I’d just finished the first week of a new contract – consulting as Manager of Events and Visitor Services at Central Saint Martins, another wonderfully dynamic and creative institution – so our first drink went down beautifully.  We then moved to one of The Southbank Centre’s interesting summer installations, The Heartbreak Hotel.  I was principally looking for a comfortable chair and a second (and final) drink before heading home to catch up on sleep, so my expectations were greatly exceeded.

The Heartbreak Hotel is part of the Southbank’s Festival of Love.  It’s made up of the I Think I Love You Lounge, The Department of Good Cheer, an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships, and the Dear Cathy and Claire Room (a tribute to Jackie magazine’s Agony Aunts from the 1970s).  These elements are exquisitely well-themed and organised.  I started with an informative chat with one of the founders of The Department of Good Cheer, followed by pro-active, friendly table service and a delicious gin and tonic; hand crafted, as I discovered, by Dodds.  It took only minutes to realize the four guys who run this pop-up bar are on to something: turning cocktails into a tasteful and aesthetic experience, with tipsiness a bonus rather than a driver.  When my friend left to go to the theatre, a guy on an adjacent table appeared to be talking to a stranger on an old-fashioned plastic handset.   I was intrigued.  Next he handed me the white receiver and I discovered I was talking to a man elsewhere in The Department.  I couldn’t see him, it was random, but engaging; like pressing buttons to another hotel room, hoping to find a friend.  The bizarre result of this flesh-and-blood-chat-room: we did.  I instantly connected with Antony and Christine on ‘my end’ of the line... and by the time Antony had phoned another table and again passed me the receiver, I was chatting to Jorren from Amsterdam all very much in a spirit of good cheer.  Or, to borrow from the Southbank’s theme, in a spirit of love grounded in shared experience; what the Ancient Greeks called philia love.  I/we loved the unusual gin, I/we loved the random frivolity and unexpected intimacy of the telephones, and I/we loved the subsequent social bonding which followed. 

After moving round the room and joining tables with these four new friends, our gang of five crossed the threshold into the I Think I Love You Lounge.   I’ve been out of London travelling for a while so I didn’t even know it was there.  You might therefore imagination my surprise (though clearly no reluctance) when moments later we were dressing in wigs and costumes, standing at microphones, surrounded by a chilled-out audience on big floor cushions, singing madly to a karaoke track of Dancing Queen.  Abba in concert with Michael Jackson!  The sound we made was dreadful, the choreography even worse, I can’t pull off a blonde wig so Bjorn was a dodgy choice, and ordinarily I hate karaoke (on account of snobbery over people singing out of tune)... but I LOVED it... my love of the gang, the barmen, and the evening moving rapidly from philia to ludus, the flirting, playful, affectionate kind of love.   

I regularly need a fix of the Southbank – it is part of the heart and soul of London – but this unplanned, strangely organic conflation of events, themes, art and people is a highlight.   

My only concern in sharing the karaoke video footage with Jorren, Pam, Antony and Christine is that it might get posted to You Tube and that would end in tears; or in the gallery of Broken Relationships, on account of unforgiveable embarrassment.    

By chance I was due to be back at the Southbank the following evening for Sing-a-long Grease.  After finding Emma and Kate in the crowd we approach Door D on Level 5 of the Festival Hall and the usher, Harry, says “Hey, you were doing karaoke last night.  You must like singing.”   Hmm, guilty as charged.   One day I might learn to be more subtle, reserved.  Find some of what the Greeks called philautia, love born of self-respect.  But not tonight.  Not when it gets in the road of a good time.  For Sing-a-long Grease was a blast.  It happens to perfectly express the festival theme of eros and ludus love.  It is supremely silly, wonderfully romantic, the kind of light-hearted, contagious, unadulterated fun which makes even a tee-total feel drunk.  The world’s love of Grease, every crooning, cultish piece of it, is pragma - a love which endures.  And defying the logic of some empty seats, this crowd danced and screamed up a storm.  We left the auditorium humming, enamoured of the beauty of Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, and feeling rather agape – a bubbling sense humanity is sometimes all too easy to love.   

What could we do then, but return to The Heartbreak Hotel?!  After time in the gallery, and conversation with Alex, Travers, Van and Sam who have established The Department of Good Cheer, we thanked them for their delicious cocktails and headed for the train.  On the ride home I was torn between smiling at images from Summer Nights and Greased Lightning, and feeling touched by letters and confessions I’d read in the gallery about painful break-ups.  The loss and loneliness evident from these objects was almost too palpable.  I ruminated then upon the curators’ clever combination of complimentary elements... also how tempting it is for us all to want to find and hold eros, but how devastating it can be to lose romantic and intimate love.  I suppose it is like the colours and glamour of The Heartbreak Hotel Neon - designed for this festival by Chris Bracey – a sober reminder “all that glisters is not gold”... that not all love has the ingredients for pragma. 

Ah, but without it, without LOVE, of one or many kinds, we wouldn’t have this glorious art, this enduring culture, the expression and reinterpretation of which is life itself. 

Be quick to experience your dose of ‘summer lovin’ on The Southbank for it finishes on 31st August 2014.  



Monday, 21 July 2014

Joie éternelle

Joie éternelle or Eternal Joy is the title of an important melody from the kunqu repertoire, an old Chinese operatic form. 

I learned this when attending the British Premier of a piece composed by Qigang Chen to be performed on the second night of the BBC Proms.  I’d gone to the Royal Albert Hall because I looked forward to being immersed in Elgar, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, but Chen’s composition, with trumpeter Alison Balsom as featured soloist, was an unexpected and satisfying surprise.  It was eternal joy to hear someone of her musical calibre on an instrument I love (and have tried to play), jumping and sliding through phrase after phrase of difficult trills and turns, tones, semi-tones and tones-without-name, as if the trumpet suddenly had more than a mere three buttons.  The programme notes comment on the work’s expressive and physical robustness, but still I marvelled at the miraculous pantheon of sounds delivered from Alison Balsom’s lips.  And I thank God for the wisdom (and funds) of the joint commission, and the standard to which the China Philharmonic Orchestra have soared in such a short number of years under the baton of Long Yu.  Bravo!

The title and mood of the piece also got me thinking: summer is to the seasons, Joy Eternal.  We feel immersed in sunshine, immersed in warmth and positive feeling, immersed for refreshment in water (wine or beer), celebrating in these precious weeks the best life has to offer.  And as such, I can’t separate the socializing I do in a European summer from the artistic riches on offer.

The very next morning I was back at the Proms... this time with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and an array of guests chatting with the host, Gabby Logan, about sport.  Yes, sport.  Imaginative Prom themes designed to appeal to the masses, this concert had large video screens so we could digest the likes of Strauss, Mozart, Prokofiev, John Williams and Richard Rodgers while watching cricket, rowing, sailing, rugby and tennis highlights.  I think The Skaters Waltz by Emile Waldteufel (1882) had special appeal with Torvill and Dean gracing the screen.  The crowd enjoyed singing with Freddie Mercury’s We are the Champions (so did I), and the infamous football anthem You’ll never walk alone.  I was pleased, too, to see a confident female conductor, Rebecca Miller, lead her band through an eclectic programme; a lovely start to a summer Sunday.

The crowd was busy doing a Mexican wave to the theme from ‘Ski Sunday’, when a friend and I rushed out the door, on to a bus in the direction of Trafalgar Square, and up to the Royal Opera House to attend the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance. Some years ago I used to look after the sponsors of New Zealand Opera’s Emerging Artist’s Programme and in the arts, as in all industries, it is vital to coach and encourage the next generation. So though I was a little over-indulged with music at this point (and not much sleep), after a quick bacon and egg sandwich I settled into the first act of Donizetti’s La Favorite and was left wanting more.  I think those two cranky Muppets (from the balcony box) were sitting next to me in the first half, complaining about all and sundry, including the audacity of a young couple who’d brought a small boy to the performance.  FYI the little chap behaved in a nicer fashion than they did – nor did he hog the arm rest - so I was relieved to move to an empty seat in the front row of the amphitheatre for the second half, from where I could stretch my legs into the aisle, and see and hear without interruption scenes from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.  These young artists are in development of course, and it’s a big thing to step out onto that imposing stage in costume for the first time, so I immersed myself in the spirit of it and, unlike the Muppets, resolved to forgive small mishaps.  The point is their promise, not their polish, and in this we were not disappointed.

The same could be said of the Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at Canary Wharf last week: it wasn’t the best presentation of that wonderful play that I’ve seen (though I’m bias as I’ve played Beatrice) but sitting outdoors in the balmy evening air surrounded by light-hearted play and jest, energy and enthusiasm, you’d have to be a Muppet or a cranky-old-Codger not to enjoy it.  That’s why I’m going to see Norma with Opera Holland Park this week – summer is all about using what’s available to us... making the most of opportunity, space, sunlight and good cheer.  It is easier with a comedy I grant you, but I’m sure the flowers, shrubbery, and picnics associated with Holland Park will have the audience in a chirpy mood long before the first note.

That brings me to another infamous summer occupation: the festival.  I can’t possibly list them all, but I know people are still scratching dirt off their Glastonbury boots.  I, on the other hand, headed to Ireland for a family festival this year, set in the grounds of Westport House, County Mayo.  The Westport Festival of Music & Food was running for the third consecutive year and by all (known) measures was a great success.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

To begin with, Westport is a great destination long before the festival starts: it’s pretty; it’s small enough to walk around; it has good jogging, cycling and walking tracks circling the town and adjacent country-side; it’s filled with friendly people, a lovely harbour, good restaurants, and dozens of pubs packed with music, dancing and good craic until the wee hours pretty-much every night of the week.  There’s also Guinness.  There’s an historical and artistically valuable manor house which deserves a visit.  There’s amazing scenery, and places like Clare Island to visit nearby, and a big mountain you can climb if you dare. 
And who needs more than all that? 

Then the music and food festival gets under way: there are cooking displays by respected chefs... caravans and booths with quality local produce and culinary diversity... plenty of Heineken... and two particularly relaxing tents, one for Comedy and one for RTÉ Radio 1 which was sometimes going out live and other times beautifully silly and community-minded.  The Irish comedians were terrific and I so wish I had written down their names!  With the open-mic, I cringed to hear an Aussie singing Waltzing Matilda out of tune... but so generous are the Irish when it comes to “having a go” that even she received applause.  Westport House grounds and lake are stunning and on the last weekend in June, under perfectly blue skies (no rain), for two days and across three stages I thoroughly immersed myself in talent such as: the 2 Cellos; Paddy Casey; Lisa O’Neill; Shane Filan; the Bootleg Beatles; Morrissey & Marshall (look out for them); Danny Battles (look out for him too); The Young Folk; the Clew Bay Pipe Band (with assorted guests such as Matt Malloy and Mundy); David Gray; Sinead O’Connor; and the headliner, Bryan Adams.  As an artist Adams has depth, talent, charisma and stamina, and he really deserved his top-billing on the marquee – complete with impressive videography, and the breadth of appeal which earns accolades like ‘classic’ and ‘legend’.  The Promoter chose well... letting things slowly build throughout the day... while families and friends interacted and enjoyed the atmosphere... culminating in a first-rate-rock-‘n-roll show (where I knew many more of Adam’s songs than I expected)... and ending with everyone dancing and cheering and a surprise firework display.   

The fact that I also met fun people, made new friends and cemented old ones, adds to Westport’s immense charm.  I do hope they put the Westport Festival of Music & Food on again next year, and locals and tourists have the good sense to appreciate and support it.   And if I wasn’t there myself I wouldn’t believe that after an intense fourteen day holiday mix of culture and comedy, art and adventure, flirting and frivolity, music and madness, my very last night was spent sitting in front of a Georgian fire at the home of a wonderful Westport family listening to the great Irish poet, Paul Durcan, recite his work, in his own voice, from several precious anthologies.  I had to twist his arm to do it, such is this artist’s humility, and the rich satisfaction we already felt from good table conversation and superb dining, but it was an opportunity too good to be missed. 

And though I’m back in London now, I still feel the goose bumps (goose pimples) from that privileged coalescence of social and artistic immersion – and it is nothing less than joie éternelle. 

So do yourself a favour and get a ticket to something special this summer.  For one day this winter the memory will keep you warm.




Saturday, 18 January 2014

A new playhouse

I have been neglecting my arts blog while busy with other things and writing a new book, so it’s such a pleasure to start 2014 with a few words about London’s exciting new venue: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

Playhouse is just the word for it too… because its appealing wooden construction is as cosy as a tree-house and the potential for play is endless!

I was lucky enough to be there for the very first performance and the audience was wild with excitement.  The production of The Duchess of Malfi was very worthy of our enthusiasm, but a dimension of our energy came from delight at being introduced to a space which has been long talked about, imagined, researched and desired but which we were scarcely able to believe had managed in practice to be realised.  ‘Let the trumpet sound’ we wanted to call: this is an auspicious moment and everyone should know about it!   Instead we stamped our feet, whistled and clapped our hands for so many repeat curtain calls the cast must have been thinking “oh for goodness sake stop, we want to get off… it’s been a long week, we’re tired and need a drink”. 

Ironically, this was the noisiest it had been all night, because one of the beauties of this Jacobean performance space is its intimacy.  A trumpet is likely to be too loud.  The cubby-house theatre is big on ideas, potential and class, but extremely up close and personal.  A whistle could have the impact in this space that a trumpet might have in the big O next door.  You could hear a pin drop for most of the performance… so intimately drawn are you to each actor, each verse, each bar of musical accompaniment.  If the wardrobe missed a stitch you might have noticed it.  Not that I’m suggesting they did of course, for the preparation for this incarnation of John Webster’s work has been immaculate.  Only now, though, do I really understand what’s meant by ‘a dandy’… that is, the show-offs in elaborate dress who sat on the stage or up in the minstrel’s gallery so they could be seen in the 1600s as clearly as the actors.   A dandy to a Jacobean is basically a media slut with thicker stockings. 

Actually it was fascinating to me that the costumes seized so much of my attention, for this theatre is lit only by candlelight and I expected it to be fairly dark.  However a few things combine to bring not just the dress but the movement of the actor in the costume into striking focus – and that is the cleanness and simplicity of the wooden frame, the accessibility and closeness of the thrust to every seat (or standing position), and the actor and director’s careful choice as to when to move into the light and when to use the shadow for creative and dramatic impact.  You may wonder: but don’t electric lights give that option?  And they do.  But as I think about it, I suppose it’s less organic, less subtle… a lighting plot akin by nature to amplified music as candlelight is to acoustic music.  You may wonder: is a wooden frame so different to a black-box?  And in many ways the answer is no.  But still, this gloriously carved wood is so soothing, so warm, so begging for actors, musicians and costumes to appear within it.  Call me a tree-hugger but go for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. 

I’ve loved the open stage at the Globe on so many occasions that I wouldn’t for a moment say the experience isn’t intimate.  It is wondrously intimate and raw in a way few other theatre experiences can be.  What I found so refreshing about London’s new indoor Jacobean playhouse, however, was that your expectations when you arrive are as expansive as they might be for the Wooden O, but that as the dialogue unfolds (in this play every bit as poetic as the Bard) the collective harmony of voice and music under candlelight, is as hushed as a whisper – not in volume but in tone, timbre – as naked and private as you might feel on a closed film set.  Wrapped up, that’s how I felt throughout the performance.  Wrapped and enveloped by a story which is all the richer for being simply told.

The mainstream press will no doubt make much comment on this occasion, until such time as the novelty wears off and there’s something found about which to be critical.  Yet everyone in the arts and every keen theatre goer should be awed by the achievement here.  From the Globe Trustees and dedicated Architecture Research Group to the historians, architects, timber experts, construction teams and every last carpenter… the vision and persistence to realise the vision of Sam Wanamaker sixteen years after the Globe’s official opening on the south bank… and in a market which is economically difficult and entirely reliant upon generous donations… is quite remarkable.  

I was inordinately proud to play a miniscule part in the Festival of Firsts at the Globe in 1997… so proud I kept the cheque for ages before cashing it, as I’d have willingly paid them to carry a spear… and all the emotion of that experience came back to me as we stood to applaud the talented cast of The Duchess of Malfi.  What came back to me too was the sense of unbridled fun and adventure, the sense of an undefined and exciting horizon.  That’s what London has again in this precious new Playhouse.  Mr Wanamaker and the Elizabethan and Jacobean artists must be watching over it with such a big smile!

Admittedly I was in the front row of the Pit for this experience on the 9th January.  But I expect to feel as intimately rewarded when I return for Eileen Atkins’ evening with Ellen Terry.  It’s a unique and most interesting house in which to play.  Don’t let the lucky actors in this first season have all the fun – get yourself along!

            Recommendation: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/