Othello – RSC Live Broadcast

Othello-2015-12-541x361Last night I went to the cinema to watch the live broadcast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Othello. I think these live broadcasts are wonderful: though it’s not the same as being in the theatre, you do get some of the feeling of excitement whilst waiting for the play to start, and it’s more accessible and cheaper than going to the theatre, too. I’d heard on Radio 4 about some of the ground-breaking things that this production does, and it didn’t disappoint. The acting is superb, convincing and emotionally sustained throughout; Hugh Quarshie and Joanna Vanderham as Othello and Desdemona are genuinely heartbreaking.

There are a number of ways in which this play is a very contemporary Othello, directed by Iqbal Khan; firstly, the thing for which it has been making headlines is that not only Othello, but also Iago, is played by a black actor, which makes it seem that Iago is not motivated by racism, as is so often assumed. This approach doesn’t do away with the race aspect of the play; the language is suffused with notions of ‘light’ and ‘dark’, and the relationship of Othello and Desdemona is unchanged, but it does make us look at the relationship between Othello and Iago in a very different way. Similarly, gender is also played around with here: the Duke is female (a great touch), commanding military men and women, and Desdemona is by no means a meek, obedient wife: chaste, yes, but not a doormat – this is certainly a production which plays up the Othello-2015-16-541x361strength of women (emphasised by really remarkable, unusual and often beautiful modern costumes).

I like Shakespeare in modern settings. If we think that Shakespeare’s work is timeless (which I do) then it seems wilful and pointless to be a “purist” and insist on it being played in doublet and hose when it offers such a wonderful range of opportunities to do something different. Here, the military context is played up: after all, Othello is a general, a military man, and as the interval discussions in the live broadcast suggest, the reason that Othello trusts Iago’s assertions about his wife is because of their background as men who have fought together and trusted each other with their lives. It goes further than that in this production, though: there are scenes reminiscent of Abu Ghraib, of prisonOthello-2015-10-541x361ers being tortured and of casual violence. Though we also see the camaraderie of the military, the high spirits when the fighting is over, we also see how everyone – even Desdemona and Emilia – has become blasé about the prevailing air of violence, and that, I think, makes us think differently
about the characters. This violent backdrop makes the murder of Desdemona less surprising, I think, though no less shocking.

The production brings out the contrast between light and dark which the play develops and returns to repeatedly. Not only in the obvious (skin colour) but in clothing, in lighting and staging, this contrast is emphasised. The dialogue does this too, of course, and ultimately brings out the idea that it is not dark or light in skin colour that matters, but the dark and light in human behaviour, in the mind, in human actions, that matters. This culminates in Othello’s tragic speech before the death of Desdemona:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.Othello-2015-18-541x361
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.

That ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’ was tear-jerking in this performance; Othello’s tragic flaw and the result of it, of loss, death, and darkness, is both cathartic and heart-breaking. Yet the play also moves between light and dark by contrasting moments of humour and scenes of joy with the darkness of the heart, and in that lies its greatest strength. Lucian Msamati as Iago embodies both light and dark; he is not only wicked, but also funny – and remains convincing in both throughout, which is no small feat.

Exhibition Review: Fighting History at the Tate

imagesFighting History is a strange exhibition (and one which seems to have had many poor reviews). An exhibition on history painting – and its often counter-cultural attitudes – sounds like a brilliant idea for an exhibition, but for me it didn’t deliver. The only review I saw (heard, actually, on Radio 4, I think) before I went left me unclear as to what the exhibition was really about, and I’m afraid that visiting it didn’t really make that any clearer. The exhibition blurb says:

From Ancient Rome to recent political upheavals, Fighting History looks at how artists have transformed significant events into paintings and artworks that encourage us to reflect on our own place in history.

From the epic 18th century history paintings by John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West to 20th century and contemporary pieces by Richard Hamilton and Dexter Dalwood, the exhibition explores how artists have reacted to key historic events, and how they capture and interpret the past.

The first rraleighoom, Radical History Painting, argues that history painting is not in fact the conservative genre we think it is, but one which resists authority and undermines the conventional way of thinking. I didn’t think that history painting is a purely conventional genre, but even if I did I’m not sure that the three pieces in this room – Dexter Dalwood’s trite ‘The Poll Tax Riots’, Jeremy Deller’s word-map linking acid house to brass bands, and Robert Edge Pine’s ‘John de Warenne’ – would have convinced me. It seemed like a self-conscious start to the exhibition, shouting to the foolish and naive exhibition-goer: ‘Look! Art isn’t what you think it is, and we are here to show you that, in a very modern and non-chronological way’.

Now, although I am probably conventional and old-fashioned in this, I prefer chronological approaches to exhibitions, usually; however, I’m not so conventional that I’m not open to doing this differently, especially when trying to make a radical point, and grouping the art works by themes across 6 rooms might have been a learjolly good idea; however, the themes were odd, and oddly represented by the works in them. 250 Years of British History Painting, in the second room, worked on the vague premise that approaches to history change over time, and contained an odd assortment of paintings with varied relevance to history, including Alma-Tadema’s ‘The Silent Greeting’ (which tells us little about history, though something about the artist and his period), along with Millais’ ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ (again, not exactly history, except in the ‘lives of great men’ school), Henry Wallis’s ‘The Room in which Shakespeare was Born’ (is that really history?) and, more sensibly but lacking in context, Johann Zoffany’s ‘The Death of Captain Cook’. The third room, Ancient History, contains, randomly, Millais’ ‘Speak! Speak!’ and the ghastly ‘King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia’ by James Barry, alongside some genuinely ancient history from Poynter and Gavin Hamilton.

yeamesRoom 4 is British History, which I think attempts to identify a specifically British approach, and – like the other rooms – does contain some interesting pictures, but sadly by this stage my mind was overtaken with annoyance at failing to understand the grand narrative behind the exhibition. I’d like to think that the whole concept was terribly postmodern, undermining a conventional narrative to show the fallacy of historical narratives, but to be honest I don’t think that was the case. Still, I was interested by the (populist but well-done) ‘Amy Robsart’ by William Frederick Yeames, showing the (presumed) murder of the wife of Robert Dudley, freeing him up to marry Elizabeth I (which of course he didn’t), as well as John Minton’s modern, sympathetic ‘The Death of Nelson’, with its homosocial undertones. Yet I was still wondering, why ‘Fighting History’? Fighting against it? Undermining it with radicalism? (in which case, why Alma-Tadema? Why Barry, Millais, etc?) Or fighting it in the sense of depicting a fight of some kind? Who knows.

The fifth room was devoted to modern resistance to authority in art: Jeremy Deller’s ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ set the tone, re-enacting a clash between miners and police in 1984. I quite liked the idea of re-enacting something so modern, as a riff on the concept of Civil War re-enactors, etc: it might make one ask questions about what we do with history, especially modern history; how do we process it, react to it, depict it in art and incorporate it into our lives? Sadly, such turnerquestions are undermined by the haphazardness of the final room, The Deluge, which displayed several paintings of the Flood. This was entirely unexpected and seemed an odd conclusion; though there were some excellent paintings here, including the only Turner to feature in the exhibition, and Winifred Knights’ ‘The Deluge’, a modernist painting which looks at a flood – or the flood? – as the end of history. I suppose there is something of a narrative closure there, but the exhibition overall confused and annoyed me – and it’s rare I say that. Go and see the Hepworth exhibition downstairs instead!

Exhibition Review: Barbara Hepworth

infantBarbara Hepworth’s work fascinates me. I want to stroke it, and take it home with me and stare at it (though I’m not sure how well it would sit in my Victorian house!) It’s appropriate that, forty years after her death, the Tate’s summer blockbuster should be devoted to her, and it does a good job of demonstrating the development and breadth of her work, along with appropriate and interesting context. Though I have seen several Hepworth exhibitions before, I appreciated seeing her early work – carvings, mostly small enough to feel intimate and domestic, of figures both human and animal – in the context of other artists’ work of the period, including Henry Moore, of course. These works, in wood, onyx, stone, demonstrate how Hepworth worked with – rather than against – the grain of the materials she chose, creating beautiful, simple, tactile works which one wants to touch (in fact, this is clearly an issue, given the number of warnings about alarms being triggered if you touch them!) ‘Infant’ (left) somehow seems to carry within it the very essence of babyhood, a tiny figure holding up its arms as babies do, while the green onyx toad, reflecting the fashion for small animals in hard stone, somehow seems so toad-like despite its simplicity and apparent lack of detail.

The Studio section provides photographs as well as work during the period she shared a studio with Ben Nicholson, and mother and childmany of his works, too, which offer illumination on the period in which she was working as well as being interesting in their own right; his works on paper demonstrate an interesting echoing of form across their works. At a time when Hepworth wrote ‘we are building a new mythology’, she was creating her Mother and Child series, which abstracts the concept of a relationship between two bodies to demonstrate a kind of relationship in stone in which one appears to be cradling the other. These, too, are tactile, the flaws and grains in the material becoming part of the work of art.

The context of her working practices is extended in International Modernism, which not only indicates her position within a growing movement – and her importance in it – but also shows her her work developed, becoming more deeply abstract as she played with ideas of forms and how they relate to one another. There are single, monolithic forms, forms placed together and shadowing one another, and then increasingly complex echelonforms; looking at them makes form seem both simple and complex; we can peer through them, walk round them taking in unexpected angles and views, and interact with them; this is true of works such as ‘Forms in Echelon’ (left). It’s easy to look at pictures of them and think, What’s the point?’ but to see them is somehow to experience them – I can’t really explain it, except that there is a sort of magic about these works. The room entitled Equilibrium explores her growing interest in more complex forms and shapes, often using other materials such as she does in her famous stringed works. ‘Oval Sculpture’ may seem simple, from some angles, with its clear outline and shape, but the more one looks at it the more one is drawn in. By this stage in her career she was working in Cornwall, and much of her work expresses her sense of being enfolded by the landscape, becoming part of it, and this is very clearly represented here, though in a highly abstracted sense which draws on mathematical forms as much as a concept of nature and sense of place.oval

The closing rooms look at how her work has been displayed in architectural constructions, complementing and sitting alongside architecture rather than as an adjunct to them (something which can be seen to marvellous effect in the Hepworth Studio and Garden in St Ives). This sites her work in reconstructed structures, giving a sense of how she might have intended them to look. There is also a section on Guarea, a hard wood she used for some later works, explores the effects she achieved with this particular material. ‘Solid timber opened up to create an interior space’, she wrote, as though she could see the final sculpture in a piece of wood (which I don’t doubt she could). Guarea also gave her the chance to work with really large pieces of wood, creating wilmerenormous wooden sculptures which again move her work into a new phase.

The exhibition indicates – without forcing – a trajectory in her work which makes sense of her work, with a narrative which is clear and helpful without being prescriptive. As I wandered round, I found myself thinking about form – in sculpture, in poetry, in the world – nature, society, everything – and that, to me, is what makes any exhibition particularly rewarding to visit: it provokes wider thinking, a broader conception of the world; and I left feeling uplifted and enriched.

Books, music and art at Port Eliot Festival

IMG_1976The Port Eliot festival is one of my favourite events of the year. Held in a beautiful country estate in Cornwall, it’s a weekend filled with books, music, food, gin and general jollity. It’s impossible not to find something to inspire you, and although it’s exhausting having so much fun it’s also inspiring (and I came home with a large pile of books to read). I even heard some comedy I found funny – Shappi Khorsandi (I don’t usually enjoy comedy). There are always small tragedies of the writers you don’t get to hear because they clash with something else you simply must do – but I’ll try not to dwell on that! I won’t test your patience with a rendition of my notebook, but instead will just go through a few highlights. First, music. I went to a singing workshop run by the Chaps Choir, where we sang gospel songs, a Finnish reindeer call, and a great arrangement of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love‘. I love to sing, and this has really inspired me to go and find another choir; I haven’t stopped singing since (especially as we got to perform the song in St Germans Church on Sunday). The singing was also inspired by hearing Fishermans Friends, the Port Isaac group who sing sea shanties (and drink beer and laugh whilst singing). I love the shanties, and sing them with my son, who would have loved their show, which had everyone singing along. We also heard Stealing IMG_1985Sheep, and the Unthanks, who were great in concert (‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw‘, with its socio-historical roots, especially appealed to me).

The writers I heard included Rachel Holmes talking to Shami Chakrabarti about her forthcoming book on Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve bought her previous book, on Eleanor Marx, and even had a quick chat to her about the nature of feminist biography, and the Pankhurst book should be a good addition to the canon of works on the Suffragettes. Next, I listened to Laura Barton talking about music and sadness – how we bring our own sadness to music we listen to, but how music can also be a way out of sadness, a concept echoed by Matt Haig the following day, talking about reading and writing as a way out of depression, perhaps because it forces us to IMG_1990externalise our emotions and make connections.

In the pouring rain we listened to Owen Sheers (whose book Resistance I have bought but have yet to read) talking about his new book, I Saw A Man, which I bought for my husband, as well as his diverse other projects including a film-poem commemorating the disaster at Aberfan. His comments on Welshness and poetry – that poetry is well-supported in Wales, perhaps better so than in England – interested me. As a complete contrast, we also heard Luke Wright performing his poetry; he’s a great performer, with poems about parenthood, suburbia, politics and failed dreams.

The biggest draws of Saturday were Sarah Waters and Simon Armitage, speaking to packed marquees (the strange angle of the photographs indicates that I was on the floor directly in front of the stage!) I enjoyed Waters’ talk, as I enjoy her novels (though her latest, The Paying Guests, is probably my least favourite). She talked about her research, the periods in history she is interested in (she plans her next novel to be set IMG_1982in the 1950s), and her apparent obsessions with houses, mothers and daughters, gender and class. In The Paying Guests she wrote about the Twenties because it was a period she knew little about, and intentionally undermined the stereotype of the Roaring Twenties, instead focusing on the class conflict and quieter lives of those bereaved after the war. Her interests are often in ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary events, rather than extraordinary characters. I’m interested to hear that The Little Stranger is to be made into a film and The Paying Guests a TV series.

Simon Armitage, recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach for one of the most famous (living) British poets, He talked about his books Walking Home and Walking Away, in which he walked first the Pennine Way and then the South coast, ‘testing poetry’, as he put it – giving readings along the way to support himself, and asking what payment people felt he deserved; though he is an optimist about poetry, he felt that he should take poetry to people to see their response, and on the whole he seems positive about this (again, I have both books but haven’t yet read either!) The extracts IMG_1983he read are not only poetic but humorous too, and suggest that both in the people he met and in the landscape itself he found, unexpectedly, a strong and positive sense of Britishness.

I managed to catch some of a conversation between the sculptor Alice Channer, Nicholas Serota of the Tate, and Chris Stephens, focusing on Barbara Hepworth, the subject of an exhibition at the Tate currently. I was particularly interested in Channer’s comments about how Hepworth makes a solid, hard material look somehow elastic, as though she has changed its very nature in the process of her work. The relationship of people and places to sculpture is something the exhibition has encouraged me to think about too, and the three of them in conversation on Hepworth were inspiring.images

Finally, I was especially inspired by a discussion between Philip Marsden and Tim Dee. Both nature writers (or travel writers), they discussed, among other things, how we use language to construct nature, poetically, socially, historically, and these days politically and ecologically. This is, of course, to nature’s complete ignorance of it: a blackbird has no idea it is a blackbird, or that we have all kinds of cultural connotations of blackbirds; it just is. Obvious but needing stating, I think. And the naming of nature is itself a colonial project, they suggested, implying our dominion over it in a way which is uncomfortable. I’ve only recently become interested in ‘nature writing’, so was fascinated by their discussion about ‘the new nature writing’ – particularly around the resurgence of interest rising-groundin it which is, perhaps, stemming from our disconnection with nature in the modern world, as well as a desire to capture what seems to be a vanishing world (though both of these have been the impetus for much nature writing for centuries). It’s also politically motivated, very often, though, raising awareness of the changes in ecosystems, threatened species, etc; we are looking into the abyss. I’ve bought Marsden’s book Rising Ground, on the ‘spirit of place’ in Cornwall as a way of thinking about how we connect to the landscape more broadly, and how this gives both individuals and cultures meaning. It’s yet another book I can’t wait to read!

Life in Squares

Life-in-SquaresWatching ‘Life in Squares’, the new BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, is a matter of watching people self-consciously try to be unconventional, which is slightly painful. Somehow the ‘liberated’ approach in which, as Vanessa Bell says, if we are not free we might as well be our parents (that is, Victorians), seems stifling and uncomfortable much of the time, and I suspect that really is how it was. Freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, is the moral of this series, even if it does lead to changing society and great art.

The title is taken from Dorothy Parker’s quip that the Bloomsbury set ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’, or something like that. The first and the last of these are emphasised more tbellhan the painting, or writing, in ‘Life in Squares’, despite claims that this series was not simply prurient about the lives of those involved (‘sniffing the bedsheets’, according to Virginia Nicholson, a descendant). There is a lot of sex, and conversation, much of it trite, and although we are occasionally reminded of art (a shot of Vanessa Bell painting, Virginia Woolf mentioning her writing) the priority is on relationships.

The so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ were a collection of artists, writers, critics, publishers etc (many of them related) who, in the early twentieth century, rebelled against the stuffiness of society, trying to change everything about how we saw the world. Indeed the opening scenes are very late-Victorian, giving the viewer a real sense of what they – especially the Stephen sisters Vanessa and Virginia – wanted to escape from. The first episode set up this sense of a new generation forWoolf (1)ging the way ahead, from the sisters throwing their corsets out of the window to a genuine sense of the women’s desire for what men had – education, freedom, power. This sense is lost somewhat by the second episode, though, as relationships become increasingly tangled and we see ahead to their future beyond the heady days of youth and freedom.

Everything is very loaded; references to future events – Woolf’s depression and eventual suicide; her bisexuality; the death of Vanessa’s son Julian; the future marriage of ‘Bunny’ Garnett and Angelica Bell – these are all alluded to in a way which makes those who know about the events nod knowingly. This seems heavy-handed sometimes, as well as charleston-3_1910932ithe way in which the characters appear so much what I expected that they are almost caricatures of themselves. The series is clearly attempting to do the characters justice, but with insufficient focus on their art it’s difficult to achieve that. The focus on Vanessa Bell is nice, though: it can’t have been easy being Virginia Woolf’s less-famous sister, apart from anything else, so it’s refreshing to see Bell, with her muted sadness, as a central figure (and I have always enjoyed her paintings). The aesthetics are wonderful, too; the clothes, the houses, reflect the post-Victorian-ness of the time, and no doubt will bring further visitors to Charleston, the Bells’ country home. It also perhaps asks the viewer to reflect on whether these somewhat naive fledgling attempts to forge a new kind of society, and a new kind of art, were successful, worthwhile, or doomed from the start. It will be interesting to see if the final episode brings any answers to these questions.

Exhibition Review: Fashion on the Ration

imagesI’ve been very excited about Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style at the Imperial War Museum. 1940s fashion is one of my secret passions, and I have a little collection of dresses, shoes, hats etc; I’m not sure why it appeals to me so much, except that the clothes suit me and I find the period interesting. The IWM do a good job of explaining the way in which fashion changed in response to wartime; both rationing and changing cultures (women working in manual jobs, for example) affected clothes. Fabrics, embellishments and other materials such as metal and plastic used in clothes was restricted, so styles evolved which owed a lot to ‘make do parachute silk underwearand mend’ – altering clothes or completely making them over (such as cutting down a man’s suit to make a dress, or a wedding dress to make underwear). Fashion, and appearance generally, was considered very important despite the restrictions: looking good was seen as a way of keeping up morale and showing that the British weren’t being beaten; a Yardley advert of the time said: “To work for victory is not to say yardleygoodbye to charm. For good looks and good morale are the closest of allies.” And this isn’t about unaffordable, movie-star fashion: this is ‘street style’ – the focus is very much on ordinary women, their clothes, and their unpublicised heroism.

From underwear made from parachute silk to wedding dresses worn by numerous brides, from siren suits (the original onesie) to Utility clothes (well-made but cut to minimise usage of difficult-to-obtain fabrics, and designed by top names), the exhibition explores how British fashion remade itself in the light of war. Many factories which once made luxury objects (lipsticks, buttons, suspender clasps etc) started making bullet cases or other essentials of war, so ingenuity was necessary to keep up appearances. Beetroot juice might be used once all your pre-war lipsticks were exhausted, and stockings were replaced with graving browning and a line drawn with eyeliner (or charcoal, once that had run out). Old clothes were unpicked, unravelled, and carefully crafted into something new, while adornments might include jewellery made from aircraft parts (really!), or crocheted from scraps of wool.images (2)

The exhibition makes a good attempt to include men’s fashion, too, but it’s the dresses and accessories for women which steal the show. Personally I think I had rather hoped for more, somehow – I enjoyed it a great deal but it didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know (though I was surprised/impressed by the psychedelic mushroom print on this housecoat, right), and many of the items on display were similar to ones I own; but that’s just me, and along with contemporary photographs, and accounts of women who lived through the war, it provides a great story about how fashion – and people – exceeded expectations in adapting to difficult circumstances.

images (1)dresses