Wednesday, 19 July 2017

'Angels in America: Millennium Approaches' at the National Theatre

I went to see both parts of 'Angels in America' at the National Theatre a couple of months ago and was so impressed that I immediately signed up to be part of the monthly ballot for tickets and was lucky enough to be one of the winners. So last night I went to see part 1 again, 'Millennium Approaches' on the Lyttelton stage. Until I saw this production a couple of months ago I'd never seen the play or the film and knew nothing about it other than it dealt with HIV/AIDS in the '80s. It was nice to see it again, this time with some knowledge of the plot and characters.

'Millennium Approaches' is set in New York in the mid-80s and is all about beginnings and discoveries, love and betrayal, as we're introduced to the characters and see them interact. Prior Walter, the latest of that name in a line going back to the Norman conquest of England, discovers he has HIV and tells his boyfriend just before he goes to bury his grandmother. Louis, the boyfriend, can't handle illness and leaves Prior when he's taken to hospital after a particularly bad night. Coincidentally, he works at the same court as Joe, a closeted and confused Mormon whose wife, Harper, takes too much valium and has hallucinations. Joe also knows Ron Cohn who is also closeted but has had sex with men for years who knows everyone in power and swears like a trooper. Thankfully there are also characters like Belize, the nurse in Prior's hospital who is also an old friend, to lighten the load.

There's a swirling play of tales within tales and characters having random conversations that somehow take the play forward. It's so well written and performed that you hardly notice this play is three and a half hours long - it certainly didn't feel it. It's a great ensemble piece with all the actors playing multiple parts, from the rabbi at the start played by Joe's mother, Prior playing the leather queen in Central Park who lives with his parents servicing Louis and characters also playing Prior's ancestors on their hallucinatory visits to warn that the Angel approaches... or, are they hallucinatory?

The further we get into the play the more there are questions about reality and hallucinations. Harper has hallucinations from the start because of her valium intake but we then get drawn into Prior's hallucinations - are they from the drugs he's taking or are they real? Harper get's transported to Antarctica, which we know isn't real, but are Prior's hallucinations of his ancestors real? Are they really predicting a visitation from an Angel? It seems they are since the Angel crashes into Prior's life just as the lights go off at the end of the play. It's all terribly dramatic and I loved the effects.

I thought that all the actors were excellent and the production as a whole is excellent. It totally won me over. It's directed by Marianne Elliot (not Poly Styrene I hasten to add) who deserves kudos for her work on this. Andrew Garfield and James McArdle play Prior and Louis, Russell Tovey and Denise Gough play Joe and Harper, and Nathan Lane and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett play Ron and Belize. All were thoroughly good and caught us up in this strange world from 30 years ago.

Looking forward to seeing part 2 next week!

Fra Angelico 7/12

I'm posting a photo of a painting I've seen by Fra Angelico each month on the 18th of the month to celebrate his feast day as a Beato. This month I've chosen a small painting from San Marco in Florence in, I think, the refectory. We see a Dominican monk (presumably St Dominic because of the halo) with his finger to his lips and a bible in his other hand. You can almost hear the sound of him saying 'ssshhhhh' as he encourages the friars to be quiet and study their bibles.

It's a lovely little painting, high up on the wall and in plain sight to everyone. Get any group of people together and the noise level rises and Dominican friars were no different. It's quite a fun way for Fra Angelico to get his message across.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

'Twilight Song' at Park Theatre

Last week we went to see 'Twilight Song', the last play by Kevin Elyot before he died, at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. Kevin Elyot wrote 'My Night With Reg' which was revived by the Donmar Warehouse in 2014 before transferring to the West End. Like 'Reg', 'Twilight Song' is full of gay (and possibly bisexual) characters with the exception of the lone woman in the cast (well, as far as the text suggests anyway). It's a small ensemble piece and lasts about 75 minutes and that's the right length for this piece. Warning: SPOILERS.  

It's a tale of a small middle class family of no consequence fifty years apart, set in both 2017 and in 1967. The year 1967 is prominently signalled by references to the Beatles world-wide performance of 'All You Need Is Love' (I wonder how much using that song costs the production?). The play opens in 2017 with an estate agent, Skinner, looking over the old Victorian villa that Barry is interested in selling. He lives there with his mother who is out for the day. After some banter and some truths Barry asks Skinner how he earns the extra money they're talking about and he says he fucks women and men. It is rather out of the blue but does make sense of the almost-flirting earlier. Barry hands over the money and the scene changes to 50 years earlier with newly married Basil (Barry's dad) and Isabella (his mother) having recently moved into the house and taking their Uncle Charles and family friend Harry out to dinner to thank them for their help in buying the house. The two older men are secretly lovers and have been for years.

Through various twists and turns we learn that Harry commits suicide because he is being blackmailed and we also learn that the worker renovating the garden is not only Harry's blackmailer but the father of Barry's younger brother who went missing when he was a baby. Earlier in the play we learn that the gardener wanted a baby and Skinner tells us that his dad came into some money at short notice and emigrated to Australia after his mother died. Coincidence? Or is he family?

The casting probably helps with that question since Adam Garcia plays both Skinner and the gardener and Paul Higgins plays Basil and Barry (i.e. father and son). Bryony Hannah played Isabella in both 1967 and in 2017 - she did good limp with a walker to stress her age but I think the simple addition of a grey wig might've helped. The old blokes were Hugh Ross and Philip Bretherton.

It's a bit of a strange play in many ways and, although it doesn't have the immediacy of 'My Night With Reg', it's stuck in my head.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

'Turandot' at the Royal Opera House

Last week we went back to the venerable Royal Opera House to see a performance of 'Turandot' by Mr Puccini. It was his last opera and wasn't finished when he died so no-one really knows if the finished opera is as how he intended it but I don't mind, it's a 'biggie' and worthy of a look. This was the 277th performance of the opera at the Royal Opera House - I really like that they include details like that in their cast lists and programmes. This production was first staged in 1984.

Turandot is Princess of China and has decreed that she will only marry a prince who can answer three riddles. No-one can, of course, so they are put to death, the latest being the Prince of Persia. There's a riot baying for blood outside the royal palace in old Peking and that's when we meet Timur, the deposed king of Tartary, who is reunited with his son Calaf and they're both saved by the slave-girl Liu who is secretly in love with Calaf since he once smiled at her (as you do). Calaf sees Turandot as she is carried through the streets of Peking and falls for her, determined to take the riddles task and marry her.

Despite others trying to persuade him otherwise he refuses to change his mind and, luckily answers the riddles correctly. Turandot flies into a rage and refuses to honour her part of the bargain so Calaf offers her a chance in that if she can find out his name by dawn he will be at her mercy. Turandor orders her soldiers to torture and kill the people of Peking to find out his name and brave Liu is captured and kills herself so she can't reveal his name. Calaf does nothing to help her and lost my sympathy - him and bitch queen Turandor deserve each other. Before dawn Calaf tells Turandot his name and they 'lay down together' - which I assume means he rapes her since she wouldn't do that voluntarily. And somehow she discovers love and, at dawn declares his name to be 'Love' and they embrace. It's a very odd ending but I was pleased with Timur leading out the cart with Liu's body in it and across the stage to show us who the true heroine was. Brave Liu.

The staging was gorgeous with lovely sets and colourful costumes and, of course, the singing was excellent. I followed the tale by reading the words to the songs in the surtitles above the stage. I didn't like the character of Turandot at all and her conversion to love at the end wasn't terribly well handled.  I did, however, love the three 'comic' characters of Ping, Pong and Pang who kept the story moving and danced and sung their way through the opera. I particularly liked their sequence at the start of the second act when they sang about their homelands and wished they could go back there, to their gardens and bamboo groves. I thought that was particularly lovely. I can't quite forgive them for torturing Liu though. The real heroine of the show was Liu who killed herself for love which seems to be an ongoing theme in Puccini operas.

Aleksandra Kurzak sang Liu, Roberto Alagna sang Calaf, the Unknown Prince, and Lise Lindstrom was Turandot. I'm also name-checking Leon Kosavic, Samuel Sakker and David Junghoon Kim as the three colourful, comic characters that moved me. I must also give a shout out to the Royal Opera Chorus of about 60 singers that created such a great noise that filled that grand old hall to the rafters. Well done all, I was most impressed. I might now have a new favourite opera...

Monday, 10 July 2017

'Bent' at the National Theatre

Yesterday I went to to see a staged reading of 'Bent' at the National Theatre. It was on the Lyttelton stage on which 'Angels in America' is currently playing and the scenery for that play was in the background. So, a play about gay men in the '80s as the background to a play about gay men in the '30s. The reading was part of a short series of 'LGBT+ Readings' as the National Theatre's contribution to Pride 2017. I've never seen 'Bent' so this was a good opportunity to hear it.

The chairs were set out in a row at the front of the stage and the actors walked on and took their seats, with a narrator reading out the stage directions and book-ending each scene. It starts out in Berlin after the Nazis have taken power but before the war. Max is a young man living with his boyfriend Rudy who also likes to invite others back home for sex when he's drunk.

The day starts with a hangover and Max not remembering what happened the night before like many other mornings. This morning, however, the Gestapo break into their flat because Max's shag last night is wanted by them. This implicates Max and Rudy who flee to the nightclub that Rudy works at seeking help. They then go on the run to stay ahead of the Gestapo and Max tries to do a deal with his wealthy family to help them get to Amsterdam through his uncle who is also gay but lives a more discreet lifestyle. They're arrested and, on a transport train to Dachau, Max denies knowing Rudy and is forced to hurt him so severely that Rudy dies. Max denies being gay and insists that he's Jewish so that he wears the yellow star rather than the pink triangle.

The second act takes place in Dachau with Max and Horst, who is gay with a pink triangle on his jacket, working together and slowly falling in love with each other. They can only talk for a few seconds as they move a pile of rocks but the relationship deepens. When Horst falls ill the prison guard instructs him to commit suicide by retrieving his hat from an electric fence. Instead of meekly dying Horst attacks the guard and is shot and Max is instructed to get rid of the body in a pit used to dispose of bodies. Max does so and returns to his work only to jump into the pit to retrieve Horst's jacket and put it on before walking into the electric fence himself, finally acknowledging who he really is. The stage direction read out says that lights at the back of the stage flare and blind the audience.

It's a powerful piece of writing and the actors were all really good, a small cast that only got together for a first rehearsal three days before the reading. Simon Russell Beale played fruity uncle Freddy who likes a bit of 'fluff', George Mackay was Rudy, Paapa Essiedu was Horst and Russell Tovey was Max. Russell is very familiar with that stage since he's currently in 'Angels in America'. All three young men were excellent and gave understated, controlled performances which brought even more emotion to the stage since such horrific things were happening to them. They deserved the standing ovation at the end of the play.

It was followed by a too-short Q&A chaired my Michael Cashman with Martin Sherman (writer) and Stephen Daldry (director). Well done all!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Fra Angelico 6/12

As you know by now, I'm posting a photo of a painting by Fra Angelico that I've seen every month on the date of his feast day, i.e. today, the 18th of the month. Today I've chosen the Virgin & Child by the good Fra in the Thyssen-Bornemiza collection on loan to the MNAC in Barcelona. This is one of my favourite Virgin & Child paintings by Fra Angelico.

The colours are, of course, gorgeous and the cloth of gold held by angels as a backdrop is incredibly detailed when you see it up close. The Child nuzzling his mother, standing in his pink robe on her knee while she holds a lily in her other hand (symbol of purity, of course). Three angels holding the cloth of gold and two angels serenading the holy couple.

It's the detail that's really incredible which is why you need to see this painting up close. The delicate border to the Virgin's robe and the almost see-through nature of the Child's clothing is astonishing.

It suits the tabernacle frame it's in but I don't know if this is the original frame or one made subsequently to house the painting. Whichever, it works for me. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Fra Angelico 5/12

On the 18th of each month this year I'm posting a painting of Fra Angelico's that I've seen and want to share to celebrate his feast day on 18 February. This month I've chosen one of the panels from the triptych in Galleria Corsini in Rome, 'The Ascension'.

I first saw this triptych in an exhibition of Fra Angelico's works in Paris in 2011 at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre as part of its 'Fra Angelico and the Masters of Light' exhibition. It was a joy to see it again in Rome with it's brilliant and fresh colours and straight forward story-telling. It's quite a small triptych but no less gorgeous for it's size.

It's a simple panel showing the risen Christ with the cross of resurrection in his halo in red standing on a cloud while the Virgin and his disciples kneel on the ground below. St Peter is, of course, kneeling beside the Virgin in her deep blue cloak.

The figure I really like is that of the risen Jesus Christ, a calm figure standing with arms outstretched and palms facing the viewer. It's incredibly detailed for a figure that's only about five inches tall. There's a sort of 'combed' effect in the gold leaf emanating out from Christ that gives texture to the gold leaf. This effect will be magical in terms of how the painting would originally have been seen, in flickering candlelight.

Can you imagine seeing this painting in a small, dim chapel with a candle or two in front of it, flickering and moving, making the gold shimmer and move? And there is your Christ standing calm and impassive in the midst of this flickering gold. What must that have been like? I wonder how many people have wept in front of this little altarpiece over the last 500 years or so?

Here is the full triptych for you marvel at and enjoy.