Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Paper @ Saatchi Gallery

When my housemate was looking for a free exhibition to document for a university project, I couldn't think of anywhere better than the Saatchi Gallery, on the King's Road. In my opinion, it's the best place in London for contemporary art exhibitions, and it's always free. 

We were lucky to catch the Paper exhibition days before it closed, having already been extended due to popular demand. As quite a vague theme, 'Paper' gave space to everything from pencil sketches and collages to enormous paper sculptures. Although some sketches didn't really seem worthy of inclusion in the exhibition, there were some really beautiful, or just incredibly cool, pieces. Here are some of my favourites (photos stolen from Matej Oreskovic):

José Lerma (1971, Seville, Spain) and Héctor Madera (Puerto Rico) - Bust of Emanuel Augustus (2012)
The artists, both resident in New York, were fascinated by the story of this grandly named journeyman boxer and decided to make a sculpture equal to the size of his personality.

Steven Lowery (1980, Newcastle) - Selected Works (2003)

Dominic McGill (1963, Brighton) - Muqaddimah (2009-2010)

I nearly had to be dragged away from this enormous mural as I would happily have spent a whole day reading the densely scrawled quotes - ranging from The Bible to Das Kapital - that make up this epic dystopian vision of contemporary society.

Marcelo Jácome (1960, Rio de Janeiro) - Planos-Pipas (Kite Planes, 2013)

We were struck by the scale and beauty of this installation, made of bamboo and tissue paper, which seems to float through the gallery.

Han Feng (1972, Harbin, China) - Floating City (2008)

I was totally hypnotised by the slowly rotating buildings that form this giant mobile, playfully subverting the idea of the city as something heavy and immovable. Each box had an individual photograph of a building printed on to it, which again made me want to spend hours comparing each one and guessing at the story behind them all. Who would live there? Would these very different houses ever come together in a real city?

Visit the exhibition yourself virtually through this video:

The Saatchi Gallery is open 7 days a week and all exhibitions are free. Find out more about the whole Paper exhibition and the artists involved here. The gallery will now close to change exhibitions and will reopen on 20 November with Body Language.

Michael Feinstein & Friends: The Great American Songbook

Just when I was starting to worry that now he's caught up in Downtown Abbey I'd never get to see Julian Ovenden sing again, I spot a tweet that he'll be making a special guest appearance in Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook show at The Palace the next day (Monday 4 November), as part of the London Festival of Cabaret. While I had never heard of Feinstein before, I couldn't resist a live performance of those wonderful old classics.

As a young man, Feinstein - now 57, although you would never guess! - worked for six years with Ira Gershwin, cementing a life-long love of the 'great American songbook', which he has dedicated his entire carer to promoting. 28 studio albums, five Grammy nominations and a Drama Desk Special Award later, Michael has become known as the authority on the songbook, not only performing and recording the classics himself, but archiving and preserving them for everyone.

This packed show last night featured classics from the Gershwins (obviously!), including a medley of audience requests (Embraceable You, Someone To Watch Over Me, They All Laughed...), Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, and Feinstein's beloved friend Jerry Herman. Feinstein loves I Won't Send Roses, Herman's hit from Mack & Mabel, so much that he has recorded it five times. The heartbreaking confession of a man who doesn't think he's good enough for the woman he loves was the highlight of the evening (although I couldn't help comparing it to John Barrowman's flawless version).

Feinstein is a real showman, full of anecdotes and jokes: "Frank used to say his wife was the evil of two Loessers". His evident closeness with and incredible respect and admiration for these great songwriters was a joy to watch. Ir seems that the feeling is mutual, at least for Leslie Bricusse, writer of Stop the World I Want to Get Off, who was in the audience last night.

Michael was very flattering to Julian, to the point of performing a mutually complimentary rewrite of Cy Coleman's I'm Nothing Without You from City of Angels with him. Eschewing more famous musical hits, Julian performed a stunningly beautiful Noel Coward medley. He argued that while everyone appreciates Coward's wit, his often overlooked 'melancholia' is where his true songwriting genius lies. Elaine Paige, enjoying her first time at The Palace in a non Andrew Lloyd Webber capacity, performed a gleeful version of Irving Berlin's Blue Skies Irving Berlin, as well as a romantic medley duet with Michael.

Although my friend and I seemed to be the only people under 60 at The Palace, we both left infused with Michael's passion for these timeless classics. Michael, Julian and Elaine all stressed how "they don't make them like they used to any more" and I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 4 November 2013

BFI London Film Festival 2013 - As I Lay Dying & Elle s'en va

Every year, the catalogue for BFI's London Film Festival arrives and I get carried away planning the dozens of films I will see, until I'm thwarted by a mixture of selling out (Blue Is The Darkest Colour, Inside Llewyn Davis) or having to be elsewhere (most annoyingly for the one Venezuelan film in the festival, Bad Hair). However, I was happy to still make it to two, very different, films in the first week.

As I Lay Dying

James Franco's adaptation of William Faulkner's 1930 epic depiction of a truly dysfunctional Southern family travelling to bury their mother was one of the main talking points of the festival season. I was particularly looking forward to it as Faulkner, cited as an inspiration for every great Latin American author, is a huge gap in my reading. Most of the controversy around the film stemmed from claims that, as Franco is not from the South, he cannot truly understand Faulkner's source material. While I don't agree with the logic behind that argument at all, having not yet read the book, I can't comment on the fidelity of the adaptation. Nonetheless, I am well aware of the breakdown of narrative certainties created by Faulkner's use of 15 different narrators. I found the use of split screen throughout the film, showing characters from two different angles, or making slightly different actions at once, captured this well, and also made for a very interesting visual experience. I have to admit getting a bit fed up with the unsympathetic characters and how their quest to bury their mother drags on, but, thinking back on it, it seems that the characters themselves would share those feelings, making As I Lay Dying not a film meant to be enjoyed.

Elle s'en va

By contrast, Emmanuelle Bercot's Elle s'en va passed somewhat under the radar, and yet was the film I was most looking forward to, partly because of my enormous love for Catherine Deneuve, but also because the trailer completely won me over. An homage to French cinema's greatest living actress, Elle s'en va is a very touching exploration of the fragility of a former Miss Brittany facing her lost youth and beauty. When her married lover leaves his wife not for her, but for a twentysomething, Bettie leaves her mother and her restaurant behind and begins to drive. The film follows her odyssey through the French countryside, from random encounters in dive bars, through painful memories, to possibilities of renewal. Bercot deftly balances fear and hope, sorrow and humour, without ever falling in to cliché. However, the main attraction of course is Deneuve's tour de force performance: she is an absolute joy to watch, and proves that 70 can be sexy.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Theatre Royal Bath Summer Season - Candida and King Lear

It was another exciting summer in the Social Programme Office at the University of Bath's English Language Centre - so much so that I feel like I'm only just recovering from it now! Like last year, I was lucky enough to meet some wonderful people from all over the world and enjoy sharing British culture and landmarks with them. One particular highlight for me was being able to take my students to the beautiful Theatre Royal twice this summer, even if I was underwhelmed by the two very different plays themselves: George Bernard Shaw's Candida and Shakespeare's King Lear.


Although in recent years it has been eclipsed by Shaw's triumph Pygmalion, Candida (1898) was quite the hit in its day, questioning Victorian ideas about love and marriage with a side order of socialism. The play centres around a love triangle: popular priest and orator, Reverend James Mavor Morell (Jamie Parker), whose seemingly perfect live unravels when a young poet who he had taken pity on (Eugene Marchbanks, played by Frank Dillane) arrives and announces that he is in love with James' beautiful young wife Candida (Charity Wakefield). While considerations of the practicalities of socialism rumble in the background, most of the action is the conflict between the two males, making it clear that neither affords Candida any agency in her own love life. The most interesting part of the play for me, therefore, was how Candida deals with this situation, eventually resisting the Victorian ideal of female passivity that both men unwittingly force upon her.

I expressed concerns about Jamie Parker in my review of Henry V and his performance in Candida left me with similar doubts. I can't work out if he's just a boring actor, or whether he is intentionally accentuating the staid nature of the character, making it clear why Candida might seek entertainment elsewhere. By contrast, Dillane (famous for playing Tom Riddle in Harry Potter), was very full on, to the point of being highly irritating at times, but it worked for the nervous, conflicted young poet. Of the main cast, I was most impressed with Charity Wakefield's (Land Fothergill from Any Human Heart) sensitive portrayal of the title character. Overall, Candida was at turns funny and thought provoking, but lacking the spark that makes Pygmalion such an enduring hit.

King Lear

Regular readers will know that I'm quite familiar with King Lear after following Cardiff University's Act One as they took their adaptation to Edinburgh. However, my students were happy to learn that even I struggled to follow every word of this incredibly dense tragedy. The main attraction for this particular adaptation was David Haig (Four Weddings and a Funeral) in the title role. The dramatic weight of the role was quite a departure from Haig's usual comedic roles, and at times he seemed to struggle with it - just one of the many let-downs of this production. A particular strength of King Lear is how the universal themes of greed and ambition can be adapted to an enormous range of settings, but for me the 1960s East End gangsters premise which had seemed so promising just didn't pay off. There were some strong performances and the notoriously difficult eye-gouging scene was impressively depraved and gory, but at a certain point the production just seemed to lose its way. Rather than the emotional punch the end is supposed to provide, this Lear's eventual denouement left us feeling only relief.

Find out more about the Theatre Royal and their upcoming attractions here.

Mr B's Reading Year - Part 3: And Then We Came To The End

We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves.

From sexy, smoky Guatemala to a Chicago advertising agency for the next instalment of my Reading Year: Joshua Ferris' And Then We Came to the End (2007). Mr B warned me in his recommendation that the novel, filled with wry observations like the one above about the soul-destroying nature of office life and Twenty-first Century Capitalism, can be "toxic", but this impressive début is nonetheless an incredibly engaging read.

The novel is told almost entirely in the first person plural, evoking the group who know and control everything. While individual characters do emerge, as in any office - the know-it-all, the clown, the desperate to be cool, the man on the edge of a mental breakdown - they are subsumed into the group, which will continue to exist regardless of how many individuals "walk Spanish down the hall". The one exception is brief introspective interludes from the agency's boss, Lynn, who is coming to terms with breast cancer; the contrast between the single and plural here accentuates the isolation resulting from such a deeply personal situation.

Ferris juxtaposes real tragedies, like Lynn's cancer and the murder of a co-worker's young daughter, with mundane concerns, highlighting how the tiny daily irritations come to dominate working life. Despite their objections, however, the group acknowledges the impossibility of living without work.

Yet for all the depression no one ever quit. When someone quit, we couldn't believe it. 'I'm becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,' they said. 'I'm touring college towns with my garage band.' We were dumbfounded. It was like they were from another planet. Where had they found the derring-do? What would they do about car payments? We got together for going away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately.

Ferris' catalogue of human failings could easily have been unbearably bleak, yet it is saved by a constant sardonic, incredibly dark humour, which makes it an unnervingly fun read. We shouldn't be laughing at people abandoning their individuality, their morality, to the desire for money, or the chronic depression resulting from the daily grind, or the terrible suffering of those dying or in mourning, but Ferris makes it impossible not to. Toxic is therefore a good word for And Then We Came To The End: like some kind of narcotic, it will leave you feeling spent and disturbed, but you will enjoy the ride.

Learn more about Mr B's Reading Year and how to get one for yourself here.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Boogie Christ: Joseph Arthur @ Heath Street Baptist Church

Christ would wear cowboy boots, Christ would have sex, Christ would eat pizza and cut blackjack decks...

Regularly readers will know that I find it hard to write objectively about something I love, but this - far too overdue - account of Joseph Arthur's reverential gig at Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead on 11 October may be even more laden with superlatives than usual.

I've been a HUGE fan of Joe's since my dad, in his infinite musical wisdom, advised me to go to his gig at Café de la Danse in Paris four years ago. Joe blew me away then, playing for two hours solid and then some more acoustic at the merch stand passed curfew. Since then, the prolific Arthur has released three more solo albums, as well as albums with supergroups Fistful of Mercy and RNDM. His latest solo effort, the semi-autobiographical The Ballad of Boogie Christ, "about redemption and what happens after you find it and lose it", is considered by many to be his best yet, and certainly one of my favourite albums of the last few years, so it was with great excitement that I headed off to a Hampstead church for a sermon of a very unusual kind.

As well as an incredible musician, singer/song-writer and poet, Joe is also an artist, so we found the church adorned with his Basquiatesque creations. I loved the juxtaposition of his somewhat deranged visions with the sombre religious iconography. If I had a few thousand pounds to spare, I would have very happily taken one home with me.

Fellow New-Yorker Rene Lopez opened the show in style with songs from his new Latin-tinged Let's Be Strangers Again EP, ending with an old classic Roosevelt Is Burning. It was a real struggle for me not to jump out of my pew and start dancing, but it didn't seem appropriate in a church, so I had to limit myself to grinning like a crazy person.

Then it was time for the main attraction, with Joe accompanied by Rene on bass and Bill Dobrow on drums/rebolo. The packed set showcased the impressive range of styles that feature on The Ballad of Boogie Christ - rock, folk, soul, sung poetry... - as well as his trademark live guitar solos, which make spectacular use of a whole floor of effects peddles and loops. Scattered among the new tracks were classics including In the Sun, Chicago (one of my favourites, partly because of my weakness for the harmonica), and the hauntingly beautiful Redemption's Son. Joe struggled to speak through the gig - a mixture of insomnia and being weirded out by being able to see everyone as the church left the lights on - but that only made him even more endearing.

As well as his exceptional talent, one of my favourite things about Joe is how well he treats his fan. No amount of fatigue would stop him satisfying our demands for autographs and photos. It's this mixture that makes fans so devoted to him - my pew neighbour had travelled from Spain just for the gig - and is why, as we waited to meet our hero, all you could hear was fellow fans asking each other incredulously how he isn't playing a bigger venue... while  being selfishly grateful for the privilege of such an intimate gig. With the next album promising to be even better than Boogie Christ, I'm sure we won't have him to ourselves for much longer!

Visit josepharthur.com for more information, tour dates and live recordings of gigs. For a great introduction to The Ballad of Boogie Christ, watch the interview and live performance at KEXP below.