Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Artist.

A rare night out at the cinema. We'd wanted to catch The Iron Lady, but it was sold out so settled instead for The Artist, more from convenience than choice, a stroke of luck as it was absolutely astonishing and a bit of a companion piece for Travelling Light which we saw last week at the National.

Set in 1927 the film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, charts the careers of George Valentin, a silent screen romantic who fails to adapt to new world of the talkies and Peppy Miller, a one time fan, whose plucky, girl about town performances turn her into a box office phenomenon. As Peppy rises, George falls, until on the brink of oblivion, she rescues him for a true Hollywood ending. There's a sense that the talkies were as much about a reinforced sense of American nationalism as a natural progress. George, like many of those swashbuckling pioneers, has European, not native, roots.

The novelty of The Artist is that, with the exception of the final line, Hazanavicius chooses to revert back shooting the whole epic story as a black and white silent movie, reminding us with beautifully lit sequences, and superb camera work the craft of that early age. In this respect, and the almost constant referencing of great cinematic moments, the film is a simple love letter to movie making, like the wonderful Cinema Paradiso, a passionate affirmation of the glamour, nostalgia and romance of the form. A reminder that all of us can, and, on rainy days, probably should, imagine our lives in epic terms.

I hope it'll win the Oscar - if not for Best Movie then surely Best Actor for Jean Dujardain's incredibly witty and stylistic portrayal of Valentin. It's a ravishing piece of work.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Charity that Began at Home.

To The Orange Tree to see a fun filled revival of St John Hankin's Edwardian social satire The Charity that Began at Home directed with mischievous snap by Auriol Smith.

Lady Denison, swayed by the messianic idealism of Mr Hylton, the founder of the Church of Humanity, and supported by her pure of heart daughter Margery has organised a country house party not for people you'd like to ask, but rather for those who'd like to be asked setting the scene for a curious menagerie of pompous bores, vulgar cads, self-obsessed narcissists and terrifying zealots.

If not completely relaxed the weekend seems reasonably under control until Margery, following the doctrine that love can reform anybody, accepts the offer of engagement from army deserter and wastrel Hugh Verreker, throwing her mother's plans for a match with Mr Hylton into disarray.

The rest of the play examines the limits of charity, not quite with Shavian sharpness, but with a fair amount of intelligence and no little humanity and although some of the playing is pedestrian, there are stand out performances from Olivia Morgan as Margery and Oliver Gomm as Hugh.

I've never seen a Hankin play before, but very much enjoyed the well marshaled collection of characters and the clear moral twist at the end, where Verreker realising he can not 'reform' Margery of her faith in him calls off the engagement, so as not to let her down. It is as he rightly suggests, the most honest thing he could do in the circumstances. An optimistic and kindly way to defeat the insufferable idealism of the do-gooders.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Finding The Frame.

We've come to the end of the first week of rehearsals for the Alice Project and things seem to be going well. The company have done a huge amount of research into mid-Victorian England as well as looking at the story of the relationship between Charles Dodgson and the real Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christchurch. Unlike last year, where we are early work was focused on choosing which of The Canterbury Tales to dramatise, this year we're spending the first meetings trying to find a structure within which to explore the work.

We could of course offer a simple telling of one of the two stories or - as Disney and Tim Burton have both tried - a kind of amalgamation into one dreamland. However, the more the company have read, the more they've been interested in Alice's own story and seem keen to bring in some biographical material, either to shed light on the fictional stories or because it in itself seems to be a fascinating and complicated tale of forbidden love and discretion. There is of course huge speculation both in our research and discussions as to the nature of Carroll and Alice's friendship, but I think trying to explore morality is a red herring for us, better to let the audience decide.

Talking with Tina towards this afternoon we began to see that photography could play a vital part in the play. Lewis Carroll (Dodgson used this name when engaged in his artistic, non-University activities) was a pioneer of the form and his initial friendship with the Liddell came about through his desire to photograph them.

Carroll was a young man in his mid twenties when he acquired his first camera and over the next thirty years he took thousands of portraits mostly of renowned acquaintances and, of course, young girls. Taking photos, in these early days, required a methodological patience and concentration. Materials were expensive and attention was needed to mix the chemicals, ensure the light and time the process. No doubt to the child subjects of his work Carroll appeared like a magician.

There's a sense of claustrophobia to this, of rigorous order and control - quite in keeping with his role as an applied mathematician. Carroll costumed his subjects, arranged poses, often recreating scenes from popular poetry or exotic myth. Arguably the most famous of these is the seven year old Alice dressed as the Beggar Maid from Tennyson's poem of the same name. Inevitably the children were cast in stories of his own choosing.

Perhaps though it was through these tableau that Dodgson, as Carroll, found escape from the cloying monastic, masculine, rituals of Oxford life. They offered a window into a parallel world of purity, chivalry and romance and just as the Alice stories can be read as a child's vision of the coded patterns of academic life, so these photographs can be seen as an attempt to reach beyond pure equations and rational language to discover a different, visual sense of perfect representation. Perhaps the best way for us to see the story is as a staged set of moments frozen in time?


Thursday, 19 January 2012

We Would See a Sign.

Since I began working on the Alice stories I've become acutely aware of the number of signed instructions on the walls of St Mary's, each one designed to ensure no litigious student or visitor can make a claim of 'not having been told so'. Reassuring as they may be, they also offer the promise of a tempting gateway into a parallel logical universe. It's a health and safety Wonderland.

Yesterday in the refectory a sign advertising egg fried rice was accompanied by a warning that the dish may contain eggs.

'Ah' said the catering manager 'just because a dish has eggs in the title, doesn't mean you can automatically assume it has eggs in the ingredients!'

'But why don't you warn us about other dishes?' I asked. 'Surely you should warn that the mushroom soup contains mushrooms or the breaded haddock, haddock?'

'Well we would but mushrooms and haddock are the main ingredients of those dishes. They're not trace. Now if we had rice fried egg, we'd have to warn customers that the dish may contain rice. Do you see?'

Outside in the hall way a single tile from the floor has been removed. A sizable area around the tile has been cordoned off and a large obstructive board, which we all have to walk around, has been put up, warning us to be careful of the uneven floor.

Other recent missives include a whole staff email warning not to put any boxes or other obstacles in corridors rightly pointing out these are off particular danger to the visually impaired and a reminder not to put information on the noticeboards in case students stop to read them; creating unnecessary and potentially dangerous bottlenecks. There is also some talk of getting Drama students to sign a waiver if they wish to appear on stage, underneath the hanging lights, without the statutory hard hats. Slowly every aspect of our conscious thought is being regulated into an appropriate procedure.

As Lewis Carroll understood, and points out time and again in the Alice books, those who use the language of advice often confuse it with the language of authority and can be quick to reinforce a closed logic -sometimes in ludicrous ways. Between the lines of Wonderland and Looking Glass is a gently anarchic message suggesting that rather than unswerving compliance to instruction, we should perhaps stand back, listen careful and take a moment to decide whether or not we agree. The word isn't always God.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Travelling Light.

After work I headed off into town to meet Eleanor and catch Nicholas Wright's new play Travelling Light, a clever imagined history of the very early days of cinema.

Set in an Eastern European shtetl at the turn of the twentieth century, young Montl Mendel inherits his father's camera equipment, including a brand new cinematograph. After some gentle bullying and a significant bank roll from timber merchant Jacob, he's persuaded to document the world around him and create, what is in effect, the first documentary archive. He's aided in his task by the photogenic Anna, a feistily intelligent performance from Lauren O'Neil, and together the two of them, through trial and error, pioneer the early techniques of editing, montage and dramatic action. Excited by their discoveries they inevitably fall in love.

The play is, if anything, slightly too clever for it's own good. The set up of highly strung young director, played with wide eyed innocence by Damien Molony, fighting for time and resources from a passionate but uncultured producer is an ongoing battle; but Tony Sher is rather magnificent as Jacob, one moment supportively protective of his protege, the next threatening to destroy everything unless he has his way. Money, power, charisma, sex. All the ingredients for the first century of Hollywood intrigue are seeded here.

The first half is filled with comic set pieces as the mechanical villagers try and learn the art of movie acting, whilst vying for camera time and attention; but the pace slows down after the interval when the action jumps forward to see Moti forty years later, renamed Maurice and working in a Hollywood studio, retelling the story of his early life to a young Jewish actor, who, it turns out is his grandson. Together they synegetically piece the past together as two screenwriters developing an ever twisting plot.

For all the cinematique analogy, this tricksy nod to the diaspora and remembrance of a world that between the Cossacks and the Nazis had all but been annihilated, felt clumsy and forced and I rather wished Wright had managed to contain the whole of the play in the wild glory of the village, rather than bringing in a parallel focus. Maurice's questioning doubt as to whether he'd made the right choices in his youth and whether things could have been different were, in the final edit, just one layer too thick for me.


Thursday, 12 January 2012

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

A rare trip into the West End and a nose bleed climb to the Gods of the Apollo Theatre to catch Mark Rylance for one last time as Rooter Byron in the wonderful Jerusalem, which finally closes at the end of the week, following triumphant runs at the Court and on Broadway. I was lucky enough to see it during the original run and was fascinated to see if anything had changed over the last three years.

The most noticeable thing was Rylance's performance. The bravado was still there, the bursts of lightening, the audacious fabulism - but another layer was now in place, a sense of foreboding, an understanding from early on that despite the aura of invincibility, the forces of time and propriety were going to bring him down. This was a less naive Rooster, but all the more brave for refusing to let any of his young companions see the dwindling twinkle in his eye. In private though an occasional flash of fear whenever he applied his razor sharp mind to working out the odds of keeping his world alive. The forced effort of an exhausted showman determined to go down all guns blazing. He is the Archie Rice, the Mr Micawber, the Falstaff of our age and it's simply the greatest stage performance I have ever seen.

The show as well has reached mythical status and I bumped into four Drama St Mary's third years in the foyer, who'd slept out over night to ensure returns. Although bleary eyed, they were understandably high on expectation brandishing their tickets as if they'd won permission to visit Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Their adventure had been made complete by a midnight visit from Mark Rylance himself, who'd brought them whisky and encouragement on his way home after a post-show meal. The cold wait, they felt, had definitely been worth it. Stalls seats, right at the front.

Garrick, Kean, Irving, Olivier we may have missed; but in years to come, when we're old and grey, we'll all be able to say with great pride, and possibly a little shiver of remembrance that we saw Mark Rylance play Rooster Byron. It's the stuff dreams are made on


Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The University Women's Club.

We had a departmental away day up at the University Women's club in Mayfair to talk through some of the challenges and opportunities coming up as the institution as a whole responds to the huge shifts going on in the HE sector. It was terribly refined and a wonderful place to hang out for an afternoon. An oasis of heavy sofas, towering bookshelves and views towards Hyde Park.

St Mary's itself has decided to reform the modular system and students from 2013 will be expected to take 6 x 20 credit modules each year rather than the current 8 x 15. Opinions within the University are mixed, but Drama lecturers seem broadly supportive. It certainly makes project work easier and enables students to focus on their performance work, without quite as many distractions. It gives each module slightly more weight, clout and, most importantly, contact hours. We're pioneering the scheme and have agreed to re validate for 2012 - a year ahead of most of other subject areas. We see it as a real opportunity to reshape our offer to meet the new demands that students paying £8,000 a year will undoubtedly make.

There are some other interesting developments afoot. We hope to move towards electronic marking, which a couple of English colleagues have trialed with great success. The downside is that you need a computer to mark with and until the software is tablet compatible it means no more taking a pile of essays to a coffee shop. But the joy at being able to return work at the click of a mouse rather than have it sit unclaimed in our offices is persuasive enough.

We also have a new administrator Jessica, who joined today, replacing Sue who left in the Summer. Her background is in Stage Management - mostly impressively with the Berliner Ensemble. She's going to be a real asset to Drama St Mary's.


Friday, 6 January 2012

More Auditions.

A second round of auditions for the new intake 2012 and the close monitoring continues. In general these early rounds are filled with academic high flyers who are absolutely sure that they want to go to University and are really watching us as we watch them. A substantial number of these students are also doing the rounds of Drama Schools and will, should they gain a place there, in all probability take that road.

A couple of the candidates we saw today were as good as I've seen in the five years I've auditioned and I've no doubt that a similar showing in front of the panelists at RADA or Central and they'll be snapped up.

This is a huge dilemma for us. It's great that year on year the standard of applicants coming to us rises - but I worry a little that we're increasingly seen as an insurance offer or a waiting house for students who are biding their time until the Drama School place becomes available. Whilst our contact time - 19 hours a week for a single honours student - is really competitive compared to other University Drama courses - who pack out their lecture halls but offer a tokenistic approach to practical work- we still can't give our students as intensive a training as the conservatoires.

We could go either way, but have made a clear decision to try and boost our training and play in the big boys league. From September 2/3rds of our modules will be practical (at the moment we're 50% practical, 50% theory) and the theory will have a much more direct relationship to the training. We're also committed to developing the Ways of Seeing work to support the growth of creative artists who are prepared to break away from derivative or cliched work and define the agenda for the future of theatre making.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Staging Religion.

Last morning in Rome. We walked to Santa Maria della Vittoria to see Bernini's famous statue of The Ecstasy of St Teresa. The small church was crowded and it was a bit like queueing at a bar, shuffling forward, moving into gaps, before finally arriving in front of the sculpture.

The most noticeable thing was how theatrical the whole composition was. Less a spontaneous moment of joy and much more a careful scheduled erotic display, complete with voyeuristic witnesses (members of the patron Cornaro's family) peering over the edge of a box carved into the side wall. The angel's left hand tenderly touches the nun's dress, almost pulling it aside in order to hit the spot. It's as clear a representation of the staging of faith as I've ever seen and it makes me wonder at the place of mystery in such a clearly choreographed and artificial arrangement. The orgasm is for every bodies benefit. The release, the passion, the little death enjoyed by a clamouring crowd.

The special effects continue. Natural light falls from a skylight above, but this is reinforced by a background of thin metallic bars representing the the sun's blinding rays and pulling the eye into the central arrangement. There is no contradiction here between a miracle and carefully stage managed moment of scenographic action. I still find it impossible to see religion, like theatre itself, as anything other than a persuasive metaphor. It might help reveal a truth, but it can only do so through a mask of artifice. The Baroque masters understood this more than anybody.

We headed over to the Vatican Museum, more on the off chance, than with any hope of avoiding the queues, but it was a slow day and so we found ourselves quickly within and able to explore for a couple of hours. Once again I was charmed by the Carte Geografiche and the Museo Pio-Clementine, but disappointed by the cattle market in the Sistine chapel - where a loud speaker blares out pleas for silence in six different languages. Good to feel with time against us that we'd only time to scratch the surface.

And so a quick dash back to the hotel to pick up the luggage and off to airport for a bumpy early evening flight home. Term starts tomorrow.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Posterity and Silence.

We started the day by taking a Metro down to the Protestant Cemetery and sat for a while by Keats' grave. It's a peaceful place, under the shadow of the ancient Pyramid of Caio Cestio, just far enough from the city centre to deter most tourists. It's still strange to see the steady trickle of pilgrims come looking for a moment of private communion at the graveside. Nobody seems entirely sure what to do on arrival. Most take a couple of pictures and walk off slowly. The link between the poetry and the city is equally strained. Keats was only in Rome for the last three months of his life, and he spent most of that in bed fighting the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. Perhaps he was the first pop star. The cemetery cats stretch, blink and wonder what the fuss is about.

We headed through Testaccio back to the river and crossed over to Trastevere where we ducked into Santa Cecilia to see the graphic altar sculpture showing the Martyr's semi-decapitated head, stitched unconvincingly back onto her body. She had a difficult death. After her Roman persecutors had failed to drown her in a bath, they hacked away at her head. She sang throughout the three days it took her to die, and subsequently became the patron saint of musicians. It's pretty grotesque.

We crossed back to the North Bank and walked through the narrow Trevi streets up to the Keats house by the Spanish Steps and spent an hour, as darkness fell, amongst the books and letters. There is one from Oscar Wilde, recalling his distress at visiting the young poet's grave and attacking the over-literal memorial hung on the wall alongside. It brought to mind the sonnet he wrote after attending the auction of Keat's love letters. Pop stars and patron saints always need sentries to protect their enigma.

These are the letters which Endymion wrote

To one he loved in secret, and apart.

And now the brawlers of the auction mart

Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,

Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote

The merchant's price. I think they love not art

Who break the crystal of a poet's heart

That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

Is it not said that many years ago,

In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran

With torches through the midnight, and began

To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw

Dice for the garments of a wretched man,

Not knowing the God's wonder, or His woe?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Life and Death on the Tiber.

An early morning stroll north through the Piazza Della Repubblica and onto the Via Veneto, home of Harry's Bar and La Dolche Vita. There's little left of Fellini's neo-realism fifties fantasy now, just some posh hotels and a traffic jam. Still the street provides a tree-lined approach to the Villa Borghese the one genuine green lung in the whole city.

There are several ways to tour the park, pony and trap, golf buggy, bicycle. I chose to just stroll heading past the Galleria Borghese towards a small cafe by the lake where I lingered over my book and double espresso, before carrying onto the small Museo di Villa Giulia where some of Rome's oldest artistic treasures - including the amazing Etruscan 6th century BC Sarcophagus of the Spouses lives. It's an amazing sculpture - the couple reclining against each other, smiling softly. Their hands animated as though there lives together had been filled with continual conversation. This is a husband and wife who found continual delight in each other's company. Two and a half thousand years later they're still going.

I carried on through the park into the Flamino district and followed the Tiber as far as the Stadio Olimpico, surrounded by the ugly fascist architecture of the Mussolini years. It still comes as a bit of a shock that, unlike in Germany, these monuments to a discredited ideology are allowed not just to stand, but to maintain a sense of significance. How inhumane the heroic stances are. How chillingly clinical the cool marble, black lettering and unforgiving vertical lines are. What a contrast to the expressive beauty of the Spouses, who lie happy in each others arms barely a mile and a half away. Some things remain out of the hands of demagogues.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Augustian Rome.

We started the day local with a visit to Santa Maria Maggiore, over the road from our lodging, sitting proudly atop the Esquiline Hill. The church is built on a ancient temple dedicated to Juno Lucina, the goddess of childbirth. As power moved from the emperor to the Pope so, a basilica was raised and the ground recommissioned in honour of Virgin Mother. It's one of the seven chief pilgrimage churches in Rome. In the apse is a gorgeous 13th century mosaic featuring the Coronation of the Virgin, by Torriti.

For all the beauty. The building left me feeling cold. It's affluent and lavish in the extreme - but the pilgrims today, shuffling around looking in at the sumptuous Cappellas, housing ancient Popes beneath Baroque fancy, seemed somewhat underwhelmed and anxious to move onto more familiar sights.

We left and walked on towards Nero's Domus Aurea built by the tyrant in AD64, mostly on land destroyed during the famous fire which had failed to interrupt his music lesson. So hated was Nero that after he died the people of Rome quickly filled in the mansion and grounds, to try and eradicate all memories of his reign. They did such a good job that it took another 1500 years for the house to be rediscovered. Sadly for all it's epic history - today it was closed!

We crossed the road, past the Collesium and onto the Palantine, where we spent the rest of the day walking from ruin to ruin trying to piece together the history of the Roman empire from it's earliest foundation to Republic to Empire. Legend suggests that Romulus and Remus disagreed over which hill to build the city on. Had the Gods chosen to create Reem rather than Rome building might have begun on the Aventine Hill to the South. As it is the Palatine is the spiritual home of the city.

On the North West flank of the hill is the relatively modest house of Augustus - Julius Caesar's nephew, who eventually revenged his uncle's murder, destroyed Anthony and Cleopatra's love locked ambitions to take full command of Rome and become the first real Emperor. The house contains some spectacular frescoed rooms. It's a strangely intimate, almost poky, dwelling for the most powerful leader in the Western world.

We crossed the Horti Farersiani to seek a vantage point overlooking the Forum and spent some time in this elevated position understanding the layout of what was once the very centre of civilisation. Here the Via Sacra winds it's way past the temples of Venus and Vesta, of Saturn, Castor and Pollux. The huge footprint of the long destroyed Basilica of Constantine and at either end the arches of Septimus Severus and Titus stand proudly, acclaiming returning triumph.

We finished the day winding our way through these monuments, each step evoking a long forgotten world whose power and influence continues to echo through the ages. The American senate, the Westminster village, our systems of law, economics, defence and justice can all be traced back to the administrative principles that were drawn up here all those centuries ago.


Sunday, 1 January 2012

Rome at Night.

Fireworks in Milan for new year, a lazy morning, farewells and then an afternoon flight South to Rome. Night was falling as we pulled into Termini and trundled our suitcases down the Via Cavour to our budget hotel.

The night was clear, so, after dinner, we went for a walk heading down to the ancient centre and stood overlooking the deserted forum, imagining the bustling industry of Imperial days. We climbed the steep Capitol steps past the statute of Romulus and Remus into Michelangelo's elegant Piazza del Campidoglio where Marcus Aurelius points out over the tightly knitted streets around the the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona.

Cribs are everywhere in Rome. Created with pride, maintained by families and communities over generations. Each layered and flavoured with local jokes, colour and character. The one in the Piazza was particularly impressive. The Lazio shepherds and fishermen preparing a simple feast of sage infused Saltimbocca and filetti di Baccala. The stable itself was hidden in the midst of a Roman ghetto. Oblivious of cataclysmic event, life carries on within the narrow streets. A flaneur's dream, a maze, as if a simple turn at an unknown corner might bring you face to face with the nativity.

We headed down towards the Campo de Fiori stopping for a stoop of red wine in the eccentric Bartaruga on Piazza Mattei, overlooking Bernini's playful Fontana delle Tartarughe. This is my favourite part of the city. Intimate, flourishing, lively and accessible. There are easy smiles and a lingering sense of festive spirit. We headed onwards through the Campo and onto Piazza Navona, where a huge Christmas fair was in huge spring. Hear professional crib constructors can purchase anything they like from Holy family, to sheep, camels, elephant as well as a range of different mosses and lichen with which to roof your stable.

And so we slowly headed back to base, past the Trevi Fountain up along the Viale delle Quarttro Fontane, down the other side and home to bed.