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For someone who has trawled through the better part of the In Our Time archive, it was a real treat to see Melvyn Bragg IRL at the National aka my second home. Melvyn (yes, I think we’re on first name basis here) is how I imagine the Victorian polymath from the public lecture halls would be. So jam packed with knowledge that it can barely be contained, it spills over in anecdotes, in jokes, in semi-unrelated facts, accompanied by gesticulation so wild, hand written notes flies all over the place.
They are celebrating the anniversary of the King James’s Bible which is the subject of Melvyn’s new book The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible (I went to some of the bible readings as well but I don’t know if it works, you know. I like costume and bit of spectacle when I’m at the theatre, and I don’t fare well with monologues.). A lot of this talk – on the social and cultural importance of the KJ Bible – resonated with the talks on the gospel and social justice that’s been running at St Martin in the Field, where Neil MacGregor did an amazingly good speech on Compassion in Art – or lack thereof.
Now, I can’t show you any Christian art of radical compassion because apparently there isn’t any but I will show you this. Engraved in ONE single circular line, starting at the tip of the nose and moving outwards (click on it, it’s awesome).
Sometimes, like Flaubert, I believe in nothing but art.
This has been a most spectacular week, theatre-wise. Starting at the Barbican, Nevermore – the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe was just pure magic. Ok, I am bias here. I am a sucker for musical theatre, especially the dark, unhappy kind. And that, my friend, is something that does not come along very often so this was a real treat. With Poe’s own words “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream” guiding the aesthetic direction, Nevermore is the life (and dreams) of Edgar Allan Poe told like a gothic puppet show reminiscing Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket, containing more death and calamity than your average Greek tragedy (it has to be admitted; I pulled a cardigan over my head more than once). Poe himself is slightly one-dimensional but I think there is a point in that. Being more about telling than showing, it is the music that is the star of the show and the Poesque verse is both witty and harrowing.
Moving on now to Hampstead Theatre and Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Sigh, what to say? I get that it must be very tempting to do classics in modern dress these days and camouflage, machine guns, sand and oil appears to be the favoured choice (as if it was common duty to draw Iraqi parallels wherever possible). And with no taboos these days restricting the action, nakedness and sex on stage is more rule than exception. Now, while as a general idea this is getting a bit drab, it does quite often work well or possibly less well. In the case of Salome it just did not work at all. While it fits the basic (Biblical) story, Wilde’s Salome is pure poetry, evocative and sensual. This production is in-your-face and aggressive rather than suggestive, and Wilde’s lines are completely corrupted in orgiastic tomfoolery and masturbatory frenzy. But hey, it gets a point for trying.
Carbón Club, part of the National’s Watch This Space Festival, wins the prize for most excellent catholic imagery with its priest walking through the audience carrying a burning bible. Me like. And the show was jam-packed with these ingenious tricks of fire, explosions and what not. Full-on action performed very intimately, making the audience duck under everything from blowtorches to champagne showers. Now, while this is all very well I have to say, as a cabaret, the song and dance acts did just not come together all that well. Lots of poignant points (mining accidents, rape and lost love) were unevenly balanced by repeated jokes. One wish that less energy had been spent on special effects and more on the real extravaganza which, in comparison, costs no money. Nonetheless, new and interesting and so great to be outside and do something a little bit unusual.
Here my friend, are some gorgeous Salomes…(and not a Beardsley in sight, I’m sorry to say but I do find him tiresome.)
(Corinth; von Stuck; Strathman; Dessau-Gottein)
Some velvet morning when I’m straight, I’m gonna open up your gate and maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra..
I have left it to the very last minute but tonight I am finally going to see Helen Mirren in Phédre at the National Theatre. The last performance in London is tomorrow before they go on a world tour. I am very perplexed by the fact that Michael Billington at the Guardian has given the production five out of five possible stars while Michael Coveney at the Independent only thought it was worth one. That it has gotten very mixed reviews I knew, but this is quite ridiculous. Admittedly, Billington is reviewing the broadcasted performance that the NT screened a while ago at cinemas around the country, but still, have they seen the same play one has to wonder? Anyway, a little disagreement is always entertaining.
As I was reminded of this morning when queuing up outside the National for the tickets. The ‘amateur-queuers’ were austerely informed by the more experienced ones, who had been ‘doing this a millions times,’ that their queuing was quite unordely and most intolerable. People have apparently been lynched for less. This became even more amusing when the pride that English people take in being quite superior in the fine art of queuing was being hurt. As an American gentleman remarked that this sort of thing never happens in New York, we were all quite assured by the self-acclaimed queuing-queen that normally ‘neither does it in London.’ Of course, as often is the case, both sides had their fair point, but the way people get worked up about things is just hilarious.
Here is a painting I like of Hippolytos (who is being played by Dominic Cooper, that lame boyfriend in Mamma Mia, hopefully a bit more manned up for this role) being dragged to death behind his chariot.
The Death of Hippolytos (1860) by Sir Alma-Tadema.