Private Lives

A witty little 1930 comedy of domestic violence which I’ve only ever “seen”on the radio. Ah, but it was funny and entertaining and made its own rules. And so quick: had the actors spoken at normal speed, it would have been quite a long play!

The interval scene change was an entertainment in itself. Out came the electric drills and a whole army of removal people. However, the second act made clear that a gramophone, a dining table and two chaises longues were indispensable.

It was a London Classic Theatre production with:

  • Amanda – Helen Keeley
  • Elyot – Gareth Bennett-Ryan
  • Sibyl – Olivia Beardsley
  • Victor – Paul Sandys
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Guys and Dolls

A performance by the Talawa Theatre Company at the Royal Exchange. Loesser’s music and wit-packed lyrics (“Take back your mink / To from whence it came”) make this my favourite musical, and this was a pretty good production. I still don’t care for the round stage at the Royal Exchange, but the company made the best of it with such verve and colour that I was won over. (I’m still miffed that I was in the wrong seat for what looked like a great staging of Luck be a Lady.) The setting was relocated to Harlem with an all-black cast.

I thought Nathan Detroit, Miss Adelaide and Sky were excellent, and I was touched by Brother Abernathy’s lovely voice for More I Cannot Wish You .

  • Ray Fearon – Nathan Detroit
  • Lucy Vandi – Miss Adelaide
  • Ashley Zhangazha – Sky Masterson
  • Trevor A Toussaint – Brother Abernathy
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Sunset this evening

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Manchester art gallery

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The Shadow of Death, oil on canvas, 1870-73

A visit to check on William Holman Hunt’s “The Shadow of Death” after seeing it in Leeds art gallery on Wednesday. As I thought – Manchester has the large original and Leeds has a smaller, later version. I also spent some time looking at Ford Madox Brown’s “Work”: what an odd, crammed, intriguing painting it is. Victorian artists certainly knew how to hook the viewer (or perhaps I’ve been programmed to reach for the bait). Some more Edward Blair Leighton (of Lady Godiva): nice to look at. I looked in again at the pre-Raphafelites; the gallery has gained a lot of publicity over the past few days by removing (then reinstating) “Hylas and the Nymphs” by J W Waterhouse. Like Madame Butterfly, it’s a slightly unsettling work of art – just how old are those nymphs? – but it’s pointless hiding it away. It is tacky, but the whole gallery is full of girls and women whose clothes appear to have fallen off for no reason.

I do like Millais’s later Scottish painting: this one in particular. I like the way the girl and dog are positioned at the edge of the painting looking at something we can’t see.

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Winter Fuel by John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1873

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Madame Butterfly

Or Madama Butterfly, as it was sung in Italian. The music is sublime to begin with, and this performance was very good. Pinkerton (boo, hiss) seemed drowned by the orchestra at times, but Butterfly was brilliant and very affecting (although obviously not a teenager).

I saw this opera in Stuttgart about 3 years ago and there it was a comparatively minimalist production. This, in contrast, was more obviously “Japanese”, which served to highlight Butterfly’s metamorphosis from Cio-Cio-San to the “wife” of an American, and the American consul’s adoption of Japanese customs. It’s jarring to realise that you are watching a study in what is now termed child abuse, and the unheeded comments of the consul Sharpless (a pointed name, or did the librettist intend to call him Sharples?) offer a moral view. There is also plenty of material in the opera to highlight the cynical and degrading nature of colonial dominance.

It’s certainly bizarre how a breaking heart can be portrayed so beautifully, but Puccini does it every time.

  • Butterfly – Anne Sophie Duprels
  • Pinkerton – Merunas Vitulskis
  • Suzuki – Ann Taylor
  • Sharpless – Peter Savidge
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Leeds Art Gallery

I spent an enjoyable hour wandering around Leeds art gallery after lunch. I looked round the Victorian gallery more quantitatively than qualitatively: most paintings were on “home-grown” themes – Lady Godiva, landscapes, scenes from Victorian life – but the others reminded you how global and extensive Victorian references could be. It wasn’t just the classics and the Bible, but also the empire that provided subjects for paintings. Some haven’t aged well:

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Retribution by Edward Armitage, 1858, oil on canvas. Britannia slays the Bengal tiger in retaliation for the Sepoy rebellion in 1857. Hmmm. Perhaps the modern equivalent is making a film like “Where Eagles Dare”. And I mustn’t forget the bust of Goethe downstairs in the Tiled Hall café has his face smashed in.

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The Little Seamstress, Matthew Smith, oil on canvas, 1917

Upstairs I did Matthew Smith a disservice by sniffing that his Little Seamstress looked derivative of Chaïm Soutine’s portraits, but this actually predates them. (But I still don’t like him.) I confuse Frank Auerbach with Leon Kossoff, but I can’t help but feel drawn to the former’s messy paintings of [the demolition of] London’s buildings, like the Carreras Black Cat factory in the Courtauld. The rest . . . meh. David Bomberg is more intriguing, but I don’t know why I think that.

I looked more closely at the gallery’s “workroom”. In addition to Frank Brangwyn’s illustrations of the dignity of labour (mostly muscle combined with heavy machinery), there are some great 1932 chalk drawings of Diego Rivera’s – I think for the Detroit Ford factory murals, and arguably less heroic than Brangwyn’s. (In the highly unlikely event that I should ever get on an aeroplane and go to the United States, that would be the kind of stuff I would want to see. To hell with the Grand Canyon.)

I looked at some contemporary art but came away uninterested. Aesthetically I find it lifeless, and, for me, it lacks the secondary attraction of depth – by which I mean that it has had no time to gather any history or connotations to give it resonance. I’d rather read a newspaper article or watch a film if I want a take on modern life. For all its flaws, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was far more interesting than what is displayed in art galleries as contemporary art. (Perhaps I am simply ignorant. It wouldn’t be the first time.) I looked at a painting by Lubaina Himid; she has recently won the Turner Prize, and I now realise that the painting in the Harris which always makes me think “How on earth did that get in here?” is one of hers. Yes, the colours are very warm and very un-northern-European, but that’s been done before. If I want a take on colonialism I will ruminate on Retribution above or go to a performance of Madame Butterfly (which, coincidentally, is what I have just done). (Actually, I find it more cause for celebration that a Preston  artist has won the Turner Prize.)

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The Day of Atonement, Jacob Kramer, oil on canvas, 1919

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The Blue Hat, Jacob Kramer, oil on canvas

But, anyway, my big find was Jacob Kramer (Epstein bust of him on display, natch). The panel at the entrance to the room states that Kramer’s intention was to escape the physical appearance of the object and focus on its spiritual form. (Yes, there was one painting that looked like a restrained Kandinsky.) But what was more interesting was to see a handful of his paintings together and realise that he experimented: some paintings were all angular forms, some were free-flowing, and his portraits ranged from Easter Island profiles to smudges.

I had a similar experience next door at a Henry Moore exhibition of his early work, including his student years. I’m so used to the handful of well-known massive Moore statues that I had never considered the fact that he must have experimented before he found a form that he made his own. There were letters with sketches from his early years which – like Paul Nash’s in York –  must have been a pleasure to the recipient. A small sculpture that was very similar to the one that had caught my eye at the Louvre-Lens. (Moore spent time in the British Museum; they must have a couple there.) One forgets how much an artist experiments before finding the style that defines him/her for posterity.

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Leighton Moss

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A pleasant walk around the reserve today. Robins and tits flitting between the trees; even the coal tits have started posing for photographs.

Lots of teal; at first I mistook their short whistling calls for wigeon. There was some interesting neck behaviour by some of the male teals in attempts to impress females. And, my word, they are handsome in their mating plumage; it’s not just their head colour but also the stippling and striations of their bodies.

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