ARTYFACTS: May 2007

Thursday, May 31, 2007


Want to see the future?
Watch this. Mindblowing demo. Just watch - you get it immediately.

Regarded as the technology talk of the year at TED. The first demo is fantastic, then comes the 3D image of Notre Dame Cathedral taken from ordinary Flickr images. Also astonishing. The implications are that socially created data can be used to create something even greater. Masses of hyperlinks are used to create deeper meaning - amazing.

Gormley truns you inside out - Hayward

Blind light
This whole show turns you inside out but the core experience is Blind Light, the cloud room. You queue around the outside and can see people emerge from the mist when they reach the outer glass wall. When you enter the disorientation is immediate. There is nothing but white light, your only anchor, the feeling of your feet on the wet floor. As you walk, others loom in and out of view.

Being lost inside a room is novel, especially when you know there are plenty of others in the same room that you can't see. You quickly lose all sense of direction and distance as there's no visual cues by which you make these judgements. It's very isolating. You literally wander lonely as a cloud, within a cloud. On deciding to exit I found the glass wall but found that my sense of where the exit was has all but disappeared.

Allotment II
These human sized boxes, were built around the dimensions of 300 real people, one cuboid for the body, another for the head. It's a maze of people but you can't see them. They're all crammed in but missing. This is about exclusion from communication.

This stuff seems to be about the issue of solipsism. We are ultimately blind bodies with consciousnesses that reflect the physicality of our bodies. We feel ourselves as being our body but only see others as bodies. Our consciousness re-presents people first through our image of them as figures. Bright Light takes us into our consciousness by stripping away most sensory input, or by reducing it to one colour. Then, from the outside we see others struggle with that same experience.

Matrices and expansions
It's wrong to think of Gormley as making statues or figures. He is as much interested in their absence as presence. What he does is explore our consciousness of ourselves and others. here the figures are only there by virtue of their surrounding matrices. Some are obvious, others emerge as you walk away from them. The mind is finely tuned to select contour, especially that of the human figure. So we can pick out the shapes within a mess of metal rods. These are anti-statues - spaces not solid forms, but empty spaces seen through other empty spaces. Yet these are people, nonetheless. It's a play with perception. From the slightest of visual cues, we can see the human form.

The fact that they are tightly packed into one room means that you can walk round them but you're constantly in danger of bumping into them, turning and avoiding the collisions. When we walk down a busy street it's a miracle of perception and consciousness that we don't bump into people. We dodge, weave, turn, look and navigate like grand prix drivers. This room gives you an insight into that ability.

Event horizon
Go outside on to the three terraces and the same theme is explored on a massive scale. Your eye starts to see figures on nearby rooftops, then one on the street, then several hundred yards away on top of a building, then even further and fuether across the Thames and then so far in the distance that you're not sure that it's even a human figure - but it is. Astonishing. We see people at huge distances because our cognitive abilities have been selected to do so.

On the other had it's about limits, hence the title. How far can we see before things become difficult and then impossible to see? Are there figures I've missed? London, at least as far as one can see from the Hayward's three terraces is suddenly in the frame of a human scale. They all point towards you, making you the perceptual reference. They are seen by you.

Space Station
I was less taken by this huge meccanno-like structure. It has no human dimensions, until you see it from a distance - it's a foetus, that most delicate and rounded of things, but all cuboids.

A room with figures at each vertice, splayed in three directions. This could have been a great architectural theme if done on the outside of a real building. Within a small room it puts eight figures at the eight corner extremities, leaving the middle empty but the place seems claustrophobic and full. they crowd in on you as you see them as fleeing from you. The fact that they are in disorientating positions relative to each other makes it more intense. This has a far more emotional feel than the other exhibits.

A room with internal spikes continues the exploration of claustrophobia, although the release is viewing the outside through tubes that extend to the wall. This, again, is about you, the viewer. In this age of user-generated content and user-control, it emphasises not the artwork but the viewer.

Wax is melted out from within a cube of concrete leaving a body-shaped void. This is a Whiteread within a Whiteread. You can only sense what's inside from the three holes for hands and head.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Breaking Convention - Day 22

This was by far the best thing I've seen at the Festival. It was contemporary, innovative, beautiful, exciting, energising and broke free from the limpness and stuffiness of some of the performances I've seen this year. What's more, the audience was young, very young, but they were absolutely thrilled by what they saw. Again this is in contrast to the largely 50 plus audiences I witnessed at many of the events I've been to (I'm 50 by the way). If live performance is going to survive we must get people of this age involved. This is contemporary culture at its best. It's a shame that most people in the arts dismiss this stuff as irrelevant - and are conspicious by their absence. They could do with just going along and experiencing things that are new. They're always saying that this is wnat the arts is all about. It would have opened a few eyes to how exciting young people's creativity can be when we go with their flow and don't box them in to fixed old performance conventions. Check out the excellent video review on the Festival website to see how these young audiences react to stuff that comes from their world.

First, the two comperes were excellent, jokey, funny and enthusiastic. I was getting a bit tired of the dull Festival book and music intros. 'Good afternoon laides and gentlemen, I'd like to welcome you all to...they will be signing copies of their latest book in the foyer". At times I thought I was at a wake! Compare this to the unbridled enthusiasm, audience participation (mobiles lit in the air) and general good humour of these guys and you have a fuel mixture that gets an audience from zero to 60 min seconds.

Locals nail it
The Brighton Company was truly professional with a swooping choreographed performance that matched the quality of the programme as a whole. Well done guys. You could tell that a huge amount of effort had gone into the rehearsals here. It was flawless.

The Cambridge Company were outstanding, first with the beatbox backed soul singer, a great kiss n' tell routine, then a breathtaking solo in a single spotlight.

The Electric Boogaloos (USA), may have originated 'popping' and 'booglaoo' but the tribute to Skeeter Rabbit was overdone. Starngely enough, this old school' stuff was the weakest (but still strong) link in the chain - although still wonderful to watch.

The the Brazilian popper Frank Ejara went off like a firecracker with different parts of his body exploding to sounds. Solo popping can be tedious but the choreography here was superb. He synchs his pops with sound creation building to a crescendo of sound which he captures in a bin bag, where you still hear the dull thudding. Sheer brilliance.

Exploded with applause
The French Company Franck II Loise did 'Drop it!' and were outstanding. They take the hip-hop conventions and take them way beyond what one expects into an entire work of exposure, and when they do stick to the conventions the quality of the dancing is so spectacular that the aduience literally exploded with applause.

Alive with dancers
The bar area was alive with local dancers doing their thing. Even the standing area in front of the stage had local kids dancing away. I even saw a two-year old doing some breakdancing during the interval. the people in their seats applauded him! Even on leaving the Dome, the crowd was noisy, laughing, talkative and on a compete high from the performance. Get these guys back next year....

Tate Modern

Had my day at the Tate Modern participating in a choreographed art project, where we were given identical latex masks and asked to do timed events with the public, such as point to people with red clothes then point skywards, lie down and sunbathe, dance in a prescribed circle etc.

It was damn good fun and from behind the mask you could see the reactions of fear, amusement and bewilderment. As we all looked identical, with expressionless faces, it was quite spooky. The Tate this Saturday was everything an arts venue should be - packed, interesting with loads going on. There was live music, group arts events and massive participation. This user-participative art is, I think, something that will grow. It's an extension of the internet and the non-complaint nature of audiences. We don't want to just LOOK, we want to take part.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dimbleby - Day 21

Unlike Bernard Henri Levy, David Dimbleby felt he had to apologise or explain his pink shirt and socks – how very BBC and very English! Although this talk was in the books and debate portion of the festival, it’s really about a forthcoming TV series on British Architecture. Books accompanying TV series are rarely worth reading as they’re not written by writers and usually exercises in celebrity, cash extortion. It's interesting to see that most of the 'sell-outs' this year are around TV stars and not authors (Joan bakewell, Victoria Wood, Shami Chakrabarti, Vic reeves, Andrew marr, David Dimbleby). Perhaps it should be called TV, books and debate.

Dimbleby showed us several clips from the TV series, and very nice they seemed. Very BBC. Beautifully shot but very much like days out at National Trust properties. I wonder about choosing a ‘current affairs’ journalist for such a task. He’s no expert, merely a ‘presenter’. His ‘Pictures of Britain’ I thought dull. One thing we’ve learnt about TV is that experts who can also present really do add to the watchability, gravitas and depth of these programmes. He did admit that he was third choice for the job, with Parkinson as first! Dimbelby’s one of those guys who benefited from obvious nepotism at the BBC. I worked with a BBC film editor for years and he would tell of the repeated father/son, even grandson combos that would regularly appear on credits. The audience, like that for Leslie Philips was getting on a bit (myself included) and it struck me that architecture in the UK is stuck in nostalgia. We even have nostalgia for TV presenters such as Dimbleby. Surely we could have found a young talent to present such a series, how about the daring idea of a real architect!

West pier
For example, the audience cheered when the restoration of the Brighton West Pier was mentioned. My heart sank at this point. This hopeless cause has nothing to do with architecture (certainly not restoration) and everything to do with nostalgia. Even worse, we’re facing a new council that is likely to be hostile to anything new.

Is there such a thing as British Architecture?
I was sitting on the front row and managed to get in a question. “Is there such a thing as British Architecture, as all of the major genres have come from the continent (Classical, Gothic, Baroque etc) and has national architecture disappeared in the 21st century as architecture has become globalised?” He agreed, “We’re a jackdaw nation when it comes to architecture and, yes, national architecture no longer exists.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bernard Henri-Levy - Day 20

Kampfner confuses
Levy enters like a film star with a perfectly cut velvet jacket, white silk shirt showing too much of an open tanned chest. This guy loves the attention. He's no scruffy UK academic, apologising for his views and prefacing everything with a self-depreciating comment. He's well dressed (in a very french kind of way), confident and keen to talk.

Unfortunately he's accompanied by John Kampfner, who looks every inch the English interviewer. He gives a hopeless introduction warbling on about cricket, Flintoff and Jane Goody. Levy clearly hadn't a clue what he was talking about. OK Levy has an article in the New Statesman magazine - actually a hopelessly trivial diary piece that is barely worth reading, but why have a political editor interview a philosopher? You'd never have guessed he was a philosopher, as there wasn't a single sentence or question of any philosophical import.

Let's get serious
However, what we got was a serious thinker who answered questions in depth and had things of import to say on almost everything that was asked of him.

His 'secret history' observations were interesting. He saw Cambodia as the final, fateful fruit of Marxism, where some smart leaders) educated at the Sorbonne) took the revolution inside the heads of the people. the cultural revolution in China was its precursor. This turned a revolutionary dream into a nightmare. These people had read Freud and Saussure. They literally want to annihilate ideas that were incompatible with their future vision. It didn't work and can never work, Revolution is now dead.

Levy railed against politicians who saw society as having ills that had to be cured by political intervention. This, at its most extreme, took place in Pol Pot's Cambodia. He then contradicted himself several times by using the terms 'sickness' in diagnosing several contemporary political events.

Iraq, Israel and Islam
Politically he didn't blame the neo-cons. He saw the failure of the west, not in their support for democracy, but in their lack of support for real politics. He did see this as a clash of ideas and saw in radical Islam ( Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda), as opposed to moderate Islam, fascist ideas, that ultimately came from Europe. I lost him here. His point about an arab legion behind the German army was exaggerated. There were arab troops on both sides. In Lawrence Wright's masterful work (The Looming Tower) on the roots of the Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, no mention is made of these European influences. Indeed, Qutb spent his formative years in the US, not Europe. The Bin Ladens are far more familiar with US than European culture. Al Zawahiri and others have their intellectual roots in the Koran and Islamic history, especially Wahabbism. His analysis here is stuck in a francophobic, eurocentric analysis, far too influenced by his Zionism.

American Vertigo

French philosophers have a habit of regarding themselves as experts on everything. In this case levy made a stupid pronouncement on obesity, claiming it was higher in the US than in France. This is complete and absolute nonsense. Study after study shows the difference between the two. The US has much highre levels of obesity. He then made a comparative claim about psychological obesity - the tendency to want things to be big - airports, companies, houses etc. This was all for effect. It's medical and metaphorical noise.

Asked what cliches he had found in the US, he replied 'none'. He found the place quite free of the cliches he himself had before his long visit. Europeans have a 'smog of cliches' about the US. Interestingly he called Michael Moore a rightist, as he's only interested in what happens within the US. He has no internationalist political attitude. Many things in the US he loved - its philanthropic spirit (which barely exists in Europe).

The right and left in Europe bring their ghosts - historical events, theories and so on. However, his ghosts seem to be the now tedious 68 student riots and Algeria. These are French obsessions. An interesting question about allowing Turkey into the EU was met by an attack on that country's suppression of the Armenian Genocide. However, he thought that in the long term, it would be a good thing.

I left feeling that it's maybe right that we in the UK have a healthy disrespect for preening French intellectuals.

Mahabharata - Day 20

Extremely dull musical - decided to leave at interval as a walk in the sun was a far better aesthetic experience.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Maids - Day 18

Two things I don’t get
1. Why rotate the roles? The Mistress is meant to be about 25, and much younger than the two maids. This is important in terms of the power-play between mistress and servants. In fact all three actresses are a little old for all three roles (meant to be 25-35) and in this performance, the mistress looks very much older than the maids.

2. Why The Old Ship garage? The one set is meant to be a luxury bedroom in Paris. Why choose a grimy old garage, where you can hear motorbikes and girls shouting the street outside? Unlike Pinter in the Town Hall and Kitson in The Argus basement, it seemed gratuitous. The Stage called the set ‘heady and intoxicating’. I suspect the reviewer was heady and intoxicated.

(Terribly unfashionable word, but I still like it.) As for the performance it was too shrill. The actresses, to be frank, seemed lost. There was no real sense of inhabiting the parts. This, I think, was true in all three roles. It became obvious in what was meant to be a powerful ending, which turned out to be melodramatically limp. To put across Genet’s absolute hatred of French bourgeois society you have to play these roles with a little more honesty. I’m afraid they came across as English bourgeois actresses playing the roles (if that was intended I’d really be impressed).

Leslie Philips, old chap - Day 18

Trapped in a peculiarly English persona
Odd evening. Philips, the person, seems literally trapped in an odd and dated English persona. This working class Londoner freely admitted that when he started, to work in the Theatre, you had to have a super-posh accent. This was perpetuated by the BBC, who insisted on censoring accents . To be fair, he is faintly aware of this, and didn’t like the way his three appearances in the Carry On films typecast him as an English toff. His accent even got him a commission as an officer! (His brother was a sergeant.)

However, he plays to this character with lots of, very English (i.e. not subtle) innuendo (I want play King Leer – groan) and language that seems stuck in the 1930s (my dear old chap). This is neither a character nor phenomenon that I like. I often imagine what Britain would have been like without the BBC and Carry On films. A better place I suspect.

There were moments when he talked about serious roles in serious plays and a comment about ‘comedy being the most serious work of all’ when he broke through his toff-mask, but he quickly returned to type.

Turdish or Shi-ite Rebels
Simon Fanshawe had a difficult time, as the old thespian ignored him for most of the time, simply addressing the audience directly. Philips would literally ignore questions and even when they came, he’d contradict the dates, even after Simon had confirmed that they came from his own book. Simon turned out to be quite funny. After an over-long anecdote from Philips about an epidemic of turds being found in a theatre, he speculated on whether it could have been Turdish or Shi-ite Rebels. That was funny.

Not my cup of tea old chap

As you can gather I didn’t like Philips very much. He and Terry Thomas perpetuated a type that just grates with me. He seemed like a smug, throwback, still pushing values that we abandoned decades ago. The audiences at this type of event are there for the memories and they go ‘aaahhh’ whenever some recognisable name pops up in any old anecdote. Asked where he was going next by Simon, he said ‘To the Hay book Festival, wherever that is.’ ‘It’s in Hay’ Simon replied! Of course, we had to have the quip, ‘I thought that was what we were sleeping on’ (groan).

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

England win - Day 16

Gallop along
Despite the muddy soundtrack, Laurence Olivier looked great as he took our 'boys' to France, riddled the foppish French with arrows and wooed the French maiden. Shakespeare has hugely shaped our image of the monarchy and in this play Shakespeare sees Henry V as an ideal ruler, mixing with the common folk, an absolute and benevolent ruler. This is why Henry V is not nearly as good a play as Richard III (Olivier was to do this in a far better film some years later). The Globe Theatre scenes are my favourite, realistically showing Elizabethan Theatre with its open roof, rowdy audience, promter and strange stage structure. The film rollocks through a pre-determined narrative, avoiding any convincing nuance. However, you can just sit back on your horse and gallop along with the story.

Lines overwhelmed
The orchestra was fine, but ultimately a soundtrack needs to be synched with the film, and in this case, all too often, key lines were overwhelmed by the orchestra, something never intended by Walton. The fanfares worked well and Walton's mixture of choral and orchestra pieces is fine. In the end I'm not convinced that the huge expense of a full orchestra and choristers was worth it. The film is a fascinating piece of 'Shakespeare on film' and an important film in terms of its second world war propoganda context, but the soundtrack is no masterpeiece and doesn't stand up on its own. I much preferred Run Lola Run, where the chosen film could take this treatment.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Kitson compilation C90 - Day 15

What a wonderful set of people Daniel Kitson is. Bit uncomfortable sitting on the floor and I'm not sure how necessary this was. However, the discomfort was made more than bearable by Daniel Kitson's performance. The same themes as his stand-up emerge; that people mater more than roles, status and the tyranny of employment. His inner world is an interesting place and his use of language is way beyond that of most stand-up comedians. He's observant, humane, idiosyncratic, even sometimes poetic. It's a joy just to listen to the words.

The memories and observations tumble out and the wonderful inner worlds of his characters are revealed, not in any grand manner, but simply as habits, foibles and fears. It's very solipsistic but that's fine as it's the inner landscapes he loves, not the external world. If you liked this go and see his stand-up - you'll love him.

Andrew Marr – Day 15

Books and DEBATE?
I’m not convinced that the ‘Books and debate’ title is right. I’d rather have more debate and less reading from text, sycophantic interviewers (Brown) and stage-managed publishers sales pitches (Moir). The two best I’ve seen Nick Kent and Andrew Marr avoided the obvious ‘sales’ stuff.
My sons complained that they had paid to see one of their favourite authors yesterday only to sit through a woman reading from his book, rather than the author (Philip Reeves) himself. This does seem like a cheek. However, I don’t really see the point in even the author reading the printed text.

Dispense with sycophantic interviewers
Thankfully, Andrew Marr, as a professional communicator agrees. He had no interviewer and simply stood and talked for a while, told some relevant stories, and gave us a feel for him as a person, not a robot reading dumbly from a book. You can see why Marr is such a good television journalist. He throws out words and sentences like a fast bowler. He also devoted the majority of his time to questions from the audience. Well done Andrew.

Not as good as Nick Kent, whose focus and insights were like scalpel cuts. But Marr didn’t disappoint. His urbane style endeared him to the audience (mostly over 40 – seems young people really have abandoned any interest in politics).

His tales of post-war squatters in London and the homosexual trials in the 50s made the point that British History is full of insurrection, and that the British Public are not as timid as one would imagine.

Drunk George Brown
He told a lovely story of a drunk George brown at an Ambassador’s do in Lima, Peru, where he was drunk, then stumbled across the floor to ask someone to dance, ‘as it was a lovely waltz’. ‘I won’t dance with you for three reasons’ came the reply. ‘First, this is not a waltz, it is our National Anthem, Two, you are disgustingly drunk and three, I am the Cardinal Archbishop for Lima’.

Defeat of Politics by shopping
This was his core theme, that consumerism had overwhelmed the British Public. He felt that this was unsustainable.

Biggest social change in post-war Britain?
Immigration. We were, genetically, like our forefathers in the Middle Ages. As the world’s most porous nation, we are now truly a multiracial society. This, in his opinion, has been the most profound change.

It’s a disgrace, he thinks, that MPs have crudely opted out of the FOI Act.

Dark Calvinist Influences
I asked whether he thought that Scotland’s greatest export had been Calvinism, through Reith in the BBC and now Gordon Brown, the uber-Calvinist? He thought Calvinism was both a good and bad thing. If it’s used to pontificate and endlessly moralise, then it won’t stick. On the other hand, he thought tat it made people more morally aware in a wider sense i.e. internationally. I met him afterwards and asked if he saw himself as a Calvinist. He said he preferred the phrase ‘secular Presbyterian’!

He had some advice for Gordon brown. Stop grinning every twenty seconds. Be yourself, which is a rather grumpy, intolerant person who means well and just wants to get on and run the country.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sex, dance, punk and classical - Day 14

We should all be eternally grateful that Clark escaped the clutches of the traditional ballet companies. He is one of the few British artists who can work contemporary punk with classical. This was the highlight of the Festival for me, so far. I don't much like the word 'crossover' but taht's what this is. It crosses every known dance boundary.

Wired up
The ear-splitting punk sound of Wire was contained by the slow movements of the dancers. The tension between the dionysian music and the controlled dance was just great. But while the sound of PIL created the most depairing soundtrack, for me the highlight was the witty video of Lydon's singing teacher followed by, what I think is the Sex Pistols greatest track, Submission. I LOVED THIS PIECE.

Pure sex!
Overall the sexually charged pieces were fantastically erotic, with naked dancers simply showing the beauty of the human form, to highly charged sexuality with open-crotch tights and the naked female hitler with huge white pants.

Clark dodged around a bit in his toilet-seat costume and kilt but he's no more than a presence now. The rebel's now revered.

Omar Puente - Day 14

The Cuban, Omar Puente, plays blistering jazz violin. He's a charming guy and full of Latin smiles and jokes with the audience. It was another excellent lunchtime hour with Puente playing delicate pizzicato to full blown jazz attacks. The sun was shining when we came out of the theatre, entirely in keeping with the mood of the day.

This mood was to be shattered a couple of hours later with the most boring Cup Final in the history of football. Well, at least I have Michael Clark to look forward to this evening.

Tha Magic Flute - Day 14

Witty translation
Sometimes witty translation kept this performance going and it was certainly an entertaining evening. The Rouseauesque set (I think the huge doors were illustrated from The Snake Charmer at The Musée d'Orsay) was suitably ambiguous and fine for showing opera in a small theatre, but it did lack punch. It was also hard to take the supposed hansome Prince seriously, as he did look a like an overweight bank manager. The 'Queen of the night' aria had been a highlight in Edson Cordiero's performance a fewq nights earlier. It was good to hear it in its true context a few nights later. Sarastro, at the other end of the scale, looked, and sounded, a little stilted.

Don't over-egg the descriptions
Rather strengely described as a 'staged fusion of opera, acrobatics, circus, puppetry and thrilling high wire action' on the Festival website. Acobatics? Saw none. Puppetry? Some children simply lifted the tail of a wooden tiger and a stilted bird was manipulated with no real skils at the side of the stage. High-wire action? Three kids were dropped down in a fixed position. Hardly action.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Nouvelle Vague play old songs - Day 13

Attention-deficit audience
I mentioned earlier in the week the disgust that Sean Hughes had with his Brighton audience, who kept interrupting by going off to the toilet. Tonight was similar. The crowd talked over every act except the last - some shouting but mostly ignoring what was happening on the stage. Clearly the idea was to come and out and have a chat with your mates. But surely you can do that in the pub. Patrick Watson made an appeal to the crowd to listen and not chat, 'come with me on this one' which they dutifully ignored, as they were too busy chatting to listen. This, combined with the excessive use of mobiles, blinding anyone behind them, took the momentum out of the event. Ho hum.
Nouvelle Vague
Nouvelle vague are more than a tribute band. They bring a sort of innocence to old punk and new wave songs. They specialise in lilting versions of 70s and 80s songs from the Clash (Guns of Brixton), Buzzcocks (Ever Fallen in Love), Visage (Fade to Grey), XTC (Making Plans for Nigel), Dead Kennedys (Too Drunk to Fuck), The Cure (A Forest), Billy Idol (Dancing with Myself), The Understones (Teenage Kicks), Echo and the Bunnymen (The Killing Moon), Bauhaus, Blondie (Heart of Glass), The Smiths (Sweet and tender Hooligan), Joy Division (Love Will Tear Us Apart) and others. Great to watch and curiously melancholy. never seen them before but glad I've seen them now.
Patrick Watson
Patrick Watson's has a voice. It soars, and although the many extended high notes sound like Coldplay, he's not content to play that game. He loops his voice live, keeping the sound wild and generally hammers out songs with a band that verges on the manic. The drums were at times overwhelming, as I mostly wanted to hear more of Patrick and less of the band.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My debut as a performance artist - Tate Modern!

Watch out for my debut as a performance artist at the Tate Modern on Saturday 26 May. Really! Sworn to secrecy - all will be revealed.

Stagestruck! - Day 12

I had jury service but the wheels of justice came completely off, so our jury was sent home. As I had time to kill, I popped in to see an excellent little exhibition in the Brighton Museum. It celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Theatre Royal, with photographs, posters, models and maps spanning the 200 years.

Regency Theatre
The Regency Theatre was, apparently a 'rowdy, smelly, chaotic affair' performed with the house-lights up and with people crammed onto benches. I like the idea of rowdiness at the theatre. Everything's so staid and reverential these days. It was all much more daring and adventurous with companies coming down by train with their costumes and set in the morning, performing a matinee, then jumping back on the train to London for an evening performance.

The posters tell the real story; Charles Kean, Kemble, Sarah Bernhardt, Margot Fontayn, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Finney, John Gielgud, Kenneth Williams, Peter O'Toole and so on.

Filmed interviews
These were nicely done with theatre managers and staff telling us about the place and its character.

Special effects
I was almost alone in the exhibition so decided to give the several special effects machines a whirl. There was a wind machine, thunder box with rolling cannon ball, rain machine and gravel box. Amazing sounds emerged and shockingly high volume. Great fun.

I see the Theatre Royal in an entirely different light after this visit. Rerally worth an hour's visit.

Vic Reeves Small Night Out - Day 12

Reeves really did change TV comedy with Vic Reeves Big Night Out and Shooting Stars. These programmes made you sit up and question the very nature of comedy. He's seen as a sort of pioneer of sorts and greatly admired by other comedians.

However, Vic Reeves at the Theatre Royal was an odd event. I've read his autobiography, which is rather dull but the two best bits he did read out. What was disappointing was the playacting. Reeves is a funny guy but bringing on the funnel and paintbrush was juvenile. He was far too conscious of having to be funny at all times, so nothing of any depth was revealed. Nick Kent, the brilliant music journalist, gave a truly wonderful session in the Festival, and talked about the need to get behind the masks of performers. In this case we got the same old superficial mask. Reeves, or rather Jim Moir, is clearly a complex guy, but all we got were simplistic questions and mostly weak humour.

Inane questions
And some of the questions were inane:

Can you do the 'Dove from above' Vic?
He cooed it down like a performing monkey and people clapped!

What's on the end of the stick Vic?
What's your favourite haircut?
A ramble about centre partings.

How do you like to hug?
Around the ankles.

....and on it went.

The only decent question was about who Vic rated as his comedy hero.
George Formby was the answer. Why would have been the obvious follow up - but it never came.
The problem with these events in the crass atempts to sell the book. We all know that Gordon Brown, Vic Reeves and many others are not WRITERS. We want to hear about the person, not the, usually badly written and peripheral, book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Belgian ballet - Day 11

Falling, flailing, failing
I didn't buy this. Reminded me at times of DV8 with the crutches and crazed disco dancing but not nearly as good. The falling, flailing, failing tormented pieces all too often abandoned grace. A dowdy crate-filled set and dull charity shop clothes. The slapstick routines and the breakdance sequence were high spots as was the sequence withe the outboard motor, but overall I remained unmoved and mostly lost.

I really don't know what I was expected get from this. To be fair many in the audience seemed delighted. Then again, with ballet, everything gets wholesome applause. It's almost as if the audiences are just grateful it's there.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Latin lilts - Day 10

Roberto Fonseca literally mugged the Steinway on his first number. It was an impressive start. He sometimes attacks the piano, literally pummelling the instrument and I would have preferred to have heard more of him and less of the persussionist and drums. Sure he has the Buena Vista Social Club pedigree and dedicated one number to Ibrahim Ferrer. This was an older 50+ audience but they were upo fro a little jazz sing-along with the usual 'guys then dolls' and 'let's split the audience down the middle. Easy to like difficult to love.

Marta Topferova had the voice but her compositions lacked deep emotion, not a good thing in Latin music. She also lacked stage presence and dressed like someone who doesn't get out much. It felt as though the Dome was too big a venue for her quiet reflective pieces. Her sales technique was odd. She constantly reminded us that her CDs were on sale. At one point I though she'd offer a three for two deal! WE KNOW the CDs are for sale in the foyer.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Edson Cordiero – Day 9

We had the best seats in the house, middle-seats front-row, four or five feet from Edson. Edson is a small guy with a BIG voice. His body is his second instrument. He cuts all sorts of shapes before during and after every song, head held aloft, arms writhing, hips thrusting. This is a real ‘PERFORMANCE’. I’ve never seen a singer like him – a sort of clone between a camp Prince (Kiss was one of his songs) and Amalia Rodrigues. The Brighton Festival website put it another way, “Imagine Freddie Mercury cross-pollinated with Maria Callas and filtered through the rebel spirit of Janis Joplin. With a four octave countertenor that makes Jeff Buckley seem positively prosaic and a gloriously camp pop aesthetic to put Rufus Wainwright in the shade, Edson Cordeiro is a music phenomenon!” Nice description, but in fact he's just Edson Cordiero - a one-off.

He absolutely electrified the audience with opera, blues, Brazilian music and pop. We had The Magic Flute and something fromPurcell's "King Arthur". The small Pavilion Theatre was in rapture and erupted with applause after every song. The standing ovation at the end was well deserved. This is what Festivals are about – being hit with an unexpectedly new and thrilling experience. Stop what you’re doing – get online and buy a ticket – there’s still some available for Wednesday – I know as I asked the pianist while he was having a quick fag (stop it!) outside of the theatre.

Brown’s in town – Day 9

Too staged
A bit too staged for me. Brown’s people had vetted all of the questions, even the questions submitted in advance (how contrived is that!). His mate, the film Director Anthony Minghella, fed his soft cues and he replied with polished anecdotes. Let’s be honest, no one wanted to hear about his book on ‘Courage’. Brown is not a writer of note; he is the UKs most important politician. I wanted politics, not a PR exercise.

Sign language
I've noticed he's developed a secret sign-language. This one is the 'get things sorted' sign. There's the grasping things from thin air sign, the beat the chest (not a good thing with a radio mike - he did this several times today), the going-forward sign with hands, not fingers pointing. It is, apparently, just Tony's sign language in a strong Scottish dialect (more punches and head butt gestures).

Minghella started by saying we’re both here as writers. Sorry mate, I can’t think of any book you’ve written, and Brown’s are just the usual politician’s PR texts. This was about debate not books. Clearly it was the wrong interviewer – we needed someone sharper and less sycophantic.

Knocking on No 10
As the ‘you set em up I’ll knock em down’ interview started, a loud knocking was heard from behind the stage. It went on for a couple of minutes. Brown joked that this was not the door of Number 10. I’ve noticed his new penchant for wisecracks – he’s clearly a witty guy but he’s sounding more like Tony every day.

There was a lot of quite abstract talk about virtues and ‘duty’ (a word you don’t hear much of these days). His language does sound strangely old fashioned, almost from a book on ethics by some obscure Scottish philosopher. His four stated values were; liberty, civility, fairness and internationalism (the last is hardly a value – bet what the heck). His message is clear – being a citizen means taking responsibility for your own actions, with the state as a sort of safety net and support organisation.

When a few questions came from the floor, not the vetted ones with rehearsed replies, there was one surprise intervention from the floor on why we can have nuclear weapons while telling others they can’t. His answer was long winded and he repeated himself, but he clearly thinks that multilateral action through international treaties is the way to go.

There's always one
There’s always one Brighton crackpot, this time one of those local parents disgruntled about the school selection process. The audience, who’ve had more than enough of this over the last few months groaned in unison. We have the future Prime Minister in our hands and this guy is only interested in whether his kid gets into one of the ‘better’ schools.

Brighton & Hove Albion
More heartening was a light-hearted question about B&H Albion getting a new football ground. Gordon rather rashly replied that he’d sort it out (he's a Raith Rovers fan, so there's no conflict of interest - in fact he's Scotiish, so there's not even any interest). More tellingly, he suggested that the British Guantanamo Bay inmates would be dealt with (whether that meant something harsher like further interrogation, or freedom, wasn’t explicit!). This guy seems to be heading towards some seriously quick decision-making.

Barely suppressed scruffiness
Of course, his barely suppressed scruffiness was obvious. Despite the PR machine, flunkies everywhere like a Blair event, he came dressed in blue socks, brown shoes, khaki trousers (what used to be called slacks) that were too tight, no tie and a blazer. His makeover clearly stopped at his neck with his £100 haircut.

My friend Jackie’s daughter Sarah, asked at a lunch held just before this talk. ‘Can you ban the Eurovision Song Contest?’ Now that’s what I call a question. She was sworn to secret on the answer!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Hungarian uprising – Day 8

Dionysian dance
King Naat Veliov & the Original Kocani Orkestar, A Hawk & a Hacksaw - Macdonian Gypsy and Hungarian wedding bands. It all started when the festival music programmer said ‘Find a space and dance’. That they did; in the isles, in their seats, at the back, in the circle. Then, like the guy in front of the Tianamen tank, a lone steward tried to stop the fun. He tried to clear the isles, herded small mobs of dancing maenads to the back of the hall and became a one-man stick-in-the-mud. It was all in vain. Everywhere you looked, pockets of presumably Hungarian and Balka, women were rising in their seats, hand aloft, hips gyrating. They drifted into and down both isles, stuck doggedly to the front and danced away at the back. The big guns rolled down the isles, neatly skirting across to the other isle when the steward appeared. In the end he had to admit defeat, and stood dejected at the side. These women were out for a good time and no man in a white shirt and tie was going to stop them.

The audience were really up for this. There were heaps of Eastern Europeans, in the audience. The music, of course, was wedding band music, all accordions, fiddles, brass, trumpets, drums rolling out rousing jigs. England, unlike Ireland, Scotland and all of Eastern Europe, has no folk equivalent, but the audience were appreciative. Who could fail to love this music?

Laptop lady
I’ve seen some eccentric behaviour at live performances over the years but the woman in the middle of the stalls seats who pulled out her laptop, illuminating all behind her and as visible as a searchlight from the circle, where I was sitting, started to type away in the dark. It was crass. This time the steward was right in asking her to put it away. I would have ejected her on the spot.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dublin by Lamplight - Day 7

I found it took me some while to warm to this production, but once in, it was deeply satisfying. A confection of masks, mime, sound effects, voiced explanation and clever execution makes this memorable. There's no set but your imagination is stimulated by superb performances from the almost manikin-like players who keep your eyes fixed on their movement and your ears on the excellent script.

It rattles along at pace and the 'plays' on 'plays' give it enough media ambiguity to satisfy intellectual curiosity. Whether it works in terms of seeing 'theatre' as politically relevant is another question. Just because something is Irish, set in Dublin and featuring bombs and insurrection, doesn't give it political edge.

The lone piano player, the white masks and the mimed acts reminded me of silent film but with the subtitles, both voices and explanations, spoken. There are no props, sound effects are produced by the actors but it is the script that excels.

Why was the Upper Circle closed off? Is it unsafe?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Kris Drever - Day 7

Lunchtime performance by the Orcadian folk singer. Kris has a strong accent and a voice that drones so that it is sometimes difficult to decipher. I was lucky, as I'm a Scot, and got the accent along with many of the references. Indeed, I went to school next to the Grangemouth 'blast zone' he referred to.

Worth it for one song alone - Hang Me - a haunting deathwish of a song. I also loved Steel and Stone, the title track from his new album, Black Water. Not so sure about some of the others. However, what a great way to spend an hour.

Came out ot be greeted by a huge mechanical horse and a sort of Gypsy band. Looking forward to Dublin by Lamplight tonight.

Rain stops play - Day 6

PlayRec had to be cancelled last night after torrential rain theratened not only to soak the audience but electrocute the staff! Real shame as their 'theatrical archaeology' sounded quite good. I caught the first ten minutes about the buble car factory - it was fascinating.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Pinter in police cells - Day 5

Protest at a play!
Before entering, the scene was set by a group of demonstrators being blown about in the wind making a fair case for the innocence of Omar Deghayes, held in Guantanamo Bay. We then started in the Council Chamber, days after we’ve seen a real political shift to the right. The Minister for Culture had a voice that was so like Victor Meldrew one could have sworn with your eyes shut that it was him. Eyes open he resembled John Reid, our, about to resign, Home Office minister.

Pinter’s political pieces
One For the Road takes place in three locations, a cosy Council room where he speaks to his prisoner, encounters with his son in the middle and the directed rape of his wife in the basement. Mountain Language with its hooded captive and use of language as a totalitarian tool of oppression, has some resonance this week as Gerry Adams took to the stage with Blair in Northern Ireland, but we can all remember the time his voice was censored from our TV screens by Margaret Thatcher. Precisely was played out in the heart of the Town Hall on the main stairs. The horse-trading over lives lost in a nuclear strike are treated like a minor political squabble. The New World Order takes place in a tiny Victorian cell deep in the basement. This worked well; the claustrophobia, the menace.

Needed more menace
A few years ago in the US I entered a theatrical asylum where the patients had murdered the doctors and were running amok. The strobe lighting meant that they appeared and disappeared inches from your face. They reached out from behind bars as you squeezed past down a long corridor – then the bars disappeared. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

This performance was, however, only occasionally threatening. In a promenade piece the audience are constantly shaken out of the performance as they have to walk from place to place. This can be countered by making them part of the performance. The casting was also odd. The guards looked as though they were going back to school in the morning. The direction relied on the power of the words alone to take effect rather than using the location to best effect. Pinter is indeed a man of exquisite words but in a promenade performance we could have been shouted at, pushed more, frightened as part of the performance.

Crackpot would not be silenced
We did have the usual Brighton crackpot who wanted to talk throughout the performance. Some of the actor guards valiantly tried to frighten her into silence, but on she went, responding to the harassment with the words ‘this is a farce!” It was almost another miniature Pinter piece in itself.

The good news is that good writing wins every time and the effect of the piece is long lasting. It was more than a little unsettling going home to watch the news, Blair grinning away, while the plight of the people in Guantanamo Bay and god knows how many other places, now goes unmentioned by the press.

Odemba OK Jazz All Stars - Day 3

The Sallis Benney Theatre saw dozens of us older men and women strut our stiff, un-coordinated stuff to the sounds of the Odemba OK Jazz All Stars. Here's to us older white guys who can't dance but don't care! A cracking performance from the spectacularly dressed band and backing singers.

My 13 year old loved it all, musicians and audience.

The Dumbness of Crowds - Day 2

Actor need writers
Saw the shockingly good ‘Blackwatch’ last year in Edinburgh and so was looking forward to another National Theatre of Scotland production. The idea of exposing a conference on climate change to reflect the world’s procrastination and duplicity is excellent. This was the spine of a good idea wrecked by a suspect method of collective creation. Actors need WRITERS!

Bog standard
The co-ordinator Valentina was warbling away as the audience drifted in. This was, at times, quite amusing, but of you blur the start of a performance, you have to work hard to get people’s attention when it kicks off, and the opening number was awful. The mad Mayor shouting about the future - ‘will it suit yer…it could shoot yer’. Bogside City was the setting for a bog standard performance.

The script and execution were, at times, banal. The cheesy musical-drama format seemed trivial because it was trivial. It just didn’t hang together. The ventriloquist sequences were excruciating. The Mayor’s back of stage interactions with his electorate were phoney. Some of the actors were well below par and the writing at times seemed amateurish, even childish. The only high spots were the South American dance sequences and her song about ‘bastards’. A sure sign of disappointment was the fact that the audience noticeably thinned out after the interval.

Bad blend
Comedy has to be finely blended with tragedy if serious political messages are to be tackled in depth. This was a bad cocktail of mostly light-hearted, sometimes trivial comedy, with little in the way of tragic contrast. For example, “My wife went on holiday last year. Where to? Jamaica. No she went of her own accord”. Substitute Jakarta, Alaska, Genoa, Hungary. It was that basic.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Run Lola Run – a runaway success - Day 1

Tomb Raider on steroids
Run Lola Run (Lola rennt 1998) is a pacy play on fate and choices. The film literally sprints along. This makes it perfect for the punchy, fast, loud music The Bays provided. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a video game, with its repeated sequences (plot plays out 3 times over), back to the start after catastrophic deaths and character running through 3D urban streets, bumping into people, shoot outs; like Tomb Raider on steroids. It also draws from music videos, with cartoon sequences, sequences of stills cut in rapid succession and an episodic structure that suits live music. At one plot point the audience shouted out with joy when Lola wins an outrageous bet in the casino. How often do you hear that in the cinema?

The Bays
The Bays throbbed away, not afraid to cut to silence when the scene and dialogue demanded. In other examples of the film/live music genre I’ve seen the music continues even when it’s unwarranted. At one point a singer made a surprise appearance to sing ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’. This reinforced exactly what was happening on the screen. The Bays don't DO albums, songs or set lists - they do live performance, and what a performance. The audience and The Bays fed off the film and each other. It was absolutely thrilling.

Film plus live music can result in a sort of dissonant experience where both media are diminished. In this case 2+2=5, the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. Something I’ll never forget.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Audience Kan dance to Kanda - Day 1

African musicians are a fun bunch and often dance their way through their performance. Saida Kanda and Risenga Makondo did exactly that. They grinned, laughed, wise-cracked, danced and engaged with the audience for the entire performance. At one point Risenga leapt out and kissed the woman next to me in the front row.

Saidi was in full Tanzanian dress stamping his bare feet into the floor, while Risenga Makondo was rather curiously clad in white shirt, pin stripped trousers and braces (he introduced everyone as the 'real natives' of Brighton, having lived here for years). Kanda is a real performer; his eyes wide open, hips swaying, feet stamping, guitar playing and singing are mesmerising. This is exactly how African music should be seen, in a small venue, close to the performers on a sunny day.

Guitars (one with a tin can as a sound-box), finger pianos, flute, African violin and drums all featured. They had a tough job getting an English audience to sing, clap, stand up and dance, but they persevered, and it worked. We were all on our feet at the end singing and dancing away.

Great start to the festival. A full-house full of good cheer!