Week 31

This week’s cultural outings took me to the Isle of Dogs and Blackfriars, both parts of London better known for commerce than art. Both were fringe performances, both tiny venues and tiny casts, both biographical accounts.

Theatre

The Space

New Diorama Theatre: 12 Million Volts

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This was an interesting account of the life of Nikola Tesla, performed with a lot of fast-paced physicality by the cast of three men and one woman, who interestingly, did most of the heavy lifting in the show. There was some very clever use of lighting, including backlighting and projection on a bubble-wrap screen – something I hadn’t seen before. I enjoyed the play, but was disappointed that there was no sign of a Tesla coil.

Opera

Bridewell Theatre: Opera in the City Festival

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My first “festival gig” was the second biography this week:

Andrew Bain: Lanza

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This was less an opera than a monologue with arias. It was sung very well by Andrew Bain, who is clearly a Mario Lanza fan. I like a good tenor voice, and this was very enjoyable, despite a very distracting shirt-buttoning mishap in the first act.

 

SUMMER book challenge

My second “M” is Montefiore.

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I like a tale of Russian intrigue, so I was looking forward to reading this.

It was okay. An easy read, a fairly obvious ending, but I didn’t warm to Sashenka at all, and I didn’t really like the neat way it was all tied up at the end. A bit disappointing, as the author is so lauded.

 

 

Week 30

A quiet week in cultural terms. I was out quite a lot, but only in shopping centres. My opera, like my reading, took place on the sofa.

Opera/TV

BBC Proms

Beethoven: Fidelio

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This is Beethoven’s only opera, and I had high hopes. It was obviously concertised rather than staged, and had some good characterisation by the ingenue couple, Marzelline and Jaquino (Louise Adler and Benjamin Hulet). Stuart Skelton as Florestan was excellent, but the whole thing was let down by the supposed main character Leonore/Fidelio (Ricarda Merbeth), who screeched her way through the performance. James Cresswell did well as Rocco, particularly as he was a last-minute stand-in and was “on the book”. Sadly, I felt the ending was a bit limp, and I would have liked more chorus work.

SUMMER reading challenge

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Marra is the first of my two “M” authors. This book was not my usual fare, but I enjoyed it very much. The characters all go through nightmares of one sort or another, and I felt that these were real people undergoing real trials. We don’t get a happy ending all round, but in life, who does? I recommend this heartily.

Week 28

The cough persists, but is slowly receding, and fortunately leaving me enough time between bouts to be able to enjoy stuff without annoying my neighbours too much.

Theatre

Union Theatre

Tim Rice/Stephen Oliver: Blondel

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It seems that I am gradually coming round to an enjoyment of musicals. (Not all of them, though!)

Blondel is a very early Tim Rice offering, and was good fun, if a bit panto-ish. There were some outstanding moments, great voices, and some excellent characterisations, including the best Prince John since Alan Rickman.

The Union is a theatre best experienced in winter, I think. The summer heat inside this little railway arch was oppressive, and the seats are packed in with very little legroom. I was seated near a portable air-conditioner, which was noisy and didn’t do much to cool the air. On the plus side, the cafe is good, with lots of outside space.

Opera

ROH/ Big Screen

Puccini:Turandot

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These “big screenings” are an event with their own style. Picnic suppers, live-tweeting and singing lessons in the intervals.

I wasn’t able to get to the local Big Screen this time, and so missed my traditional Wimpy takeaway picnic,  but because it was a live stream, I was able to join in via my iPad, with a home-delivery KFC picnic on the sofa. (Sadly, Wimpy have not joined the home delivery market yet.)

Turandot is spectacularly problematic. One of the best arias ever in Nessun Dorma, but as bad in its treatment of women as you could find pretty much anywhere.

i live in hope that one day I will see a performance of this opera that does not use yellow-face. It must surely be possible to find Asian singers; or if not, to change the setting so it is not so obviously Chinese.

Ballet

ROH/BBC4

Wayne McGregor: Woolf Works

IMG_0515I confess to not being a ballet lover. I like some dance, but generally speaking, big ballets leave me fairly cold.  Having said that, occasionally one will catch me out. This week the BBC broadcast a live-ish production of Woolf Works from the Royal Opera House, and I was captivated. The music was modern, costumes were beautiful, design was excellent and the dancers were wonderful. i particularly liked the middle Orlando section,  and this has spurred me to download a copy of the book to add to my to-read list.

 

Theatre/Cinema

Donmar/Picturehouse

Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

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Okay, so not live, but this film of Julius Caesar from the Donmar was one of the highlights of my cultural year so far. Outstanding performances by Harriet Walter as Brutus and Martina Laird as Cassius; some inspired design/props elements (particularly the red rubber gloves); and a bit of hard rock music, too. The use of a prison setting, and its incorporation into the play was clever, and the all-female, multi-ethnic casting was well-justified. I loved this, and recommend it to anyone, Shakespeare lover or not.

Books

SUMMER reading challenge

I decided to just read these one a week in the order they come, so, first up for this week was St Aubyn.

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There is a lot of hype about this author, and the book is certainly readable. It is also mercifully short, because the subject matter is shocking. I couldn’t understand why so much praise had been heaped on it, until I did a bit of research and discovered that it was autobiographical. That put a very different complexion on the story, and pushed me into buying the other four books in the series.

 

The rest of the Patrick Melrose series kept me occupied while I suffered with the lingering cough that stopped me sleeping this week.  I found this whole series bleak and populated with really unlikeable people. Thankfully, there is redemption at the very end of the last book.

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Week 27

This week was designated as “Hamlet Week“. Three possible performances – two of which I actually had tickets for. Then fate intervened, of course.

IMG_0260First up was Changeling Theatre and their outdoor offering. Great reviews, but, on the day I had booked, coinciding with the beginnings of a head cold, and, worse than that, FLYING ANT DAY. Sitting with a headache in a field of flying ants is probably one of my worst nightmares. I stayed home and re-read Ian McEwen’s “Nutshell”.

Next up was the new opera at Glyndebourne. Obviously too far away, but being broadcast live to cinemas. Irritatingly, I had already booked broadcast night to see another version of Hamlet, so couldn’t take advantage of the air-conditioning and cheap comfy seats in my local Picturehouse. I hope there will be an “Encore” screening at some point in the future.

The Hamlet I was most looking forward to was the Andrew Scott portrayal at the Harold Pinter theatre. Sadly, my head cold had developed by then into a full-on coughing and spluttering chest-based spectacular. I sadly returned my ticket.

 

I ended up on my sofa on Friday evening watching the most over-the-top filmed version anyone IMG_0262could possibly imagine. There are many reviews of this in the world, so I’m not going to add to them, except to say that I am certain that casting Derek Jacobi as Claudius must have been a Kenneth Branagh joke. (Actually, this Claudius was one of the best I have ever seen, and made the film much better than it might have been.) I could have done without Robin Williams, but Charlton Heston was wonderful.

Books

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First up, the afore-mentioned Nutshell, one of the Hogarth re-imaginings of Shakespeare. No prizes for guessing what this one is.

 

Other reading this week included two with “strange” female protagonists. Both are unreliable as narrators for various reasons which don’t become clear until the ends of their stories. Both well worth a read.

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Finally, I have set myself a challenge for the rest of the summer, which, for me, ends on August Bank Holiday. Here are my six SUMMER books, chosen by author surname initial.

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The aim is to read all these between now and August Bank Holiday (which marks the end of summer for me).

S: Never Mind (Edward St Aubyn)
U: Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Dubravka Ugrešić)
M: Sashenka (Simon Sebag Montefiore)
M: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra)
E: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
R: Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (James Runcie)

 

Week 13

Theatre

Lazarus Theatre Company

Bertold Brecht: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

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I had never seen this play before, and on reflection, I think I would probably have preferred a more traditional rendering. Lazarus are a company that try to involve and encourage new, young, multi-ethnic theatregoers, and there was a lot of noise and flashing lights to accompany Arkadi’s singing. The set and props looked almost exactly like the interior of a school hall or gym, and the production tried hard to be a bit hip-hop. There were clear parallels drawn between political events in the play and in the world, but sadly, despite the company’s efforts, I think it failed to really engage the coachloads of school pupils that filled the auditorium, and it alienated the half-dozen or so stalwart matinee-goers who were dotted here and there at the ends of rows. There was quite a lot of swearing, and a gratuitous nude scene. I had to look up a synopsis later to make sure that this was actually Brecht’s play.

Opera

Live screening from the Royal Opera House

Puccini: Madama Butterfly

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Butterfly is a deeply problematic story. Pinkerton’s seduction and abandonment of a fifteen year old child made me angry, and I cried with her as she waited for him. I had actually forgotten about the humming chorus, and found it very moving. Ermonela Jaho’s voice was glorious, and she acted the part convincingly. I liked the set, and the costumes had a pleasant authenticity. If this were anything but opera, I feel there would be outcry over the designer’s decision to go for full Japanese-style make-up and hair; however, here the voices are the thing. I imagine it might be difficult to find a cast of Japanese opera singers.

Exhibition

Francis Bacon: Crucifixions

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The very old church of St Stephen Walbrook, in the City of London might seem a strange place for an exhibition of very modern art, but it worked quite well. The paintings were all much smaller than I expected, and framed with glass. This meant that odd reflections from the church clerestory interfered with the view from anything more than five or six feet away, which was a pity. While I was there, I was treated to a recital of Bach fugues on the organ. A lovely way to spend a lunchtime.

 

 

 

 

 

Week 9

Theatre

Hijinx at the Little Angel Theatre: Meet Fred

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I vaguely remember going to this little puppet theatre as a child, and the chance to see an “adult” puppet show took me back there again.  The production was very good. The bunraku style of puppeteering gave convincing life to the title character – a hard ask when the character is a naked, featureless cloth doll. The play itself took a hard look at the hard knocks of life, and brought a tear to my eye more than once. I highly recommend this show – it is still touring for a few more weeks, in various venues.

Opera

Live screen from the Metropolitan Opera: Rusalka by Dvorak

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A fun fairytale, loosely based on the Little Mermaid. Brilliant costumes, some excellent voices, good set design, and a chance to see what happens when things don’t go quite right backstage during the interval. This would be a good introduction to opera for newbies and youngsters.

Art

Eduardo Paulozzi ( Whitechapel Gallery)

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Three rooms of wide-ranging offerings from the artist who designed the famous Tottenham Court Road station mosaics. My favourites are the bronze sculptures, but there were also lots of prints, including on textiles, and a projection of Paolozzi’s film, “Bunk”.

Books

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One crime book this week, and one cook book. Dare Me was pretty dire. It featured a lot of cheerleader jargon, which slowed the action down for anyone unfamiliar with cheerleading, like me. The angst of trying to maintain place in a group of “popular” girls came across well, but this was a first-person narration, and that never really appeals to me, even when I like the narrator, which I didn’t in this book.

The Dali cookbook is a huge, lavishly illustrated golden tome, and it has taken me two months or more to do its weird and wonderful recipes full justice. I probably won’t be cooking many of them, but just reading them was oddly satisfying.

Street Art

Boe & Irony: Chihuahua

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A new addition to my collection of pictures of truly awful street art. This giant chocolate-box dog takes up the whole of the end wall of a block of flats in Poplar. I took the picture from a moving bus, hence the odd angle.

Week 7

A quiet week.

Culture

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Watched the the three remaining parts of the Ring. Really enjoyed Die Walkure. Siegfried was as annoying as usual, and Gotterdammerung felt slightly low-key. Even so, this was one of the best-voiced Rings I have seen/heard.

I caight up with the Portrait Artist of the Year in a one-afternoon binge-watch. I hadn’t realised this was on, and am glad to have found it before the heats end. My money is on the guy who painted Ben Okri on a concreted-over cupboard door.

Street Art

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I came across this truly awful thing in Woolwich. It was apparently presented to the town by the Mayor of Reinickendorf, Berlin.

Woolwich is, interestingly, divided by a wall. Inside, nearest the river, is the “cultural quarter”. Posh new flats, expensive bars and cafes, the farmers market….

Outside, the rougher, more common, old Woolwich, with a giant Wetherspoons pub and a big screen in the town centre showing perpetual sport (snooker on the afternoon I took this photo). It is interesting that a nice statue of the goddess Nike, presented to the borough, is inside the wall. The ghastly bear is firmly on the outside.

Books

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A bit disappointed in this. A murder mystery within a murder mystery. It had all the tropes, and I wonder if Horowitz was playing the same game as his fictional author. I’d give this 5 out of 10.

 

Week 6

Culture

Royal Shakespeare Company:The Tempest

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I really wanted to see this particular production, but couldn’t get to it in Stratford on Avon (too far) or on its London transfer (the Barbican, terrifyingly easy to get lost). Luckily, with the wonders of modern technology, I was able to see an encore “as live” performance at the cinema. I loved this. The use of motion-capture for Ariel was inspired, and Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero was perfect casting.

Blackeyed Theatre: Frankenstein

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This was a fairly faithful-to-the-book production, which I enjoyed immensely, despite the theatre being an absolute ice-box. It was probably the coldest day of the year, and there seemed to be no heating at all- fitting for the opening scenes of the play, in the arctic ice, I suppose.

The cast was small (5 actor-musicians), who produced very good weather effects with a range of percussion instruments. The creature was played by a wonderful puppet, animated and voiced by two, sometimes three of the cast working together . This play is likely to go on tour, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Opera North: Das Rheingold

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I love the Ring, and this was a chance to see a new and acclaimed performance of the first opera in the cycle. I had hoped for a more “staged” performance, but I ended up enjoying it very much. I particularly liked the Loki (Loge) in this production, which was broadcast on radio, TV and via various web sites. I chose TV and the comfort of my own sofa. The three “main” works in the cycle are only available online, and I shall watch them at my leisure in the coming days.


The “I don’t know how to categorise this” section

Goldsmiths forensic psychology department: The Accused

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This was an “immersive theatre” event, where the audience played the part of jurors in a murder trial. There was, obviously, a psychology aspect to the event, and it transpired that on the evening I attended, the audience were primed and manipulated to give a “guilty” verdict, which we duly did. The event was a bit of a pick and mix- there was a band, and dancing (with prizes); there was a film, and some good acting (and some not so good, but they were students, so this was to be expected). There were some problems with accoustics, and some confused instructions, which could have skewed the data that was collected. Overall, this was a very interesting evening, and knowing that I can be so easily influenced to give a particular opinion is food for thought.
Books

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Only one book this week ( I’ve been busy), but I am still well on track to meet my target of 100 books by the end of the year.

The Janissary Tree is the first in a series of period novels (set in nineteenth-century Istanbul) about Yashim, a eunuch detective who likes to cook. It was a good story, and I like the protagonist and his sidekick Preen, a transgender dancer of a certain age. I have a particular liking for “cooking” detectives, especially when there is enough description for me to be able to recreate the recipes. I shall read more of the Yashim books, I am sure.

Week 5

Culture

The Lower Depths:Maxim Gorky

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I loved this play. A wonderful cast, a good design, well-matched to the performance space, good direction. I like the Arcola, and this play fitted well, resonating with current events almost scarily at times. This was my first Gorky, but I hope it won’t be my last.

Written on Skin: George Benjamin (music), Martin Crimp (text)

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I really wish I could have seen this opera live at the Royal Opera House, but the only ticket available this final week was way out of my price range. The video does allow for close-ups of the cast and set, and gives some different viewpoints ( e.g. the pages of the book from directly above) which wouldn’t be available to a live audience, but I love the atmosphere of a live opera, and it didn’t feel as good sitting on my own sofa. I wish, I wish I could have seen this live. I loved it.

Books

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Two different types of crime books this week.

King Dido doesn’t have a central case, and having the criminal as the protagonist made a change. I thoroughly disliked the main detective, but thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Six Four takes us to Japan, and the press relations section of a local police force. I like to find out about different cultures and different ways of policing, and this is as different as you can get. The emphasis on “face” and group loyalty is very interesting, and the case plays out nicely if slowly. I’m interested to see how the central character develops.