Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.
However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.
The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.
I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.
Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne. Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement. The first two exhibitions are about Queen Victoria and Princess Diana’s dresses. They are both interesting in different ways, I have a blog post about them here: Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.
The next two exhibitions are The Queens’ State Apartments, which has the rooms decorated as they were in the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary, and The King’s State Apartments, which has the rooms restored in the way they were in the early 1700s, during the reign of Georges I and II.
These are arranged in reverse chronological order, entry is through the sumptuous King’s Grand Staircase. Decorated in the time of George II, this is broad and spacious, we are overlooked by painted figures as we ascend. The staircase is certainly grand, immediately we can tell that we are in an era when conspicuous wealth was expected of the monarchy. The mural was painted by William Kent in 1724 and contains depictions of many actual members of the royal court at the time. Kent even included himself in the painting, he is the man wearing a brown turban and holding an artist’s palette, and the lady looking over his shoulder was reportedly his mistress.
The rooms in the King’s State Apartments have many wonderful Georgian features. The fireplaces and ceilings are spectacular. One ceiling is decorated with shields representing the members of the Order of the Garter, with its insignia making the centrepiece. The King’s Gallery has a mantelpiece with a map of the British Isles and Western Europe. This is linked to a weather vane on the roof, so that King George could see how the wind was affecting his fleet. It is still working today. The drawing room has some interesting examples of gaming tables from the era and the best perspective of the gardens, down to the lake.
The Queen’s State Apartments are 17th Century and this exhibition is more intimate, showing their bedrooms, their dining room and gives a little more of an insight into how they went about their, still opulent, daily lives. The furniture and delft is remarkable and the tapestries and bed coverings are extravagant. It is interesting to see the shortness of the four poster bed, it was thought at that time to be beneficial to health to sleep in a sitting position.
The exhibitions also contain lovely examples of the fashions at the time, there are some wonderful farthingale supported embroidered skirts, which look spectacular but must have been completely impractical to wear.
Between all four of the shows here, it would be difficult to do it justice in less than a couple of hours, there is almost too much to see in one visit. Perhaps it would be worth viewing the Palace on one day and the Gardens, Park and Orangery, which are free to enter, on another. This way you could spread the visit over a couple of days and only have to pay the, not inconsiderable, entry fee once. Kensington Palace and Gardens is one of the most historic visitor attractions in London, the exhibitions are well stocked and informative, although it is not cheap to visit, it should be among the sights that you consider when in London. It is free to enter with an Art Pass, if you have one of these you should not miss it, Kensington Palace is a highlight of their offer.
Biographical historical costume drama is a relatively specific genre of movie, but one that is in vogue at the start of 2019, with “The Favourite” and “Stan and Ollie” also getting UK release in January this year. Colette captures the zeitgeist in other ways too, it is about female empowerment, we watch Colette slowly grow in confidence and competence after entering Paris as a young ingenue, the wife of a powerful and authoritarian man about town. The storyline about gender fluidity and sexual freedom is timely too, as her relationship with Missy is treated in an honest and positive manner.
The film is set in Paris and Burgundy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. It concentrates on the early life of Colette, the time of her first marriage, which was to Henry Gauthier-Villars a renowned Parisian socialite. It ends with the publication of the first Colette novel, although she was successful and notorious throughout the rest of her life, she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.
The film is lovingly made and the dialogue is beautifully written, Wash Westmoreland obviously cares about Colette and admires her writing, the film is directed in a manner that reflects her style, unhurried and descriptive, although aside from a few double entendre witticisms the film is less racy than her books. Giles Nuttgens is the cinematographer – the rooms, houses and gardens all look lush and inviting. The acting throughout is wonderful. Keira Knightley gives us a great performance in the title role, we watch her grow in courage and independence as the film goes on. Timothy West is brilliant as Willy, her despotic yet hugely charismatic husband. A lovely combination of good writing and good acting makes you understand how this dictatorial man held sway over Colette’s strong personality for so long.
The cast is of the highest quality throughout. Denise Gough is wonderful as the convention defying Marquise de Belbeuf, Missy. She plays the part sympathetically and with gusto. She is shown as a major influence on Colette’s courage and bravura. Jake Graf has a nice cameo as Gaston de Caillavet and Fiona Shaw is lovely as Sido, Colette’s mother.
Colette is a beautifully made and beautifully written biopic about a strong revolutionary woman. It focuses on a specific period of her life and we get the story very definitely from her point of view, however as she herself says in the film “The hand that holds the pen writes history”. The film is uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable.
I love when the National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End season comes around. This year their shows are on at the Soho Theatre throughout November. Victoria’s Knickers is the second production of the season. Consensual began a week ago and you can still catch a performance of that if you are quick, I saw it last week and you can read what I thought of it here: Consensual.
One of the things I really enjoy about the National Youth Theatre shows is that you often have absolutely no idea what kind of thing you are going to see until the curtain goes up. This particular show is a historical romp set in the early nineteenth century delivered in modern language with musical interludes and current world references. It is, very loosely, based on a real historical incident when a teenage boy repeatedly broke into Buckingham Palace. He was feted by the papers at the time, he was interviewed by Charles Dickens and it was even reported that on one occasion he was caught with a pair of Victoria’s Knickers.
The story is delivered in a musical madcap romcom style, with a touch of 18th century political drama. The genre of the play changes from minute to minute and the musical styles vary from hip-hop, through Disney to Ed Sheeran and Adele. The plot line is full of holes, the story is ridiculous, the set is practically non-existent and it all adds up to a fantastic evenings entertainment, that the audience loved.
This show could not work without brilliant writing and direction. Josh Azouz on this showing is a very talented writer with a sharp eye for inventive situational comedy. There are some great individual one line jokes in the script too. When Victoria tells Ed that she loves Albert, he replies conversationally “Of course you do, he’s your cousin”. Director, Ned Bennett does a brilliant job in drawing attention to the preposterous, and finding the humour in the clashes of cultures between all the different genres of theatre on show in this production. The set consists of unadorned MDF at the back, what looks like brown paper at the sides, and dozens of old random cardboard boxes that arrive on stage for most of the second half of the play.
Alice Vilanculo is amazing as the soon to be Queen Victoria with a very 21st century sensibility, she makes you care for her situation while still having you laugh at it. Jamie Ankrah is excellent as Ed, 19th Century pauper, dreamer…. teenage lover. Aiden Chang has a fantastic role as Sasha, a soldier/torturer disguised as a lady of the court, he attacks the part with gusto and steals almost every scene in which he appears. Oseloka Obi is great as the rapping prince Albert, the acting throughout the company is brilliant and the show is littered with great cameos.
Victoria’s Knickers is difficult to describe and there are so many levels on which it should not work. However it is funny, inventive, musically clever and likeable. This is another success for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and for a writer and actors with big careers ahead of them.
Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne and it has been expended and improved since, by both Christopher Wren and by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Part of the palace is still used as living accommodation by the Dukes and Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex.
Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement.
Victoria Revealed is an exhibition about the life of Queen Victoria. She was born in Kensington Palace and lived here until she became monarch in 1837. It consists of eight rooms detailing her life in, mainly chronological, order. It does contain some interesting personal items such as the dolls with which she played as a child. The portrait of her at the time of her coronation, shows why she was considered a beauty in her youth.
It has the uniform that her husband Albert wore on their wedding day. This has embroidered messages, such as “dearly loved” and “Oh my Angel Albert”, on the cuffs collar and pockets. It also has a garter, tied visibly, just below the left knee. It also has the gilt bassinet which held many of her nine children, as babies.
The rooms are relatively sparsely decorated, but have some nice busts and a few interesting paintings, including a couple of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace, in which it took place. The Great Exhibition was opened in in 1851 by Queen Victoria herself. In the gardens of the palace, stands “The Queen Victoria Statue” designed, in marble, by her own daughter Louise, who was a celebrated artist of the time.
The presentation contains a moving memorial to Albert. Victoria was strongly affected by his death, she wore mourning clothes and withdrew from public life for many years after. Victoria Revealed is a fascinating show, the items on display are sympathetically exhibited and give a nice insight into her personal life.
Also on the first floor is “Diana, her fashion story”. This is a collection of Princess Diana’s most famous suits and dresses. There are about 20 of her outfits on show here, along with notes about the designers and details of the occasions on which she wore them. They are interesting in that they mark the fashions of the time as well as well as being beautifully designed. It is surprising how many of them are recognizable, it seems that time has proven that Diana really was a fashion icon of the 1980s and 90s.
Pinter 1 is a collection of 9 short plays, sketches and poems, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. The are generally political, often about authoritarianism, occasionally funny but broadly bleak and dark. The sketches “Press Conference”, “The Pres and an Officer” and the poem “American Football” are dark comedy but still light relief among the rest of the fare on offer here. “The Pres and an Officer” was discovered late last year, almost 10 years after his death. It seems to be so precisely what we would expect Pinter to say about Donald Trump that, if it is truly a Pinter piece, it is eerily prescient.
It is a measure of grimness of the writing that the next lightest piece is a poem called “Death”. This is lyrical, sad and it is beautifully delivered by Maggie Steed. “Precisely” is a comedy sketch about a nuclear holocaust. “The New World Order” a sketch about torture. “Mountain Language” is a moving short piece about the suppression of a language by an authoritarian state. The acting is phenomenal. Jonjo O’Neill is excellent as various political bullies in the pieces named above.
“One for the Road” is a piece about authoritarian interrogation. A man, wife, and their 7 year old son are interrogated in separate rooms by a tyrannical bully, played by Antony Sher. The violence is implied, as it all happens in the rooms we are not watching at the time, however it is actually more palpable because of this. A truly magnificent piece of writing, it was surely instrumental in his receiving of the Nobel Prize for literature, but in no way is it an easy watch. Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn are both amazing as the husband and wife.
They also play the husband and wife in “Ashes to Ashes”. This is a later play, more abstract in narrative, though still dark in tone, experimental in the shifting of subject matter. It could be about the loss of a child, about the holocaust, about an abusive marriage or even about a murder. It hints at these, changes focus and moves on… It is an interesting and brave piece, written by an ambitious author, confident of his ability.
All the pieces bar the last are directed by Jamie Lloyd and have a cold, metal, prison-cell like setting which suit the mood of the pieces. “Ashes to Ashes” is directed by Lia Williams, this is set in a living room and changes in lighting match the flow of the dialogue. It is ingenious how she makes the set feel more intimate without making it feel more warm.
Pinter 1 is a hard watch, I can’t imagine how tough it must be to act each day. It is dark and bleak with implied violence, both mental and physical. It may be emotionally draining, but the writing is strong, the themes are universal and the acting is tremendous. To say that I enjoyed it would not be entirely accurate, but I am really pleased to have seen it and if it were to return in at some point in the future, I would certainly gather together my mental strength and go to see it again. Warning! This collection is stimulating and disturbing and is definitely one to avoid on date night.
Antony & Cleopatra is always a big undertaking. The play is an uneasy mix of love and war, it requires a wide variety of settings, scenes and textures and it is usual that a choice is made to make it either bellicose or romantic. Simon Godwin has made the brave decision to have it both ways. The talent and apparatus that are at his disposal at the Olivier theatre allow him to pull it off triumphantly.
The cast is high quality and on top form. The set and choreography are stars in their own right. Hildegard Bechtler, set designer and Evie Gurney, costume designer do a wonderful job. I doubt that it would be possible to do the transformations from opulent Alexandria, through Roman war rooms to topside ship decks, with such efficiency on any other stage. It is beautifully done and gives the piece a cinematic quality that it is uncommon to see in the theatre. they have lavished money, care and attention to detail on this production and it has not gone to waste. The costumes are sumptuous, Cleopatra really does dress like a queen.
The huge change in ambience between the military settings and the romantic ones make it easy to see the dichotomy that Antony faces between duty and desire. He begins the play lounging by the pool but it not long before he is army fatigues. Ralph Fiennes plays Antony with a hint of midlife crisis, but when he is with Cleopatra there is never any doubt of his love for her. The chemistry between them is palpable, they are sultry and sensual, the perfect star crossed couple. Sophie Okonedo is every inch the Egyptian Queen, expecting adoration and receiving it; sharp and soft, petulant and magnanimous, veering between vulnerable and dangerous. She owned the role, it feels like the part she was born to play.
The acting throughout is very good, Tim McMullan is excellent as Enobarbus. Hannah Morrish brings out the role of Octavia well, we see she is poorly used by Caesar as well as Antony, but takes what slight revenge she can. Fisayo Akinade is funny and sad as Eros, Antony’s freed slave.
Antony & Cleopatra is three and a half hours long, however there are a couple of light and funny scenes and director, Simon Godwin, makes good use of these to give relief from the tension and high drama. The ending of this play is often difficult to stage, but here it is done in a very authentic manner. There is a glimmer of compassion to the finale of this play, that is not often there in Shakespearean tragedy. A word of warning to those who suffer from ophidiophobia – you may wish to get seats a little way back from the stage.
Everything about this show oozes high production values, right down to the programme, which has copious information about the background to the play. This is exactly the type of production that gives the National Theatre its worldwide renown.
Nick Dear’s second part of Hogarth’s Progress is set thirty years on from part 1 which is reviewed here: Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston. This second play is also a fictional story based around real events in the life of William Hogarth. By this time he has enjoyed success, and he is serjeant painter to King George III. He has taken a house in the countryside, in Chiswick.
This story also takes place on a drunken day, although by now William Hogarth is something of a reformed character and one has the impression that days such as these are less frequent than in the past. Although the day itself is a fictional day, the characters in the play are real, and the people and events that they discuss are fact. Hogarth is worried that, although he is relatively rich and famous, his art is not given the gravitas it deserves. The play then, although it is a light comedy in style, has an underlying discussion about what exactly it is that constitutes success. It is a cleverly written piece and it works well on both levels.
The dialogue is crisp and funny. The characters have depth, we see their flaws and like them nevertheless. Mark Umbers is very good as David Garrick, the multi faced actor. He is smooth, accomplished and very aware that the whole world is a stage. The role of Horace Walpole is beautifully written and it is beautifully played Ian Hallard. His lines are witty, barbed, and perfectly delivered. He rips Hogarth to shreds so sweetly that the artist leaves his house almost believing that he has made a new best friend.
The acting throughout is superb. Sylvestra Le Touzel is wonderful as Lady Thornhill, arch and harsh, but knowing where her best interests lie. Jasmine Jones shines again, this time as Bridget. It is interesting to see the cast playing different parts in each play and I enjoyed the links between the two shows, although each is an independent narrative and works without any knowledge of the other.
Both of these shows are interesting and both are worth seeing. If you can only see one, the first is frenetic and explicit, the second is calmer and sharper but each one is funny in its own way, so it depends on how you like your comedy. If I had to choose, I think I would probably pick the second, simply for the wonderful characters Walpole and Garrick.
The Art of Success was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986. it was written by Nick Dear, he has now written a companion piece, set 30 years later and they are being presented as a double bill at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, under the title “Hogarth’s Progress”. The first play depicts Hogarth’s life at the time just before the copyright act came into force when he had just done “A Harlot’s Progress” and before he started “A Rake’s Progress”. The second will depict him in later life. They are meant to complement each other and still work as stand alone plays.
Set in London in the 1730s, “The Art of Success” is a ribald and raucous story, telling of the partying antics of many of the renowned people of the day. These include Hogarth himself, the satirist Henry Fielding, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham and even George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Many scenes are salacious and slanderous, reflecting the satirical plays of the time that led to the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act. Hogarth was instrumental in causing the engraving copyright act to be passed and there is a subtext to this play about the ownership of art and about how art develops in times of social change, which chimes with the present day challenges for art in the different forms of social media.
Having said all that, the main thrust of the play is a bawdy farce about an epic night on the town and is meant to be enjoyed as just that. In this respect it works well. It has funny jokes, although it occasionally veers into Carry-on territory. It is merciless in lampooning the aristocracy and it has enjoyable characters. The cast is spectacular, every performance is good. Jasmine Jones is excellent as Sarah Sprackling, she manages to get a great balance between comedy and pathos. Jack Derges as Henry Fielding is both funny and loathsome. Bryan Dick does a fantastic job of holding it all together as runs about the town in various stages of disrepair.
The set is ingenious, I liked how contemporary it manged to be while still displaying the 18th Century. I cannot imagine that they had the ability to use the effects on display here when it was first produced 32 years ago, and I enjoyed the little nods to modern technology in the direction. “The Art of Success” is a play that you continue to appreciate after you have left the theatre and I am looking forward to seeing part 2 “The Taste of the Town” when it opens next week.
Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate is a complex show, some of its numbers are classic Broadway showtunes, while others have a light opera edge. It has complicated, full company dance routines as well as individual virtuoso displays. It also has a couple of good comedy roles that require great timing and delivery. On top of this, the Coliseum itself, has a big stage that needs a large company to fill. All in all, this is a show, in a venue, which will test every part of the company putting it on, to the fullest degree. I have to say that Opera North have passed this test with honours.
The two operatic leads, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate both have splendid voices, suited to their roles. Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt, as Lois and Billy, carry the more standard musical numbers perfectly. Each of the four of them has at least one great song to show of their respective talent. Lois has possibly the most famous songs in “Always true to you in my fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry” but Kate’s “I hate men” and Petruchio’s “Where is the life that I led” are really great songs that show of their vocal abilities. The show’s biggest song, of course, “Too Darn Hot” is sung by the chorus, and the dancers, particularly Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli, deliver a truly show stopping performance to this number.
Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin play the comedy roles of first and second Gunman. They work very well together, their interaction is excellent and they make the most of their comedy duet “Brush up your Shakespeare” – a song more full of puns than I had previously realised. The company as a whole is excellent and you realise that this is going to be a show full of movement and vigour, right from the first song of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.
Kiss Me Kate is a big show, and this is a big full-on production of it. The costumes are bright and lavish. The choreographer has a tough job, with so many people on stage at once, however the dance routines are vivacious and have lovely shape. The set design needs ingenuity too, and is very clever at swapping from front of stage to back of house in seconds.
The director, Jo Davies, has taken the bold decision not to update the show in any obvious way. At times, it felt like you were actually watching a show made in the 1940s, giving the show an interesting post-war period feel. The tap routine, in particular, had a dated, black and white movie quality, which suited the production very nicely. This is a lush and exuberant production of a distinguished show and it fully deserved the love it received from the packed audience at curtain down.