I recently spent a month in London. I find myself in a kind of cultural mania while there – seeing lots and lots of theatre and ballet and opera, and meandering with a peering purposefulness through museums. Here are some of my impressions, the bits of the mania that remain pentimento in my mind as I canvas my memory, the purposefulness more playful now as I recall it for sometimes while I’m in the midst of the mania over there I think I should maybe recoil at the roll-call of culture that I assemble in my schedule instead of just steeping myself further in it each day. It does not tire me however; it enlivens me. There is something akin to love in the heady way it makes me feel.
Dr. Freud is not around to ask his opinion about such mania, so let’s turn to his grandson as an example of what I can suss out when I am in it. I was completely absorbed by the “Lucien Freud: The Self-Portraits” show at the Royal Academy of Arts. It runs through January 26th and then moves to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on March 1. I was moved by the Freud exhibition in direct proportion to how unmoved I was earlier by the Antony Gormley show, which closed on December 3, on another floor of the Royal Academy back in November when I visited. The Gormley show was all about the juxtaposition of his art in those Royal Academy rooms. Indeed, “the art” was more in that juxtaposition than in the art itself. I am not sure that Gormley would even disagree with that since so much of his art is based on conceptualization and the cold-eyed execution of the concept. He leaves me and my own eye cold.
When I finished viewing the Freud exhibition afterward, I began viewing it immediately again in a more fractured time frame than the linear way it had been assembled. I felt that was more in keeping with how Freud saw himself: in fractured time in the last glorious paintings that revel in the hideous beauty of human flesh that he rendered in a incongruously considered slapdash, slack-wristed way as he shoveled on the paint. The work is deeply carnal yet has the heightened spiritual realm of art as it captures light’s elemental magnificence to carve out a more tactile image for human perception. It is a kind of calling: to see the light in such a way and render it.
One of my favorite places to meander about is the National Portrait Galley in London. It became even more so because of the Elizabeth Peyton exhibit there during my trip (see above). I have been fascinated but not quite appreciative of her work since 1993 when she held a solo show of drawings in room 828 of the Chelsea Hotel. Maybe my interest in her portraiture of celebrities and beautiful youth is the way she prettifies them even as she appeals to what is not pretty in the viewer. It was sort of the way I approached my own celebrity portraits for which I was known during my Vanity Fair days. I have described portrait writing as sculpting and knowing about the negative space needed within them as one instinctively senses when to claw the clay away. The jeunesse dorée who inhabit much of Peyton’s own singular portraiture are less golden to her pastelist eye yet still gilded with a preternatural guile that gives them an earthbound beauty that plays gloriously against the airy pastels that flit about her small canvases in a fleshy fever, a flick of a smoldering eye, a smooth cheek that balances out a churlish grin, a tossed-in toss of a bang that de-centers the whir of a famous face. There is negative space in her paintings where no color exists as if that is where the ennui of longing has come to rest for that is finally the portrait she paints over and over and over: the trenchant weariness of not only being perceived as attractive but also, alas, just being fucking perceived.
It is this aspect of her work that works so brilliantly as it is hung in tandem with the portraiture of the historical figures in the Tudor and Victorian rooms at the National Portrait Gallery. A pas de deux results. A partnering. Idolatry in a dichotomistic dance of eras, styles, brush strokes, and artistic strategies. And yet the stratifying of beauty is still there. Exaltation is all, and all that is left. It is the negative space between her work and the storied art by which it hangs in this show. It is the clay that has been clawed away and which ironically – for an ironic willfulness limns her work as she concentrates on painting all these seemingly free spirits confined now to the claustrophobic confines of her small canvasses to be held as they are beheld – that holds it all together in its juxtapositions. We may behold them. But they in their beauty are our judges and our jury as they behold us beholding them. We are seen by the seen.
I saw a couple of two-handers – pas de deux of a different sort – while in London that were, okay, middlebrow yet also quite good within the parameters they set for themselves. They also gave each pair of actors a nice opportunity to exercise their keen talents as they keyed into the characters. Indeed, it was the acting in each production that was what finally made me grateful for having seen the plays more than the plays themselves. Yet my writing that previous sentence proves that the dramatic machinery was gleaming, top-notch, every working part in place in order for the actors to have made it all hum along so smoothly. I like my road a bit rougher though. I like feeling the pavement beneath the chassis instead of focusing on the sleekness of the chassis itself. There is a reason such plays are called “star vehicles.” There is a reason that Shakespeare made mechanicals the actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His were rude ones. These four actors possess a highly-honed impertinence which matches their (well)-mannered plays.
The stars of Lungs at the Old Vic were Claire Foy and Matt Smith who gained worldwide attention as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in the first two seasons of the Netflix series, The Crown. Their characters in this – played on a basically bare stage instead of the ornate trappings of their royal roles – are dressed frumpily in jeans and sweaters and t-shirts and yet their seeming to have walked in from their own apartments after having thrown on the first thing they saw in their closets and then loped right onto the stage doesn’t diminish their star power. In fact, it proves just how much they have because it doesn’t need to be costumed by Netflix to dazzle us.
Foy and Smith portrayed rather bratty lovers who batted about their dialogue – which centered on their debate about whether to have a child or not – with an almost athletic aplomb. Smith is a bit hangdog in his doggedness. Foy – she even looks as if refusing to shampoo and brush her hair was built into her contract for the play – fumbles about with a kind of silent inner debate simultaneously with the frantic and fearful and witty one she is having with Smith. It is dizzying and downright mesmerizing.
Lungs, written by Duncan Macmillan and directed by the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, was an intermission-less 90 minutes. Foy’s character was an academic. Smith’s was a musician. They talked about climate change. They shopped at Ikea. That cared too much and yet oddly I cared not a lot about them. I used the actor’s own names because their characters are nameless and, moreover, as good as they are we are never not aware that we have come to see this couple who played Elizabeth and Phillip fill up the stage in very un-Elizabeth and un-Phillip ways.
A friend of mine hated this play as much as he loved them in it. His argument seemed to be that he was almost offended by the Old Vic wasting its resources on this play about an upper-middle-class cisgender straight couple debating the merits of having a baby when there were so many other issues and characters to explore. I didn’t feel that kind of disdain for the play. Cisgender straight couples wondering if they should have children also go to the theatre and I’m sure they often wonder why they gave to be so damn woke as they force themselves to stay awake at plays that speak not a whit to them. This play did not speak to my life as a gay man of a certain age who struggles with almost every issue that this play ignores, but I still enjoyed myself until the rather hoary denouement that hurries through the years of the characters lives.
At The National Theatre two other British stars, Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, were masterful in Hansard, another 90-minute intermission-less play, the title of which is the British term for the official report of all parliamentary debate. Jennings played a Tory member of Parliament. Duncan was his left-wing wife. It was the 1980s and Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister. Jennings’ MP arrived at their country home in the Cotswolds for the weekend and found Duncan’s character still in her nightgown and robe. The walls were free of art and the refrigerator was in need of groceries. There was gin though, and the smell of it and Blenheim Bouquet by Penhaligon’s seemed to waft through the house’s rooms along with the Weltschmerz that settled into the unfolding 90 minutes. There was much discussion of 1980s politics, specifically to the MP’s having voted with Thatcher’s homophobic fear-mongering manifested in the despicable Section 28 law. That law and their debate about it was imbued with their own personal history because of their lone child: a gay son.
Hansard is the first play written by actor Simon Woods. It was directed by Simon Godwin. It reminded me of a shorter, more polite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I would love to see Duncan and Jennings in that at some point. This seemed like their warmup act.
There could not have been play more different than these two two-handers than [BLANK] at the Donmar Warehouse, one of my favorite theatres in London. Written by Alice Birch, the text consists of a series of more than 100 scenes about adults and children impacted by the criminal justice system. It was written in conjunction with Clean Break which is a theatre company that works with women affected by the criminal justice system. The concept is for a director to curate a play from the 100 scenes, and Birch has stated that the cast can range from 10 to 50. Director Maria Berg curated 30 of them into her production for the Donmar. The cast consisted of 16 actresses. The standout to me was Thusitha Jayasundera who played both a mother of a drug addict and a lesbian restaurant owner who loved her own lines of coke.
Here is a rundown of other performances that moved me during my theatre-going pilgrimage in London.
(1) Sirine Saba in Botticelli in the Fire written by Jordan Tannahill and directed by Blanche McIntyre at the Hampstead Theatre. Saba played both Clarice Orsini and Venus herself in a Tableau Vivant scene of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” the creation of which is at the center of the purposefully anachronistic play that is teeming with issues and allusions. It is an unruly, riotous, troubling mess of a play that is finally maddeningly moving. But it did seem to need a few more workshops. I also enjoyed McIntyre’s reimagining of Tartuffe at The National – also purposefully anachronistic – earlier in the year which starred a menacingly mincing Denis O’Hare. I’ll keep looking for her work. I love her, yes, teeming mind. I just wish as a director she herself were a bit less unruly although manifesting unruliness seems to be her brand, her trademark, her comment on these times we are navigating as she looks at them in a rather timeless and even classical way.
London has become part of the narrative of my life so it only seems fitting that I saw so many plays which focused not on narrative as the form and function of drama but as the subject of the plays themselves in different ways. It began – to take a detour back to New York for a moment – even before I got to London when I saw an early preview of Adam Rapp’s remarkable play The Sound Inside, yet another a two-hander but one made remarkable by the director David Cromer and his actors, Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman. It is ostensibly about a New England college professor and a student in her writing class but it is more deeply about how we not only navigate our lives by searching out other narratives to give us signals and signposts as we meander rather mapless and alone toward whatever destination that will have us, but also, if we are blessed with the curse of creativity, how we make instead a map of our own narrative and became cartographers of human cargo. Writers alas don’t just write; they – we – perceive life as being written in real time. To see in such a way takes the closeness of distancing – and the need, as the last two sentences have pointed out, to exist in an exalted incongruity, which is where this moving, keenly delineated production exists. I runs through January 12th.
Parker always sort of gives the same performance but her genius is that within that performance she fits into it a completely different character each time we witness her artistry. Yes, a kind of exalted incongruity is her own artistic calling card. There is a distancing technique to her acting that invites us to stand just outside her character and join her in observing the person she is conjuring. Hochman is more than a sorceress’s assistant however. He is also doing something rare, putting the reality of his work in service to the exalted incongruity of a play about creating narrative and not just representing real life. It is in that sense that the lives these actors are bringing into existence are real in a hyper sense. It is why the ending of the play is so profoundly moving. It is more real than the reality of what is being presented because it has been put through the sieve of perception, that blunt omniscience of art. Indeed, art is on some basic level that bluntness being honed to lessen the essential hurt of being human even as it tries to understand it.
The Lincoln Center Theatre production at Studio 54 Theatre has been honed itself from the production that originated at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, and it is imbued with grace. The responsibility for that rests with the direction of David Cromer who so often as a director somehow has the poise and bravery – the utter stillness – to allow such grace to surface organically. He allows the conjuring to occur and then melds with it to delineate it for the less graceful of us in the audience coming to bear witness. There is always a teeming stillness – more exalted incongruity – to his work. The lighting design is by Heather Gilbert; it is the literal imbuing of such grace. Cromer and Gilbert provide the punctuation to the sentences that Parker and Hochman are personifying.
(2) Grace Molony and Louise Ford
But back to London. My first night there in October, I headed to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see The Watsons by Laura Wade. It is based on Jane Austen’s unfinished narrative Emma. Wade set out to flesh it out and suss out an ending, even inserting herself into the play as a character who was a playwright named Laura as the characters realized they were characters at her insistence even as they began to take on a life of their own and insisted on their own agency. The first act left me focused on how facile it all was, how very middle-brow in that first “Mummy! Jane Austen is fabulous because – shit! – she’s so modern! I even understand the language!” kind of exclamatory way those of us who discover her revel in – not only going on to steep ourselves in her talent, but also our preening love of it.
But the second act deepened – even its wit did – and became at times rather wondrous and batty and even belligerent. It is meta about its meta-ness. But it kept its balance brilliantly as it pirouetted about in its Pirandello-like way. The ensemble couldn’t have been bettered as they got the best of the playwright-within-the-play who surrendered to their characters – her characters – and gave them the gift of her own agency as a writer. I was finally surprisingly moved by it. It will be transferring to the West End in May 2020 and is scheduled to sun until September at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It is directed by Samuel West.
(3) . Fra Fee in Brian Friel’s Translations at The National is part of the extraordinary cast assembled by director Ian Rickson which ends its run on December 18th.
Translations is a play about how language – its mysteries, its weaponry, its wondrous power – can bring us together as well as tear us apart. The play takes place in Ireland in 1833 amidst the mist-laden Donegal hills and opens with a schoolteacher coaxing the very essence of language – the naming of oneself – from a young female student who is basically mute but somehow the ballast of language is contained even within her. We learn the rudimentary lesson that language is part of our breath itself in this first scene. Language is breathing. Language is life.
(4) Seamus O’Hara
The teacher, portrayed by Seamus O’Hara, is a second generation Latin and Greek scholar – his father is played powerfully by Ciaran Hinds – and his family is imbued not only with rich Celtic history and its rambling myths but also the Latin and Greek ones. The old scholar’s other son (Fee) is bilingual and has been hired to help the English map Ireland anew and take its Gaelic names and refigure them into English ones. I used the imagery of maps earlier to illustrate how narrative and language can shape our lives. Friel uses it for metaphorical and dramatic effect in his masterful play about which I write a bit ore when I do a roundup of outstanding performances seen during my London trip.
On another night at The National, I caught Annie Baker’s Antipodes which is set around a conference table where its characters pitch stories – narratives are the products being perfected – to a boss they are trying to please. It an an elliptical, mystifying narrative itself which feints toward an ironic loucheness before flailing about in the earnestness of ritual. At one point the actor playing the boss went up on his lines and said “Line! Anyone!” and was fed it by a disembodied voice from somewhere off in the wings. I wondered for a moment if that were part of the play. But sweat on the actor’s face made me think it was not. It was a deeply human moment in a play about being deeply human. Indeed, storytelling was how we became human and rose in our own narrative arc from the animalistic. In that moment when that line was fed to that sweating human face, I realized that is what writing itself is. Writing is being fed our lines by the disembodied voice.
(5) Fisayo Akinade
(6) Olwen Fouéré as Mother in Marina Carr’s adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding to rural Ireland which was directed by Yaël Farber and signaled further the Young Vic‘s new, exciting, multicultural, and adventuresome direction under artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. When I first heard that Lorca’s Andalusian ritualized narrative was being transplanted to Celtic cadences, I was worried. But it worked in wondrous ways. One of them was that with females as writer and director this play, which can fall back on the machismo one expects from it, is served up with a fiercely imagined maternal aspect at its fore. Fouéré was magnificent as she prowled the stage as if it were the prow of a ship she were captaining. She was more than captivating. She was mesmerizing.
(7) Daniel Rigby in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off in the West End. I try to see everything in London when I’m there, including a Frayn’s frenetic meta-farce that is not my usual fare. I’m glad I saw this though because I got to see Rigby in action. I had first noticed him the role off the creepily haughty Donald on the television series Flowers when I binge-watched it on Netflix in order to catch up on some Olivia Colman performances. But it was Rigby that made me take notice. He was brilliant in this knock-about comedy.
(8) The Royal Shakespeare Company in its productions of As You Like It as well as a The Taming of the Shrew that recast most of the roles in the latter with the opposite gender. There was real joy in the members performances not only in the roles they were each assigned but also in their being part of the tradition of being in this company. I loved the elemental majesty they mined in As You Like It and the transgressive way they went deep into the gender politics of Shrew and shredded them as they and their director Justin Audibert reimagined society in 1590 as a matriarchy. If only we could manifest such a society in 2020.
(9) Bryn Terfel in the title role of Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera. We know what a great singer he is. But he is also – rare in the opera world – a wonderful actor. It was a marvelous performance. Delightful and at times even deeply touching. And, yes, sublimely sung. There is a burly grace to this great opera star. Bravo.
(10) Kenneth MacMillan
I am a latecomer to Kenneth MacMillan and his genius as a choreographer. I always associated him with story ballets and the tweeness in so much of Frederick Ashton. But a couple of trips ago to London, I saw his Manon danced by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House and the scales were removed from my eyes – or maybe it is just the magnificent exception to my aversion to story ballets. I do think Manon is a masterpiece. I saw the ABT production of it subsequently in New York. And saw it twice again during my recent trip to London. I find it deeply moving, psychologically astute, witty, stirring, political, even profound. The pas de deux are glorious and gladden my heart when not reminding me of my own loins as the dancers remind us they are imbued with grace as artists but can rut around – all loins and ligaments and abandon – when the need to rut arrives The ballet is based on an eighteenth-century novel – all loins and ligaments and abandon – by Antoine François Prévost that was banned when it first came out in 1731 before becoming hugely popular on the basis of pirated copies. According to the Royal Ballet’s website, MacMillan believed that the courtesan Manon’s story would make a fantastic large-scale ballet which could utilize the entire company. But the choice of such a capricious and apparently ruthless heroine was a challenge to ballet conventions. Critics expressed reservations about Manon after its premiere. “Basically, Manon is a slut and her lover Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company,” wrote one reviewer.
There is nothing unsavory about the Royal Ballet. I am the company’s newest fan. Devoted. And filled with gratitude and delight.
I also discovered MacMillan’s Concerto on this last trip to London. From the dancing to the music by Shostakovich and his “Piano Concerto No. 2” to the exquisite (even spiritual) lighting for the Royal Ballet’s version conjured by the masterful lighting designer John B. Read, it was a transcendent experience – especially the second andante movement’s pas de deux. The ballet was created by MacMillan in 1966 and first performed in Berlin by Ballet of the Deutsche Oper. He createdt the languorous pas de deux in that second movement originally for Lynn Seymour and Rudolf Holz. In her autobiography, Seymour remembers it as “a romantic impressionistic sequence which resulted from Kenneth slyly observing me working alone, an hour on pointe before evening rehearsals. He transported curving movements of concentrated simplicity – an arm slowly dropping, a leg stretching sensuously – into a joyous pas de deux.”
(11) William Blake
I am a pantheist – much like the mystic and poet and artist William Blake. My spiritual practice involves believing in God, all of them. My newest summing up is, “The Light said, ‘Let there be Light.’ And man said, “Let there be God who said, ‘Let their be Light.'” Part of my pantheistic belief system is that theatres and museums are temples and art is God’s work. But it is also a kind of Dionysian dare too. A love letter from Lucifer who was the bearer of light. Jesus is in on this journey. But so is the Buddha who has no need for a bag. Ganesha giggles at the concept but goes along with it. I’ve invited Mohammed and Moses but they are busy debating each other. We’ve left an empty bench for them to sit on together after they work it out. I told them to get-a-room.
Friends of mine who know of my pantheistic beliefs told me I had to go see the Blake retrospective when I was in London last. It will be at the Tate – not the Tate Modern – until February 2, or Groundhog Day, which is contextualized itself around shadow and light. The Guardian‘s art critic Laura Cumming in her five-star review of the show, began her column: “This stupendous show opens with a starburst: the naked figure of Albion rising in glory, rainbows exploding around his outstretched arms. It is a curtain-raiser, a full frontal performance: the beautiful dancer in mid-sashay on the edge of a cliff, bringing light to dispel the darkness. And Albion’s arms are holding out for more – welcoming this new dawn, inviting us all to rise up with him. It is the great wake-up call of British art.
“But what does it mean, this spectacular engraving? Albion represents England (and primeval man) in the made-up mythologies of William Blake (1757-1827). But many people believe this is not Albion so much as the personification of freedom, imagination, independence. Shake off those mind-forg’d manacles, rebel against conservatism, slavery, organised religion, even tight clothes: interpretations of the image are ceaselessly at odds.
“Everyone knows that Blake is art’s original free spirit. He is against science, the establishment, the Age of Reason. Yet this radiant figure might be the very emblem of Enlightenment thinking, just as it could be the angel Gabriel, a prelapsarian Lucifer, or the spirit of political awakening.”
To meander through the Blake exhibit was a great way to spend my last day in London during this last trip there. His art was timeless and modern and slightly mad, the kind that speaks to me. It, like Manon, ruts with a lot of grace. Like Lucien – and Lucifer before him – there was something elemental in his magnificence. The simplicity of Blake’s lines led him to a mystical complexity. I don’t finally buy into the manmade Biblical narratives to which he lent his genius and that needed names and bodies and wings sprouting from flesh in order to make sense of what is finally unexplainable. Great art is not an explanation. It is a surrender to that which cannot be explained. It is an expiation for our being human made to a realm that forgives us – God bless its many Gods – for being so. Great art is an act of forgiveness for not being able to transcend our fleshy place here in our own realm even as we long for transcendence. Art is an act of trust. In it. And in ourselves. And all that is not it and not ourselves. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” Blake claimed, “every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite.”