Archive for September, 2011

Cooper’s London

September 29, 2011

Autumn Picks in London


There’s still time to catch Greg Doran’s extraordinary recreation of a lost Shakespeare play, Cardenio, at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford (in rep until 6 October) which, along with The City Madam (in rep until 4 October) was my best and most rewarding experience at Stratford this summer. Coming up at the RSC in November is an interesting-looking new play by David Edgar about the creation of the King James Bible called Written on the Heart. Since Doran is directing this as well, and Edgar has a fine track record of new plays for the RSC, I would place a bet on it–as well as on the Measure for Measure that will be directed by Roxana Silbert, definitely a talent to watch grow. Meantime, if you’re in London with children for the holidays or before, the RSC is transferring last year’s Christmas hit at Stratford, the musical of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, from 18 October for a season. It is utterly charming,some of the music is quite memorable; and the nasty headmistress of the school is done as a traditional panto dame.

In London, the hottest ticket is without a doubt the atmospheric and touching production of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse, with Ruth Wilson, Jude Law and David Hayman. It’s a compelling look at the play, but tickets are hard to come by and you will probably have to queue on the day you go to get standbys and returns. But it’s worth it! Or pray that it’s transferred to the West End for a longer run? Even if Jude Law were to leave to make a movie, this is such a strong production that there’s no reason to kill it – much better to keep it going with some recasting.

Looking ahead, the Young Vic is reviving its sell-out production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene briefly for the second half of September. More compellingly, book now for their Hamlet (28 October through 21 January). It will be directed by the hugely talented Ian Rickson and star Michael Sheen as the troubled prince. Meantime, down the street at the Old Vic in the Cut, you can see a promising new production of The Playboy of the Western World. John Crowley directs J. M. Synge’s sometimes provocative and always irreverent masterpiece, with Niamh Cusack, Ruth Negga and Robert Sheehan in the main roles. The National Theatre’s War Horse continues in the West End, trailing its Broadway awards. And The Pitman Painters, an even more interesting play, returns to the West End in October. Meantime, at the National itself you might want to look out for Jonathan Miller’s staging of the St Matthew Passion; then A New Play by Mike Leigh from mid-September; and also Juno and the Paycock coming in mid-November. Add these to the news that the inestimable David Suchet will be playing James Tyrone in a new production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the West End from April 2012, I am feeling quite Irish this season. To which you can add a play by St. John Ervine called Mixed Marriage, set during the Troubles in Ireland, before partition. This is the first production of the play in London in about 90 years. It will be at the Finsborough Theatre, one of London’s smaller but more adventurous off-West End venues, a place that has recently been exploring neglected masterpieces of the early part of the 20th century. The production is to be directed by Sam Yates.

At the end of September, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones bring their successful Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy to Wyndhams Theatre. You might also want to consider taking a look at a new production of The Killing of Sister George with Meera Sayal at the Arts Theatre from 5 – 29 October. And if you have children with you, you should try to see the adaptation of The Railway Children that re-opens on 2 October, runs through Christmas, and is being performed in the former Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo. Those steam engines are the real thing!

Music: High and Low

Many of the musicals remain as before, so there is no need to tell you to check out Les Miserables or Legally Blonde or The Lion King, or even Chicago with a new cast and transferred to the Garrick Theatre from early October. But one that you might not know about is the transfer – from this summer’s festival at the Regent’s Park Theatre – of the George Gershwin pastiche Crazy for You. It’s preposterously cheerful and delightful and will be at the Novello Theatre from 8 October.

Meantime, for music theatre you might also want to try the English National Opera, where Jonathan Miller’s inventive and charming and spot-on production of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love is opening the season. Weinberg’s The Passenger receives a London premiere in a production by David Pountney that is preceded by much praise. But my vote for top spot in the Autumn season is a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin directed by Deborah Warner and, more importantly, conducted by Edward Gardener. Gardener always gets into the musical soul of the piece; you may have seen him conduct closing night of the BBC Proms this year.

Great early-in-the-season excitement at the Royal Opera House is being generated by their production of Puccini’s Trittico directed by Richard Jones, and a revival, with Gheorghiu and Hvorostovsky, of Gounod’s Faust. My top choice for this Autumn, however, is the revival of Graham Vick’s entrancing, wise and moving production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It’s got a strong cast and Pappano is conducting; in truth, there’s rarely been such an evocative production of this opera, detailed and nuanced and utterly captivating. Mind you, as a person with a taste for bel canto, I am going to try not to miss La Sonnambula either, conducted by the inestimable Daniel Oren.

Apollo’s Girl

September 28, 2011

The Mill and the Cross: Renaissance Modern (film forum)

If you love winter light pierced by color; if you love ultimate art married to ultimate craftsmanship; if you love Renaissance aesthetics and politics matched by technical wizardry that reveals them anew and, most of all, if you want to see into the obsessive brilliance of Pieter Breughel the Elder matched by fimmaker Lech Majewski, you must not miss The Mill and the Cross.

Breughel painted The Way to Calvary in 1564, its canvas teeming with men and women accompanying Christ on his journey to death and transfiguration. Yet these more than 500 travelers of antiquity are dressed in rich-hued Renaissance costumes representing the Spanish soldiers who occupied Breughel’s Belgium during the Inquisition, the princes of the church, the burghers of Antwerp, and the peasants whose tenuous lives of hardship made the lives of all others possible.

Based on Michael Gibson’s book of the same name, The Mill and the Cross reinvents a biblical event interpreted by a great painter and wrenches us into its reality, focusing first on characters drawn out of the marching crowd, then creating a day for them to interact as they did in Brueghel’s time.

Breughel himself (Rutger Hauer), his friend and patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York), and the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) briefly enter and leave the action from time to time, but the film is really about the painting itself and the life within it. It’s a knockout!

While aesthetes will have a field day with the saturated colors and chilly landscapes of northern Europe, film buffs will celebrate Majewski’s achievements: incorporating CG technology and holographic effects, “weaving an enormous digital tapestry composed of layer upon layer of perspective, atmospheric phenomena, and people” shot in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and New Zealand. One of the most captivating scenes is the interior of the mill (seen as a tiny and improbable structure atop a distant mountain in the painting), as huge wooden gears, levers, and wheels moan and and shriek, grinding the grain that feeds the procession.  

Where the film succeeds most spectacularly is in allowing the viewer to enter its universe directly. It’s both unsettling and hypnotic at the same time. There’s discomfort with the casual cruelty portrayed on canvas and mirrored on film, and fascination with the sensual images, music, and movement that doesn’t end until the film is over and the viewer relinquishes its life as it transforms back into Brueghel’s canvas.

Majewski has a passion for art, music, sound and words. It has served him well as creator of The Mill and the Cross, as writer of Basquiat, director of stage versions of Carmen and Threepenny Opera, and as director of several films deploying his multi-displinary talents. It is likely that Kino-Lorber will release a DVD of The Mill and the Cross next year but, to be honest, it is best relished on the big screen. Just see it any way you can.

Apollo’s Girl

September 25, 2011

Cymbeline: Endless Pleasure, No Guilt!

Admit it: I just saw Fiasco’s Cymbeline twice, two nights in a row. And time did not wither, nor custom stale it the second time around; rather, I anticipated certain moments,and simply luxuriated in their charms.

A good thing it was, too, because the very first time I saw Cymbeline it was at a local big venue, with a very big cast, and a director whose work I have always admired. But none of the skill of its production could disguise that fact that it’s just not a very good play. Press notes at the time described it as a “Romance, combining comedy, tragedy and history….an epic tale of power and magic…its action sweeping across Britain and Italy as two warring powers clash, until its eventual joyful conclusion.” In other words, a play that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up.

Fiasco, however, has magicked it into something small and very wonderful, shrinking a cast of twenty-six into a handful of smart and agile players who are not afraid of being silly for the fun of it, or of turning on a dime and digging into the best lines until you cry. They know their stuff well enough to know when to bend the rules, can play seven instruments at just the right instant to heighten a mood, and enact multiple roles with a minimum of props and accessories. Then there’s the Fabulous Trunk (by Jacques Roy) which doubles as a receptacle, a bed, a passageway, or whatever the moment calls for.

This Cymbeline’s spontaneity is, of course, the result of years of stubborn collaboration between six Brown M.F.A. graduates overcoming doubts, other jobs, and uncertain finances in order to return to it three times before embarking on the Barrow Street Theatre version. This time, trailing very big reviews and adding several producers to ensure a longer run. If you love inventive theater and the cheeky confidence of a cast that knows you’re in very good hands for the evening, Cymbeline is what to see!

P.S. Jessie Austrian and Noah Brody, Cymbeline’s star-crossed but ultimately triumphant lovers, plan to marry in October. Note to Fiasco: why not try All’s Well That Ends Well next time? For now, go see cymbeline!

Apollo’s Girl

September 23, 2011

Gold Standard on Madison: The Morgan  

America may have abandoned the gold standard in 1933–but not in Murray Hill.  Now that the dust from the final installment of the Morgan Library & Museum’s restoration has settled, It will surprise no one that the dust is purest gold. Of course it’s no secret that the Morgan is in stronger position than most institutions. By maintaining the highest curatorial standards and making a courtly bow to current realities, it has been able to perfect a balancing act that no one else has achieved with such grace. There’s a philosophy behind it that works.

Instead of investing in the kind of blockbusters-and-buildlings that characterize so many of our museums, the Morgan has decided to simply make the most of what it has: location, collections, dedication and endowment, which have been allocated to the creation of a soaring atrium (building up, not out), a jewel of a wooden auditorium with wondrous acoustics, and the fine-tuning of a restaurant, a cafe, and a gift shop tucked into one side of the building. The galleries have been kept small, and filled only with the best that there is.

A special fund from six donors has financed the restoration of J.P. Morgan’s own sumptuous library where, in addition to original rooms with shelves of priceless books, manuscripts, paintings, and objects, you can find within a few steps iconic treasures from several millennia.  Nothing hits you over your head, or in your face. Except what’s on view.

Americana? In the rotunda there’s the Declaration of Independence, Houdon’s cast  of Washington’s face, Lincoln’s notes for debating Douglas, and a letter from Jefferson to his daughter Martha. 

Europe? In the East Room, a letter from Queen Elizabeth (the first), Galileo’s declaration of innocence, a Bach Cantata, and Chopin’s ubiquitous Polonaise. And don’t overlook an 1818 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, proofs of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Dickens’s manuscript for A Christmas Carol, stories  and poems by Hemingway, or (in case, by now, you want to thank Someone for the largesse) a Gutenberg bible. Keep going.

In the West Room, you’ll find two Memlings, a Cranach, and a Tintoretto. There are cases of tiny cuneiform seals (thoughtfully accompanied by enlarged photographs), pre-Christian jewels from Sarmatia, Mediaeval gold from the North Sea to the Danube, and exquisite silver for every occasion. Yet, despite this profusion of excellence, everything is mounted to allow you to spend time with each object without feeling fatigued. 

In the Atrium, you can admire a stunning conceptual work, The Living Word, by Xu Bing, rising from the floor to the roof: piles of modern black pictographs―niao, the Chinese character for bird―taking flight, changing colors as they rise, and changing shape also, from Mao’s simplification, to standardized Chinese text, until finally, all in white, they become the Chinese pictograph of antiquity. It’s exhilarating time travel that greets you as you enter the Museum, and  Installation of the work was part of the exhibition; visitors were able to watch Xu Bing supervising a crew with a cherry picker and a lot of patience suspending the pictographs, one by one, as they swoop toward the sky visible through the Atrium’s ceiling. It’s the perfect expression of the Morgan’s philosophy: using modern sensibility as a way into art history. But what sensibility, and what art!

Currently, you can see Dickens at 200, seventeen exquisite drawings by Ingres, and David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France, on loan from the Louvreeven images of the Morgan itself, from its site in 1850 through the creation of Renzo Piano’s current makeover.

Now, more about the philosophy: the Morgan always owned the mother lode. But they have  moved it adroitly into the 21st century – not by dumbing down their presentations, but by the judicious addition of imagination and wit. Yes, wit! On the way to the Dickens, you’ll spy a single New Yorker cartoon on the passageway wall: the author sitting in his publisher’s office with a manuscript, as the publisher says “Mr. Dickens! It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Make up your mind!” This leavens and humanizes the greatness of the Morgan’s achievements. 

In Illuminating Fashionthis year’s look at the evolution of styles from Mediaeval to Renaissance based on images seen in illuminated booksthe show’s conception was as brilliant as the illuminations themselves. Curator Roger Wieck had a timeline painted on the walls of the gallery, above the images. And just below the timeline, Wieck added some sly, very contemporary commentary: “Late Gothic Vertigo 1460s and 70s,” or “Tormentors are Always Well–dressed.” and “Salome and Herodias in Killer Clothes.” Because the aesthetics of the show were so impeccable, the commentary was a dash of reality; these were no longer stylized miniature works of art in gilt and saturated colors, but a mirror of what real people wore centuries ago. A slight readjustment of perspective; a big readjustment of attitude.

And the Morgan’s new philosophy isn’t limited to the galleries. Within its jewel of a wooden concert hall, it has booked a lavish schedule of public programs related to the exhibitions, and a top-notch concert calendar, beginning in September with the Boston Early Music Festival. Some outstanding lectures are on the agenda and, in a highly anticipated program coup, several operas from Emerging Pictures’ Opera in Cinema, with dream casts in HD live from opera houses all over the world. The Museum’s July trial balloonWilliam Kentridge’s production of Magic Flute from La Scalawas sold out. Now, coming up, imagine Tosca with Bryn Terfel, Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Georghiu—conducted by Antonio Pappano! (see our post of May 31, 2010) and yes, still more. 

I’ve saved the best for last: at the Morgan, shows don’t disappear when they’re taken down; they migrate to its outstanding Web site: beautifully designed, shockingly easy to navigate, a virtual monument to intellect and intuition. So if you regret what you missed or want to revisit it at leisure, it’s there for you. So is the entire season of concerts, films, operas, and lectures, and priceless resources, waiting to be bookmarked: the Morgan

By now, you may have grasped the idea that the Morgan is always worth the trip. Yet not just for the art and the atmosphere. It’s deeply civilizeda last bastion of a kinder, gentler more personal time, but with an artful mix of today’s energy and high technology and none of its angst. Small enough to be encompassed, still large enough in its ambitions and holdings to provide an epicurean feast every time. In an age of big shows and bigger shops, there’s nothing like it. Make it a habit.

Apollo’s Girl

September 18, 2011

Berlin 36: Old Story, New Take (Quad Cinema)

With its focus on the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and on a few of its most interesting participants,  Berlin 36 brings a fresh new take on the 1930s. By combining a real story with an appealing young cast, and some clever (but appropriate) effects that use archival footage (you can see Jessie Owens sprinting for his long-jump gold), the film succeeds by skill, rather than overkill.

Although America refused to allow many Jewish immigrants to enter the country at a time when such permission could have saved many lives, they nevertheless insisted that Germany allow Jews on its own Olympic team, and demanded that the Jewish high jumper, Gretel Bergmann, be included on the German team.

With conflicting motives on both sides of the Atlantic, the Germans agreed, but reluctantly– while making sure that Gretel would not qualify. To add further complications, the Germans also added Marie Ketteler to their women’s team; he had (against his will) dressed as a girl and joined the team only because the Nazis promised he could finally live as a man if he competed.

As outsiders, he and Gretel forge a close friendship that sustains them through the growing hostility of their teammates and government officials. The casting of this film is extraordinary; both Karoline Herfurth as Gretel and Sebastian Urzendowsky as Marie deliver strong and completely compelling performances that reveal the pain of their emotional struggles and of the rigorous training they endured. (In fact, both of them did their own high jumping much of the time.) Supporting playersespecially Axel Prahl as the coach who encourages them, before he’s removed by the Nazis—add to the film’s consistent strength and insight. The real Gretel Bergmann appears at the end of the film, with fascinating postcripts on her own life and Marie Ketteler’s. quad cinema

Cooper’s London

September 13, 2011

Summer Reading: Conquest and Conflict

I’ve been catching up with books at my bedside before the season begins and brings in a new lot. So, in case you missed them when they first came out, here are a couple of recommendations:

Hugh Thomas, The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V Allen Lane. (UK edition £; also in the US, and on Kindle)

Hugh Thomas became well-known for his definitive, prize-winning study of the Spanish Civil War, which is still a central book for our times. Now he takes us back to the era that was Spain at its most glorious and troubling. Continuing his story of the rise of the Spanish Empire (this is the follow-on from Rivers of Gold, 2003) he concentrates in this volume on the era of Charles V, with its incursions into the recently-discovered new world.

Starting with Magellan’s return from his circumnavigation of the globe, Thomas only stops at the point of Charles V’s death in 1558. Along the way we consider the Spanish conquests in Central and South America and the rich and varied stories of various conquistadors, including Juan Vasquz Corondao, Hernando de Soto and the extraordinary Gonzalo Pizzaro. You end up feeling you have been given three or four books in one, but I can hardly wait to read the next volume that will take us through the reign of Philip II and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The writing is vivid, though sometimes so dense with detail that it you need rearl stamina to keep going, yet it always turns out to be worth the effort. Most of the episodes would make one-off adventure movies of a very dark and fascinating kind. Both as a reference book and as a good read, this book stands out. Thomas also powerfully renders the troubling issues raised by the Spanish conquests in their own time; you will hear echoes of the centuries to come and the issues that ultimately led to the revolutions and turmoil we still see today in lands that were once the heart of the Spanish Empire.

This is not just a book about the adventures and adventurers of the Spanish High Renaissance; it is also important for revealing the sources of so many conflicts of the next four hundred years. I was fortunate enough to interview Thomas at the time of the publication of this book in the UK and you can hear what he has to say about his work at: The book is also very beautifully produced, a real pleasure to hold and with very good illustrations, especially the end papers.

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire

US Random House $35.00; UK Penguin Paperback £12.99; UK Allen Lane Hardcover £30.00

Having written a hugely popular and successful biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in the era of the American and French Revolutions, Amanda Foreman then took ten years to create a new and even bigger biography of the entire American Civil War in its relationship to the UK. Both the North and the South needed and wanted the support of Great Britain, and there were British volunteers on both sides. The “special relationships” of that era are so interestingly explored through so many fascinating characters that the book, which can give you much pleasure and astonishing insights to ponder, can also literally break your back, weighing in at about 1,000 pages of text and notes.

It’s the kind of material that James Michener would have turned into a novel, starting, no doubt, with a Georgia overrun by dinosaurs. The experience is a bit like reading the novel about the Civil War that the world has been waiting for, but it is actually a book of non-fiction. Foreman details the astonishing and complex story of the relationships between the two countries from before the Civil War through the experiences of a fascinating cast of characters, and we hear the stories of participants both on the battlegrounds and in the diplomatic and political halls of Washington and London.

The research is formidable and the tales Foreman tells utterly compelling and convincing. She has written the book in a completely accessible and compelling style that keeps one riveted and centered throughout the long, multi-layered and complex narrative. It will probably end up being one of the most admired books of the year—and it drove me back to a truly magisterial, fascinating and completely brilliant book by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals (which is, I believe, the source for the upcoming film about Lincoln by Steven Spielberg). Between them, these two books are the intellectual and historical background you need before re-reading both Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Irving Stone’s Love is Eternal.  Just like the Civil War!

Apollo’s Girl

September 9, 2011

More Guilty Pleasures

I beg your indulgence, just this once! Because I’ve never met a big medical, or archaeological, movie I didn’t itch to see, I raced out this morning to the first local showing of Contagion.  It’s big, it’s medical, it’s international, and sports an enormous, starry cast: a snaggle-toothed Jude Law (almost unrecognizable in his newsboy cap); Kate Winslett in her gravest The Reader mode; Matt Damon; Gwyneth Paltrow; Marion Cotillard; Jennifer Ehle – even John Hawkes, the unforgettable Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. And from Day 2 (the beginning) to Day 1 (the end), it’s got Steven Soderbergh’s steady hands on the tiller of one very efficient, very well-built fast boat.

But bigger is not always better and, to be truthful, it’s far from Gladiator. Still, it’s entertaining enough to make you forget your troubles for an hour and forty-five minutes (not counting the 15 minutes of ads and the dozen trailers that precede it) and, though billed as science-fiction, close enough to today’s home truths to really scare the hell out of you! In fact, Contagion (wittingly or otherwise) also makes the most compelling case for global population control ever to play in a megalopolis near you. You may just decide to get out of Dodge…or never leave the house again. Just keep washing your hands, either way.

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