Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sun,sand and Oyster Fishing: Sargent and the Sea at the Royal Academy

This small exhibition in the RA's Sackler wing, a collection of paintings by John Singer Sargent RA (1856-1925), is as refreshing as a trip to the seaside.

'En Route pour la Peche' 1878, (detail above) shows Sargent's distinctive brushwork, and his typically romantic treatment of women and children.It's a striking contrast with Van Gogh's earthy sketches of peasants shown here recently.

Portraits are claimed as Sargent's forte, but there were few enough of them in the recent RA 'Emperors and Citizens' show, lost as they were among flounces and fancies of the aristos and royals.

So it's good to see another side to his talent. Turner's influence is very evident.

The painter led a peripatetic life, thanks to rich mother with itchy feet and a love of Europe. Although born in America, he was whisked away as an infant, and didn't return until he was twenty.

Locations range from the coasts of Normandy and Brittany to Mediterranean ports: Nice, Marseilles and Naples, then on to Venice an Capri. The paintings figure all the paraphernalia of boats as well as fisherfolk, sailors and holiday bathers,

It's not so surprising, in an era of steamships and cruise liners, that his early efforts at draughtsmanship included seascapes. He had filled thirteen sketchbooks by the time he got to Paris when he was eighteen, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and then joined a studio.

The painting Neopolitan Children Bathing 1879 perhaps the most startlng, as well as the most charming picture in the collection.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Funny in parts: Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue at the Vaudeville Theatre

There's plenty in Neil Simon's play to chime with big-city dwellers and fans of with Woody Allen's films, replete with funny one-liners, and a hopeless shmuck in the lead. It's Death of a Salesman territory without Arthur Miller's gift for social analysis, or Alan Ayckbourn's plays transported to New York without the experimental approach to drama. Neil Simon's hero is not so much a victim of a situation as a whinger whose life fails to match his over-inflated hopes.

The play opens in Mel and Edna Edison's fourteenth floor New York apartment at 2am. Mel's insomnia, he says, derives from the gross inconvenience of big-city life: noisy neighbours, the smell funnelling up from the street and slipshod plumbing that causes the toilet cistern to run incessantly and the air-con not to function at all. His wife's role at this point is to act as a sounding board for his complaints and suggest he calm down and take some Valium. Along with psychotherapy and alcohol, according to Mel, they've been tried and failed. That there's something else bothering him is signalled by a plaintive: 'I don't know who I am any more'.

Next the apartment is burgled. 'You think they took the ordinary stuff and left the Chivas Regal?' says an exasperated Edna as Mel, as usual, is slow to come to terms. It turnns out the reason Mel couldn't sleep is he has lost his job to financial recession.

It's about here you recognise the parallel with modern times, the reason for reviving the play.The script, in the hands of a better playwright, (Miller, for instnace) would analyse and offer insights. But it doesn't. This isn't about how capitalism betrays then gobbles up the 'little man'; it's about how the family rally round to bail him out. Apart from a minor niggle about a accepting money from your financially more successful brother, it's problem solved.

The actors do their best with the superficially amusing dialogue. Jeff Goldblum is watchable but miscast, too rangy and goggle-eyed for the part of the put-upon Mel. (Although perfect as mad scientists in The Fly and Jurassic Park) Mercedes Ruehl's whiny Bronx accent reminded me of Marge Simpson; her character's saint-like patience irritated me, too. I kept wanting her to punch her whining partner. The repeated slapstick episode where the upstairs neighbour throws a bucket of cold water over him had the audience laughing a tad too cruelly, I thought.They were as fed up with him as I was.

The direction was a bit slow in parts, but I saw a preview. The set wasn't very good; the burgled apartment should have been much more denuded of possessions. I hardly noticed the TV and Hifi were missing.

Parallels with current concerns weren't clear. Maybe brother Harry (Linal Haft) and his thrifty sisters represent the Big Society that will rescue us all from market forces and that's the message we should take away. I didn't find it very likely or convincing.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Telling instead of Showing:The Phoenician Women at Theatro Technis

In fifth-century Greece, two brothers prepare to fight for sovereignty over 'Seven-gated Thebes'.Polynices has been brought an army from Argos, where he's lived for years in exile. He challenges Eteocles, who became ruler after their father Oedipus went mad and blinded himself. Having agreed at the time that they would take turns to reign for alternating years, Eteocles has reneged. Now Polynices threatens to destroy his native city unless Eteocles will back down. Their mother Jocasta enlists the help of Antigone, their beautiful sister, to make them see sense and not destroy Thebes.

The play was written by Euripides. It was a reminder of how Greek Tragedy achieved its so-called 'cathartic' effect,i.e. put the audience through the wringer, by imposing strict rules or 'unities' on the form of the play. The action must happen within 24 hours, which sets a pace as demanding as any modern thriller. Unity of theme demands the story concern an individual or small group, here the royal house of Thebes, concerned with one big issue,in this case patriotism.

The main strength, though, derives from the rule about unity of place, or having to stick to one location.

To describe a modern play as 'wordy' is to be critical, but it's the main component of Greek tragedy. Jocasta can plead with her sons within the palace grounds, but she has to fill in the backstory in a monologue, but the battle and its aftermath must be reported. It's a strangely hypnotic and compelling method that that requires a strong script and good actors. Fortunately this production had both - and all within a friendly fringe venue three minutes walk from Morning Crescent tube station.