In an era dominated by the click, swipe and scroll, fractured attention distorted to the most cursory glance, this new exhibition insistently demands a certain rigour of observation and attentiveness to each work, a close, abiding engagement slowly undressing layer after layer of meaning and intent. Many of the pieces reflect on their own process of creation-a fair few excitedly exploit the sensuality of texture, inviting a keen, woozy, nearly illicit interest, a canvas of colours, shapes, sinuous movement whipping up to wild abandonment (Alexis Harding, of this I find you especially guilty-even his fairly tame cosmological studies are a lush, twisting, cuddling embrace of black and greyish white). The compact frames of Donal Moloney inversely contain a multitudinous convulsion of intricate ephemera, a hurl of narratives both natural and fantastical raging and colliding, an imagination split wide in multivalent surge; Antoine Langenieux-Villard’s ravaged frames, torn, slit, overlaid-exhaustivelyworked-pulse with tension, an unsettled confusion and conflict between start and finish, the certainty of the order of construction remaining troublingly hidden and unresolved. The collaborative, “exquisite corpse”-like works of Sarah Kate Wilson, made in concert with members of the public, are shrink-wrapped emotional curations, each item contributed a significant individual remembrance of a past event or conversation revealed through a profusion (and diffusion) of objects, artist and subjects inextricably linked in a manufactured rapture, packaged and “shipped” for spectacle; Jim Cheatle, Peter Lamb and Alison Goodyear, in various disciplines, dimensionally reference and reproduce and rework elements from previous (or the same) works-or from their physical environments-directly onto their work, Cheatle most explicitly investigating the gap between “flat” simulation and the flagrantly genuine, topping his frames with egregiously present, lusciously glistening pastel swirls and globules impossible to evade. All the artists direct attention inwards, through the frame, to all levels of context, allowing the viewer to apprehend the full weight of the image, a clear rebuke to the facile churn of consumption of the digital age, reasserting the supremacy of a physical, material interaction. Of course, I’m well aware the photos accompanying this post are no substitution for a real, in-person communication with the works, where their complexities truly manifest. Substantifs continues through 27 April
In a concentrated performance that would tax the stamina of the youngest performer (much less an octogenarian national treasure), Dame Maggie Smith serves a masterclass of technique and straightforward charisma. In a 100-minute continuous monologue, each stammer, hesitation and ruminative halt precisely placed, Smith sifts through the troubled memories of Brunhilde Pomsel, ordinary German citizen who rose from humble beginnings through to having a (literal, at one stage) seat at the heart of the Nazi regime when she is assigned as secretary to Joseph Goebbels. While insisting she had no greater knowledge of the catastrophe unfolding around her, Smith reveals the fine fractures of consciousness-if Pomsel is guilty of any sort of collaboration, it was in youthfully genuflecting to a particular glamour, thrill and financial reward of being in the presence of powerfully influential figures, all too easy to engage in a wilfull disregard of the more unsavoury aspects surrounding her service.
As she continues to justify and rationalise and draw the audience into her confession, imperceptibly the stage moves closer to the crowd, the modest furnishings of her retirement flat receding, Pomsel increasingly caught in a tight, dimming light, possibly damned (as she denounces the diminishments of mortality, for a moment it is impossible to separate performer from character), or at least psychologically trapped (especially in her inescapable betrayals of a Jewish friend from youth and a former employer who treated her well). Arguments collapse into outright evasions. Pointedly, Pomsel mentions with the accumulated and well-documented tragedies of history, such events would be unable to occur today in such scale or fury, a statement which was met with appalled laughter, a recognition that indeed they still ensue, despite a well-informed global culture.
Pomsel never moves from her armchair, but Smith keeps us mesmerised throughout, reminding us that sometimes “just doing my job” has tremendous moral consequences. A German Life continues through 11 May-the run is entirely sold-out, but day return tickets are available daily
The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens @ Unicorn Theatre
This absurdist hour-long piece conceptualised for children would improbably earn the respect of such existential luminaries as Beckett and Sartre, who would no doubt appreciate its playfully gentle but frank investigations into spiritual, physical and temporal anxieties, the exhaustive, bewildered search for meaning in a swell of nothingness, the alarm that even information may not sufficiently provide answer. An officious, glowering black-suited security guard closes up the stage, informing the audience that nothing will be happening, walking off, daringly leaving the stage silent for a suspended time until a performer eventually attempts to open the locked door, ready to begin his act. His efforts to access the stage become increasingly desperate, motivating the security guard to return to address the disruption, setting into play an antagonistic, ultimately co-operative relationship.
Conceptually complex philosophies are rampant, dressed up as frantic fun, kids responding on a primal level (the creators generously assume that kids can grapple intellectually with issues without resorting to the pedantic). Stating the impossibility of nothing happening, when there exists a constant possibility of something happening, is the key narrative drive-as the characters get enmeshed in personal, looped agonies of defeat, grief, pity, fear, impatience (lamenting “dead” moments, flailing around waiting for the “next” moment) , the children in the seats encouragingly shout out suggestions and advice, admonishing them to simply get on with it. Unlike the characters on stage, who search for some sense of linearity or purpose, kids are uniquely qualified to see the world as a collection of simultaneously exciting, wicked, revealing, nonsensical moments, a march of stimulating, stupefying ephemera, that seemingly inconsequential actions can have their own mad design. Nigel Barrett is deadpan ominous perfection as the security guard, and Riad L Richie is just the right side of floridly ripe as the serious “artiste”.
The kids at the performance I attended were vividly engaged, and the final release of the “happenings” across the stage, so long heaving against the door, was a liberation, an assurance that one may contend with a multitudinous onslaught, break it down into a series of smaller concerns. The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens continues through 28 April at Unicorn Theatre
How to reconcile the traditional musical’s need for the effervescent, its insistence on the upbeat (we are not in Sondheim territory here) with the scabrous candour of the acclaimed indie film on which this property is based? By locating and isolating the sweet and sentimental heart that always lay at the centre of the original material, and softening, but not altogether excising, the mordant aspects of character and situation. The main focus is a harried and last-minute family road trip to deliver aspiring daughter Olive to a beauty pageant, a go-for-broke journey around which a battery of personal strife spirals-debt, depression, attempted suicide, sickness, marital discord, dying dreams-all of which are referenced, if not profoundly explored, in this fast-paced, efficient production.
Stage floor and walls are plastered in a road-atlas pattern, signalling the significance of the voyage in the family’s destiny- a few screens and neon signs are effectively placed on a tight stage to suggest stops along the way, the car a series of chairs upon a trolly that folds in and out of the action. After the character set-up of the first half (in which nearly every family member is granted a brief moment to define him/herself), the second act barrels along on a macabre whimsy that culminates in the comedic frenzy and melodrama of the pageant, situations progressively more and more unhinged while inversely bringing the family closer together.
Laura Pitt-Pulford, possessing the strongest voice on stage, is the most astutely effective in reaching into the depths of her character’s anguish; Gary Wilmot is bracingly ribald as unregenerate grandpa; and Imelda Warren-Green is a comic force in two small roles, milking every last humourous ounce out of a constipated hospital bureaucrat and a diva-ish former pageant winner, now over-the-top presenter. The production is certainly colourful, charismatic and full of entertainingly disheveled life, but oftentimes to the detriment of full emotional immersion in the family’s many crises and heartbreaks. Little Miss Sunshine continues through 11 May
This virtual reality work devised by celebrated sculptor Antony Gormley in collaboration with Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan (of NASA) sweeps a viewer from the beachfront of a tropical island through the outer reaches of the atmosphere into an asteroid belt and straight onto the surface of the moon, before catapulting a user directly into the annihilating path of the sun, flares snaking off its blinding orb, an all-consuming image of white concluding the experience. I’m fairly certain there is nothing much profound to uncover philosophically or conceptually from the work-it exists mainly as an avenue towards heightened sensation, using the first-person aesthetic of gaming culture as its base.
The simulations are produced using geometric data from NASA models, lending the environments a sweep and detail and expanse especially striking to the spirit. As much as Gormley’s preoccupations are with the (static) body and its materiality in space, as a place or location of matter , I can see the curiosity and challenge for him offered by this new technology, in which a creator must guide a disembodied user through a series of limitless spaces while achieving the sensation of body. Absent of his foundational, explicit element, he must rather suggest the subjective conscious in its movement (velocity) through space and time, the driving environment dictating definition.
Quite beyond all this theoretical notation, what I will remember most (in the moments each participant is allowed to roam freely via controller before being whisked off to the next level) is a frolic along the waterfront up into the lush vegetation of the tropical island, rotating around the circumference of the Earth as it recedes, and bouncing happily along a crater’s edge in zero gravity, lifting off in flight soaring meditatively above the barren moonscape in a sacred, silent covenant. You are encouraged by your “attendant” to decompress in a lounge before venturing home, as perceptions may have been impaired-I confess to remaining a bit woozy following disembarkment. LUNATICK continues through 25 May
In contrast to the relatively sedate works Bowman contributed to the Getting Away! exhibition at Arthouse1 last year (which she also curated)-abstracted studies of sea and shore filtered through a lens of unsentimentalised memory, in which the greatest (genial) threat was that of overcast day and possible storm-the new pieces comprising this show in the West End churn and roil with a turbulent, dark undertow, tremendously unsettled and restless, awash with disruption. Conflicts and collisions of colours abound throughout each canvas, whirls, swirls, whips and whorls of orange and white marauding across the frame like hurricane systems. The sea is bothered, a plague of squall, plight and peril, etched with scratches, aggressive squiggle patterns, unbounded drips of paint, unyielding blocks of hue. Corrosion and toxicity have embedded within the environment. As one element of the imagery, per Bowman’s objective, is to interrogate the idea of the sea and coast as locus of border and belonging, it’s impossible not to sense in the visual chaos the ongoing migrancy crisis and concomitant treacherous, desperate, sometimes fatal, sea journeys undertaken. The softer colours of the two Plashy Place studies (and Diversion 1) provide essential playful, innocent relief for the eyes, brief breezy beats of breath and reflection set apart from the surrounding clash and clamour. As merciless, unsparing and tumultuous as the sea, these are thrillingly, poetically active and alive works informed by a very expressively astute consciousness of turmoil, their very creation a feat of getting through. You will be shaken and stirred. Tearing Up The Rule Book continues through 13 April
Steeped in the aesthetic lore of folk art, advertising, comic books-especially underground comix-poster art, graffiti and found material, this hallowed (but overlooked) group of alumni and teachers from Chicago’s Art Institute gathered together in the latter stages of the 60’s to establish a loose school of work that resonated with broader national movements (Pop Art blasts from either American coast, conceptualist critiques of an emerging consumerist society) while managing to locate distinctive personal aspects of its own. Colours are bold and brash, irreverent imagery abounds, all wrapped in a sense of play that is wildly liberating and go-for-broke, instrumental instructors generously including non-Western and outsider artists into their syllabi-and straight into their students’ artistic souls. Much of the work radiates with a boisterous DIY-ethos (the self-made posters created for their various exhibitions are a brilliant expressive species unto themselves), a sense of fun and experiment contagious, spilling across several disciplines, from painting to sculpture to drawing to publications to film to ephemera. Unlike many of its contemporaneous fellow circles, in which the dominant paradigm was that of a white male braggadocio with women sidelined or entirely erased from the conversation, the Imagists operated with an unemphatic gender parity, a casual appreciation for both female member and teacher. They often exhibited under droll, impertinent collective names such as Hairy Who, Nonplussed Some, the False Image and Marriage Chicago Style, contravening against the pomposity and strenuous whimsy of the larger schools (in comparison, much of this work appears positively serene and composed even within its own mania). Christina Ramberg reclaims kink and fetish imagery, transmuting it into a study of female construction, a Bettie Page directing her own story, panelled narratives told in detailed close-ups; Ed Paschke’s canvasses are awash in wanton, lurid, acidhouse colours, his figures in repose post-apocalypse; Jim Nutt’s plexiglass subjects, with their unnerving enamel sheen, break down/blow out to pustular extremes, sum totals of effluvia and bodily discharge, sometimes with a sharp political edge (see Officer E. Doodit); Gladys Nilsson’s and Karl Wirsum’s frames explode with vibrant nightmarish individuals, the psychedelic frenzy of movement and velocity warping coherency of body-the same for Barbara Rossi’s tangled, swirling masses of amorphosity; Ed Flood presents elegantly layered, dimensional plexiglass cabinets of squiggly dispersed lines and curves that suggest fantastical undersea or forest environments. Roger Brown provides the most meditative pieces: deco-ish, visually tidy renderings of landscapes, buildings and people that pulse with pockets of mystery and shadow and private acts. His architecturally tribal Mask For A Waitress is both armor and straitjacket, evoking the weight of servitude. Nilsson provides one of the softer images, as well, a black-and-white illustrated beach idyll of a group of similarly attired women (and the odd glamorous animal friend!) enjoying a day out. I must admit my shame in never having heard of the Imagists despite living in Chicago for many years, and I am very happy indeed for this opportunity to belatedly make their acquaintance-the sheer energy, verve and joy emanating from the works is impossible to resist. Warhol may have had the monopoly on media attention and notoriety, but Chicago in its own modest, possibly more sensible and breezy way, hosted its own version of the Factory (and it isn’t a great stetch of imagination to envision a young Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat happening upon the work of a few of these artists and finding their spirits enflamed). Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70’s runs through 26 May
On a scrappy piece of city park, two teenage boys find brief interludes of refuge from civil unrest and personal crises in 2001 Oldham, the city alight with racial tensions flaring into violence. Michael is white and working class, Hammad Pakistani, and for fleeting moments, removed from the urban conflicts that threaten their growing close friendship, the boys may relax their guard and dare to address potential and possibility. An intimacy neither is willing to quite confess develops beneath their conversation and consciousness, two souls who find it a struggle to locate their positions within the fraught public climate much less than in each other’s company.
The script has a tendency to overstate its points, already very successfully suggested in behaviour and gesture of performance. The cavernous space in which the show is staged sometimes works against the close proximity needed to truly commune with the two boys-strands of essential dialogue and expression often get swallowed up in the vastness, but a final leap over the fence signals loudly, clearly, energetically, that the boys may yet find their way, despite the pressures on masculinity and the demand to conform along class lines.
Tyler is a sex worker in Soho, plying his trade fairly successfully (enough that he has been able to leave a job in a Chinese restaurant to pursue escorting full time)-Saturday nights especially are booked solid, a spiral of mostly rich clients (and their posh homes) who reward Tyler handsomely for his time and efforts. An encounter that turns suddenly nasty and vicious upends Tyler’s contented, gratified world, his presence at and witness to a violent event shockingly sending him forth (literally bloodied) into a world now bruised and compromised.
Escaping a provincial past (he relates a visit home to his home town, the parameters limited and dull), Tyler excites at the dark glamours of the big city, its available debauchery and decadence, the sheer variety of sexual possibility, the thrill of his profession’s material benefits (if not its rapid expiration date). He is not beyond sympathy-one of his favourite clients, a lonely older man, wishes only to hold him and spend time in his company. To what degree this experience will ultimately change Tyler (or if it will lead to any alteration of behaviour at all) is not readily apparent in Dan Ireland- Reeves’s performance: he tells the audience an awful lot, but the feeling behind the words is often muted.
Are the words meant as confession, or as a defiant defence against sensation, a mechanism by which to navigate the potential land mines of his line of work. It doesn’t quite delve comprehensively enough psychologically or sociologically into its material to be truly satisfying, but Ireland-Reeves should be commended for leaping without fear or restraint into this most tricky of topics.
A grief stricken father, reeling from the recent loss of his 6-year-old daughter to cancer, takes up running as a form of therapy (and bulwark against the overwhelming tumult and chaos left in the immediate wake of the death). In the exhaustive and annihilating physical exertion, he may be searching for a form of absolution, a way to reassert a degree of control. This hour-long piece is a physically strenuous exercise for its lead actor (Max Keeble) as he perpetually maintains a variable pace upon a treadmill throughout the length, his flow of words and thoughts repetitively echoing the iterations of running, a device of intermittent success (sometimes landing with a lyrical force, at other times with manic hysteria).
Daringly, Danish playwright Line Morkeby’s script suggests that grief may be intrinsically linked to ego and self-pity, as the primal wounded pride of this man (not being able to properly protect his offspring) prevents him from seeing outside his own indulgence (as his wife needs to remind him at one stage that he does have another daughter to attend). A digital readout skilfully moves the audience back and forth in time, from idyllic family outings, halcyon days of ordinary activity, anxious appointments with doctors, the protracted decline, the dark days of mourning through to the practice for a marathon, Keeble ably guiding us through all the convolutions. Only in the final moments, in an instance of communion with his departed daughter, does the father stop his motion, and finally reckon with his reality. He may have been, in fact, not running toward but from something essential.
Meek, mousy Frances, a nest of anxiety, toils as a lowly sub-editor in the arts department of a commercially fading magazine bleeding readers and relevance, tasked mostly with coffee runs and package deliveries. Regularly, she must suffer the fatuous tales of her pampered, well-connected colleague’s nights out on the literary social scene, all the while being continually, chronically overlooked by her editor. One chance night, on a darkened, misty road, Frances’s fortunes take a wildly unexpected turn when, the only person onsite of a deadly crash, she spends the last few moments with the female victim-who turns out to be the wife of a celebrated, charismatic author who is about to release a new novel and is eagerly courted by the staff of the magazine.
The family requests to see and speak with the one human being who spent the last few moments with their loved one-and thus Frances is ushered onstage and in to the good graces of the rich and famous, becoming confidante to spoiled daughter and, eventually, lover of the unsavoury paterfamilias, overall a quite needy, dysfunctional clan. It’s increasingly apparent that Frances is skilled in her “reading” of various family members, very assuredly and determinably writing each chapter in her unfolding story-and taking every professional advantage of changing perceptions of her worth and use in proximity to such abundant wealth and influence.
Clearly, there is a wily sting in the tail of this erstwhile timid creature, Frances proving herself the equal, if not superior, viper, all in the name of self-declaration, a transition that Joanne Froggatt (of Downton Abbey fame) beautifully expresses without reliance on broad dramatic gestures, just a subtle accretion of confident, poised assertion and quietly venomous drive, a maestro of monstrous orchestration and negotiation.
The staging is a similarly slick and sinuous arrangement of hydraulics. “Luck is the equation of preparation plus opportunity,” Frances is told-whether conscious of it or not, Frances has indeed been long ruthlessly preparing. Alys, Always runs through 30 March
Sherri, head of admissions at a progressive New Hampshire school, works tirelessly to increase the percentage of diversity within the student body, boasting (perhaps hubristically) that her efforts have resulted in an 18% rise in “people of colour”. Much comic mileage is made from her pained interactions with an older member of staff over the visual content of the school’s prospectus, its racial balance, the baffled colleague from an era long before the politically correct (or modern) lurching from one extreme to the other in imagery.
A personal crisis of conscience erupts when Charlie, Sherri’s son, is deferred from his Ivy League university choice and his best childhood friend (biracial, but who identifies as black) is accepted-a true test of the limits of both Sherri’s and her husband Bill’s liberal largesse. Playwright Joshua Harmon is fearless, bold and brave in his script, unafraid to wade into some very uncomfortable truths and unsympathetic behaviour, gleefully treading through conceptual land mines. Charlie, hurt and sore, lashes out in a minutes-long tirade, an aria against the idea of “positive discrimination” which may just keenly border on white privileged rage. His parents scramble, quite uncivilly, to use every available connection to orchestrate his seat back at the table (“ You don’t have to understand,” Sherri inscrutably screams at her incredulous son at one stage, another parent gone a bit mad over her offspring’s educational opportunities).
The drama plays out mostly within the confines of the couple’s beautifully appointed, immaculately groomed, stately kitchen, a broad staircase rising just to the side, a promise of the unseen stature and wealth that inhabit the rest of this residence, the benignly smug comforts of their lifestyle. Resentful Charlie claims that he will opt for community college and bequest his college fund to a disadvantaged student (read:non-white) less as an act of righteous indignation than as a way to punish his parents and to expose their hypocrisy. Much of the dialogue is gasp-inducing (Harmon has a line in bracing wit), scorching in its unflinching relentlessness.
The emphasis is entirely on the skewering of white pieties and assumptions, so the lack of any viewpoint outside the central characters (although possibly problematic) is understandable. Within this restricted frame, Harmon allows for lots of perspectives, moment to moment shifting the audience’s allegiance and opinion. Everyone on stage has a voice, and all are allowed to speak-Harmon’s primary belief is that as complicated and uneasy as the exchange around this topic may be, as unresolvable as the discussion may be, we have to engage in the conversation regardless. Admissions runs through 25 May
Over the course of its 100-minute running time, Tom Ratcliffe’s work ambitiously charts the 30-year odyssey of a young gay man, from tremulous youth to melancholic middle age, embodied by a trio of fine actors who extract every brief tremor of happiness, humour, wariness and heartbreak out of the material, poignantly mapping the arc of a curious, thoughtful individual, not always comfortable or confident of self.
Devised as a series of sketches delineating key moments of his life, each actor has to work with great skill and detail to suggest the enormity and significance of each sequence, how each upheaval and encounter will reverberate into the next stage, define behaviour and opinion in later acts, an agile game of throw and catch between the central trio. Referred to only as “the Man”, Ratcliffe allows for broad engagement-this is Everystory, easily accessible by a wide audience. “The Man” struggles to define himself and what he wants against societal demands and assumptions, loving and losing along the way (a particular conflict here is the expanse of possibilities for a gay man in contemporary society, a pride of freedom vs monogamy and marriage).
A late scene involving a chance meeting amongst the man and a former lover, which leads to an evening spent in soft reminiscence, tenderly aches with unresolved feelings and missed opportunity, a sense of shared, intimate history effortlessly suggested (Daniel Abelson is especially effective in the middle passages, a core of quivering confusion, indecision, anxiety-a gentle soul steadily losing his way). As his younger self, Thomas Flynn has a wicked, candid assertiveness, the easy deportment of youth, a grand unawareness of the ways in which life will eventually grind him gently but purposefully down.
Antony Gabriel is a bit shortchanged as he only has one scene as the senior version of the Man, but the sequence does bring a rhyming close with the opening scene-the Man has come full circle, a compromised man staring at a younger version of himself, the cycle about to be repeated, one generation to the next. Circa runs through 30 March
Bored, agitated, impatient, Lucy Barton addresses the audience from her hospital room, suffering a nine-week internment due to an unspecified illness in 1980’s New York. In and out of consciousness, Lucy awakes one morning to find her estranged mother in a chair at the foot of her bed-somehow she has made her way from the small town in Illinois from which a conflicted Lucy has long-ago escaped an impoverished, derelict childhood (in both material and spiritual sense).
The women chatter, gossip, reminisce, cast withering judgements on people and institutions, circling but never quite confronting the tangled, coarse and difficult love between them (the tough stoicism of the American Midwest resides deeply within Lucy’s mother’s soul, frills and niceties scraped free). Some of this spirit claims Lucy still, despite her years living in New York-much is unresolved from those troubled times. A commanding Laura Linney prowls the minimalist stage, effortlessly conjuring multiple environments just from her speech (aided greatly by the verbal dexterity of Rona Munro’s script, based upon Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling novel).
She’s calm, cool and riveting in her extended reverie, woozy, rambling, trying to work some mystery out. Mom may be merely a hallucination, a phantom from which Lucy needs a pardon or pass-or a ghost that Lucy must set to rest. From the humble, narrow beginnings, Lucy has struggled to write and live her way out of them, to spread free of their confines and see a more expansive world-she can declare, at conclusion, that the world is astonishing, bursting with amazement. She is seized with it. My Name Is Lucy Barton closed its second run on 16 February 2019