‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’ at the V&A

I went along to the Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A. He’s kind of an interesting figure to name an exhibition after, since he was an impresario, rather than an artist or designer, or even a composer or choreographer. But under his stewardship, the Ballets Russes really does seem to have been an extraordinary focal point for European culture. I’m a complete philistine about music and ballet, so none of the choreographers meant anything to me, and the only dancer I’d heard of was Nijinsky; but even I’ve heard of composers like Prokofiev, Satie and of course Stravinsky. And even I know that the first performance of The Rite of Spring is one of the significant cultural moments of the twentieth century.

And I’m slightly less of a philistine about art, so I’ve definitely heard of some of the people who designed sets and costumes for him: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Giorgio de Chirico, Natalia Goncharova, Coco Chanel. And apparently Joan Míro and Salvador Dalí as well, although neither of them featured in this exhibition. And that’s apart from some, like Léon Bakst, who are specifically known for their design work for the ballet. It is a hell of a list.

And it’s a fun exhibition: lots of cheery colours, and gorgeous costumes that have a battered glamour to them; and costume designs, which are often even more appealing than the costumes themselves. And the single largest item in the V&A collection: the back cloth for one of their ballets.

I also checked out the Raphael tapestries. Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a set of tapestries with scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, to hang in the Sistine Chapel, and one of the treasures of the V&A is the Raphael cartoons: i.e. the full size painted designs which the weavers worked from. To coincide with the current Pope visiting the UK, the Vatican has lent four of the actual tapestries to hang alongside the paintings for a bit.

And they’re quite interesting to see, although they have rather fallen victim to changing tastes. The Raphael cartoons have always been regarded as some of the most important bits of Renaissance art in Britain, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding them a bit unsympathetic. It’s not just the subject matter, although that doesn’t help; there’s something about these monumental groups of posed figures that is just a tiny bit, um, boring. Maybe it’s the self-conscious grandeur of them; these really are the Catholic equivalent of Socialist Realism. Then again, if Stalin had had people like Raphael and Michelangelo available, Socialist Realism might have been pretty fabulous.

» Top: costumes for female dancers in The Rite of Spring. Designed by Nikolai Roerich, 1913. Bottom: costume for a ‘Negro Lackey’ from The Sleeping Princess. Designed by Léon Bakst, 1921.


The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic

As part of a joint Anglo-American project with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic is currently running two plays in parallel with the same cast in both: The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard. It’s a fairly starry enterprise, directed by Sam Mendes, with acting from Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke and so on; even the text of the Cherry Orchard is a new translation by Tom Stoppard.

I’d never actually seen or read The Cherry Orchard — or indeed any other Chekhov; quite a few of my most embarrassing cultural ignorances are related to drama — so it was interesting to go to it without any very specific preconceptions. Would I have guessed from watching it that it was one of the most-performed classics by one of the great dramatists? Short answer: um, no, but I don’t necessarily blame that on the play.

I do think the play feels quite dated. In one sense, of course, as a Russian play from 1904, it was dated pretty rapidly by events. The central social dynamic of the play, of a declining aristocracy and a rising merchant class, seems trivial compared to the changes brought by the Revolution. But more generally — stylistically, I guess — it feels like a bit of a period piece. It should not, I suppose, come as a surprise that a play which is over a hundred years old feels, um, old, and I’m quite certain that it will have aged better than most of its contemporaries, but there you go.

But I don’t think it was helped by the production, which also felt a bit old-fashioned but has less excuse for it. There were a few too many pregnant pauses, some slightly manipulative atmospheric musical effects, and a general sense of actors struggling to bring the material to life. I’m sure they’re all talented actors — my sister saw the other production, The Winter’s Tale, and said it was brilliant — but it all felt a bit self-conscious. Maybe they were just having a bad day.

» Obviously the photo doesn’t have much connection to Chekhov, I just thought it was cute. ezra-cherries-driveway is © Jeremy Hiebert and used under a CC by-nc licence.


Troilus and Cressida at the Globe

When I saw they were putting on Troilus and Cressida I thought it was about time I finally got round to seeing some Shakespeare at the Globe; previously the only thing I’d seen there was, randomly enough, a play about the writing of the US constitution.

I was about to say that Troilus and Cressida was one of favourite Shakespeare plays, but actually that’s putting it too strongly. It did make a particular impression on me when I read it, though: it’s funny and cynical and just interesting as a piece of literature.

The cynical/satirical aspect of it was probably particularly striking for me at the time because I must have read it fairly soon after reading Chaucer’s version, Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer presents the story as a grand courtly romance; the telling of it is not without humour, but it is ultimately a serious story of love and loss and betrayal.

Troilus and Cressida is much more ambiguous, and there’s an interesting argument to be had about what exactly Shakespeare meant by it, but one thing it clearly isn’t is a grand romantic epic. One early edition of Shakespeare classified it with the histories, although it isn’t historical; another with the tragedies, although it doesn’t end with Troilus and Cressida lying dead among a heap of corpses either. Mind you, I suspect you could make an argument that that single editorial decision, 400 years ago, to divide the plays into three genres has been hugely unhelpful to our understanding of them.

For those of you who don’t know the play, it is set during the Trojan War and intertwines two stories: on the Trojan side, Troilus’s attempts to seduce Cressida, using her uncle Pandarus as a go-between, while in the Greek camp, Achilles is sulking in his tent and the Greek generals are trying to get him to start fighting again.

The Greek side of the story is unavoidably cynical: the generals treat Achilles and Ajax as useful idiots, tools to be manipulated into fighting. Ajax clearly is an idiot, Achilles slightly less so. The generals themselves are not much better. Agamemnon is given an opening speech of startling pomposity, in such a high style that it is completely opaque, Nestor is one of Shakespeare’s long-winded old men, and Ulysses is a scheming, manipulative cynic. When Achilles finally does come out to fight, he finds Hector unarmed and sets his men on him to kill him in cold blood, then takes the credit.

The programme for the Globe production made the plausible claim that T&C, which was previously largely neglected, has become more popular in the C20th because, since the Great War in particular, that kind of cynicism about the idea of military heroism has become more acceptable to us. And they played it for all the dark humour you might expect.

What surprised me a bit, though, was the treatment of the Troilus and Cressida part of the story, which was played relatively straight; they did their best to wring some emotion from it and give it the star-crossed lovers vibe. I have to say I didn’t read it that way on the page; their relationship consists of one night in bed, arranged by her uncle, and she is being unfaithful to him within 24 hours of being sent over to the Greek camp. There is never a hint of marriage, which is unsurprising in the medieval version but very unusual in Shakespeare. Yes there is some high-flown lovers’ rhetoric, but it is constantly undercut by the busy-bodying and innuendo of Pandarus. Even at their first expressions of love, she admits to having played hard to get and then worries that by admitting it she will have lost power over him — not the profoundest kind of deceit but not exactly Romeo and Juliet either.

For me, just as the war parts of the play read as a parody of the grand heroic style of Homer and of medieval chivalric romance, the love story is a parody of medieval romance — or indeed of Romeo and Juliet.

Anyway. Questions of interpretation aside, I did enjoy the production. One of the nice things about the Globe is seeing theatre performed without the aid of lighting, amplified music and elaborate mechanised sets: just performers on a fairly plain stage in daylight having to hold the audience by, you know, acting.

Matthew Kelly played a rather camp Pandarus with a bit of a thing for Troilus, which I thought worked well to provide some explanation as to why he was setting him up with his niece. And it fitted in with the general homoeroticism of all those buff, bare-chested Greek warriors, and the possible relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

Thersites, the fool character who spends the play providing barbed commentary on the action, was played rather too broadly as a clown for my taste. It wouldn’t surprise me if the clowns and fools gave pretty broad performances in Shakespeare’s time as well — the fact that they were treated as specialist roles certainly suggests it — but I find I have a limited tolerance for gurning.

The battle scenes were a bit laboured, but I don’t know if there’s a simple solution to that, given that you don’t want the actors to actually hurt each other. I also went to see the play early in the run, and the sword-swinging may start looking a bit more natural when they’ve spent more time doing it.


Opening ceremony debrief

As I’ve said before, although I’m a  supporter of London hosting the Olympics, my big worry is that we will come up with a feeble, amateurish opening ceremony. So I watched the Chinese version with interest.

We knew they were keen to impress: well, consider me impressed. There is no way London is going to match that in terms of sheer scale and organised manpower. The Chinese put on a world class display of making-patterns-out-of-groups-of-people. So I hope we don’t even try to compete with that.

On the other hand I didn’t actually enjoy it that much. The two best bits were the spectacular opening with the massed ranks of glowing drums, and the lighting of the flame, which was a great touch of theatre. Most of the rest of it, impressive as it was, seemed a bit forgettable.

And these ceremonies always seem a bit ponderous. I appreciate that it’s physically difficult to make these huge-scale things happen quickly, and that given the amount of time and money that has gone into them they want to do them justice, but it would be great to see someone do an opening ceremony that really rattled along. Instead of an hour-long show with a great effect every four minutes, I want to see a half-hour show with a wow moment every thirty seconds. Like a finely-honed theatrical performance: if you went to the theatre to see a non-verbal performance, a dance/clowning/physical comedy type show, you would expect something to be happening all the time. I would love to see an opening ceremony that had that kind of pace to it. How do you do that for a whole stadium full of people? I don’t know.

In fact the whole ceremony could usefully be done more quickly. It’s hard to see how you could speed up the parade of the athletes, short of having them come in both ends of the stadium at once, but all the ceremony at the end — the speeches, the taking of the oaths of the athletes and judges, the carrying of the Olympic flag into the stadium, the Olympic hymn — if you could find ways to make that happen faster, without breaking with tradition too much, it would be a vast improvement. Perhaps they could carry in the Olympic flag while the speeches are going on, for example. The one part of that whole rigmarole which is a great moment is the entry of the Olympic flame; most of the rest of it is dull.

I would love the London opening ceremony to aim for exciting and fun, rather than impressive and grand. And not just because any attempt to do grand is going to look second rate compared to Beijing. London is a city of theatres: let’s put on a show. Something creative, surprising, and above all dynamic.

» Photo credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images. Taken from the official website.

Daily Links



Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

The definite article in the title seems a little hubristic. I don’t know if this is the definitive biography of Shakespeare — haven’t read any of the hundreds of others — but I certainly enjoyed it.

I don’t know if I completely trust Ackroyd as a historian; it’s probably unfair, but I just get a nagging sense sometimes that he’s a bit too fond of a good story. He has clearly done a ton of research, though, and as you’d expect he’s very good at providing historical context. And he writes well.

bar in Neuchatel, found on flickr, used under a CC licence

There’s a perception, perhaps, that we have very little historical record of Shakespeare other than the plays themselves, so if anything I was surprised by how much material there was: legal stuff, references to him in other people’s writing and so on. Certainly there’s enough to build up a broad-brush picture of his life. What there isn’t is much that is truly personal: no letters back and forth between London and Stratford, no learned essays on theatrical technique, no gossipy personal journal.

So instead of the common pattern of literary biographies, where the biographer tries to use the details of the life to shed light on the work, here it’s more often the other way round: trying to mine the plays and poems for details that might tell us something about his life. It’s all hints and scraps, and any conclusions are tentative and contingent, but it’s all quite interesting even so.

In the end, I think Shakespeare remains elusive: but then, if we knew every moment of his life, I suspect it would only serve to emphasise the fundamental mysteriousness of genius. What biographical detail could possibly be adequate as an explanation?

» Pub sign in Neuchatel, Switzerland, posted to Flickr by iwouldstay (Stefan) and used under a by-nc-sa licence.