Wonderland. Live relay from Hampstead Theatre. 26-07-14

Wonderland

Production photograph: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian.

Wonderland, Beth Hall’s new play about the 1984 miners strike has been given a wonderful production by the company at Hampstead Theatre. It needed some stagecraft to do the subject justice, as it is a huge canvas which a lesser playwright could have easily lost in muddle and cliché. By focusing in on a small group of men and allowing us to get to know their close knit community in the pit we are able to feel the personal heartbreak as their lives are torn apart. The writing is clear and very well structured and the action moves along very swiftly. Points are made and motivations are laid bare with great economy and compassion. This is an ambitious play with a very big heart. It needs to be seen in the North of England.

There are some excellent performances. I was very moved by Gunnar Cauthery as Spud, a reluctant scab, and by Paul Brennan as Colonel Deputy- a man worth far more than any of the smug, suited figures who are intent on bringing him down and taking away his livelihood. It is important that we see a slightly softer side to the implacable government in the person of Peter Walker and Andrew Havill makes him real and conflicted. Two young apprentice pitmen, Jimmy and Malcolm, are very well played by Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst and we see them learn the brutal facts of life after an idealistic start. Having said that, this is truly a company show which needs split second timing and physical skill and it is this which impresses most.

The company has been given the best chance it could possibly have to shine by Edward Hall’s direction and a spectacular set by designer Ashley Martin Davis which matches the ambition of the play and takes us both below ground and into the corridors of power. This is done by a combination of theatrical bravura as a pit lift descends, or the simplicity of a single table with a decanter of whisky on it rising up. It is wonderful to watch, often lit by little more than the headlamps of the miners and the music, strong traditional folk such as The Blackleg Miner, is sung with great feeling.

This is proper theatre, real and dynamic, a team working with enormous skill and talent to tell a part of our national story which should never be forgotten. It’s to Hampstead theatre’s credit- and to Edward Hall’s credit personally- that a company has been gathered who are able to allow a small theatre with big dreams to make work which our National companies can envy.

Henri Matisse. The Cut Outs. Tate Modern. 13-07-14

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Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013


Si je crois en dieu? Oui- quand je travaille. Je me sens tellement aide par quel qu’un qui me faire des choses qui me surpassent.

It is sometime in the early nineteen fifties. An elderly artist, no longer strong enough to paint on canvas after major surgery, is confined to his bed, or a wheelchair, and he sits in his studio cutting up pieces of coloured paper. They have been painted for him by an assistant and they are held up gently in front of him so that it is easy for him to guide his scissors, allowing him to take the lead. The walls around him are filled with the coloured forms and patterns that he has made. He does not have much time left, and he knows it, but do not feel sorry for him. He has been a great artist for many years, bold and controversial, never afraid to innovate, and while there is breath in his body he is not going to give up his creativity. This is not a poor old man whose strength has failed him being given art therapy. He has often used cut out paper shapes to allow him to design a composition before starting to paint and now he is, quite simply, inventing a new art form, producing work which shimmers and vibrates with movement and colour. Making art gives him a reason to live, as it always has, and for a while, during the act of creation, it allows an atheist to believe in God.

Matisse, Henri (1869-1954): Memory of Oceania (Sou

Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania. 1952-3 Gouache and crayon on cut-and-pasted paper over canvas MoMA Digital image: © 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

I walked around Tate Modern’s wonderful exhibition of Henri Matisse’s paper cuts in awe of the man. All around me there was work which amounted to a shout of joy at being alive. The contrast between the frail figure in video footage, filmed in his studio, and the youthful, dynamic energy of the work on the gallery walls was very moving. The core of creativity which was at his heart, his human spirit, was undimmed. Many of the images from Jazz are concerned with movement and physical energy- the joy and exhilaration of being young. Trapeze artists fly through the air, plumed horses prance, a toboggan flips up and crashes, a knife thrower is caught in the moment that he aims his knife, a creole dancer sways in full motion. Everywhere there is colour, balance and tension. Sometimes there is simple elegance too, in the flight of bees and swallows or the act of sword swallowing.

Over and over again you can see Matisse positioning, pinning, altering, until he gets the composition exactly right. It’s as if he is still there. The pins, overlays and creases are visible in a way that they are not in reproduction, something which disappointed him when they were first copied.

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Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I) 1952 Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas 106.30 x 78.00 cm Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Here is one of his most famous cut outs, the first of the blue nude series made in 1952. It is elegant, sensual and perfectly balanced. I can’t imagine changing one iota of it without destroying it- it is exactly as it needs to be. The chance to see the whole series together in the same room was a real treat.

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Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks 1953 National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1 Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

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Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946 Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

His skill and ambition grew as time went on and his cut outs grew with him. As you walk through the rooms you can feel his excitement growing as he realised what he could do with his new art form. I loved the parakeet and the mermaid, two elegant tapering silhouettes in a riot of coloured trailing pattern, made on a grand scale. The largest cut outs really do take your breath away.

The final room is devoted to a stained glass commission for the Time-Life building in New York. It is stunning, a yellow star shining out of a dark blue sky above balancing patterns suggesting a fertile landscape. We are able to see both the original design and the stained glass finished version. They are surprisingly different in feel, although the design is unchanged. Stained glass is a natural medium for the cut outs but it does change them. Subtlety is lost, replaced with a joyful blaze of light.

I have waited a long time to see these cut outs given the celebration that they deserve. People weren’t always sure what to make of them at the time they were made, but Matisse knew how good they were and he also knew that eventually other people would realise it too. The crowds making their way through the exhibition each day are proving him right. They included a lot of children. One tiny, excited little girl was being allowed to lead her mother from one work to another, a small boy was sitting in his expensive travel system, eyes lowered, playing on his ipad, while a third small girl simply lay down flat on the floor in the middle of one of the rooms hiding her face. I think they call it gallery fatigue. I hope that it would have made Matisse laugh.

Three haiku from the South Bank.

He plucks his moment,
youth and beauty held in trust.
At ease in his skin.

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Two minds with one thought
alight in each others eyes.
There is no one else.

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The city unfolds
its gift of transient life.
He drinks in the day.

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In The Moment.

In this moment
my eyes are the only ones to see
the sun lighting up the back of a Kittiwake
as it floats on the air below me,
the fizzing flight of a Burnet moth
as it spins out a path between the flowers,
and a dandelion clock trembling with fear
as it clings onto its seeds,
unwilling to die.

In this moment
my ears are the only ones to hear
the song of the Wood Warbler-
a spinning coin on a marble table-
as it shouts its existence,
the soft rustle of long summer grass
parted by a searching dog,
and the galloping joy of a stream
as it hurries to join the sea.

In this moment
my body is the only one to feel
the wandering touch of restless, salt sea air,
the swirl of the incoming tide
as it searches my boots,
and turn towards the sun
as it burns through the mist
bringing the tentative warmth
of a new day.

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A Silent Witness.

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I stood and watched this man for a while on Scarborough’s main street and he stayed quite still, exactly as you see him on the photograph, for the whole time. It was a strange sight- like something beamed down from the past. He was not trying to attract attention, just standing silent and expressionless holding his leaflet out. He had made himself into a living sculpture, an embodiment of his beliefs and fears. All around him the “blind sheeples” who he was trying to warn were hurrying past, avoiding his eye. He and his message were an encumbrance, an embarrassment, something that they would rather not think about. Wasn’t it strange people like him who boarded aeroplanes with bombs in the heel of their shoes? He does have a beard after all…….. Was he dangerous, a bit weird or just confused? Perhaps he needed help- don’t get involved, move on past. Nobody took the risk of engaging with him or, perish the thought, challenging him- you never knew what that might lead to. Anyway, whatever you thought of what he was doing it still wasn’t pleasant to be told that you were going to die- and maybe quite soon- while you were out there having a look round the shops for the afternoon. That wasn’t what you wanted to hear before you went into Poundland for your bar of chocolate. He was left to stand in the busy high street without any evidence to show him that what he was doing was in any way having the effect that he wanted. Yet still he waited. He waited just for one person to take that leaflet from his hand as they walked by. Just one.

I didn’t challenge him either, which is a shame because there were things that I really would have liked to ask him. What was it that made him trundle out his mobile sermon and take up his stand on the street week after week? Was he just representing himself or a religion of some kind? Did he have people at home who loved him? Was he happy? Most of all, how on Earth did he come up with the fact slung around his neck. Did he make it up? “Most people will die 1335 days before the end of the world.” It is astonishingly specific, but unless you actually know when the end of the world will be it will never be wrong. He can safely wear it around his neck for years.

It is easy to mock, or feel pity, but standing there alone in the face of a rush of indifference and incomprehension he is taking a considerable personal risk. There is a kind of bravery in what he is doing. Bravery which may lead to all kind of potential trouble, the kind of bravery which can sever families and wreck societies. Perhaps it is just as well that nobody takes that leaflet from his hand. You never know where it will lead.

Krapp’s Last Tape. Sheffield Crucible Studio. 03-07-14

A Sheffield Theatres ProductionKrapp's Last Tape

Richard Wilson as Krapp. Production photograph by Mark Douet.

Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

When you walk into the space it takes only a few seconds to register that the Crucible’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is going to be something very special. In the centre of the darkened space is a slowly revolving shed, perfectly detailed inside and out and cleverly designed so that we can see everything that we need to within its chaotic, cramped interior from all angles as it turns. It is surrounded by low audience benches and a ring of small round speakers suspended at knee height. Those of us at the front are within a few feet of the action. Krapp is already inside sitting in front of a battered reel to reel tape recorder- of course he is as he spends hours in there, alone with his thoughts. It is an astonishing setting for the play, created by Alex Lowde, I doubt that you will ever see a better one, so much detail and thought has gone into getting it exactly right. It almost feels as though you have already seen the drama in full as you peer in at Krapp through the windows. Becket conceived his plays as a whole theatrical package of light, sound, setting and text and that is exactly what you get from this wonderful production. Richard Wilson, who plays Krapp, must have been thrilled when he first saw it. If it wasn’t so very unfair to a fine performance I would say that half his job was already done when he sat down inside it. It is also quite beautifully and subtly lit by Hansjorg Schmidt and that really matters for this play.

Krapp has been putting his thoughts down on tape for a very long time and he has been left with a record of his younger self. This is what he has been steeling himself to explore on this, his 69th birthday. During the course of the play he listens to the tape that he made when he was 39. As we watch a bitter, disappointed man whose life has been unfulfilled listen to his younger, still hopeful self, we hear one of his opportunities for happiness being missed. It is a sombre business. Beckett is a bold, uncompromising writer who leaves us no room for consolation. We all share Krapp’s predicament as the spool of our life slowly runs out and those of us who are old enough can feel the pang of our own hurts and missed opportunities as we watch him struggle with his past. In an age where many lives are being recorded on social media in ever more detail, every meal photographed, every hope set down, every slight revenged, Beckett’s play, written over fifty years ago, has great resonance. In the future many people will be able to look back at their young selves in what may well be horrifying detail. You can’t rewrite your past to suit your own ideas of what you would have liked it to be when the truth is staring you in the face. In allowing himself to face his younger self Krapp performs an act of great bravery and self examination.

Beckett is a very precise, economical writer who has provided every detail needed, but he also makes great demands on his actor. The clues are all there in the text and the stage directions, but it is up to the actor to bring them to the surface and show the thought processes of the man. Richard Wilson does this impeccably. You can see the thoughts chasing across his face and this makes every moment quite mesmerising to watch. I don’t think that there was a single moment where I didn’t feel that I knew what was going on inside his head.

Polly Findlay, Alex Lowde and above all Richard Wilson as Krapp have joined forces to give us, quite simply, as good an account of Samuel Beckett’s great writing as you are ever likely to see. A young man who left the theatre alongside me was saying to his friends, “That was quite remarkable” and that is exactly the right word. This is a piece of true theatre that leaves you a different person after seeing it, a short, intense time spent in another place. You had to be there…….. and I will never forget that I was.

Henry IV Part Two. RSC. live relay from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Jim Hooper, Antony Sher and Oliver Ford-Davies as Justice Silence, justice Shallow and Sir John Falstaff. Production photograph by Tristram Kenton.

In Henry IV part one we have seen the excitement and tension of a rush towards civil war, in which a feckless prince faces up to his duty and proves himself to be a hero. It has a strong, single narrative drive and it races along, laced with a good deal of humour, towards a thrilling single combat between two bitter rivals, Hal and Hotspur. Henry IV part two is a much darker, more sombre play in which we see the consequences of that war, broken families, heartbreak, disillusionment and a country in crisis. There is humour still, but it is melancholy and wistful. It contains some of the best scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote and sets the political against the nakedly personal in a way that allows them to shed light on each other. Ideally the two should be seen together and usually they are.

After enjoying his performance in part one I was looking forward to seeing Jasper Britton play one of my favourite scenes in all Shakespeare, Henry IV’s blistering attack on Hal, and he didn’t let me down. It was a heartfelt, visceral performance. I just wish that he had been given a Hal with a bit more fire to play against. It is both a key moment for the nation and a portrait of every father and son who were ever disappointed in each other and it takes two.

Antony Sher and Paola Dionisotti make the most of their opportunities to develop their characters in part two. Sher is a fine Falstaff who plays the cynicism of the character particularly well. Paola Dionisotti is a great Mistress Quickly, funny and poignant, and she makes the most of the greater opportunities for the character that she is given later in the plays.

Antony Byrne put in the necessary barnstorming comic performance as Pistol but I wasn’t convinced that he was also dangerous and I think that you need to be.


In the Gloucestershire scenes Shakespeare is on home ground, writing about a setting that he knows well. There is a lot of pathos and some broad comedy for the actors to relish and they are beautifully done in this production. Oliver Ford-Davies is both funny and touching as Justice Shallow, bringing all his experience to bear, and together with Jim Hooper’s marvelous Justice Silence, he provides an object lesson in perfect theatrical timing and truthfulness. Just the kind of acting I relish.

A lovely production with a lot to enjoy. There were a few weaknesses too, for me, but the strengths more than made up for them and I am left looking forward to the next time.