Posts Tagged ‘Barbican’

Review – Peer Gynt – National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble at the Barbican

May 3, 2009

On Thursday night J and I went to the Barbican to see the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble‘s production of Peer Gynt. I was excited about this show for two main reasons. First, I love Ibsen, and I have never seen Peer Gynt before. Second, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch was supposed to be one of the theatrical events last year, and since I’d missed out on it, I wanted to see just what made this company’s work so outstanding. High hopes, eh? And I’d managed to score 8th row center seats, probably the best I’ve ever had at the Barbican.

The stage is fully opened and very bare as the story starts. The Barbican’s main stage is just a barn, and it really makes it difficult to get an intimacy to the proceedings with the 50 foot tall rafters looming above. A table and a chair or two stood in front of what looked like a billboard of the fjords of Norway; to the sides, a lowered area held chairs and what looked like about 16 people (8 on each side), sitting in chairs, who appeared to be fresh from a wedding party or hen do (the trampy clothing of the woman were confusing me but one woman was in her bridal gear); behind the wall a ramp led some two stories up from the rest of the proceedings, to a platform that looked like rather a drop to the floor below. In front of the billboard, a man dressed all in white (Cliff Burnett, sort of a cross between Nick Cave and Colonel Sanders) was playing an accordion, but he moved off stage as Peer Gynt (Keith Fleming in a tour-de-force performance) appeared, being bawled out by his old mom (Ann Louise Ross) for disappearing on a bender.

Peer Gynt looks to be an out of shape man in his middle 20s, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his character is truly a touchstone of Western play writing. I can’t speak to Ibsen’s original, but this Gynt was a grandiose drunk prone to big dreams (singing “Peer Gynt the emperor” to a tune by the Pet Shop Boys) and telling ridiculous stories to mask his shortcomings. And his shortcomings are many; no job, no girlfriend, mocked by the town (played by the wedding guests, who make snorting noises when they see him), his family’s money dwindling around him. His mom wants him to use his limited charms to actually pull the only girl in town who likes him enough to marry him, just to save her from financial ruin; but Gynt is terminally incapable of following through on any plan, even if it’s only one that would take a few hours to execute.

What he does truly excel at is storytelling, even if it’s clear that the yarns he spins are nothing but lies, tales he’s often heard elsewhere and then tried to sell as his own (as he is caught doing several times). He starts the play out taking his mom on a magic reindeer ride (on the top of a spotlit table), telling her how he rode one across hill and dale and finally down over the edge of a cliff, plunging through clouds of seagulls as he fell, a moment of storytelling and dramatic imagery that actually set the wrong stage for the evening, as this was the very best moment of the entire play, when two people standing on a table created a forest with trees and giant stags in my mind simply through their words, and nothing that happened for the rest of this evening, an evening focused on spectacle over drama, would come near it.

I want to emphasize just how much of a spectacle this evening was. I saw many things I’d never seen on a stage before: a hanged man disco-dancing; a person having a near-death experience in a plane while being seduced by a demon; the lead character being sexually assaulted by a person in a gorilla suit; a woman giving birth to a wriggling piglet. I mean, WOW, there was so much going on stage – so much that I lost my ability to care about anything I was watching around about the second hour (despite going, “Wow, never seen that before. How long is this play again?”).

Peer Gynt, touchstone of Western drama that he is, is a hard character to like, as all anti-heroes are, but I felt like I should have been more emotionally invested in what was happening to and around him. But I couldn’t rouse myself to care about Gynt any more than he could rouse himself to fix his life. The pretty girl he loved, the strange journey through his future, all of the madness with trolls … none of it moved me. It’s like somehow amidst the cavernous spaces of the Barbican’s stage, the story just got lost. Maybe it was hiding under a pile of trolls. Really, I didn’t care; I just wanted it to be over, or to get interesting again, but it didn’t happen.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by this show, even while I was occasionally impressed by its scale and vision. But like Gynt himself, Peer Gynt would have benefited from focusing on having a focus instead of flailing all over the place in a desperate attempt to make and be something grand. At three hours and eight minutes running time, it just doesn’t reward its investment. I’ll be waiting for a real production to come by and advising people to skip this.

(This review is for a show on Thursday the 30th of April, 2009. It continues through May 16th. For other opinions, see < ahref=”http://www.viewfromthestalls.co.uk/2007/10/peer-gynt-october-2007.html&#8221;)View from the Stalls and the London Theatre Blog.

Review – Romeo Castellucci’s Inferno and Paradiso – Barbican (Spill Festival) – and Alain de Botton “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”

April 2, 2009

Tonight J and I went to the Barbican to see Romeo Castelluci’s Inferno and, earlier in the day, his Paradiso. (Sadly I won’t be seeing Purgatorio, as I’ll be out of town the days it’s being performed.) I’m really into performance art, and I was excited after reading an article in the Guardian about it (which I’ll link to when I can find it). It sounded deliciously experimental, multi-media as all get-out, and full of really rich imagery.

Well … it is loud, and there is neon, and there are dogs, small children, and a horse on stage, not to mention a burning piano. So there are certainly lots of rich images, such as said children in a mirrored box that starts out looking like the Qa’aba (covered in black cloth), being observed by Andy Warhol. And there is a final image of a black sun slowly rising over a black wall, in a lovely sort of vision of the end of the world. But … so much of it seemed like sound and fury. Yes, Castellucci is attacked by dogs, and then goes to don a German shepherd’s skin (which later forms part of the costume of a sort of suburban American Mononoke), and a skull is crushed by a giant wall, and about forty people mime cutting each other’s throats until only one is left alive (in a scene worthy of Thomas Middleton), so there is really a LOT to look at, but nothing to care about.

But unfortunately, other than seeing this as some kind of freakish homage to Andy Warhol, I just wasn’t able to be amazed by this work despite the tremendous effort put into creating it. Yes, the three people crouching beside a dead body looked like the soldiers sleeping while Christ rolls aside the rock, but that’s just not enough for me. I didn’t see any real emotion in all of this. I mean, gosh, in the end, I wondered if my initial thought, the one I had when the curtains of the black cube were drawn away and the lights in the house were raised (so that what we saw reflected in the cube was us, the audience), was correct – that hell is being stuck in a theater with 1500 other people who aren’t really having a good time, in which case I suppose Inferno was a far cleverer show than I thought it to be.

Our conclusion was that chopping about 15 more minutes off of it (it was only about an hour and twenty minutes) would probably get the snappiness right up there and make this a much better production, but … I just don’t think that’s really likely. Still, it seems likely to be a cultural touchstone of sorts, and I expect I’ll be seeing pictures of it for years to come. (Pictures here from The Guardian – you can see how it caught my eye. Another review available at the Teenage Theatre Critis‘s blog.)

Paradiso was actually cool as shit, another cube but this time about three stories tall and gleaming white, with a tiny entrance. We had to go through a black circle into a darkened and extremely humid room beyond – which was really making me think about all of that “going into the tunnel” stuff you hear about near death experiences, but also is very reminiscent of birth imagery – where, when my eyes adjusted, I could see a pale little body two-thirds of the way up the wall, about half way out and sort of fighting as if he wanted to make it through. Water was coming out of the hole, running down the wall, and splashing on the floor. Every now and then the guy would make little agonized noises, making me think of Sisyphus or Tantalus, suffering away for a lifetime of sins.

It was difficult for me to see this as Paradise (despite the extensive notes we received upon our exit), but it was a fantastic, intense, visceral experience that brought to mind Bruce Nauman or James Turrell. Sadly, after waiting 15 minutes for our turn to be let into the room, we only spent about five minutes there – nothing was really going to happen, we had “got it,” and my partner was suffering some pretty severe neck agony due to an earlier accident that made me think we should get him back home if there was any chance of making it back for Inferno that night.

Oddly the big winner of the evening for me was Alain de Botton, who gave a talk at the National Theatre focusing on his new work, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Now, I am not a good person to write neutrally about Mr. de Botton, as I spent two years plowing through Proust and developing rather a personal relationship with the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, and after this great effort I have come to believe de Botton is the only person who’s had anything intelligent to say about Proust’s writings (which is rather like being 15 and saying some rock band really gets my angst). On the other hand, God knows my time spent in darkened rooms listening to total strangers drone on has proven to me I can be disappointed by anything.

This, however, did not happen. De Botton had interesting things to say about why people don’t enjoy work (“They’re not supposed to, but they think they are, so they’re dissatisfied”), why workplaces are bizarre (“They put policies in place to make sure you continue to value making money over, say, having sex with your coworkers”), what work says about us as a society (“It’s a good thing that people have jobs no one can understand, at least according to those that judge a society’s evolution by how specialized its workers can be”) and the biscuit industry (“Of all of the people at XYZ biscuit company involved in the design of the Biscuit Alpha, not a single one of them knows how to bake”). He only talked for about 35 minutes but I was fascinated by everything that came out of his mouth. I mean, I know he was shilling his book, but he was great! He sounded like he’d actually really learned something interesting about work. And he’s right – we spend so much of our lives there, we should really be thinking about what’s going on. And he made me think.

I found it especially interesting to listen to someone lecture an audience on a point I’d learned long ago, that it’s perfectly fine to expect work to not provide you with fulfillment, and just with money (and then call himself a cynic, which I suppose everyone who knows me thinks I am). I long ago decided that when it came to work, I was going to look, not for my “true love,” but for my “good enough” – something that didn’t aggravate me and stress me out but provided me with enough money to make the rest of my life okay.

So go, Alain, you were my big hit of the day, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting a copy of his book and regretting not going for an autograph after the show – didn’t want to embarrass myself with squealing like a 15 year old, after all. But gosh, I wish I could work for or with him. At least I realize my dream of being a paid theater critic is not nearly as reachable as my dream of making enough money to go see lots of shows – as long as I keep to those upper balcony seats.

(This review was for shows seen on Thursday, April 2nd. All quotes by de Botton are approximate as I was not taking notes. My apologies for the long gap between this article and my next one, but I’m heading to Sicily for the next 12 days and will not be watching shows!)

Review – Twelfth Night -Shochiku Grand Kabuki at the Barbican

March 30, 2009

On Saturday night J and I went to the Barbican to see the Shochiku Grand Kabuki’s production of Twelfth Night. I hadn’t been to a Shakespearean play in such proximity to having viewed a different version before, but it meant I was very much on top of the story of Viola, Olivia, Orsino, and Maria. (My usual limit is about once per year per play, so no “two Hamlets in six months” no matter who the star is.)

The reason why I broke this guideline was because of my overwhelming interest in seeing a professional, top level Kabuki company without travelling to Japan. I went in 2001 to the Kabuki-za in Tokyo and fell in love with the performance style as well as the whole atmosphere of the Kabuki experience. I loved the fun snacks that you could sit and eat during the show (salted soybeans! Yum!) and the way the audience members would shout out the name of a favored actor at just the perfect moment, when it was completely silent, and yet somehow at a point where they were not interrupting the dramatic action. It was like being at a sports match, somehow, much more informal and fan-based than English language theater. Thus when I heard there would be an opportunity to see Real Live Kabuki in London I jumped on it – but not nearly soon enough as I was only able to get tickets in the third balcony, rather claustrophobically squeezed under the oppressive overhang of the Barbican Theatre’s upper level of sound proofing.

Still (as I stumbled across the legs of about twenty people on my way in), the sightlines from our center seats were quite good, and thankfully the show started a little bit late (as shows at the Barbican often will), so we were just settled in our seats as the first CLICK! of the orchestra marked the start of the production.

The curtain rose on a gorgeous, simple scene of three small children singing (atrociously, who thought this was a good idea?) between a harpsichord and a platform with a few Japanese musicians on it. Behind them a huge weeping cherry tree gently shed petals on the ground – so appropriate for Orsino (Nakamura Kinnosuke II)’s speech about Olivia (Nakamura Tokizo V) wasting her youth in mourning for her father and her brother!

Then came the moment I had been waiting for: the storm scene! Not only was I expecting this to be the most exciting stagecraft, it was when I first got an eyeful of Onoe Kikunosuke V, playing both Viola and Sebastian. A full-sized ship (well, a bit small, but still, it was quite large, at least the size of a canal barge) rolled onto stage, the cloth waves rushing ahead of it, like real waves will, our hero as Sebastian in the prow. Kikunosuke then called his sister, ran into the hold, and returned in about one minute completely outfitted as a woman! The switches were amazingly fast, and I kept thinking of Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap – how did he do it! When the storm broke and high waves (cloth, again) started breaking, it all just got wilder and wilder, with Viola looking piteously out of a window in the hold. Eventually the mast of the ship broke, and we got to see Sebastian pulled beneath the waves. It was even more fun than Le Corsaire and made me wonder how anyone could get so excited about Miss Saigon‘s silly helicopter when you could see this instead. I was in love!

After this we had rather a lot of scenes that all seemed quite familiar, most of them set on one side or another of a gorgeous Japanese country house, with wooden platforms out front (perfect for receiving messengers) and large rooms in back (as the set revolved). Mirrors painted with flowers at the rear of the homes served to mark the homes of Orsino (lotus) and Olivia (iris) quite nicely. Of course, there were lots of cultural differences – Olivia’s veil covered her entire upper body, and Maria (Ichikawa Kamerjiro II, perfectly hysterical) veiled herself at well; and when Olivia went outside, two maids preceeded her and set up the platform with a headrest for her to use. However, “cultural differences” did not change the ultimate flavor of any of it, and made the drunken party scene (with Feste, who along with Malvolio was played by Onoe Kikugoro VII, Maria, Belch and Aguecheek – Nakamura Kanjaku) even more fun, with sake drinking all around and some quite hysterical drunken Japanese-style dancing (which seemed both extremely formal and just utterly over the top). Watching Maria crawl across the stage on her belly while Malvolio chewed Belch and Aguecheek out was great – upstaging epitomized! – and made me completely fail to pay attention to the dialogue (not that Malvolio had much to say until this point anyway). It was a great lead-in to the “let’s avenge ourselves against him” plotting and left me pretty psyched about the second half of the show. And, somehow, they managed to get the obligatory graphical illustration of Elizebethan humor thanks to a well-placed sake jug. (I suppose this is just too juicy to pass on even in Japan, but still, one hopes.)

This, however, was not to be, as, after an hour and a half, my companion declared himself too worn out to continue unless I was really, really determined to stay. And … well … I did actually know how it ended … and I’d just seen it a month ago … and we had seen an hour and a half’s worth of it even though I thought it went pretty fast … so I agreed to leave. He wasn’t hating it but it was my treat to him and if he wanted to get home earlier, well, it was only fair to concede as it wouldn’t cost me too much, especially since I felt like I’d already got back the price of my ticket.

I only really had two complaints about the show. First, too much of the text wasn’t translated, leaving us with long spaces where the actors nattered on and we English-speakers stared blankly at the supertitles, wondering what all we were missing out on. Second, while Olivia conducted herself perfectly as a noblewoman (as near as I could tell), Nakamura Tokizo just sounded so very elderly it made it difficult for me to buy Olivia as a being of outstanding beauty wasting away her youth. These were mostly small complaints, though. What I did not have to complain about was the heavily Japanese audience, which meant we had genuine shout-outs to the actors happening during the show and the pleasure of a hall full of women in kimono and obi during the interval. Truly, on this evening, it felt like spring had come to London, both on stage and off.

(This review is for the final performance of this show, which took place on Saturday, September 28th, 2009. Other reviews: The Independent, The Guardian (not much of a review, really), The Telegraph, ThisIsLondon (with a great picture of Malvolio in his “yellow garters”), and Phillip Fisher’s review in The British Theatre Guide.)

Best (Top Ten +) cheap restaurants in London’s West End Theatre-land

March 2, 2009

Going to the theater twice a week can really leave a hole in your budget, even if, like me, you dial down your costs by sticking to nose-bleed seats and £10 shows at the National. Add to this the cost of meals out, and WHOOSH! There goes your budget!

However, I make penny pinching into a sport, and keeping down food costs is a big deal to me. After four years of London theater watching, I’ve got several restaurants* I make regular visits to on show nights. This is my overview of the best cheap eats to be found in London’s theater-land, from Covent Garden, Leicester Square, and Shaftesbury Avenue, to the South Bank, and all the way out to Islington, Hammersmith, and Dalston – and a real and genuine summary of the places I go to have a pre-show dinner over and over again.

All times included are walking distances, based on a brisk Londoner-style walk from the front door of the restaurant to the front door of the theater. Allow additional time if you haven’t picked up your tickets, need to go up three flights of stairs to get to your seats, and of COURSE if you are having a hard time getting the waiter to give you your bill!

Theater Neighborhoods & Best Cheap Restaurants (click neighborhood for details)
Covent Garden (Royal Opera House, London Coliseum, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Noel Coward Theatre etc): Battersea Pie Station, Pepe Italian Street Food, Lupita, Chando’s Opera Room (drinks only), Gelatorino (dessert)
Leicester Square/Shaftesbury Avenue (Wyndhams, London Hippodrome, Lyric, Apollo, Gielgud, Queen’s, etc. – I consider this the “West End” proper, more theatres than I can type): choose from nearby options, or Taro, the Baozi Inn or Flatiron (see below).
South “West End” (Theatre Royal Haymarket, Criterion, Comedy Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre): Assaggetti (corporate but quick and reasonably priced); Flatiron Steak House (DEELISH but must be there at 6).
North-“West End” and Soho Square (Dominion, Shaftesbury, Soho Theatre, Palladium): Enrique Tomas ham emporium, Thai Cottage, Pitt Cue Co, Inamo, Icco Pizza
Southbank and Waterloo, a.k.a. the Deep South “West End” (National Theatre, Old Vic, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Young Vic, Southwark Playhouse): Culture Grub, Waterloo or Southbank Wahaca, Mar Y Tierra
Sloane Square i.e. the Southwest “West End” (Royal Court, Cadogan Hall): La Bottega
Islington i.e. the slightly east West End (Sadler’s Wells, Almeida): Masala Zone, Oregano Pizzeria, Banana Tree Canteen, Tenshi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar
Hammersmith, a.k.a. the Way-out West End (Lyric Hammersmith, Hammersmith Apollo): Akash Tandoor
The Barbican, a.k.a. the slightly East West End (Barbican Theater, Guildhall Music School, Silk Street Theatre): Amico Bio (at Barbican station), Grab Thai food (near Old Street station)
Hackney and Dalston a.k.a. the Far-east West End (Hackney Empire, Arcola): 19 Numara Bos Cirrik
Southeast West End Docklands/Wapping/South End (Wilton’s Music Hall): “Bon Appetit” Lebanese restaurant (133 Leman Street, really very close and in a neighborhood that’s a bit of a wasteland)
Far-northern West End (Tricycle): Small & Beautiful
Far-southern East End (aka Greenwich) (Greenwich Theatre): Goddards at Greenwich
Far-southern off West End (Landor): Alba Pizzeria

Covent Garden (east West End, including the Noel Coward, Duke of Yorks, Royal Opera House and London Coliseum – 5 minutes, Theatre Royal Drury Lane – 8 minutes, Aldwych and Novello – 10 minutes): new to the fold and close to my heart is Pepe Italian street food, across the street from the Noel Coward and in spitting distance of the London Coliseum (and the Duke of York’s). It’s got some of the best pizza in London, and while £4 a slice seems steep, it’s so damned good (and a meal with a side salad, about £2.50) that I don’t care. In addition they have these crazy sandwiches called piadina (£5.50 ish) made with an ultra puffy, tortilla like bread that just becomes heaven with melted mozzarella inside. I’m drooling just thinking about it. Bonus: everything served in 2-5 minutes – if you arrive at Leicester Square Tube at 7 for a 7:30 show, you’re safe.

Your best option if you want to eat right in Covent Garden is the Battersea Pie Station, in the basement of Covent Garden. Why? Imagine this: you have about 15 minutes to eat before you go to your show (say, for example, Shrek the Musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 10 minute walk) but don’t want a cold sandwich. If there’s no line, you can order a small pie and mash (with gravy) for 5.25 and be eating a nice hot meal in 5 minutes. I kid you not. They have veggie as well as meat options, and while I don’t want pie all the time, if you’re looking for a pleasant hot meal you just can’t beat this place for price and speed.

A favorite from 2011 is Mexican food hole-in-the-wall Lupita (13 Villiers Street, WC2N 6ND, Villiers Street exit from Charing Cross Station, London Coliseum, Noel Coward and Duke of York Theatres – 8 minutes, ROH – 12 minutes), which has totally eclipsed overpopular and loud Wahaca despite the lack of mole (a kind of Mexican curry sauce). Lupita is real Mexican style and not TexMex, with tiny flat tacos, fresh guacamole, burritos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches). One burrito or two of the small plates (tacos, tostadas, quesadillas – please eat with your hands and don’t embarrass yourself), and for about £10 you are out the door. Personal favorites: queso fundido with chorizo (God’s gift to my tummy) and quesadilla with squash blossoms (it’s just super tasty and weird, I love it!). Arrive at 6 and your dinner is secure, and you’ll even have time for a margarita – but only one: any more is NOT a good plan when you’ve got a night of opera ahead of you.

A former favorites, though still good if you haven’t eaten there weekly for a few years, is the Bedford Street Paul. Though this is a chain, the lovely French meals available in this sit-down location are well priced and tasty, the atmosphere pleasant, and service is generally fast. The bread is the best I have found in London and makes the meal extra-yummy. A friend of mine usually gets the soup of the day and then splurges on a dessert, which isn’t a bad plan. They suffer from long lines around 6:30, but even at 6:45 you may be able to eat, get out at 7:20, and make your show at the ROH provided you jog across the market and bullet your way up the stairs at the Opera House. God knows I’ve done it many times!

While I won’t recommend pubs for dinner, Chando’s Opera Room (29 St. Martins Lane, WC2N 4ER) is my preferred location for a cheap pint in the neighborhood. Since they’re a Sam Smith pub, they have the delicious Sam Smith cider on tap. If you’re going for “bringing your own,” this is a great place to have a drink to wash it down with – or wait for people before you to go a show together. (Note: be sure to go upstairs as this is where the action is. It’s a gorgeous pub with lots of windows. I love it!)

Finally, if you just want a fast, filling delicious scoop of ice cream, Gelatorino opened in May 2011 at 2 Russell Street (WC2B 5JD) between the Royal Opera House and the Theater Royal Drury Lane, and I can recommend it as an ideal cool down and cream up – speaking as a person who’s made it a life goal to find the best gelato anywhere.

Leicester Square (Wyndhams, London Hippodrome – 3 minutes; Shaftesbury Avenue – 5 minutes): this area is a diner’s wasteland. Pick one of my options nearby and add walking time, or roll the dice and go for Chinese. And I’ve finally found one I like: the Baozi Inn, on the little alley behind Shaftesbury. Cash only, £8 minimum, fantastic, traditional Chinese food. For those of you at the Palace Theater, Taro (10 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TF), a Japanese food restaurant, has cheapie prices and quickie service and a tasty, unpretentious menu. Don’t kill your wallet with sushi, get a chicken teriyaki don for £5.90. At these prices I can promise you’ll be back later.

South “West End” (Haymarket Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre – 3 minutes; Comedy Theatre – 5 minutes; Criterion Theatre – 8 minutes): my former favorite Galileo’s Locanda Toscana has been replaced by a corporate Italian joint, Assagetti, at the same address, 71 Haymarket (SW1Y 4RW). I hate the stools and the fake charm but they’ve got the speed thing down and you can get three small dishes for £11.25 and still make it to the Haymarket – or over to Shaftesbury Avenue – with time to spare. (And if you were looking for a place where you could get fifty or so people in, their basement space is huge.) However, I’m too picky about my Italian to come here again.

On the other hand if you’re feeling brave and you’re willing to plunge into the heart of Soho, walk straight up Sherwood street, past the Picadilly Theater and the back side of Whole Foods, along Golden Square until you get to Beak Street (go left!), home of the brilliant Flat Iron Steak House, my cheap eats find for 2014. £10 for a steak with a side salad and some popcorn to nibble on I KID YOU NOT (other sides £3-£4ish). Trick is you need to be there at 6 sharp (or earlier) if there’s any chance of you getting a seat as they don’t take reservations and fill up fast. But it’s SO WORTH IT as the steak is always EXCELLENT. And they usually have some other kind of special like a burger or a different cut of steak. Once you’re sat down, you can order, eat and leave in about 30 minutes, which is a kind of a dream for me but also as a theater goer gives you time to get to your show. So if you’re seeing anything on Shaftesbury or near Haymarket, just do it because this restaurant ROCKS. Book of Mormon AND STEAK! Dirty Dancing AND STEAK! Les Miserables AND STEAK! I mean, hey, if you’re working £15 tickets, why not make it £25 and say AND I HAD STEAK!

North-“West End” and Soho Square (Dominion and Shaftesbury): I will often come eat here and then make the trek further south, leaving the restaurant at 7:10 or so depending on distance. Best options are:
Enrique Tomas, a “jamon iberico” ham emporium selling fantastic cheap sarnies for about £3.50 a shot if you go for the cheap stuff. It’s not entirely a meal, but OMG ham it’s just like being in Spain. Perfectly situated for the Soho Theater and if you want a big meal you can grab one after your show, or get a cupcake from Hummingbird Bakery (across the street) or Gails (next door).
Thai Cottage, fondly known as “Five Alarm Thai” (34 D’arblay St, London, W1F 8EX) – With lunches and pre-theater dinners for around £7, and the food all made in the kitchen by granny, this one gets visits from me any time I’m near Soho Square/Tottenham Court Road.

Not exactly cheap but absolutely awesome is the Pitt Cue Co, very conveniently located near the London Palladium (1 Newburgh St, W1F 7RG near to Oxford Circus). Their barbeque is not just good, it’s world class, and I’ve had barbeque all over Kansas, Texas, and Mississippi, not to mention nearly every other state in the US I’ve been to. However, their 6 PM opening time may not give you enough time to make a 7:30 show, so perhaps you should consider it for a matinee on a Saturday, or just a dreamy night of barbeque. MMM mmm MMM!

Inamo (134 Wardour Street, W1F 8ZR) – this amusing restaurant can be very competitive to get a seat at, but with a £10.00 pre-theater menu that neither my husband nor I could finish (baby back ribs, kakiage, homemade pickles, rice and edamame), it’s utterly worth the effort. To top it off, the interior is SO cute and the “touch your table to place your order” gimmick is fun and seems to result in getting your food much faster than it would at any normal joint. No need for faffing – just tap the table and BOOM people come brink you food. You can even watch them making it on a video cam that projects in front of you!

Speaking of Thai, AVOID AT ALL COSTS the “all you can eat Vegan Thai food” joints springing up all over London like poop in a park on a sunny day. I’ve been to Tai Buffet and Tai Veg and the quality was EXCEEDINGLY poor. Frankly I would have rather not had all you can eat and just had one thing I WANTED to eat besides the dried seaweed.

Icco Pizza (46 Goodge Street, W1T 4LU) – add an extra 5 minutes for any destination but with pizzas between £4 and £5 this may be worth the hike for you.

Southbank and Waterloo (National Theatre, Old Vic, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Young Vic): while the National Theatre can actually feed you for about £5 at their downstairs cafe, clever theater goers will instead head to Culture Grub, halfway betweeen the Young and Old Vic (84 The Cut London SE1 8LW). Their ultra-discount Chinese plates are filling and served in about three minutes – a real gift if you were held up at work but still want more than a packet of crisps before the interval. Or you might want to go for some speedy Mexican at Wahaca’s Waterloo location (101 Waterloo Road SE1 8UL), cunningly located directly across the street from Waterloo’s big tube entrance. They also have a location right on the Southbank, though this location has shorter lines and is closer to the Vics. But if you’ve made it to Southwark Playhouse, it’s impossible for you to not go to Mar I Tierra, the most perfect tapas place I could ever dream of finding. It’s the kind of place that makes you pick your theater based on your food. You can rack up a big bill if you want but you can also get a bowl of gazpacho, some olives, and a cheese plate for around £10, though if you can resist a jug of sangria you’re made of stronger stuff than me. There’s a menu of daily specials and OH the garden. What a joy!

Sloane Square i.e. the Southwest “West End” (Royal Court, Cadogan Hall): Now that the Royal Court is the new Donmar (and just don’t they have great deals on tickets for their shows!), it’s important for the frugal theater-goer to have a nearby dining option. I’m delighted with the La Bottega (65 Lower Sloane Street, SW1W 8HD, 5 minutes to Royal Court, 10 minutes to Cadogan Hall), which, even though it closes at 8PM, is still open at good hours for pre-show diners. Sadly, their hours are much shorter on weekends (6 PM close Saturdays, 5 PM Sundays), but them’s the breaks.

Slightly east West End, aka Islington (Sadler’s Wells, Almeida): the obvious cheap choice for Sadler’s Wells attendees is the Garden Court Cafe, located at the Lilian Baylis entrance to the theater. The menu is limited but with hot mains around 7 quid and sandwiches for four, this is the best and closest option – and especially convenient for weekend matinees. Bonus: free wifi!

Masala Zone (80 Upper Street, N1 0NU, 8 minutes to Almeida, 15 to Sadler’s Wells) has a pre-theatre dinner combo for under £10. Oregano Pizzeria (St. Alban’s Place, N1 0NX, right around the corner from Masala Zone so same distances) makes real, Italian style pizza in a proper oven and has tasty, affordable pastas, though beef and seafood hits the over £10 mark. I’d also recommend it for a sit down and relax kind of meal if you don’t have theatre tickets hanging over your head. Finally, Banana Tree Canteen (412 St. John Street, EC1V 4NJ, 8 minutes to Sadlers, Wells, 15-20 to the Almeida) serves up nice cheap plates and bowls of Thai and Malaysian food and has an early-bird dinner deal for about £8, starter and main. They are cheap and good enough to warrant a visit to on a normal basis, since their available any time “combo plate” is only £8.95 and includes one of many mains, rice, and two sides so is a complete screaming deal. Note that it’s best if you aren’t too fussed about having really authentic Oriental food (it’s still miles above Wagamama and their Laksa rocks the house) and don’t mind the occasionally lame service.
Tenshi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi bar
(61 Upper Street). I made it here during the Flamenco festival and wound up going three times in two weeks – the truly authentic Japanese food (almost all under £10, sushi and non-fish food both available) really worked for me. Shame they don’t have beef teriyaki but vegetarian options are available – but note they close between 3 and 6PM.
Way-out West End, aka Hammersmith (Lyric Hammersmith, Hammersmith Apollo): Akash Tandoor (177 King Street, W6 9JT). I highly recommend their 20 quid two person combo – it’s an eight minute walk to the Lyric but SUCH a better option pricewise than Chula!

Barbican and Old Street (Barbican, Silk Street Theater, etc.): If you want some really good Italian food before you go to a show at the Barbican and don’t want to break your budget, Amico Bio (44 Cloth Fair London EC1A 7JQ ) has incredibly tasty food and a price point that will make your eyes glitter. At about £7 for an entree, it’s a perfect place to show up at for an antipasto and a main and still be able to leave without having even spent a tenner. They are literally five minutes walk from the tube (but print a map out at this neighborhood is very medieval) but it will take you 15 very brisk minutes to get back on the highwalk and in the Barbican theater so leave time. HIGHLY recommended especially given how overpriced and pants the Barbican’s house restaurants are.

If you’re really going for cheap, you might also try Grab Thai food (about 5 steps south of Old Street station at 5 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4AQ), where you can get a small pot of curry and rice for under £5, but they close at 7PM on weekdays so you need to move fast. Still, if it’s sunny you can get it to go and eat it at the waterpark in the middle of the Barbican, which would be just VERY nice.

Far-east West End (Hackney Empire, Arcola): two different neighborhoods, one restaurant with locations in both: 19 Numara Bos Cirrik (Dalston branch at 34 Stoke Newington Road, Dalston, N16 7XJ, Hackney at 1-3 Amhurst Road, E8 1LL). Free starters, piles of food for cheap, occasional flying charcoal bits turning your table into a barbeque grill, YUM! In fact, this restaurant is so good, it’s made me start going to the Arcola more.

Southeast West End Docklands/Wapping/South End (Wilton’s Music Hall): “Bon Appetit” Lebanese restaurant (133 Leman Street, really very close and in a neighborhood that’s a bit of a wasteland). The food here is really good (it’s mostly reproduced here) and it’s within about six steps of Wilton’s, so if you find yourself in this tremendously underserved area and hungry, give it a try. It’s not worth a separate trip but it’s definitely tasty and can hold its head up high no matter where the location.

Far North West End (Tricycle): Small & Beautiful. About five doors up from the Tricycle, this restaurant is a tightwad’s dream come true. Most of the entrees were around 5 quid, the starters were about 2, and I was able to get a glass of decent wine for 2.50 – our total for two (with one glass of wine) was 16 quid. And the food was yummy and attractively presented. After the horrible experience I had at the African restaurant down the street, this will be my new home in Kilburn henceforth, possibly encouraging me to brave the great Northern unknown more frequently.

Greenwich (Greenwich Theater): on a corner of the Greenwich Market is the wonderful “Goddards at Greenwich,” a traditional pie and mash shop that’s been running since 1890. Like most traditional pie and mash places, you can feed yourself for under £5 and tea is less than a quid. It’s about ten minutes from the rail station but only five minutes from the theater. Highly recommended if you’re on the way to the annual panto!

Clapham North (Landor Pub Theater): NOVEMBER 2014 update: either remodeling or closed, will let you know! Directly across from the quieter street flanking the Clapham North tube station, Alba pizzeria is THE place to go for a quick and decent meal before a show at the Landor. On Mondays and Tuesdays (I think) they do a “pizza and a glass of wine” deal for 10 quid, but this isn’t the draw: it’s the fact that their pizza is good, really good. I mean, who cares about the deal? Truth is that their wine is cheaper than the Landor anyway and there’s a much better selection, so just eat here before the show and have a glass of wine to boot. The house at the Landor doesn’t open until ten minutes before curtain anyway so no reason to rush.

*Sure, you can always pack a meal, buy bread and cheese at the store, get a quick (overpriced) sandwich at Pret, find a pasty (this is actually not the worst thing to do if you want to stick under £4, and there is a Cornish Pasty shop cunningly located in Covent Garden), or go to some chain pizza joint. But I want a good meal, something I actually enjoy.

Review – Merce Cunningham Dance Company – CRISES, XOVER and BIPED – Barbican Centre

October 2, 2008

Last night my husband and I went to see Merce Cunningham’s dance company perform at the Barbican. I’m a big fan of Merce: I consider him to be the premiere American modern dance choreographer, and I see him every chance I can since the first time I saw them, in Seattle, when they performed “Beach Birds” at Meany Hall. It blew me away with its effortlessness, and I was really impressed by his commitment to making dance a “gesamtkunstwerk” (hoping I’ve spelled that right), with artists contributing sets and costumes and new music being created just for the dance. Too often dance winds up cutting corners (i.e. any art that’s not movement related) to save money, but Merce doesn’t seem to be touched by this budgetary frame of mind. And in keeping with this, his new piece “Xover” (perhaps pronounced “Cross-over,” though I called it /zover/) had a drop by Robert Rauschenberg and a live performance of John Cage’s “Aria and Fontana Mix,” which I hadn’t heard before, but hey, more John Cage! On the other hand, the last time I saw a Cage/Cunningham production, the person I took with me fairly well actively resented me. Our conversation went like this (after about 75 minutes of weird piano stuff and abstract movement):
“So, were you expecting it was going to be like that?”
“Yes.”
“And yet you still bought tickets?”

This time, however, I had someone with me who is familiar with the vocabulary of modern dance and doesn’t shy away at non-standard musical compositions, so I expected to not get a bunch of anger thrown my way after we headed out the door. And we had the good luck of finally finding a good restaurant to eat near the Barbican, in this case the Pho Cafe, which had the tastiest Vietnamese food I’ve yet found in London.

However, what I didn’t expect was to have a gaggle of giggling, uncomfortable teenagers throwing their attitude during the show. The first piece (“Crises”), had easily hatable “fixed” piano music (a recording) and dancers in rather tacky full body leotards in primary colors (red and yellow, one salmon) doing very abstract movements that the kids seemed to find extremely funny. I was really irritated because I found myself unable to concentrate on the show – what I wanted to do is walk over and give a lecture about not talking through the music and perhaps using the “whisper” as we were NOT sitting in front of the television.

For me, I wasn’t really sucked into the dance – I saw it as more of a museum piece, a chance to watch something which helped illustrate how Merce’s dance evolved to where it is today. It was far more lively than similar pieces I saw performed by the Martha Graham dance troupe – I think there’s something about having the choreographer still alive that keeps the dance fresh. And I wondered (I really wanted to ask!) if the dance was actually performed differently now than it was almost 50 years ago, because I do think dance technique has changed and that dancers are more athletic now than they were in the 50s and 60s. But still, I wasn’t emotionally hit by this piece – it was just absorbed and put into my memory as a reference point for understanding this choreographer’s evolution.

The second piece was “Xover,” and, Terpsichore be praised, the pestilence to our left decided to spend the time in the bar. The rest of the audience compensated for their ill manners, however, because they were overwhelmed with laughter by the score. I have to admit, a squeaky balloon and a woman growling and clucking are rather inherently amusing, but the laughter was so loud I was really worried the dancers’ concentration would break. After Crises’ canned music and musty costumes, it was a pleasure to see the dancers in plain white leotards – they were well set off in front of the garish Rauschenberg drop. The drop fit the music, oddly enough – it was sort of a car crash of images, and the music was bunches of random noises (occasionally freaking me out – a couple of the sounds made me think the theater was collapsing). And maybe there is something funny about how serious dance takes itself, to have dancers doing these seemingly unconnected movements while these unconnected noises bounced around the auditorium, but I enjoyed watching what was happening and didn’t want to be distracted by giggles. Grrr.

Finally came “Biped,” the highlight of the evening for me. Oddly enough, as a piece with light projections (which I normally hate), I actually found it working. Maybe it was because they were done on a scrim in front of the stage – the lights defining and redefining the space where the dancers were performing, creating walls and then dissolving them – and I was entranced by how the stage seemed to be shrinking and growing in front of my eyes. At times I felt like the images were actually appearing in between the dancers, and while the scaled drawings of dancers – projected on the scrim so they looked like they were moving to the front of the stage and then back again – were clearly a product of 1990s technology, I still found it enchanting.

This, I felt, was Merce performing at speed, producing a work that fully integrated the resources available to him – wonderful music (live Gavin Bryars as done by Gavin Bryars, kiss me for my luck in living in London!), costumes that enhanced the atmosphere, and great lighting. I think it was maybe five or ten minutes too long, but it was the only piece of the night where I fully checked out from the cares of the world and lost myself in what was going on stage – until the freaking obnoxious highschoolers lost it again when the male dancers came in and put jackets on the women. Oh God, a costume change, how droll. Could someone make sure these kids don’t come back?

At any rate, a decent evening, and I would see Biped again in a heartbeat. In fact, I wish I could go back and see the second set of performances, but given that my sister is in town (as of today), I think I’d be pushing familial relations rather much if I tried to dip her into the waters of modern dance by doing Merce first.

(This review is for a performance seen on October 2nd, 2008. Alternate view posted by The Teenaged Theater Critic here.)

Review – Slung Low’s “Helium” – The Barbican

September 24, 2008

A few weeks ago I read a review for a show (in The Metro, which shockingly put it online for once) that really caught my attention. It sounded like one of those site-specific pieces – sort of … well, what do you call those Punchdrunk-style things where the audience gets walked around? Er … well, okay, it sounded like an interesting piece of theater to experience, one where the story is very much created by what it’s like to watch the play, rather that just sitting and watching a story take place in front of you. I was especially interested because (as I recalled the review) it was about a girl’s relationship with her grandfather, and I had a very close relationship with my grandmother and am thus interested in seeing this kind of thing depicted by other people.

The show was also described as being very intimate, with just one person being allowed to watch it at a time. Wow! That sounded very different. And it was short – so if it was terrible, it would all be over soon. And Boy Howdy was it cheap – £10 a ticket. I was sold.

As was, apparently, everyone else on God’s green earth who had read the Metro (or perhaps TimeOut, as its review was also pretty positive). Tickets were sliding out of my husband’s fingers (as he attempted to navigate the Barbican’s online ticketing facilities) faster than I could say, “Yes! No!” and we wound up booking for the last hour of the last night of this show, with entrance times an hour apart. Damn!

As we (at last) arrived (with tickets that had fortunately been rejiggered so we were only 15 minutes apart – and then they let us just come in immediately after each other, with a five minute separation), we were greeted by cheerful tour guides, who gave us birthday card invitations (with our specific entrance time written on them – as well as our names, of course) and gummy worms, then sat us down to await our turn. When my turn came, a guide came and introduced himself to me. He was going to be my guide for the whole show, and he promised to get me every time and make sure I went to the right place (none of this Battersea Arts Center faffing around stuff, thank God). He explained to me that there were going to be people in the rooms we were going to go in, and even though I could see them, they couldn’t see me and wouldn’t respond to me if I talked to them (I restrained myself from rolling my eyes), though I was free to walk around and look at things unless he had pointed out a particular place for me to be. He also very kindly took my sweater and purse. I realized he was just an actor, but still, I’ve hardly had someone talk so nicely to me in the two years I’ve been here, so it was actually a nice way to start the evening. I restrained myself from making some kind of, “So, it’s closing night, how have the audiences been?” kind of comment and let him stay in character instead.

We then walked up to a little free standing building that looked kind of like a plywood garden shed, with stairs going up to a door and no windows. Around the space I could see other jumpsuited guides walking people up to other buildings … hmm! A series of simultaneously occurring plays! How cool … The guide explained that we were actually starting at the end, which he repeated as if many of the people attending had just found it far too confusing. He opened the door for me (while promising to come back and get me when it was time to leave) … and in I went.

Inside the shed was a little room that looked like someone’s office, with books on the wall, a desk, and a few partially packed boxes. A woman (Vicky Pratt) was sitting in front of the desk on the old-fashioned phone talking, while the (also old-fashioned) radio droned on loudly. After a while it became clear that the radio was actually commenting on what she was saying, and, eventually, even talking about me – or, rather, my presence in the room. Between the woman and the radio, I gathered that she was there to clean up her grandfather’s place after he died, and that there was some sort of mystery she was trying to solve … something about how he used to give her a helium filled balloon for her birthday every year … I think. Unfortunately because I was sick, I was kind of fading in and out of paying attention, and I was getting very hung up at looking at all of the detail of the little environment I was in. What was the book she was flipping through? Was there some clue in the periodic table that was on the wall? Um … was I supposed to be listening a little better? No matter, she hung up the phone, the door behind her opened, and presto! There was my guide.

I stepped out of the back of the shed and my guide offered me some popcorn as we walked the two or so yards to my second stop. Mmm, popcorn! He had me flip a switch and then sent me into the next environment, my favorite of the night – “A theater with a seat just for you!” as my guide had promised. Inside the box, I found myself standing behind a balcony at a movie theater, “far above” the rows and rows of tiny seats on the floor. It was adorable! A movie was playing on the screen showing magic tricks, which I think was supposed to be a scene from the grandfather’s life, perhaps something about handling disappointment poorly. A balloon did appear on the screen … but I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention. The environment was just so adorable that I spent at least half of my time looking at the incredible detail. I felt like I was inside of a doll’s house (did the box of popcorn perhaps have a label on it saying, “Eat Me?”). Then the movie was over, the credits rolled … and the door opened, and my guide was waiting outside.

The third room had a much more mechanical look to it, like I was going into a safe or a submarine. I was instructed to sit in the corner and put the headphones on. I opened the door … and there was a man sitting in the corner with his own headphones on, dressed in a kind of jumpsuit … with a radio next to him … and something funny about the floor …. ah! I got it! We were in an airplane in World War II, and he was talking to his friends in the other airplanes on the radio. I could hear what they were saying to him in my headphones … but then also … another voice … the one I heard in the first room. It was two voices, in fact, apparently the grandfather, commenting on this period of his life, and … the mystery character. Then, suddenly, we were going on a bombing raid, and the floor of the room opened up, a great breeze blew in from the opened bombing bay, and we watched as the bombs fell out of the little airplane’s belly and made pretty fire bouquets … all over Dresden.

My my my. How these things do come full circle. (Which probably means nothing to anyone reading this who doesn’t know me personally.)

At this point, I’ll actually stop telling the tale of the show, so that if they remount it, anyone who reads this review will still have some surprises. There were two more environments, neither of which was nearly as good as the second and third, and then a little fun bit as you walked out, but overall, I felt … well, like it was good, but like the story was just starting as I was leaving! It’s actually a good thing to have a show not wear out its welcome, but this one really seemed just too short. I was enjoying myself and really going with it and would have been happy to have kept on with the story for at least another half an hour, even though I was ill and just all too grateful that half of the scenes had a place for me to sit. I apologize if you missed it, but given how fast the tickets sold out the day the reviews hit the street, I’m sure you are not alone in this. Let’s hope it gets done again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 20th, when I was pretty much on my deathbed but still bound and determined to get out and see this show. It was closing night. Apologies in advance if you want to see it.)

September Theatre preview

August 27, 2008

This is the most shocking of weeks – I have no theater trips planned at all! That, however, is how the cookie crumbles when out of town trips come along (and no, I didn’t do Edinburgh this year). I do have plenty of shows planned for September, though … well, not nearly enough as I have an out of town guest staying for a week (with no interest in theater, as near as I can tell), but I will do my best with the time remaining.

These are the shows I’m planning to see (so far) for September:
3 September (Wednesday): Matthew Bourne’s Portrait of Dorian Grey – Sadler’s Wells
12 September (Friday): Wayne Macgregor’s Ignite festival at Covent Garden (this is over three days so I’ll just go when I can manage).
15 September (Monday): The Pinter double header at the National, Landscape and A Slight Ache. The Whingers didn’t care for Ache but that’s no surprise – they’re not major Pinter fans. Me, I love Pinter, and I like seeing two short plays back to back, so off I go.
16 September Tuesday: one of the Norman Conquest plays at the Old Vic. I’m not super enthused about this as I detested the last play I saw by Alan Ayckbourn (Absurd Person Singular, such a dud!), but it was an invitation from the Whingers so I said yes anyway.
17 September Wednesday: Zorro. This initially gave me The Phear, but the Whingers said it was great, so I’m going. (Actually it’s a bit of a surprise that they said it was great, since they’re far less enthusiastic than the average punter, but since they haven’t let me down yet with their recommendations I’m going to give this thing a shot.)
19 September Thursday: Small Craft at the Arcola. I suspect this is just a ploy for me to go out and get more good Turkish food in Dalston, but, whatever, the people at the theater don’t care why I come as long as I pay for my ticket (and I do like Tennessee Williams).
23 September Monday: Kamishibai theater at the Barbican. I like Japanese theater (this sounds like their version of Punch and Judy) and culture so I wouldn’t want to miss this.
25 September Wednesday: supposedly a trip to the ROH to see Callisto, if I can find tickets I can afford.
30 September Tuesday: Stevie Wonder at the O2. It’s a birthday present for my husband (and likely the most expensive night out we’ll have all year, which is why I’m bothering to mention it).

Finally: October 1st is Merce Cunningham at the Barbican, and though it’s not actually in September, I’m starting October with another long bout of being out of the country, so I thought I’d include it in this list. The last person I took with me to see Merce was apparently damaged by the experience (“Did you know it was going to be like that?”) so I’m being more particular and sticking to going with my husband, who, like me, thinks that Merce is one of the true grand masters of modern dance – a living treasure of American culture – and we are excited that we can continue to watch his already excellent art evolving in real time.

Holy shit, and I just found out that Autumn: Osage County, the single play I’ve been most dying to see for the last year, is coming to the National in November! Heads will roll but I WILL see that show!

Review – Michael Clark Stravinsky Project – Barbican Theatre

November 8, 2007

The Michael Clark Stravinsky Project is really worth writing about, and not just because the foolish 7:45 start time contributed painfully to my midnight end time and braindeadness today. I was pretty excited about seeing a show that had three Stravinsky pieces in it (despite being so far up in the theater I expected to see a colony of bats lodged above us), since he’s one of my favorite composers. The chosen pieces were “Apollo” (not very exciting musically in my book), “Rite of Spring” (need I say more), and “Les Noces,” which as it turns out is pretty good even though it started out reminding me of the stimmtspiele stuff we saw with Pierrot Lunaire that about turned me off having singing at a dance performance ever again. And hey, the program “warned” that the evening contained nudity, which in my mind is always a positive thing in an arts performance, especially if we’re talking dance.

This promise was not entirely carried out, though the costuming was actually quite interesting. Dancers in rubber skirts? Dancers in body stockings with shiny bits wrapped around their bodies in interesting patterns? I liked this part. However, I was quite taken aback by the dancers wearing toliet seats on their shoulder with their heads protruding from the center. What really was this about? Was the “Rite of Spring” (called “Mmmmm” as a dance performance) really all about people who really needed to go to the bathroom? Is that why they were grabbing their crotches? Or was it all just some “I’m a wacky modern choreographer” silliness? I couldn’t really tell, and the ending, with either a Hitler or a Charlie Chaplin character dancing a long solo, left me mystified, or, rather, eager for some interval ice cream.

Anyway, the movement (isn’t this about the movement, ultimately?) was quite good. The “Apollo” piece (“O”) really seemed a tribute to the Balanchine choreography, only with Apollo in a mirrored box, on his back, doing a little duet with his reflection. “The Rite of Spring” let me down a bit, for while the movement was interesting (Michael Clark can really do partnering – his dancers seemed to float in the air at time!), it just couldn’t keep up with the power of the music. During the most dramatic bit, there just seemed to be a little bit of tweedling on stage, but what I expected to see was something really, really powerful. I admit the fact it was performed (musically) on two pianos also didn’t help.

The final bit was “Les Noces” (“I do” for Clark), which to me seemed to be about the sexual desire of brides and, well, you know, the couples. There was a very interesting bit where the women dancers stood up and, with their hands pulling between their legs, dragged the male dancers off stage one by one. Despite the fact this was my favorite piece, the costuming proved aggravating, at first because it was so distracting I had to tell myself to NOT look at it (the shiny things on the dancers noses and the queue-like bald head prostheses on their heads were utterly bizarre), but then later because the colors of the body stockings were off from the dancer’s own skin tones. This only really made me nuts for the Asian (Chinese/Japanese or such, though apparently New Zealandese) guy, who got a BROWN body stocking. It was so off. Admittedly it match one of the female dancers, but it just drove me crazy because everyone else was almost perfectly matched and this just looked … like they were trying to make him look like something he’s not. And the end look of the woman coming out totally wrapped up in some kind of knitted outfit with a big curved knitted cap over the top – well, she just looked like she was wearing a giant willie warmer, and I wouldn’t put it beyond the choreographer to have done that deliberately. Oh, those crazy Scottish choreographers!

Anyway, though it was a good night, I would have preferred to just see two pieces (they were all quite meaty, so it wouldn’t have been like I would have felt cheated) and got home a little earlier. Tonight is Aida, and I sure hope it’s compelling because I am going to be worn out.

(This review is for a performance on November 7th, 2007.)

Review – In the Face of History (an art exhibit) – The Barbican

January 27, 2007

There’s an exhibit up right now at the Barbican, In the Face of History, that I think every photographer should see. It hit for me on a few of those ongoing questions about photography: what makes photography great? What makes an individual photographer’s work notable? How is photography quintessentially different from other art forms? – and gave me some ideas about answers to those questions, and, most importantly, inspiration to Make Art.

Photography has had problems since its inception with whether it is an art at all, because, in truth, photography was created to document, faithfully, the reality that our eyes perceive. In the late 1800s the Photo-Secessionists decided that they would try to make photography “art” by manipulating the image, or, if you prefer, making it worse than a clean, focused mirror of what the eye sees. They put vaseline on the lens, they shot out of focus, they printed on heavily textured paper that just couldn’t get all of the detail that the negative was utterly capable of faithfully reproducing. (I once heard Bill Jay say they were later dismissed as the “Fuzzy Wuzzy School of Photography,” and, even though it’s a very cruel moniker, it’s not entirely undeserved. In fact, it’s totally deserved, but I love their pictures anyway.)

This dichotomy between “is it or ain’t it art” has continued today, getting, I think, worse in the age of the digital camera. I keep seeing what I see as two different approaches to photography that mirror the original split: is it about making art or is it about making a faithful image? The faithful image school tends to be a more “masculine” arena, more Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, focused on the perfect shot, and the perfect set of equipment (and production techniques) needed to get that image. I feel, however, that this (to my mind) obsessive focus on tech and technique skips the vital element of the content of the photos and the ultimate making of (what I can’t help but see as) art. I see piles and piles of people out there cranking out photos and fussing over their lenses and color balancing and yammer yammer blah blah blah (lots of magazines out there for these folks), but they are NOT talking about art to me.

I start from the presumption of art, and then I looked (tonight) at a group of photographers and thought about their practice and what made each of them artists. For photographers, it seems that the oeuvre is the thing, and to understand how an individual saw the world, you want to see many of their photos. One person shows images from a studio he does not dare to leave; another, portraits of people whose inner lives he cannot understand; a third, nearly microscopic images taken while he was a soldier. Each of them left me with insights into the artist, but, more importantly, things for me to think about caused by the generally pleasant assault of so many pictures.

But which of these images are compelling? Compositionally, many of them are doing interesting thing; but I was faced with the tyranny of the label! Art, I like to think, does not need a “label” to make it enjoyable or understandable; in fact, I often prefer to avoid reading the information next to displays in a gallery in order to have a purer appreciation of the work. But … photography is utterly contaminated by being pictures of things at a certain place in history! It can barely get away from the labels! Sure, Westie’s green peppers and Stieglitz’s nudes break free of time and place, but when you are looking at the work of Henryk Ross, how can you not go, “Ooh, secretly made photos of Jews in the Polish ghetto that were stuffed in a can and left behind when he finally ran for it!” I hated that I was being (as I felt) emotionally manipulated by these declaration of time and subject. Couldn’t I just enjoy the images as they were?

Well, heck, you know, I think I just have to accept that this is part of the medium, that it is affected by its ability to document transience and historicity. Some images go beyond this; but some images are, in fact, far more moving because they grip on to their point in time and refuse to let go. And thus we have the dark and gorgeous shots of Brassai’s Paris, with its prostitutes and lesbian couples and transvestite sailors; Anders Petersen’s pictures of the poor habitues of a sleazy bar in Hamburg; and, again, the shots of the Polish ghetto. If we accept that this ability to be stuck in time is a part of the power of photography, then art may in fact be created by loving and obsessive documentation of what it means to be here, now, in a time that will not be forever. Christer Strömholm, I believe, is the artist who said, “Photograph what matters to you,” and I think that this passion very clearly comes through in these photographs. So I, in order to create art, should photograph the things that are happening at this moment, the people and the life that matters to me; and somehow, in the struggles of composition and balancing light and dark and pattern, I think that this will create art, an oeuvre worth remembering, far more than 5000 perfectly lit pictures of quaint New Mexican towns or spiral staircases or seashells could ever hope to do.

At any rate: see this exhibit. And go, people, go make art, and don’t beat yourself up because you don’t have the best lens out there or the spiffiest camera. You can make objects of lasting beauty with what you have right now. I went to the museum tonight, and I know that what I say is true.