A Dream Production of an American Nightmare

Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller) RSC, Stratford

Antony Sher as Willy Loman and Alex Hassell as Biff  Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Antony Sher as Willy Loman and Alex Hassell as Biff
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

It feels slightly rebellious to go to the theatre in Stratford and not see Shakespeare, especially when the theatre in question is the venerable Royal Shakespeare Theatre. But, this year – the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth – the RSC have strayed from their usual repertoire to give us Death of a Salesman. Miller’s play – certainly in this production – has at least one thing in common with Shakespeare. No matter how well you know the story, however prepared you are for the outcome, it still gets you. (And for anyone unfamiliar with this play, the clue’s in the title). Even though I know what happens at the end of the play, as Willy Loman – the eponymous Salesman – exits the stage, I realised I was holding my breath, hoping against hope for a different ending. And as with Shakespeare, it’s a play in which certain themes feel unexpectedly timely – in particular, the line ‘What is a job without a salary?’ resonates in this time of austerity and zero hours contracts.

Antony Sher Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Antony Sher
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

As Willy, Antony Sher – the complete actor – gives a tour de force performance. His Loman manages to be both pathetically contemptible and utterly noble – we buy his story, even as we are aware that Willy is the ultimate unreliable narrator of his own story. Your heart bleeds for him as his mental state deteriorates. Director Greg Doran has assembled an equally powerful cast for the rest of the Loman family. Harriet Walter endows Willy’s wife Linda – who could be stereotyped as a typical downtrodden wife – a fantastic streak of dignity and strength. Her final speech reduced me – already snivelling – to a quivering wreck. Alex Hassell gives a wonderfully passionate performance as their son Biff, a man child infantalised by his parents’ devotion, suddenly and belatedly being forced to grow up. I can’t wait to see his Henry V later this year. It’s good to see Sam Marks – last spotted as Poins in Henry IV – graduate to a bigger role here, with a confident performance as the younger Loman son Happy. He’s a fantastically promising actor.

Antony Sher as Willy and Harriet Walter as Linda Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Antony Sher as Willy and Harriet Walter as Linda
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Among the strong supporting cast, I especially liked Guy Paul’s slick turn as Willy’s brother Ben. He felt to me almost like the Devil in a Medieval mystery play – the Great Tempter, leading Willy astray. Brodie Ross also does a good job bringing sympathy and dignity to the school swot character of Bernard.

Staging this play on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s thrust stage works beautifully as well, drawing the audience into the action – makes you wonder why thrust stages were ever abandoned for the proscenium arch…

This production also looks fantastic. The set is very clever, and the lighting – which I fear I don’t notice in productions as much as I should – is especially good, and as well as looking good, it does an excellent job of differentiating between the different layers of the action.

Oh dear, I’m gushing. I do try not to do that, but this production got to even your usually hard hearted and cynical correspondent here. Go see it if you can. But if you’re wearing mascara, make sure it’s waterproof. http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/death-of-a-salesman/


Inventing the Exhibition

Inventing Impressionism, National Gallery

Woman at her Toilette, Berthe Morisot (Art Institute of Chicago)
Woman at her Toilette, Berthe Morisot (Art Institute of Chicago)

Is it just me or are curators trying extra hard to justify their existence in these austere times? It sometimes feels that we can’t just go to a gallery and enjoy art any more – we have to come away seeing the works involved ‘in a new light’. Sometimes, this approach works – I loved the National Gallery’s colour based exhibition last year (my favourite art history series of recent years was Dr James Fox’s similarly structured and generally swoon-worthy ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’). Other times, like the RA’s ‘Rubens and his legacy’ (See earlier blog Too Much Legacy, Not enough Rubens) it just feels a bit desperate.

So where does the National Gallery’s current offering, ‘Inventing Impressionism’ fit into all this? Impressionism is of course Box Office already; it hardly needs a new structure to have art lovers trooping through the doors to gaze upon Renoir or Monet. The trouble with the Impressionists is that we’re almost too familiar with them. Waldemar Januszczak did a TV series on them several years ago that started with a sequence showing all the gallery merchandising featuring Impressionist works – from scarves to umbrellas to jigsaw puzzles and more – to illustrate this. (Incidentally the series referred to above also introduced me to Berthe Morisot, for which I am eternally grateful – we’ll have more on her later).

It’s hard to remember that Impressionism was once seen as revolutionary, and shunned by the art establishment. Perhaps this is what the curatorial backstory provided for this exhibition is meant to remind us. It’s the tale of Paul Durand-Ruel, and art dealer who became the Impressionists first great champion. It’s a great excuse to bring together a wide range of Impressionist works, since thousands of paintings from the Impressionist circle seem to have passed through his hands at some point or another. Does knowing Durand-Ruel’s story really give us a greater understanding of Impressionism? Well, no, not really. On the evidence of this exhibition, Durand-Ruel was a supporter and buyer, not an actual influence on the art itself. This is probably just as well, as the picture described as his favourite – Renoir’s Girl with a Cat – feels sentimental and voyeuristic, and even – in the way the sleeping young girl’s dress slides off her shoulder – downright creepy.

Durand-Ruel probably deserves to be better known – but it feels more like a subject for a book or a TV documentary (over to you, Waldemar, perhaps?) than a gallery exhibition. Does this invalidate the exhibition? Again, no, not really. It’s a good chance to bring together works that are normally flung far and wide across the globe, like the five works from Monet’s epic 1891‘Poplars’ series, which are on loan from the Tate, Paris, Philadelphia and two different institutions in Tokyo. If you like Impressionist art you can wallow in this exhibition like a pig in mud – I certainly did.

To be fair to the curators, this approach does yield one dividend. The second room includes some of the works Durand-Ruel dealt in before his enthusiasm for Impressionism, and they do give an idea of how revolutionary Impressionism must have felt when it first emerged. These works – which were themselves often rejected by the academic art establishment – look dark and heavy, and have titles like ‘Interior of a Dominican Covent’. After this, the Impressionist works are like stepping out into the sunshine. Suddenly, we’re in a real world of railway bridges (Monet’s Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil), where women hang out their washing against a backdrop of factory chimneys.

These women were painted by the aforementioned Berthe Morisot (aka The Impressionist You’ve Never Heard Of). The two pieces by her are my stand outs for the entire exhibition. This first, in keeping with the Impressionist tradition of painting ‘en plein air’ is obviously painted from life, with the paint almost scribbled onto the canvas, yet the scene is utterly vivid, even down to the smoke curling from the chimneys on the horizon.

The other Morisot work ‘Woman at her Toilette’ (see picture at the top of this blog) is a beautiful, pearl like creation. But I wish it had been hung lower – one of the best things about Morisot is the fabulous energy of her brushstrokes – and in this exhibition it’s too high up the wall for someone of my (admittedly diminutive) height to see them properly. I think it’s time Morisot got a show all to herself. That would be a different perspective on Impressionism.

If you want to know more about Berthe Morisot, my scarily clever friend from university days, Jacky Klein, has just made a short film about her, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mupxAAjAiWM


A heart of darkness with a happy ending: Love’s Labour’s Won, RSC, Live from Stratford upon Avon

Loves-Labours-Won-2014 benedick

Much Ado About Nothing is probably my favourite play of Shakespeare’s. It’s one of those plays that can always tempt me into the theatre. If you know a play well, one of the measures of a good production is whether it can make you see it in a way you hadn’t before. And this production certainly does that.

There’s the title, for a start. The play has been renamed Love’s Labour’s Won – possibly a Shakespearean sub-title, possibly the name of an entirely different, and now lost work – and set in late 1918, immediately after the end of the First World War. It’s been paired up with Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is set in 1914 (see previous blog for more on this) – both plays use one set, and have substantially the same cast.

This background gives the play – usually played as a piece of froth- an unexpectedly dark heart. Dogberry (Nick Haverson) the constable is here presented as a shell shocked veteran, which makes his various verbal tics and idiocies suddenly understandable rather than annoying. It also gives the excellent Sam Alexander something to do with the character of Don John, who is a character with no more back story than ‘the plot needs a villain, so here he is’. In this production, he’s a limping and embittered man, scarred by war. This bleakness also means that the darkness of one of the central plot lines – Claudio’s brutal rejection of Hero when he believes she’s cheated on him – doesn’t feel as jarring as it does in some fluffier productions. Although, he’s still an idiot, and Hero really should punch him rather than taking him back, but hey…this is a comedy after all.

Nick Haverson as Dogberry in Love's Labour's Won. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Nick Haverson as Dogberry in Love’s Labour’s Won. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Of course, the most important part of any production of Much Ado (or whatever we’re calling it), the main course if you like, is Beatrice and Benedick – the prototype for every ‘couple who fight but you know they’re meant for each other really’ in rom-coms down the years. And what a pair we have here…Edward Bennett is utterly brilliant. It’s taken about twenty years, but he has finally surpassed Mark Rylance as my favourite ever Benedick. In the famous gulling scene, which in this production involves him climbing into a Christmas tree, his facial expressions are hilarious. In this, those of us watching in the cinema may have had an advantage over the theatre audience, since we could see them in close up. And I loved the moment near the end of this scene when he almost corpsed. Michelle Terry as Beatrice is also brilliant, and their final kiss is a genuine ‘awww’ moment. Even with these two, the 1918 setting helps- you get the sense that it’s only the extra maturity they’ve both gained during the war that makes it possible for them to make their relationship work this time round (albeit they still need a bit of help).

The other thing that should be mentioned about this production is the fabulous music. Live from Stratford presenter Suzy Klein predicted we would be humming the tunes long after we left the cinema/theatre and she was right…I still can’t get one of them out of my head this morning. Special mention in this respect should go to Harry Waller as Balthasar, played here as a silken-voiced Noel Coward prototype.

I’m hoping there will be a DVD of this one…please, RSC?