Britain’s Favourite Artist: Why we all love Grayson Perry

Provincial Punk, Turner Contemporary, Margate

Photo by Stephen White
Photo by Stephen White

Local news doesn’t often cover contemporary art. But an exception was made for Grayson Perry, who cropped up on ITV Meridian last week, to mark the opening of his new retrospective at the Turner Contemporary.

Grayson – and it says something about both the man and the artist that referring to him by his first name feels the most natural option – first came to public attention as That Bloke In A Dress, when he won the Turner Prize in 2003. Winning the Turner Prize does not necessarily endear an artist to the Great British Public, but we seem to have taken Grayson to our hearts. He’s a National Treasure. Not bad for a transvestite potter who has a childhood teddy bear called Alan Measles as a familiar/alter ego. (Grayson’s Twitter handle is @Alan_Measles – do follow him if you don’t already)

In the interview he gave to ITV Meridian, Grayson happily recounted a tale of a man visiting one of his exhibitions, who looked around him and said, “At last, something I can like…” And that’s one of the things about our adoption of Grayson Perry – we don’t just like him because he’s a funny man in a dress – we love his art too. As proof of this, the Turner in Margate was packed this weekend– not just with the usual gallery-going suspects but with a whole range of people, including several bikers who had wandered in from the ‘Margate Meltdown’ happening outside. The question is, why do we seem to have taken him so much to our hearts? Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but as a fully paid up member of the Army of Alan Measles, here’s what I think.

Grayson Perry 3

First of all, his work is beautiful. Whether it’s his ceramics or his tapestries – the two media he’s best known for – or his drawings and videos, his work is always aesthetically pleasing. It might seem like an obvious thing that a work of art should be pleasant to look at, but at least some contemporary art is alienatingly ugly. Grayson has no truck with this – to the extent that one of the ceramics on display here is emblazoned with the words ‘I Love Beauty’.

The second thing about his work is that it is so definitely British. No other country could have produced Grayson. There are pictures of Barratt’s style homes on his ceramics, and references to British brands in the tapestry. Even the sex (and there is sex – and a parental guidance warning outside the exhibition entrance) is not European grande amour but very British, with hints of the Carry On films. Equally, his transvestitism fits into his Britishness – think about how much we love a Pantomine Dame. (or perhaps, having just started working at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, I have panto on the brain.)

One of the other joys of Grayson’s work – and another uniquely British one – is its humour. Yet you never feel he’s laughing at you – you’re always in on the joke.

And last – but definitely not least – I love the craft aspect of his work, the way he’s taken pottery and tapestry making, and developed these traditional crafts into high art. Contemporary art can sometimes feel to divorced from the old reality of an artist physically creating something with his (or her) hands – if you want an antidote to this, watch the video of Grayson laboriously creating one of his signature pots. His draughtsmanship, showcased here in his imaginary maps, is amazing, yet it’s the thing he’s least known for.

Perry already has a CBE. I say, give that man a Knighthood. Or a Damehood, if he’d prefer.

Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk runs until 13th September


Exploring the nuclear option

Oppenheimer, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Vaudeville Theatre, London

John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer and the cast of Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison
John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer and the cast of Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison

Is the Royal Shakespeare Company planning a West End takeover? Heading to see Oppenheimer last night, the Tube was full of posters advertising the West End transfer of Death of a Salesman, which opened on Saturday (see previous post ‘A Dream Production of an American Nightmare’ for more on this). Add to this the apparently eternal theatrical juggernaut that is Les Miserables, and Matilda the Musical, and it feels like the RSC has as many plays running in London as it does in Stratford.

Of all the plays staged by RSC recently, Oppenheimer probably looks like the least likely on paper to find itself in London’s gaudy Theatreland. A new work by Tom Morton-Smith, it tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the team which developed the first atom bomb. A play (not even a musical, although it does feature music) about science and scientists, by a young playwright, and without a major star, feels like an odd fit in the West End – dominated as it is by musicals and plays structured around visiting film stars looking for theatrical credibility. Yet, the Vaudeville was packed. Although it’s not exactly the largest of West End theatres, the buzz around this play is remarkable.

John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison
John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison

The question of course, is why. A lot of the credit must go to John Heffernan, in the title role. He has been a name to conjure with on my Twitter feed recently, and for once the borderline hysteria is justified. He holds the audience rapt every second he’s on stage, from the moment when he walks on stage at the start – with the house lights still up, just to make his job that little bit harder – to the very final moments of the show, and Oppenheimer’s famous quotation from Hindu scripture ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. His nuanced, complex performance carries us through Oppenheimer’s transformation from Communist sympathiser to a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army.

Heffernan is backed by a strong supporting cast, especially Michael Grady-Hall as Robert Oppenheimer’s brother Frank, and Jack Holden as one of Oppenheimer’s fellow physicists.

Jack Holden as Robert Wilson and Jamie Wilkes as Bob Serber in Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison
Jack Holden as Robert Wilson and Jamie Wilkes as Bob Serber in Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison

The staging of the play is also strong : the scenes illustrating the first test of the nuclear bomb Oppenheimer and his team have invented are particularly well done – the moment of the explosion itself made me jump in my seat. The way the science behind the bomb is explained using a mixture of high-tech (animated projections) and lo-fi (actors writing on blackboards) is also effective. The play pulled off the difficult trick of making this science comprehensible to me without annoying my husband. Before he retired last year he was ITV News’ Science Editor, and spent large parts of his career explaining science – done badly, it tends to make him go nuclear (pun intended). Fortunately, he was impressed by the explanations in this (although he still thought he could have done it better. Yes dear, whatever you say…)

However, despite all the praise, there is a problem. And sadly, this lies in the play itself, which feels like it’s being carried by a strong cast and high production values. I am loathe to criticise it, because it’s good to see new work being championed by the RSC, and succeeding in the West End, and because Tom Morton-Smith is obviously very talented, but it isn’t quite there for me. It’s too long, and as a result often feels unfocussed, straying off into sidebar stories. Chopping 30-40 minutes off the two hour fifty (plus interval) running time would help. Some of the scenes seem to have been included in order to make a philosophical point, rather than because they’re useful to the plot. The dialogue is beautifully written, and must be a joy for the actors to perform; there’s just too much of it.

But – I don’t want to end this on a negative note. Oppenheimer was still a great night at the theatre, and the full house shows there is an appetite for new writing and straight drama in the West End. Here’s hoping for more brave experiments like Oppenheimer. And more John Heffernan. In anything.

Oppenheimer runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 23rd May