Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth - Mark Rylance (Royal Court Theatre - 27/7/09) 29 July 2009

I remember back in the day when a new play called Mojo was on at the Royal Court. It caused alot of buzz, was 'the' ticket to get and Hollywood celebrities were flying over to see it. Jez Butterworth was the man of the moment. I never got to see that production but all the same I was fascinated by it - by the image of the bloodied face, by the title , by the names of the characters and by the 1950's Soho setting. It wasn't unit many years later that I saw a production of Mojo at the small Rosemary Branch theatre in Islington. It was a good production but I felt a bit let down. It had great verbal sparring but I felt that it was lacking something. I wanted to know more about the characters, gain some sort of insight to help me care about them. With Mojo, and I am obviously in the minority on this as it won all sorts of awards, it just seemed to be bits of great verbal interactions strung together with a thread of plot. The emperors new clothes? Just a thought.

I tried to watch the film version but became so bored I think I only made it less than a third of the way in. I did however like his film Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman and the great Ben Chaplin. It had heart. Funny enough though, there wasn't alot of the verbal sparring. More recently I saw Parlour Song at the Almeida Theatre. Evidently it was on Broadway but I don't remember hearing about it and I try to keep up. But hey, I'm no expert so, oh well. Anyway, Parlour Song was a strange ride. On one hand you have knockout uber hilarious performances from Andrew Lincoln and Toby Jones and on the other hand you get a semi forced story that concerns the wife of one of the characters. Nothing much comes of it and I came away feeling sorry for the poor woman who had to play the wife as Butterworth didn't seem to know or really care about her character.

I booked for Jerusalem on the strength of Mark Rylance being in the cast and knowing that if I booked sooner rather than later I could get a £10 ticket. So onwards and up...onwards and onwards to Jerusalem at the Royal Court Theatre, £10, front row, centre. Advance word was, as always is the case with Jez Butterworth, veering off the scale. 'Amazing', 'fantastic', 'genius' blah blah blah. I try my best to ignore this type of thing and I think I made a valiant effort to erase the plaudits from my mind.

Undeniably, the best thing about the production are the performances and every part is cast extremely well. This was not surprising as you have to have a certain skill to handle the verbal elements. Mark Rylance is fantastic, bringing his character Johnny Byron, a 40ish, drug dealing absentee father who lives in a 50's caravan on a plot of land earmarked for development, to life. Here's the basis of the play from the back of the playtext -

On St George's Day, the morning of the local country fair, Johnny Byron, local waster and modern day Pied Piper, is a wanted man. The council officials want to serve him an eviction notice, his children want their dad take them to the fair, Troy Whitworth wants to give him a serious kicking, and a motley crew of mates want his ample supply of drugs and alcohol. Jerusalem is a comic, contemporary vision of life in England's green and pleasant land.

The 'motley crew' get a special mention for being great. Mackenzie Crook (The Office) gives an expectedly touching performance and someone I wasn't familiar with, Tom Brooke who plays Lee the one emigrating to Australia, is a talent to watch. Honestly, there isn't one bad link.

Here is my act by act Jerusalem experience:

Act One - Great set by Ultz - a real 1950's silver streamline caravan in a real wooded area - trees, grass all real (I could smell the fertilizer in the front row and was dodging the occasional fly). Under the trailer there were real chickens and later a turtle. Interesting set up - very funny. We find out about most of the 14 characters.

Act Two - A bit more depth, we find out about the rest of the characters, most importantly Johnny's son and the mother of his son. Promising. By this point I wanted to know where it was going.

Act Three - This is where it fell down for me. The performances got very - slow and 'important'. Lots of long speeches. At the end of each I thought it was the end. But no, went on and on and on. It dipped into Mojo land with violence and blood, then still went on and on. (I was distracted for a moment by a mouse that bounded from the chicken coop and hid behind a set piece). Act three was when I realised Jerusalem wasn't really saying anything we didn't already know, or had heard on numerous Channel 4 documentaries.

Jerusalem is good in an observational sort of way. Again, the dialogue comes up trumps but I did think it felt a bit laboured this time around. I find it hard to believe that people can continuously spew funny lines. By then end I felt I had been hit over the head with a club called 'the point'. Get it? Got it. Good. It could have been edited into two acts, easily, without losing anything but you know what? With it's nods to Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream and Lear), it's portrayal of a contemporary landscape and its great central performance by Mark Rylance, this will be nominated for everything and win a great many. Mark my words.

Ibsen's A Doll's House - Gillian Anderson (Donmar 16/7/09) 18 July 2009

I really like Ibsen. To date I've seen The Master Builder with Patrick Stewart (loved it), Pillars of the Community with Damien Lewis (loved it), Enemy of the People with Ian McKellen (didn't really impress), Rosmersholm with Helen McCrory aka Mrs Damien Lewis (didn't impress) and Brand with Ralph Fiennes (also didn't impress). So that's three to two against. Maybe I was a little quick with my praise for Ibsen, or it could have been the problems were the productions and not the plays.

There are two additions to that list, or possibly just one. I've seen two pseudo-Ibsen's so I will consider each as a half production. The first was Mrs Affleck by Samuel Adamson from Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf at the National and most recent, Ibsen's A Doll's House in a new version by Zinnie Harris at the Donmar. A 'new version'. Hmmm. That's a strange concept for a play. I think it's valid to update or adapt a play - pulling out various aspects to make an older piece more relevant to a contemporary audience, putting emphasis on other aspects that sometimes get lost in other productions - but to rewrite someone elses work, put your name on it and retain the original title is just a bit - rude.

Going back to Mrs Affleck. That was a disaster. I never saw Little Eyolf so I had nothing to compare it to but as a stand alone piece of work, it was pretty bad. The Director, Marianne Elliott, was there the night I saw it and from her expressions (this was the end of the run) she wasn't too impressed either (by the way, she also directed the Pillars of the Community I mentioned above). At least they retitled the play which is not the case with A Doll's House.

Again, I've never seen A Doll's House so there was nothing to compare it to. I read that it was not faithful at all to the source material, with characters missing or rewritten as well as the dialogue being stripped of its poetry. Without a comparison to the original I wouldn't have realised this but knowing made me think how unfair it is to Henrik Ibsen and his art. Mr Ibsen worked hard to invent characters, situations, dialogue and a story that would serve his message. A Doll's House is his work from top to bottom so you can't have a 'new version' unless you were Henrik Ibsen. You can have a new play 'based' on A Doll's House with a different title but calling your new version Ibsen's A Doll's House doesn't make sense (maybe if you were a conceptual artist making a statement about...). Enough of the soap box and on to the play.

For those who know the play I'll give you this one major rewrite - the setting has been changed from late 1800's Norway to Edwardian London 1909. For the rest who aren't familiar with the story here it is in a nutshell:

There's a woman Nora (Gillian Anderson) who is married to Thomas (Toby Stephens) and together they have two young children. Also involved in the story is Nora's old school friend Christine Lyle (Tara Fitzgerald) who comes to work for Thomas after the death of her husband left her destitute. Rounding out the homestead is family friend Dr Rank (Anton Lesser). Thomas is involved in politics and there seems to have been a problem with a struggle for power and standing with Neil Kelmann (Christopher Eccleston) who in turn has a past and present with both Nora and Christine. Nora has been very cunning in keeping her family ticking along and the main storyline concerns her keeping how she has done this from her husband. Of course there are other bits and pieces but that's basically the story.

As with all Donmar productions, the production is intimate, the sets and costumes are good and there is never the sense of reaching for more than the space will allow. However, ensuring all the actors were being seen from all three sides (the stage is a mini thrust) was a problem. From where I was sitting I saw most of Christopher Eccleston's performance via the back of his head.

I loved seeing this for one main reason - Gillian Anderson. She was phenomenal. I was very much taken aback. From her very first scene until her final minute, she was Nora. Every nuance, movement and vocal inflection was very much in keeping with the moment. I never once thought 'oh, it's Gillian Anderson'. It was always Nora. She made you care about her and her plight. I think that is very rare. She owned her performance and she commanded the stage. You couldn't stop watching her and this was also a problem with the production.

With the exception of Tara Fitzgerald, who was excellent as well, the other actors seemed very stilted next to Ms Anderson's pitch perfect performance. I discussed this issue with a friend who was with me at the performance. I attribute the jarring differences to the variances in how actors are trained. Here is my theory. The majority of what we see on stage in the UK is a direct result of very formal acting training. Although much revered throughout the world and having turned out some amazing actors, UK training is missing something. I would call it 'true emotion'. On the other hand US actors as we all know favour The Method which has been much maligned and misunderstood. The Method is fundamentally a connection with the characters emotions to ensure a truthful portrayal, truthful to both the characters emotions and reactions to surroundings, situations and other characters. However, what alot of US actors are missing is technique, especially stage technique which the UK has in spades.

I think of the most famous and respected UK actors as having a balance of both. This could be a result of their training mixed with pure instinct and talent or training mixed with having done a good amount of US films. On the other side of the pond, formal training, at least for the stage, is not as widespread or required as here in the UK. There is more of a reliance on Method to get you through. My favourite performances come from actors who combine both. Gillian Anderson combines both and I think it's because of her transatlantic career. The other actors in A Doll's House seemed to be doing what they should do as an actor as opposed to what they feel they should do, if that makes sense. It's not that they were bad, but it was a weird juxtapostion.

One final word about the 'version'. I'm not entirely sure if the stories are clearer in the original version but I wasn't following a few details, like Thomas' political situation and there is another coming together of two estranged people where I thought I had missed the backstory. I asked my friend and it was confirmed that I didn't miss it. I guess I was thinking it was more complicated. Although the play had some light funny moments, especially between the two women, there were times when I wasn't sure if the lines were supposed to be funny (the audience laughed) or they weren't supposed to be funny but the actors decided that they would deliver them that way because they were so ridiculous. And they were ridiculous. Example - one character proclaims their love for another. One asks the other to move in with them. The response was (sic) "will there be enough room for my children?", response (sic) "we may have to get more chairs". The chairs thing was also mentioned as they parted. Oh well. So much for new versions. But, thanks so much for Gillian Anderson's performance. I'll be seeing the next thing she's in.

Blur - A View From The Crowd (Hyde Park, Thursday 2/7/09) 7 July 2009

I was there for the first of two dates at Hyde Park and before I continue with this I just want to mention an - anomaly. When the dates were first announced it was billed as the 'reunion gig'. 'Exciting', 'Momentous' - all the sort of words associated with the return of Blur. Luckily I wasn't one of those huge fans who snapped up a few of the 55,000 tickets for the first announced date - Friday 3 July. Why lucky? Well, once that sold out, they added a second date - on Thursday, the day before.

It's all fine and dandy adding the second date to accommodate the demand for tickets, and presumably this was an option from the beginning, but it completely negated the original premise. I think those who immediately bought tickets were given the raw end of the deal because all of a sudden they were getting sloppy seconds. Then, to make matters worse, Blur have their official premier at Glastonbury - before both Hyde Park dates. So, the Friday people who bought tickets first were now getting sloppy thirds and Thursday people, sloppy seconds. I find that aspect really strange and as I said, if I were a huge fan, I wouldn't have been too pleased.

When I say I'm not a huge fan, I'm not saying they are just 'OK' and 'I can take them or leave them'. That's not the case at all. I think they are wonderfully talented and fall within my definitions of great bands. My definition of a great band? A band that sound like no one else. You immediately know who it is within a few notes, even without any prompting or intro. Other bands are compared to them, not the other way around. Of course as with all bands, you can occasionally hear influences, but when you hear Blur, you know it's Blur. It's the combination of voice, guitar, drums, bass, songs and arrangements and they sound like no one else.

I think I've said enough about the band, we all know how popular and loved they are so there really isn't much I can add to what has already been printed and discussed. What I haven't seen discussed or written about is what it's like being in a venue that large, with that many people, on a hot, hot, hot day so here it goes...

I got my ticket from a friend so I didn't have it on me to refer to the rules. I was wondering what the policy was regarding bottles and the like because as many of us know, there have been many instances of bringing a bottle of water only to have it confiscated under the no bottles or outside food law invented to force you to pay exorbitant prices once inside. I didn't want to take a chance so I brought nothing but a battery powered hand fan and a baseball cap, just in case, because as I said before, it was hot, hot, hot, hot. When we passed through security, which consisted of a brief look into bags and a quick squeeze on the bottom (of the bags!!) we were through, and I did see bins of discarded water bottles so I thought that answered my question.

So we're in. Without the throngs of people (it was still early-ish) it resembled a country fair. What I think used to be a grassy field looked more like what a barn would look like once you removed all the bales of hay. Lining both sides were numerous eating places - Mexican, four different burger outlets, Thai and Chinese food and of course the beer tent. We went there first, for me it was to get water (£2 for a small bottle). Good on the organisers though for providing free drinking water (next to the toilets - fragrant!) where you could refill your bottle.

We found a small patch to set up camp and tried to stay cool. It was so hot, my battery powered hand fan was only blowing hot air. I really wished we had real grass (grass that wasn't dead) to sit on instead of that hay. I think others would have hoped for the same as we all had hay remnants on our clothes and most unappealing were the numerous bum cracks with hay, due to the long slung trouser look.

One of the support bands were on (we missed the first one. Then there were the Crystal Castles (or Crystal Castle?) which I found irritating and pretentious - they sounded as if they were using a Kraftwerk backing track - then some other band as Friendly Fires pulled out - one of those Killers, Coldplay type of bands - and then Foals who I would have sworn were performing old Gang of Four demos). The people next to us pulled out this huge picnic - containers of fruit, guacamole, drinks - how did they get that stuff in? Of course this inspired my friends go in search of food. One came back with a £6.25 plate of Thai chicken on rice, the other got a Japanese vegetarian dish for almost £7. I saw a few Dominoes Pizza boxes go by and was told that there was a Dominoes stand, but I wasn't willing to pay £17 for a medium marguerita or pepperoni pizza nor was I prepared to pay £5 for a slice. I had an ice lolly.

Now to the Blur performance. Everyone stood up and there was plenty of room around us all. We were about halfway back so had to watch both the large screens and the stage. Here is where I started having problems. I have to wonder about people in general and what they consider a good time. First, there was the person way down nearer the front who made a flag out of what looked like an orange boiler suit and was waving it with glee, through the whole show. Why? Then there were the numerous bottles (all plastic, all with liquid still inside) that were thrown all over the place. It began to look like a bottle attack at one point. Lovely. Moving on to the two blond girls standing behind us, dressed as if they would be spotted by the band, who proceeded to scream and shout 'I love you Damon!' to the back of our heads. Now remember, we were in a crowd of 55,000 people, halfway back from the stage. Does this sound sane? I almost turned around to tell then ' you know he can't hear or see you'. It wasn't soon before we had the frantic dancing (if you could call it that) while wearing a full back pack. It became a battle to remain standing upright as the bags would push you every which way. We also had to contend with the continous flow of people plowing through the crowd from all directions - going to the front, coming from the front, to the right, to the left, all while this 'momentous occasion' was happening on the stage.

Finally, as the show went on and the sun left our weary heads, things sort of balanced themselves out. I looked around and noticed there were definite pockets of people who, like us, were there to enjoy Blur and had to contend with the drunken and insane minions that surrounded us. It does make you ask - why do all these people pay £45 to see a show then talk to and show off for their friends, pass out or just be plain stupid? Who knows.

After the show, we stayed and queued for merchandise - well, my friends queued, I gave them money for a bag and waited in less crowded surroundings. They ran out of posters so we had to go to another stand and queue there. I have to say the merchandise was pretty reasonably priced (with the exception of the £5 disposable Blur lighter).

All in all I still enjoyed the show, mostly after things settled down, and am glad I went. Will I go to another gig in Hyde Park? It would have to be someone I can't see anytime else. But I did say the same thing after going to Live 8. I guess that says something about Blur.

Gay Icons (National Portrait Gallery 30/6/09) 2 July 2009

I was looking forward to this one; the Gay Icons exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I found the premise exciting and forward thinking. Here is the official description:

This exhibition brings together ten selectors, chaired by Sandi Toksvig, each of whom is a prominent gay figure in contemporary culture and society. Each selector was asked to name six people, who may or may not be gay, whom they personally regard as inspirational, or an icon for them. These people provide a fascinating range of figures - some heroic, some very famous, others less well known...The only limitation placed on the selectors was that the exhibition would be made up of photographic portraits so the subjects date from the last 150 years. - National Portrait Gallery programme

My hopes were that the exhibition would help dispel the many stereotypes (some founded and some not) and present a more insightful look into the lives of Lesbians and Gay men.

I went to the Opening / Private View with two work colleagues so we stopped in the first main room for drinks, canapes and chat with other colleagues. We we also taking the time to do a bit of celeb spotting but only came up with Rhona Cameron and Sandi Toksvig. There was a formal introduction from a representative from the Portrait Gallery who then went on to introduce Sandi Toksvig. She was very funny, very dry, very insightful and inspiring. Mixed in with the introductions were two performances from the cabaret section of the London Gay Men's Chorus who descended from the top of the stationary escalator to sing for us all.

The 15 - 20 member chorus were all in good voice as was to be expected. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the first song, I was thinking it was something for a Disney film and I was doing some serious Googling hoping to spark my memory with a title, but no dice. As you can probably tell, I don't take notes, preferring to experience events for what they are, without a critical eye. I figure I will remember the things that are most important to me. What I do remember well was their second song, the 5th Dimension's 'Up Up and Away'. They wouldn't sing the word 'balloon', instead they would substitute some ' baaah daaahdaaah dah dah's' in a jazz riff generic cabaret sort of way (up up and awaaaay in my beautiful, my beautiful baaah daaahdaaah dah dah). Funny, to me, but it worked. They also seemed nervous and their facial expressions were priceless, very much as if someone instructed them with 'no jazz hands, put that expression in your face'.

After the music and intros I bought the exhibition catalogue book and poster. The poster features Joe Dallesandro of whom I am a big fan. There were two version of the book, one with Joe on the cover (he is the image of the exhibition) and the other, which is only available at the exhibition, features k.d. lang. I bought the Joe version.

The Exhibition:

I have been to two other exhibitions at the Portrait Gallery. The first was a Scavullo exhibition many years ago, which was - brief, and the other was just last year, which was another Opening / Private View. I couldn't tell you what the second one was, I guess that tells you how much impact it had on me. What I do remember in both instances was the small, small space they were in. Gay Icons is in the same space. Although it's laid out well, with all the other viewers crowded in it's difficult to stop and read - and reading is pretty much what this exhibition is about.

When you enter the exhibition space you are met with a large photo portrait of the first selector and from there the selectors six icons portraits follow. This pattern repeats itself and you only have to follow the exhibition around on one wall which is nice. The selectors descriptions / biographies are quite large and well designed with a somewhat complete career overview, whereas the Icons each have a smallish paragraph which just tells you briefly who they are and why they are noteworthy. Here are the selectors and their choices (I'm just giving you the first line or so of the descriptions, they are longer):

WAHEED ALLI (Lord, politics and media)
David Hockney (Painter, printmaker, illustrator, stage designer, photographer), Lily Savage (Drag alter-ego of TV and radio host Paul O'Grady), Jeff Stryker (American porn star), Village People (Disco band), Diana, Princess of Wales, Will Young (Singer and actor)

Joe Dallesandro (American actor), Ronald Firbank (Innovative novelist), Thomson William 'Thom' Gunn (Poet and university teacher), Gerard Manley Hopkins (Poet and Jesuit priest), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Leading Russian Composer), Edmund White (American actor and literary critic)

ELTON JOHN (Musician)
Winifred Atwell (Trinidadian-born pianist and entertainer), John Lennon (Singer, songwriter, artist), Mstislav Rostpropovich (Russian cellist and conductor), Bernie Taupin (Singer, songwriter, poet), Graham Taylor (Football manager and former football player), Gianni Versace (Italian designer)

Quentin Crisp (Writer, actor and raconteur), Audre Lorde (American poet and author), Edwin Morgan (Poet), Bessie Smith (Classic blues singer), Billy Tipton (American Jazz musician), Soujourer Truth (Campaigner for abolition, temperance and women's rights)

Christine Amanpour (Journalist), Althea Gibson (American tennis player), Ilana Kloss (South African tennis player), Nelson Mandella (First democratically elected State President of South Africa), Bill, Betty and Randy Moffitt (Father, mother and brother of Billie Jean King), Bob Richards (American athlete)

Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer (Norwegian-born Colonel), Edward Carpenter (Writer), Regina Fong (Dancer, actor and TV presenter Reg Bundy better known as his drag persona Her Imperial Highness Regina Fong), Angela Mason (Director of Stonewall), Harvey Milk (American politician), Walt Whitman (American poet, journalist and essayist)

W.H. Auden (Poet), Benjamin Britten (Composer), Edwin Cameron (South African Supreme Court Justice), John Menlove Edwards (Rock climber and psychiatrist), Alan Turing (Mathematician and logician), Virginia Woolf (Novelist, essayist, biographer and critic)

BEN SUMMERSKILL (Chief Executive of Stonewall)
Maya Angelou (American poet, author and civil rights activist), Francis Bacon (Painter), Ellen DeGeneres (American comedian, actor and television host), Martina Navratilova (Czech-born American tennis player), Joe Orton (Playwright and actor), Ian Roberts (British-born Australian rugby player)

SANDI TOKSVIG (Comedienne, actress, writer)
Rosa Bonheur (French-born painter), Jane Cholmeley (Co-founder of Silver Moon Women's Bookshop), k.d. lang (Canadian pop and country music singer and songwriter), Hilda Matheson (Intelligence officer and first BBC Director of Talks), Gene Robinson (Bishop of the Episcopal Dioceses of New Hampshire), Peter Tatchell (Activist and writer)

Bryher (Pseudonym of novelist, poet and critic Annie Winifred Ellerman), Daphne Du Maurier (Author), Patricia Highsmith (Crime and psychological thriller writer), Sylvia Townsend Warner (Writer and poet), Denton Welch (Painter and writer), Kenneth Williams (Actor and comedian)

When looking through all the lists you can see some obvious patterns of selectors icons working in the same fields as the selectors. It is also evident that each selector was in some way responsible for describing their icons (which would account for some of the inconsistencies of descriptive words that are used).

Because of the confined space and the number of people jostling for a good view without blocking someone else's, I found myself only stopping at the photos of people I wasn't familiar with. Even then, because of the brevity of description, I was left with an - oh - feeling. I never made it to - wow! - just stayed at - oh. I wanted more. I wanted to know how these people influenced the selectors. At what age? To what extent? More.

Like the other exhibit I mentioned (the one I couldn't remember), the exhibitors didn't seem to have an interest in portraits, and this is the National Portrait Gallery. When were they taken, why were they chosen, what were the circumstances? We are privy to the name of the photographers but that was about it. Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. As it's the Portrait Gallery I guess these cold be considered people portraits, as in profiles. Even when I went down that road I found it unfulfilling. I think the exhibition book is good, mainly because I could take it home and properly digest the information (although I noticed that the photo of Jeff Stryker in the book is different to the one in the exhibition). Still, it's a fantastic idea and I believe it will be an eye opening experience for many. I discovered some new people and I will be researching them soon.

I read that Sandi Toksvig dreamt of a website where anyone could nominate and upload their icons. I think that would be a logical next step. We need to uncover more influences and icons from more people, and not just the prominent or famous. She's got something there. What are your 6? This could run and run.

It's on from 2 July - 18 October, 2009

PS - Alongside this exhibition the Gallery is running Iconic - a season of events which explores fantasy, desire, melancholy, beauty, sexuality, joy and ambiguity - through performance, film, music, literature and talks. May I recommend this?

Film - Sunday 6 September, 15.00 - 17.00

The 'Little Joe' of Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side'. The Valentino of the Underground. The original gay Lonesome Cowboy. A special preview screening of a revealing biographical portrait of Joe Dallesandro - unprecedented access to Andy Warhol's muse. Produced by the actor and his family.

Dir. Nicole Haeusser, USA 2009, 90 min, Cert 18
Tickets £10 / £8 concessions