My Theatre Club had an outing recently. Minus one of our members… because she was on the stage!

I met my lovely friend Katia at university, when we were both studying at Queen Mary’s College, University of London. I was reading English Literature and Language, and she was reading Law. One of the first things I learnt about her was that she was a model, which seemed impossibly exciting and glamorous, but she was always so thoughtful, modest and down to earth that half the time I’d forget about her other life outside of university (until I spotted her in Vogue, or modelling for Toni & Guy on huge billboards all across the city).  We’ve remained friends ever since, and try to meet every week to catch up on each-other’s gossip; though hers is a lot more exciting than mine!

She mentioned being interested in acting a while ago, but had been told that her Russian accent would be too great an obstacle and she should give up on the idea. I remember disagreeing, but she’d been put off and, typically pragmatic, seemed to put it to the back of her mind. Then, of course, she was offered a part in a play. Called Sunstroke, it was inspired by two short stories by Anton Chekhov & Ivan Bunin. Wonderfully, they needed a beautiful young woman who was also very Russian; and Katia fitted the bill perfectly.

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Belka Productions aim to bring undiscovered Russian literary and theatrical gems to the London stage; an admirable vocation given how little we really know about Russian society and culture in the UK (apparently wild mushroom collecting is a national pastime, and they have a thing about watermelon. Interesting details, but not enough to really understand Russia, I’d have thought). Last year Belka produced the critically acclaimed Warsaw Melody at the Arcola (sorry, I know ‘critically acclaimed’ is code for ‘other people said it was good but I didn’t see it’, but it’s the best I can do), and next April they are bringing us A Dashing Fellow. Having experienced Sunstroke, I’ll definitely be queuing up for tickets.

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Actress Rosy Benjamin

Sunstroke wove together two similar plots, both exploring the passions and torments of love outside marriage. Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog was juxtaposed with Bunin’s Sunstroke, both tales taking place during a particularly hot Russian summer, and exploiting the febrile effect this has. I found it interesting that the initially blasé predation of the men was subsequently thwarted, when their supposed detachment turned to obsession, and it was their female counterparts who walk away from them in the second half. Perhaps there’s a feminist in me after all. We had wondered where either story would be going after the interval, as they seemed to have been concluded both logically and emotionally. This only reinforced the typically-Russian, saturnine conclusion, however, where the protagonists’ lives were tarnished by their inability to relinquish what they could not have.

Actors Oliver King and Stephen Pucci – Photos © Nick Rutter

The acting was powerful and full of energy, even in moments of stillness. The only aspect lost in translation was the ages of the characters, as they all appeared young and attractive to us rather than this potential distance between them being evident. The set was fairly simple, taking the form of two raised platforms at either end of a traverse stage, and an awful lot of sand. It was also a small, intimate venue, which made being in the audience feel voyeuristic; an impression that worked well with Sunstroke  given the content. The characters’ emotions were additionally conveyed by the presence of the dancer Masumi Saito, whose fluid contortions around the stage simultaneously evoked the stylised precision of Japanese traditions, and the licentious passions of the couples. Multiple layers of symbolism were woven around the fairly simple plot, to be either puzzled over or subliminally absorbed. Found in playing cards scattered across the sand like discarded morals, and the sand itself poured over a splayed kimono as if burying inhibitions.

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Masumi Saito

A couple of photos I took after the performance

Taken moments before the sand was swept away by the cast and crew

Fellow theatre clubbers, Charles and Steve, towering over me despite my four inch heels.

It was a stunning and thought-provoking production. I was delighted to see Katia’s stage debut, and hope to see her acting more in the future. It was also interesting to catch a glimpse of Russian culture that I suspect the new TV series on FOX, Meet The Russians, will not be focusing on. Despite the fact that Katia will also be featuring in this as well!

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The Drowned Man

I’ve seen some incredible pieces of theatre over the years, but this experience topped them all.

Punchdrunk have pioneered a immersive, site-specific style of theatre production since 2000, in which audiences roam through a set and experience the action as and when they happen upon it. They specialise in classic texts, Faust and The Masque of the Red Death being previous examples, and their current production is  inspired by Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck (I hadn’t heard of it, so you can have a smiley face sticker if you had). Titled The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, it’s set across four floors of an abandoned sorting office next to Paddington station, and snatches of two parallel narratives are played out simultaneously. The audience are all masked, and encouraged to wander freely and explore.

It’s amazing. Utterly. Amazing.

I admit that the dislocated glimpses of narrative are difficult to follow, but if you do what I did and don’t even bother trying, this becomes unimportant. Action is a pleasant surprise, rather than something you chase after (and you will literally have to chase after it, if you want to follow it). Some sequences sort of made sense, others were utterly mad. We watched an actress dress a mannequin in the dark, then wheel it through the studio and… rub herself against it. She then used a watch to kidnap an audience member. Another actor was chased by a small group of the audience (us included), as he shrieked with cuckolded grief and threw himself through a barely-lit desert, tore off all his clothes, then was baptised in a bath whilst weeping. I quite enjoyed the absurdity of it all, as it added an extra level of surrealism.

What made the production so particularly wonderful for me though was the set. We were quite content wandering through the building, and exploring the labyrinth of detailed spaces that have been created. Being interrupted by the actors added a frisson of excitement, and we would follow them until they led us somewhere new that we wanted to explore, but it was our own journey that mattered. A few of those we discovered that stuck in my mind were a forest of pine trees surrounded by decrepit caravans; a room layered with persian rugs and ornately carved wooden furniture; another full of dusty instruments, hand tools and ornaments woven from palm fronds; a western bar with small stage and performing drag-queen; a desert lit only by a huge neon sign, half-sunk in the deep sand; a hollywood-style dressing room, complete with feather boas and lipstick stained tissues; a workshop devoted to succulents; and a gentleman’s study with the expected leather chair, cryptic notepad and hat stand.

It was in this latter room that my friend James and I were interrupted in our snooping (and hat trying-on) by an actor in a white tuxedo jacket. We were sufficiently intrigued by the scene we witnessed to follow him up and down flights of stairs, through dark spaces and hidden doors. He was walking so quickly we had to jog to keep up, and I remarked at one point to James (who I stuck to like glue after losing everyone else we had come with) “he’s probably heading to the bar!” A minute later and we burst into that very sanctum. An actual bar is hidden at the centre of the warehouse (well, it’s in there anyway… I couldn’t actually locate it save by accident) that the audience are invited to visit, buy a drink in and remove their masks temporarily. Here we discovered two more of our party propping up the bar, and soon after the other missing pair stumbled in as well. Which was exciting in itself! Having lost each other in the darkness it felt like a reunion, but one in some strange dreamland given the different sights we had seen and experienced. “Have you seen the horse?!” Aidan asked me at one point. I had not, and did not, much to my disappointment. Having regrouped and downed a few gins, we remasked and headed back into the darkness.

The white Bauta masks all audience members are required to wear added yet another dimension to the production. Skeletally pronounced cheekbones, dark, empty eye-sockets and a pointed, beak-like jaw with no mouth became familiar, but were unequivocally creepie. We became both anonymous and a part of the performance; feeling able to walk up to actors and observe them closely, as well as to study each other’s responses. As fascinating as the action, was the license to observe the behaviour of the audience. Usually if you catch someone staring at you they immediately look away, embarrassed and fearful of confrontation. This does not happen at a Punchdrunk performance. New groups formed like packs of wild animals, brought together in the hunt with nothing in common except a shared interest in proceedings. If you get too close to the actors, they will also take this as a sign that you are willing to interact, and you’d better be ready! Speech is forbidden when masked, but I was both danced with and kidnapped by different actors, so if you prefer to observe only then don’t get too close.

We were eventually ushered into a room filled with white faces, in front of a stage where the grand finale played out. As the audience began to applaud, the actor in the white tuxedo reached for my hand, and without thinking I entwined my fingers with his. I panicked, a little, (obviously) but nevertheless trusted him completely. A few other people were similarly led away by the cast, and I could also sense Tom hot on our heels! I was led back into the now-deserted bar, where the actor gently removed my mask for me, and smiled. I felt bizarrely elated, laughing and smiling with him. He thanked me profusely for coming (my manners kicked in but any wit or intellect I possess abandoned me), then left me.

We regrouped with most of our party outside (some were lost in the darkness, grateful texts the only evidence of their survival) and unanimously agreed that it had been an incredible experience. There’s so much more I could tell you, but you should really just see it for yourselves. Wear as little clothing as possible as it’s very, very hot, avoid glasses as the masks are difficult to wear over them apparently, and wear thinly-soled shoes – the feel of the changing floor under my ballet-pumps was thrilling, as sand gave way, bark chippings crunched, and puddles splashed.

The Drowned Man run is currently on until March, the run having been extended given its popularity. Just go! You won’t regret it.

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The Night Circus

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Last weekend, Tom and I found ourselves trotting through the crooked back-streets of Smithfield, heading towards the night circus.

Smithfield is steeped in history, so is a highly charged setting for any performance. It’s mostly known for its centuries-old market these days, but it used to be a popular site for executions, including that of William Wallace in 1305. It was also largely untouched by the 1666 fire of London, so has retained a sense of its past more than most areas of London. Ghosts brush past you as you wander through it, and you find yourself listening out for their footsteps.

WillTom and I had tickets for ‘How Like an Angel‘, a collaboration between the UK based vocal ensemble, I Fagiolini, and the contemporary Australian circus troop Circa. They have been performing at cathedrals around the UK culminating in this, their final run, at The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great. The church was founded in 1123 as an Augustinian priory, and though what remains is merely the chancel of a much larger monastic church, it still possesses the most significant Norman interior in London (and was used in Shakespeare in Love as the church where Shakespeare begs for forgiveness, incidentally).

It took us a while to work out how to actually get inside (it was dark, alright!), so we were a couple of minutes late, but this only gave the scene that greeted us greater impact. The atmosphere was charged; the audience a small crowd in the centre of the church. Abstract, electronic sound that could be felt as much as heard pulsed through the building,  like the energy you perceive in the sky before a storm breaks; the heaviness of the air before the rain falls. White-clad figures were twisting and contorting through the air above us, ropes of silk being formed into ladders and swings, human limbs used as levers and supports. It was breathtaking.

acrobats 4There is something magical and illicit about the circus. It allows you to step into another, fantastical world, designed purely for pleasure and entertainment, that you suspect is neither entirely real nor entirely safe. Both suspicions heighten its power to enthral. Soon, the focus shifted to I Fagiolini, and their voices soared above us, higher even than the acrobats had taken us. The performance shifted between two stages at either end of the church, as well as weaving through the audience at times. Choral music from the 11th to the 20th centuries was both focus and background, enhancing the sense that the acrobats and their contortions strangely belonged in the church, despite being so disparate from its usual use.

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The skill and strength of the circus performers was remarkable, and frequent gasps were elicited from their delighted audience. Most were lost in their own world, twisting, balancing and leaping through the air, but a sense of rapport was built between audience and performers through very subtle humour; a smirk when a clever trick surprised us, or a smile when a particularly difficult routine was completed.

This wasn’t exactly like Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 fantasy novel The Night Circus, but it felt pretty close. Magic was woven in the air that night.

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Has anyone else seen Circa or I Fagiolini before?

Having Art for Breakfast: Private View at the Royal Academy of Arts

I was invited to a private breakfast viewing of the Royal Academy of Arts summer show this morning. Tom’s uncle Barry is an artist, and visits the exhibitions in London whenever he can, as well as getting invitations to fancy arts events. On this occasion he needed a guest, and I was very pleased to be thought of. Being a good guest is an artform in itself. It usually involves dressing nicely, bringing gifts, and making interesting conversation (or telling ribald stories, depending on the circumstances), though on this occasion I was required only to enjoy myself – which made a pleasant change! It was early (I don’t usually do early) but I made an exception for Barry, and I’m very glad I did.

I was pretty excited about the breakfast part to be honest, and  I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Skewers of crisp watermelon, sweet mango and heavenly strawberries, bite-sized breakfast muffins full of seeds and goodness, and a plethora of pastries were scattered on stands around the exhibition. Most of the guests were inhaling fresh coffee, but Barry and I snaffled up freshly-squeezed orange juice, hands full of edible goodies to keep us going. It’s rare that galleries will allow food and drink anywhere near them, so it feels thrillingly naughty to be part of such a civilised (and licensed) rebellion.

The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition is now in its 245th year, and still hasn’t waned in popularity if the celebrity turnout is anything to go by. It’s the world’s largest open-submission contemporary art show, providing a platform for both emerging and established artists to showcase their work to an international audience. The majority of the works are also for sale, which makes it a lot more exciting than a standard exhibition. Everything affordable has already been sold of course, small orange dots indicating which pieces are now available for viewing only, but the eclectic range of mediums and subjects will certainly give you something to think about. I’ve described a few of my favourite pieces below, as well as including a couple of sneaky pictures I managed to take.

The first piece I was drawn to is titled The Owl Run, by Hughie O’Donoghue (no. 663 in the catalogue: £33,600). It’s a large oil painting on linen, with different strata of charcoal greys and fiery reds. An abstract depiction of the movement of an owl’s wings as it steeps and soars through the landscape, the colour scheme and sharpness of movement lends it a sense of urgency. It could be a volcanic eruption, a primal battle between land and sea, or a nightmare, and you sense that the owl of the title is both the subject and a fleeting observer.

I also loved the photo titled Teens in Waiting Room, Heads Down by David Stewart (965: £3420), and the one below it titled Ursula with Virgins by Liane Lang (964: £3,200). I was fascinated by the anonymity of both subjects, yet how intimate they feel. The unusual perspectives chosen for group portraits denies the viewer what we expect, amplifying our curiosity. The above photo is a sneaky (and poor) shot I took of these, but it will give you a better idea of what I’m referring to.


I couldn’t write about this exhibition, however, without mentioning the six Grayson Perry tapestries (example above, 1265: not for sale). These huge pieces depict the modern forms of the British class system; the symbols, stories and preoccupations of the different classes our society has evolved into. It is perturbing for a comforting medium like the tapestry to be used to depict violent, graphic scenes, though this does soften their impact whilst simultaneously making them more ‘viewable’ and compelling. Constructing these scenes as tapestries also lends them a sense of grandeur and validity, accessing an ingrained appreciation of the medium’s history and significance.  The different class depictions could easily be perceived as offensive parodies though, and I do wonder what makes them acceptable? Their honesty perhaps?

Has anyone else visited the RAA’s summer show yet? 

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‘The Affordable Art Fair’… Bye Bye Savings.

I don’t usually post at the weekend, but I didn’t want you to miss out on the Affordable Art Fair, so I’ve thrown my usual vow-of-weekend-silence out of the window.

Calm Before the Storm – Pam Glew (bleaching technique and dye on vintate union jack)

The AAF was set up in 1996, and has since become a global phenomenon. It aims to “bridge the increasing interest in contemporary art and the London gallery scene”, so you can view a huge variety of art in one place at prices you can actually afford, by concentrating on relatively unknown artists not carrying a premium for reputation. AMAZING! I hear you scream. It’s currently exhibiting in a big white tent on Hampstead Heath, in walking distance from mine and Tom’s flat, so we trotted on down on Friday.

Utterly free from pretension, you can wander around the huge, light-filled space at will. The art work all costs between £40 and £4,000, though I must say I didn’t see anything for less than £150. Helpful curators will fill in the blanks if you show a particular interest in an artist or a specific painting, but most visitors seem happy to treat it like a contemporary art gallery (rather than a shop). I like shopping though. I really do. To Tom’s horror…

Unfortunately mine and Tom’s taste in art is radically different. He likes abstract paintings, I prefer clarity and detail. He likes wild, rugged landscapes, I like pretty images with dark undertones. This is a good thing though, as it means we didn’t spend more. Photos below of my favourite pieces, and of the piece that we did manage to agree on and purchase. Larger paintings and photographs are not done justice at all by my photography, so you really must go and see them for yourself. My only advice would be to buy what you like, not what you think will be worth something in ten years time. Bringing art into your home is like creating a new member of the family. You’ll also have to stare at it every day remember, so if you don’t love it then you shouldn’t have it in your house.

Jellyfish – Katharine Morling (porcelain and black stain)

Seated Nude Couple – Pierre Williams (blue and white ceramic)

Harpy – Aidan Harte (bronze)

Dawn Over Bagan – James Sparshatt (archival print on German etch paper)

Todos Mis Vecinos Quieren ir al Cielo – Ernesto Fernandez Zalacain (photo sculpture)

Succulent, Java, Fungi, Durian, Agave, Jade – Heather Knight (ceramic, porcelain, hand-built unglazed)

Il Postino, Red Rose and Emily-Rose – Paul Charlton (acrylic on panel)

The Path – Veda Hallowes (bronze)

Gazer – Veda Hallowes (bronze)

The Conversation – Clair Partington (earthenware, glaze, enamel, lustre and mixed media)

various – Katharine Morling

Awake – Katharine Morling (porcelain and black stain)

The Queen’s Armada – Kirsty Mitchell (archival pigment print on 360gsm Hahnemuhle Pearl)

Gammelyn’s Daughter a Waking Dream – Kirsty Mitchell (archival pigment print on 360gsm Hahnemuhle Pearl)

Calamity – Ray Caesar (Pigment Print on Epson Ultrasmooth)

Like a Feather – Antonio Lopez Reche (bronze)

Blue Bond (top left) – Amy Judd (oil on canvas)

(skirt from Dubarry, top from Reiss, bag from Zara, shoes from M&S, bracelet from V&A shop, in case anyone is interested)

I would happily have bought any and all of the above pieces, but we decided to be sensible and limit ourselves to one purchase (don’t look so incredulous, Tom’s influence on our – joint – finances is sufficiently significant to enforce this!) At first he was incredulous that I thought spending over £100 on a piece of art was a good idea. After a couple of glasses of veuve clicquot, however, he came round, and we purchased the most beautiful piece by Alexander Korzer-Robinson.

My ‘I’ve got my purse out now, so there’s no going back’ face.

Brockhaus 6, 1904 (cut encyclopedia, 25cm x 17cm x 6cm)

A vintage encyclopedia, images from which have been carefully selected for inclusion in a three-dimensional montage, formed through incision and excision. It’s like being able to see the world inside of a book, without plot or narrative to explicate the extraordinary jumble of images that exist before we turn them into a story by progressing through the text in a linear fashion. I’d never thought about books like this before – it’s similar to the realisation that time was perceived as being cyclical in the medieval period rather than linear. By using older books, Korzer-Robinson’s work aims to be simultaneously an exploration and a deconstruction of nostalgia, and I find this spotlighting of the effects and distortions of memory and perspective fascinating. What do you think?

The Affordable Art Fair is on 13th-16th June 2013, near Hampstead Heath station. £12 on the door, £10 for tickets purchased in advance. If you’re in London this weekend you shouldn’t miss it!

Has anyone else taken that first step into art collecting?

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A bit with a dog. That’s what they want.

A review of Above Me the Wide Blue Sky at The Young Vic.

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Most of the students I teach were born and raised in the city and, aside from holidays to exotic locations, have never left. They’ve never watched wild animals trotting, scurrying or flitting through woods and across fields, never smelt damp earth after spring rain, never run curious finger-tips over spongy beds of moss. Never gathered wild mushrooms, or been stung by nettles or scratched by briars as they hunt for the biggest, sweetest blackberries. Never peered into badger setts, warily perched on huge spoil mounds, or anxiously watched over a robin’s nest filled with perfect little blue eggs. They know literally nothing about the countryside.


This dearth of knowledge and experience seems so alien and puzzling to me, that I see it as a disability. I am kind. I hide my astonishment. Most city children will never experience these things, and it feels as if they are missing out on something I can never teach them. Something deep, and important – their lives and souls will never be illuminated by an affinity with the land. This sadness, lacking or losing connections to nature and the countryside, is what Above Me The Wide Blue Sky explores.


(A lamentation of swans)

The play is only forty five minutes long, with no interval, and stars one actress (who doesn’t really act) and one dog (who sleeps). It is more abstract, unconventional, art installation than play, however. It is performed in the round, on a grid of ice-like paving stones, planted with lights at different heights that occasionally plunge the entire room into darkness, or flash like memories flaring into sight. Large panels surround the audience, placing us in a room of scudding clouds. There is no narrative or plot. Instead the actress (Laura Cubitt) articulates a series of other people’s memories – pulling them from the ether above our heads, or drawing them from faces as if by telepathy.

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I loved the set, and although we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to spend time in the space before the performance began, I appreciated that this would have been enjoyable. Watching the clouds is an experience I don’t seem to have time for anymore, but many of mine and Tom’s most treasured childhood-memories involve this. Hypnotic and thought-provoking, they send you into your own mind whilst simultaneously allowing you to spread it across the world.

The lights also captivated me. Tubes of frosted-glass crown tall metal poles, lightbulbs glowing from within like the golden hearts of flowers. I loved the idea that they glowed brighter and then faded like a memory swirling to the forefront of your mind, and the comparison between the short-lived beauty of flowers and memories that lose distinction with time.

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Another aspect I enjoyed was the soundscape. It was derived from field-recordings and instruments, but their origins were then distorted though electronic transformations. Several times I found myself frowning in concentration, trying to distinguish and identify the origin of specific sounds, but my failure to do so only added to the sense of being lost in a dream or memory. The sound designers were inspired by a line from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, “A sound is heard in the distance, as if from the sky – the sound of a breaking string, dying away, sad”. The abstract sound they have created in response can be felt as much as heard, like the energy you perceive in the sky before a storm breaks; the heaviness of the air before the rain falls.

The purpose of Leuca the whippet’s presence was a question we all puzzled over, and everyone had a different response. Tom thought the dog’s calm, resting state was intended to induce a similar state in the audience; a visual cue making us more receptive to the experience. Katya felt it made us more receptive to the actress speaking as we more easily identified her as a character, as someone we might meet and converse with, so grounding and locating the abstract descriptions. Kaysea that the actress’ character wanted to retain a connection to nature and the animal-rearing that was implied in her memories, or to evoke an idea of the natural transforming into the unnatural, as humans rear greyhounds to race in psudeo-country urban racetracks, chasing fake rabbits. I wondered if we were not being encouraged to consider the memories recounted as belonging to Leuca (most of my friends thought this was mad though).

(Katy, Charles and I deep in discussion afterwards about serious, important things.  Probably.)

The programme includes a John Berger quote from Opening A Gate which may shed some light on our question: “Dogs, with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for sounds, are the natural frontier experts of these interstices. Their eyes, whose message often confuses us for it is urgent and mute, are attuned both to the human order and to other visible orders. Perhaps this is why, on so many occasions and for different reasons, we train dogs as guides”. The beauty of abstract art and theatre is that everyone responds differently, the intertextuality of their own experiences driving their interpretation along similar but separate paths.

(More of that serious conversation. Clearly.)

Above Me The Wide Blue Sky was certainly odd, and I can see why some reviewers labelled it “slightly precious” and “difficult”, but it was an interesting experience, emotive and thought-provoking. I’ll be keeping an eye open for Fevered Sleep productions in the future.

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Landmark: The Fields of Photography, and Sunday brunch at Somerset House

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Photo reblogged from

Given the recent inclement weather, Somerset House’s  Landmark: The Fields of Photography  exhibition seemed like the perfect way to ogle the countryside (living in London has clearly turned me soft, I agree).

The building is beautiful, and a perfect spot for lunch or drinks in summer, as there is a terrace overlooking the Thames. The drizzle kept us inside this time, but the café is a lot more pleasant than those of most London galleries (it also serves breakfast all day, which is definitely a plus for lazy Sundays).

Tom’s accidentally flattering photo of me. He took others, but I looked like a malevolent hamster in a wig (you know it’s a bad photo when your boyfriend offers to try again), so I’ve saved you from them.

There’s a wide range of images in the exhibition, and the pastoral  certainly doesn’t take precedence (to my disappointment, I admit). A large proportion of the collected works consist of industrial landscapes, and there is also a range of subject matter from glaciers to the galaxy. Rooms are labelled Sublime, Pastoral, Witness, Landmark, Scar, Control, Datum, Delusion, Hallucination, and Reverie, which may give you an idea of what you’ll find. I’ve picked out my six favourite images, and briefly proffered my thoughts on each.

The first photo that grabbed my attention was Ilulissat Icefjord #7, from Olaf Otto Becker’s ‘Broken Line’ series.  I find glaciers and ice-worlds fascinating, so this drew me instantly. There is an incredible sense of stillness and grandeur in this image, more suggestive of a palace than mere frozen water. It reminds me of Turner’s more abstract seascapes, as there are few clues for the mind to tie interpretation to, and I couldn’t help but search for caves and passages burrowed into the ice in the expectation of the fantastical that this photo inspires.

Olaf Otto Becker - Ilulissat Icefjord 7

The next photo is by Daniel Beltra, and is (illuminatingly) titled Brazil #3. It depicts a finger of lush vegetation reaching out into an apparent delta of water. Logic alone reveals that it is water and not the sky that surrounds this peninsula, as the perfectly-still reflection of the clouds above lends a sense of surrealism. It brought to mind an oasis for the survivors of a flood, and suggests issues of climate change and sustainability. Tom’s first thought, however, was that it must be absolutely full of monkeys, quickly followed by a desire to introduce a giant hand to shake it, disgorging a cloud of birds and whooping primates into the stillness. You can lead the horse to the art gallery, but you can’t make it… Well, you know.

Daniel Beltra - Brazil #3

I then came across Simon Roberts’ South Downs Way, West Sussex, from his series We English. This struck me because it is a sight I often saw myself as a child, when we lived briefly in West Sussex near Ditchling. My father has an appreciation for all things flight-related, and used to drag me across the Downs so he could fly his model aeroplanes and I could read or stare at the view (otherwise known as ‘spending quality time together’). The view from these chalky heights is indeed beautiful. I remember hunting down thick gorse bushes or shallow depressions in the ground to shelter me from the constant wind, watching butterflies flutter between wild flowers, and the feel of coarse grass underfoot. The fields spread beneath you like a jigsaw puzzle, and paragliders such as those captured by Roberts utilise the updrafts and thermals that form around the Downs. The golden quality to the light and the shadows that are beginning to creep across the patchwork of fields suggest it is late afternoon, and a flurry of bright colours against rain-threatening clouds mark the presence of the gliders. It is interesting and unusual to be able to locate man in the sky in a landscape photo, as people are typically used to give a sense of scale and provide interest in such subject matter. Their fragility is illustrated here, as they resemble the butterflies that are often torn through the air by gusts of wind.

Simon Roberts - South Downs Way, West Sussex

Mitch Dobrowner’s Trees-Clouds then caught my eye. I chose to take and develop my own landscape photos (with a traditional 35mm camera) for one unit of my Fine Art A Level, so appreciate how damned difficult it can be to create an effective black and white landscape. Dobrowner’s work is stunning, and technically very successful. The deep contrast between light and shade and the composition of this photo is simply very good, and worthy of study for all aspiring photographers. The tiny trees in the foreground dwarfed by the broiling storm-clouds above emphasise the sense of threat, and they are further highlighted – despite their diminutive size – by the wave of dark rain being drawn along beneath the clouds.

Mitch Dobrowner - trees-clouds

The penultimate image I have chosen is another Daniel Beltra photo, this one titled Oil Spill #4. After a series of brutal scenes of industry, I practically ran across the room towards this photo. It is beautiful from a distance, and this becomes troublesome but no less captivating when you realise that it depicts an oil spill. A turquoise sea with tendrils of black ink swirling through it, highlighted by coppery stains of clean-up fluid. An oil rig sits like a conch-shell on top of it all. The Wellcome Collection’s recent exhibition  Death: A Self Portrait considered “whether it is possible to make aesthetically pleasing work about violent death and the damage that war does to bodies, minds and souls”, and this image does the same for the damage done to the planet.

Daniel Beltra - Oil Spill #4

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The final photo that I wanted to share with you is Leonora Hamill’s Simone/ La Metaphysiques des Tubes, from her series Their Favourite Novels. This brought to mind Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, and the endless sleep of fairy tales. Nature surrounds and protects. Tom, however, saw the entire image as threatening; predators in the bushes, mud-monsters beneath the lilies etc. (I guess you would want him looking out for you on a camping trip, rather than the hippy floating half-naked in a pond).

Leonora Hamill - La Métaphysique des Tubes, from 'Their Favourite Novels'

The range of this exhibition allows something for everyone, and it is easy to cherry-pick your favourite photos to spend time with. It closes April 28th, 2013, so plenty of time to get down there!

Tickets to a Renaissance Circus

The title of this post is a slight misnomer, designed to inveigle the attention of the early modernists I know. Like a deep-sea anglerfish, using the bioluminescence of the  renaissance to ensnare the unsuspecting.  Tickets appeared in my letterbox this morning for an evening of renaissance (music) and (contemporary) circus performers, which is only slightly less enticing than Richard Burbage jumping through hoops of fire on an elephant.

There is something magical and illicit about the circus. It allows you to step into another, fantastical world, designed purely for pleasure and entertainment, that you suspect is neither entirely real nor entirely safe. Both suspicions heighten its power to enthral. I’ve been searching for old black and white photos of circus performers for years, trawling through ephemera fairs and the internet, but these images seem to be highly sought after  and  largely held in private collections.

I did receive these, ostensibly innocuous items this morning, however, and am VERY excited.



I’m going to see acrobats, in a church, at night. Enough said, surely.

I will of course be blogging about this in three months (this feels like a long time to wait. Too long, almost) but there are actually still tickets available, so why not experience it for yourselves if you’re in London this summer. I’ve pasted below what the website says about it, which I suspect fails to really capture the potential  for brilliance this performance has.

“Six acrobats ascend, contort and tumble in an ethereal display of physical daring, accompanied by a live performance of sacred song. Sublime music soars as bodies are pushed to their limits amid the architectural grandeur of a historic London church. 

Circa’s exhilarating brand of contemporary circus meets the exquisite sound of I Fagiolini in a show designed to celebrate the atmosphere of St Bartholomew the Great. Navigate its spaces to follow awe-inspiring feats of strength and movement lifted by the harmonies of choral repertoire drawn from the 11th to 20th centuries.

How Like An Angel is the first collaboration between UK-based vocal ensemble I Fagiolini and Australian company Circa.

‘Graceful mixture of ephemeral angels and earthly acrobatics’ – Daily Telegraph”

I’ve heard I Fagiolini before, at the Spitalfields Church Winter Festival, but has anyone else seen or heard of Circa?


How to Read an Exhibition, and a Review of Death: A Self-Portrait

My cousin Matt (Devon born and bred) visited London a couple of weeks ago, and asked me to recommend an exhibition. I suggested the Wellcome Collection’s Death: A Self-Portrait.  This isn’t as weird as it sounds (really, let me explain). Nor does it necessarily indicate a penchant for the macabre in my family. He’s actually in the penultimate year of doctor training, so it seemed an apt proposal.


Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago, has assembled thousands of ‘death’ objects ranging across all cultures and periods. The Wellcome Trust clearly thought this impressive but a little extravagant, so selected 300 of them to exhibit. Paintings, photos, sculptures and masks etc are split into five rooms, titled Contemplating Death, The Dance of Death, Violent Death, Eros & Thanatos, and Commemoration. It’s difficult to explain (without taking you physically by the hand and dragging you around the whole thing) how well curated this exhibition was. Rather than simply being a room of stuff for you to look at, an art or museum exhibition should be a visual thesis. It has chapters (rooms), and paragraphs (walls). Each sets out different ideas, proffering evidence and examples that encourage you to consider a series of arguments. It is less restrictive than an essay of course, as the arguments are your own, but the way objects are grouped together make these arguments easier to construct. Death: A Self-Portrait does exactly this.

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Being a weekend and a free exhibition, it was obviously packed, but the swarming masses were unusually considerate. I’m not keen on crowds.  Nor do I approve of those who photograph every item in an exhibition instead of using their actual eyes, or who articulate their banal comments in loud, bovine voices. I’m a bit like a cranky old cat prowling around galleries and museums; shuffling bowlegged away from any crowds, hissing at people who push in front of me, and glaring, cross-eyed, at those who speak in my presence. Don’t mind me though. Just pull my tail and shove me on my way.

Sometimes it takes time to get into an exhibition. You’ll wander around, peering at old pictures, wondering if there’s something wrong with you. Some reason why you couldn’t care less about what you’re looking at. If this happens, skip ahead. You don’t have to look at everything, or read every description. Meander. Try the next room. Ignore anything that doesn’t grab your attention, until something does. THAT is why you’re here. Get up close, shuffle backwards so you can observe it from further away, squat down in front of it if it’s below eye-level. Sketch it if you know how to hold a pencil, even if you just choose to capture an irrelevant detail, or scrawl ideas and responses along  your arm (a notepad is better but, you know, desperate times. I have done this before).

Western representations of death like memento mori are quite familiar, so it was those from other cultures that particularly struck me. The playful treatment of death in Kawanabe Kyosi’s Frolicking Skeletons was familiar, but the angular skeletons and their contortions seemed slightly alien; just enough to give a sense of unheimlich.


A variety of objects from Mexico are also included, and all struck me as quite bizarre. There were doll-like articulated puppets for All Saints and All Souls celebrations, colourful sequinned masks, and photos of elaborate alters designed to welcome departed spirits on the Day of the Dead. They reminded me of Disney’s 1929 ‘silly symphony’ short, The Skeleton Dance, or Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

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The third room, Violent Death, aimed to consider “whether it is possible to make aesthetically pleasing work about violent death and the damage that war does to bodies, minds and souls”. The art here was painfully visceral. The line blurred between decomposing corpses and mutilated soldiers. Some dead seemed to dissolve or be swept away, whereas others dined alongside the living. The stench of death swept into my nostrils as I shuffled around the crowded room, observing each image in turn, almost making my gag before I realised that my imagination had fabricated it.

It was interesting to be reminded how large a part death has always played in our society. The very fact that our lives will one day be terminated so preoccupies us, that it spreads throughout the culture of the living. The ideology and approach to death of other periods and other cultures seems at times alien, and yet we can invariably empathise with the ideas that have driven their expression.

Take a look at if you’re interested, as it has examples from his entire collection (including those I’ve used in this post) as well as interviews, background information etc .

Did anyone else see this? What were your impressions?

London at Dawn, and The Effect at Night

The Effect 1

Tickets were not easy to hunt down. By the time I found out about The Effect the entire run had sold out, and I was forced to resort to the perils of on-the-day tickets. The box office opens at 9.30am, but the desperate have been known to start queuing before 7. Some (me) would also call them The Mad, and it is they that force the rest of us to join them in this dawn farce.

I have done this once before, for The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House. Winter sunshine, a handsome boy and a chatty couple who had somehow arrived before us made the experience just about bearable. London is beautiful in the morning, before swarms of tourists descend and worker bees pour out of tube stations and off buses. Your footsteps vibrate through the fabric of the city, and you feel connected to it in a way that is rarely so magnetic.

If you are a part of the daily 9-5 grind then this experience is more difficult to appreciate, and for this I apologise. I tried a 9-5 job myself for a year (don’t laugh, I did). I enjoyed the spirit of camaraderie when squeezing into packed tube carriages, suited sardines politely holding each other upright through sheer numbers. Occasionally your feet will be lifted from the floor, and you can float in a sea of free newspapers, nodding along to the tinny bass seeping from someone’s cheap headphones. I felt like I was playing a game, pretending to be a normal person, and the certain transience of my position prevented me from going mad. The experience only lithified my certainty that such work was not for me, however. I do know many wonderful people who are perfectly happy doing 9-5 work, and for them I am grateful, as it means I don’t bloody have to.

The Effect 2

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I awoke to a grey sky threatening rain, and an icy wind that made me feel like the lobsters Fortnum and Mason keep on ice; only the occasionally rotating eyeball or slowly lifted claw indicating life. I arrived at 8am, and found that several shivering squatters had already claimed their place in the queue. About thirty more joined us by the time the doors were opened. The majority looked to be students, though a range of ages turned out. The crowd were also chatty and friendly, all newcomers saying at least a few words to those at either end of the dishevelled caterpillar we formed, but be wary of entering into conversation with those capable of rising this early. We are not in the Early Modern era. it is not normal. I’d also advise befriending the person next to you so that they’ll save your place, and popping round the corner to the cafe, which opens earlier than the rest of the theatre.

Tickets victoriously purchased (twenty available per production, two per person), I sleepily got on with the rest of my day.

For anyone suspicious of theatre, remember that an appreciation of and need for storytelling is deeply embedded in our psyche, and the actors are there for YOU. To make you smile, and cry, and hopefully cheer them on for their labours. Even if you don’t enjoy the performance at least you will have experienced it, and you may even learn something.

The Effect 3

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The Effect is a new play by Lucy Prebble of Enron fame, and, amongst other serious actors, stars the beautiful Billie Piper. The promotional material claims it to be “a clinical romance…[which] explores questions of sanity, neurology and the limits of medicine”. Reviews have posited it as a well-acted and intelligent play. As “impressive”, “complex”, “fascinating” and “perceptive”. I don’t usually read reviews before attending theatre productions (this is not normal, and not good advice), and I’m glad I stuck to my philosophy on this occasion, as I would have been disappointed. I thought it was wonderfully acted, and an interesting premise, but not as clever or thought-provoking as it could have been.

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Piper gave a beautifully emotive performance, expressing her character’s often conflicting traits with sincerity. Plus she got naked (well, almost – underwear remained firmly in place). Which the majority of the audience clearly appreciated. The rest of the cast were similarly proficient, but the two male leads were caricatures, which distanced the audience from the narrative. It just seemed too implausible that either female lead would fall for these men. Connie (Piper) meets Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill), whilst taking part in a paid pharmaceutical trial  testing the effects of anti-depressants. They fall in love and break the rules, until a twist in the second half brings tragedy to their situation. The two doctors are equally important, and their own relationship and arguments further explore questions about mental health.

The Effect 5

By the interval I had my fingers crossed that something controversial and thought-provoking would actually occur, and the second half did bring this. The tone changed,  the characters changed, and it was almost enough to validate the first half. Not enough for Tom, who thought the whole thing laboured and trite, and the philosophy childish. Ouch. He also admitted that it was entertaining, however, and pointed out that this is only his ‘academic twat’ perspective, so take that with a pinch of salt. For me it lacked the wit and character development of  Blue/Orange for example, a Joe Penhall play that deals with mental health and the motives of its institutions and doctors. Prebble raises some interesting and important questions, but I felt that she failed to really explore them.

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I want to recommend The Effect. The acting is poignant, honest, and moving, and for that if nothing else I will say to you ‘yes, it’s worth seeing’. But I left wanting more than that.

Has anyone else seen this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.