Et Tu, Bridge?

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

Memory is a curious thing.

I’d wanted to see Ben Wishaw in Julius Caesar, even though I regarded it as a dull play, but I assumed that by the time I got round to booking the tickets, sat in my parents’ living room with Dad shortly before Christmas, I’d be too late.

And I thought it dull having seen – I thought – a production of it at Leicester Haymarket, directed by John Dexter and starring John Duttine and Tim Pigott-Smith. Digging around online, the Leicester Haymarket production seems to have been in Autumn 1988, after I’d left for college, and had a different cast. There was a touring production with Duttine and Pigott-Smith – might I have seen that at Nottingham – or Hull New Theatre or even (I really think not) at Manchester?

So here we have Wishaw as Brutus, David Morrissey as Mark Antony, David Calder as Julius Caesar and Michelle Fairley as a regendered Cassius. I do remember seeing Calder in the audience for King John in the much-missed t’Other Place at Stratford – the year after Star Cops.

For the second production at The Bridge, Nicholas Hytner has decided not only to go for an in-the-round format (which I find I prefer) but also a promenade performance (which is a little bit eek). The audiences are chivvied and herded around, as portions of the floor rise and fall to offer platforms and stages. Of course, on one level this is showing off about what this space can do – after the traditional rotating set behind proscenium arch at Young Marx — but it also means that the audience is aware of the rest of the audience even more than the typical in-the-round style. As you enter the auditorium, there are concession stands selling beer, nuts, baseball caps and tshirts, and a band strike up a number of rock anthems until they are joined by a track suited Mark Antony. I’m assuming the theatre staff were in character, so it wasn’t a Brechtian move. This was all clearly too much for some – perhaps after an afternoon at the football, I saw a couple of casualties. And of course, this is a play about the crowd.

It doesn’t really like crowds.
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Caesar is declared to be a tyrant, eating into rights and freedoms of the people of Rome, who must be deposed – but he is much liked by the people and seems to speak their language. Donald Trump seems to be the analogue Hytner has in mind, even down to the red baseball cap tossed into the crowd and the drinking of colas. It’s a while since I read the play, but his tyranny seems to be mostly expressed by our contradictory aversion to popular (or populist?) leaders, rather than what we see him do, although when he finally gets to the senate, he is rejecting various requests for clemency. Cassius is the Iago, whispering in the ear of previously loyal Brutus, but her motives seem to be as much envy that Caesar got all the kudos from the recent battles. Brutus, meanwhile, seems to be acting on the idea that autocracy is bad compared to democracy and assumes a rational transition. Morrisey’s northern Mark Antony is able to assume a plain-speaking, I’m not part of the swamp of Rome, orator at Caesar’s funeral, and swiftly sways the crowd against the conspirators.

The people get what they want and it serves them right.

Civil war descends, and we could as well be in Serbia as Italy, with the wreckage of concrete and barbed wire barricades wheeled onto the stage in yet another pure moments of theatre. I’d forgotten how it ends for Brutus (spoilers!) but I did Antony and Cleopatra for A Level and I knew that Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Lepidus get to be triumvirates, with Octavius rather ambitious for more. Indeed, by the end of Julius Caesar he is clearly on the make.

As Caesar is absent for much of the first half of the play and only a silent presence for the second, and Mark Antony seems a minor role until the conspiracy is about to be hatched, Wishaw’s Brutus walks away with the play. Is it deference that names the play after Caesar rather than Brutus? Of course, the Henry IV plays are rather more about Hal than the king. Wishaw is the softly spoken intellectual, a Faustus without ambition, neglecting his self-harming wife for his books and seemingly caring more for Cassius. (How do those lines play when both characters are male, I wonder?) I think we see him reading Karl Popper and there’s a biography of Saddam Hussein on his desk, so he knows all about the theory of dictators. He just seems less clear as to what to do after you’ve deposed one.

Historically that may also be the point. In 1599 – which seems to be the currently accepted date – there was an elderly Elizabeth I not quite naming a successor yet (and I’ve just been watching the series on Queen Jane/Lady Jane Grey). The kilometerage of Puritans and Catholics might have varied from the average peasant in the field, but a deposed Elizabeth I would not have ended well. And it seems unlikely Shakespeare could have gotten away with a play about assassination being justifiable. Two years later, the Earl of Essex had organised a performance Richard II at the Globe and by some accounts had seen the parallels herself. And if we look to today’s politics, and rulers that we might not approve of – would the alternatives be any better?

The Bridge, of course, is opposite the Tower of London, palace, armoury and prison, and next to that bastion of democracy, London City Hall, where Red Ken and BoJo once held sway.

In the meantime, this production sweeps you along – it is only two hours long, played without interview, and it does (without ever being dull) feel longer. My prejudice against the play seems misplaced.

The Unteleported Artist

So I didn’t need to be at the theatre until 7.15 for a 7.45 start, so I thought a HS1 to Saint P would put me on the Victoria to the Royal Academy of Arts, a coffee and expotition booking, the Victoria down to Pimlico and t’Tate t’Britain, Victoria/Northern to Borough and The Royal Oak for an annual half of Harvey’s Christmas Ale, with time for a walk to a Caffè Nerd near London Bridge to sober up for the theatre.

I saw and enjoyed a preview of the Dalì/Duchamp exhibition and will write that up, but I took a second look and my sense that Dalì is the better artist but Duchamp the more interesting one stays. And I got to admire the Christ of Saint John of the Cross again, having not seen it (obviously) Glasgow.

Meanwhile, the From Life show is a group show based on the idea of art taken from life that begins with a horse’s arse (literarily) and is dominated by art student images of Iggy Pop curated by Jeremy Deller, a selection of Gillian Wearing portraits and two instantly identifiable sculptures by Yinka Shonibare MBE, based on laser scans of two statues (or casts?) in The Academy collection

But what drew my attention were three portraits by Jonathan Yeo, the central one being a Paolozzi style sculpture. I didn’t have a predisposition to like Yeo, in a case perhaps of guilt by association, having seen portraits of luminaries such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rupert Murdoch, the Duchess of Cornwall and Tony Blair at the Laing Art Gallery. But these two paintings were based on scans of his face and body and were called The Unteleported Man and The Simulacra.

Clearly a Philip K. Dick fan. And quite striking.

A couple of hours later I made it to the Tate and finally did the Rachel Whiteread exhibition. The first woman to win the Turner Prize, she is probably best known for Ghost, the interior of a demolished house, and her Fourth Plinth commission, a cast of the plinth.

A room full of her stuff is a little overwhelming, or perhaps underwhelming. And it is one room —the Tate having removed the walls that usually guide you through the galleries. It is the same idea repeated: lots of casts of doors or mattresses, a cast of Room 101, a cast of bookshelves, a cast of a staircase… you get the idea. I’m glad I didn’t pay, for I clearly wasn’t in the mood and I had to go in search of colour in paintings to detox. I’ve liked works individually, but a retrospective made me recall the sublime Roger Hiorns copper sulphate cast of a council flat, Seizure.

In fact, a proper Whiteread retrospective would be a cast of Tate Britain.

Your kilometerage may vary.

And then in the shop I noticed a copy of Dick’s Confessions of a Crap Artist.
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Yes, obviously, I know “crap” isn’t acting as the emphasised adjective — Jack Isidore is not an artist who is crap and I’m not saying that Whiteread is an artist who is… But I couldn’t immediately see why the book was there.

In a sense she creates alternate realities, making the space solid… but why that book? What did I miss?

Marx for Beginners

Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, Young Marx (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

ED162A8D-A237-4CCF-B0BF-2FB68E32609CWhen a big developer wants to land a huge estate in a city, they often offer an incentive to planners, such as affordable housing or cultural facilities. Near me someone has offered to build a hospital shell in return for turning the existing site into a housing estate. I don’t know, maybe there were no cynical reasons behind The Bridge, poised between London City Hall and Tower Bridge. Apparently this is the first new commercial theatre to be built in London in eighty years —although I don’t know where that leaves The Globe. Nicholas Hytner is the first artistic director, semi fresh from the NT, and who I think directed the version of The Tempest I saw at the RSC in about 1987.

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The Antepenultimate Jedi

Have you seen it? Read on. If not, and spoilers bother you, stop.

The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

There’s a moment in Reign of Fire where a story is being acted out for a group of rapt children — and we in the audience should recognise the story, since it’s a version of the original Star Wars trilogy. Those first three films — episodes IV to VI — have the quality of the fairy tale, the orphan who battles monsters, who reaches the happily ever after moment and then is heard from no more, until he has to give half his kingdom and his daughter to whomever will slay the dragon. There is always another child — and it should have been more interesting than it was that Anakin was that child and grew up to be evil Darth Vader. Think reading The Magician’s Nephew after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And then there was Rey, in The Force Awakens, of mysterious birth, a wild untutored phoenix in the ways of the Force who this time was a girl (and there was a great perturbance in the Force….)

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Hard Stares

Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)

And inevitably — for reasons that need not detain us — I was looking back to all those long drives to holiday destinations and family in the north east, and the five tapes that passed the time: two Winnie the Pooh, two Paddingtons and a Beatrix Potter. The first two (four) were the loved ones, sharing Bernard Cribbins as a reader. And I’m pretty sure that the first theatre I saw, aside from panto, were adaptations. I’m not sure why I missed the first movie — feeling some trepidation — but I could see Ben Wishaw would be perfect for the voice.

As far as I can recall, with the exception of Paddington Abroad, the books were all short stories: Paddington would attempt to do something (sell Mr Curry a vacuum cleaner) and it would go wrong (Mr Curry had no mains electricity), but everything would turn out ok. There would be a visit to Mr Gruber and sticky buns and there’d be a hard stare. I think I have about ten books, Armada Lions, battered and fading orange.

But here we need a feature length narrative: Paddington saving up money to buy a rare pop up book of London for his Aunt Lucy’s hundredth birthday. Only someone else is after the book and will stop at nothing to get it.

In a prologue, we learn that Paddington’s Aunt Lucy was about to go on holiday to London when she found Paddington — revealing in the process that Paddington was adopted before the Browns took him on. I am shocked that Aunt Lucy is not a blood relative — is this canon? Mind you, it took me a long time to realise that Pike’s Uncle Arthur wasn’t a blood relative.

And so we are in Notting Hill, which presumably has come up in the world since the original stories, but here at least is infinitely more multiracial than the last time co-star Hugh Grant appeared in a film set there. There is a neighbourhood of lovable eccentrics, almost all charmed by Britain’s favourite illegal immigrant, and each played by the gentry of television comedy. Occasionally, this can be distracting. Mr Curry, who I’d always assumed to be Scottish, is played by Peter Capaldi, better known for Local Hero and the Oscar-winning Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Gruber, meanwhile, is Jim Broadbent, slightly confusingly as Hugh Bonneville (Mr Brown, Paddington’s reluctant adopter) has played a younger version of Broadbent in Iris.

The build is slow, as Paddington begins cleaning windows, in a borrow from the books (surely) and from a Hoffnung monologue where it was a barrel of bricks. But as the birthday approaches, Paddington finds himself behind bars with a choky full of dodgy characters. Paddington weaves his magic, setting the scene for a geographically dodgy train chase.

I assume writer-director King is a Wallace and Gromit fan, as it borrows from Nick Parks’s heterotopia and his style of piling up sight gags. I think this is a film to rewatch on DVD, pause button to hand, to unpick the notices and headlines. It’s a long film, but it doesn’t feel long. Paddington is utterly convincing, although perhaps at times he’s not sufficiently in the landscape, and I could have done without quite so many fantasy sequences. The pop up book perhaps allows homage to the Ivor Wood animated series, that never quite sold me. Meanwhile, even though I’d avoid Hugh Grant movies like the plague, he steals this film gloriously and effortlessly.

And, spoilers, it’s pretty obviously worth watching the closing credits, for one more set piece.

Perhaps it’s an air of exhaustion, but this might be my film of the year, watched through teared up eyes, eucatastrophically or for those endless drives on the A1 or the M1 all those years ago.

No Deer Were Harmed in the Making of this Picture

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

A couple of years ago there was a film called The Falling in which a group of girls suffered from a kind of hysteria that involved, er, them falling. A similar apparently psychosomatic, possibly supernatural, condition afflicts two children here — first Bob Murphy (Sunny Suljic) and then his older sister Kim Murphy (Raffey Cassidy) are paralysed from the waist down and then they stop eating, and it is threatened that they will start bleeding and then die.

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