No spaces left on my culture dance-card this week

Report from the British culture front-line. The Renaissance Drawings exhibition at the British Museum is so cleverly installed and displayed that, though the ink has faded on many of the pieces (and you can see them more clearly in the show's great catalogue), you can learn as much about the techniques and history of drawing as from a proper lecture on these subjects.  Three nights at the theatre, as well, so my culture dance-card was full.   
We did manage to get to see a wonderful small show of ten paintings and a suite of ten prints by our old friend, Stephen Buckley (at Austin/Desmond Fine Art, Pied Bull Yard, 68/69 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3BN until 26 May.) Buckley, who has just retired as professor of Fine Art at Reading University, was part of the generation at Newcastle taught by Richard Hamilton, who included Mark Lancaster and Bryan Ferry, and has had a long and distinguished career as a painter. We have a large amount of his work, testimony to many years of close friendship. I particularly liked two recent paintings, which appear to be abstract, Cinturat (1991) and Untitled (1990), though on closer inspection turn out to be a sort of aerial view of the fields around the Buckley's house in France, where we've stayed. As in all Stephen's work, there's a teasing element. In this case, my wife spotted at once that the outlines of the intersecting roads look like a pictograph fish. The interplay between the cartographic, the pictographic, the flat surface with the interestingly rough texture that is a feature of so much of Buckley's painting, and the quality of the paint or surface itself (sometimes house paint or boot polish, or rope or the collaged uppers of a pair of worn-out lizard skin shoes) is always rewarding. See


Untitled, 1990 

Enamel, watercolour, varnish on four paper sheets
Signed and dated verso on each panel
101 x 68 cm (each panel)

         We were expecting visitors from New York this week, but the cloud of volcanic ash (if there actually was one - Sunday's national newspapers cast doubt on whether it existed or was dreamt up by bureaucrats) kept them away. So I nearly ended up with five tickets to see Shared Experience's production of The Glass Menagerie at Oxford Playhouse. I realized during the first scene that I'd never before seen this great Tennessee William's four-hander, with this terrifically difficult role for the abandoned wife-cum-smothering mother, Amanda Wingfield, who has come down so far in the world, from her prosperous adolescence in the Mississippi Delta to her present penury in a St Louis tenement. It was played in frenzied fashion by Imogen Stubbs (Lady [Trevor] Nunn), living on her memories of Cotillion and coming out balls, supported only by the meager earnings of her son, Tom (the playwright's original name), who is forced to work in a shoe warehouse, where he hides in the lavatory to write poems.  Patrick Kennedy made a good fist of this, and distanced it from the autobiographical by giving us a butch Tom, with no hint of camp, or clue that his character has anything to do with a gay playwright.

         Polly Teale's direction must have had something to do with this; it enriches the play enormously to detach it from its creator, as do the film clips flashed up backstage, which let us see the previous life of Amanda. Kyle Soller gave a fine performance as the Gentleman Caller, a specialized type of human being regarded as having messiah-potential by Amanda, worried that her cripple daughter Laura will be an old maid. In this unforgiving role Emma Lowndes was near perfect, making credible both Laura's terminal shyness, and her brief blossoming into beauty and wit. Laura and Tom are difficult roles, speech-wise, for British actors; they have to get that strange St Louis Midwestern twang with its drawling hint of the Mississippi river. But Amanda has a killer dialect, the deepest southern of all, the Delta drawl, in which every vowel is a diphthong, there are no Rs in the middles or ends of words, and the spring flower that looks like a daffodil is called a "john-kweel." It's hard to sustain and, more important, hard to project - and, as it uses up more breath than less exotic accents, hard to speak rapidly. Ms Stubbs did her considerable best with it.

         Naomi Dawson's clever set caught the pinched apartment space well, and the stairs of the fire escape gave the actors plenty of interesting vertical motion. But what impressed me most was the humaneness of the play. The Gentleman Caller arouses Laura, but he's not a callous bastard type - he's actually kind and considerate, and really does see her true worth; their scene together is touching without being sentimental or melodramatic. All the more remarkable, when we know that Williams drew her from his wickedly lobotomized sister, Rose - he's put an awful lot of aesthetic distance between her and the character. And if Amanda is drawn from the life from his mother, Edwina, in Tom Williams has created a good deal more than an alter ego. Having also seen his wonderful, "lost" early play, Spring Storm, at the National Theatre a few weeks ago, my admiration for Williams as an artist has increased hugely. His "creative writing" teacher at Iowa told him to bin it, which makes my suspicion of creative writing courses increase equally hugely.

April 25, 2010 3:12 PM | | Comments (0)

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